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Ian Crane piecing life back together

Ian Crane back on bike, piecing life together after horrific 2014 accident

Words by Neal Rogers
Images by Andy Bokanev

The scars that circumnavigate Ian Crane’s skull had only begun to heal when he received the news that he would require another brain surgery.

Crane’s horrific accident at the USA Pro Challenge in August — he crashed face-first into the rear window of a race vehicle when it made a sudden stop — has forced him to undergo regular MRI brain scans.

A cyst in his brain, which neurologists first noticed in August immediately following the accident, had ballooned at an alarming rate.

In April, Crane went back under the scope to have it removed. The procedure, he said, required surgeons to “cut through” some neck muscles, meaning that, while he’s in no danger from the cyst, he’s “starting from scratch” in terms of neck strength — only months after having an initial neck brace removed.

Asked if the rapid growth of the cyst was in any way related to his injuries, or the week he spent in a coma, Crane said no one could give him a solid answer.

“What I’ve been learning this year, all neurological doctors will tell you that brain injuries are like snowflakes — they are all different,” he said. “The doctors that I had seen hadn’t seen this specific cyst come about as result of trauma before. But with my injuries, the survival rate is very low, so they don’t have any data for that.

“For me it’s way too coincidental that it could be caused by anything other than hitting my head really hard. As far as growth goes, they had never seen a cyst grow this fast. They ran a biopsy, and determined that it wasn’t cancerous, but they have no answer to explain its rapid growth. I’m healing well, and fast, so I just see this as something else that I’m doing really fast.”

Adding insult to injury, Crane, who turned 25 in December, is clear to ride outdoors again — he’d been cautioned against it for months, due to the severity of his brain injury — but he now lacks the strength in his neck to properly support the weight of his head.

“I changed my stem, from 130mm to 70mm,” Crane said. “It looks hilarious, but it’s helping a little bit.”

It’s all part of a long, tedious path to recovery that began on August 24, outside of Golden, Colorado, when race officials initially feared Crane had lost his life.

In an instant, a shard of glass had nicked his jugular vein, and the impact of the crash had knocked him completely unconscious. Because he’d been vigorously exercising, blood pumped rapidly out of his many lacerations.

In the moments that followed, with Crane crumpled on the ground, limp and unconscious and bleeding profusely, race doctors feared the worst. If not for skilled emergency responders and a quick helicopter evacuation to a Denver surgical center, Ian Crane’s name would have been added to the list of racing tragedies that, in recent years, has included Wouter Weylandt, Nicole Reinhart, and Andrey Kivilev.

Since that ill-fated day, it’s been a long, difficult road for Crane, filled with surgeries, scans, and scars.

Some scars, such as those from brain surgery, will more or less disappear under his hair. Others, such as those on the lower left side of Crane’s face and chin, are permanent.

“Brain injuries are like snowflakes — they are all different. The doctors that I had seen hadn’t seen this specific cyst come about as result of trauma before. But with my injuries, the survival rate is very low, so they don’t have any data for that.”

As for the mental scars that come with a near-death experience, Crane said he’s not wasting energy thinking about the severity of his accident. On the spectrum of emotions — with feeling pity for what he has lost on one end and feeling grateful that he’s mentally and physically sound — Crane said he leans heavily toward gratitude.

“I’ve been talking to someone who referred to this accident as the gift you would never want to give someone,” he said. “It was a terrible thing, but I’ve gotten a very different perspective on life, and my relationships. I feel like, with where I am now, I carry myself differently, and that’s a good thing to come out of this. This has strengthened my relationships with my friends and family.

Crane said he has benefitted during his recovery process from a strong support system that includes friends and family in his hometown of Seattle, as well as his Jamis-Hagens Berman team.

Though Crane was near the end of his one-year contract when he had his accident, Jamis team manager Sebastian Alexandre put a 2015 contract in front of him while he was still in a hospital bed.

“The hope was that I would be racing this year,” Crane said. “Everything was looking that way, then the [April] brain surgery popped up, which was a surprise to everyone. Originally we had talked about making a return for road nationals, in May, but I was still in a hospital bed then.

“I think it says a lot about the character of Seba Alexandre, that he was willing to take a chance on me,” Crane said. “I was pretty fortunate to be offered a contract based on what I was worth prior to crashing, without the question marks of ‘what if?’ The more I went through my recovery, the more I found out how serious things were. But it was a very supportive, and hopeful, gesture by the team.”

In the absence of racing, Crane has continued to spend time with his Jamis teammates, first at a team camp in California in March, between the San Dimas and Redlands stage races, and more recently in Sacramento, at the Amgen Tour of California.

“In Sacramento I got to be with the team, meet with sponsors, and be at a bike race,” Crane said. “The team has been incredible through this. They haven’t been pushing me to do anything unintelligent. It’s not a great situation for anyone, but Seba checks in with me regularly. My teammates have all been supportive throughout the year. For how the past year has gone, I couldn’t be in a better spot.”

“I knew that pro cycling would never be forever, and it’s nice to experience what else is out there. I’ve been able to see how this sort of thing can help me be a better human being.”

A strong support system

Klean Athlete, a brand of nutritional supplements, also sponsors Crane as a member of its Klean Team USA.

For athletes who are regularly drug tested, the fear of testing positive due to a contaminated supplement is real; it’s a defense that’s been used by American racers Scott Moninger, Tom Zirbel, and Amber Neben, among others. Klean Athlete prides itself on producing supplements that are tested and certified through NSF International and its NSF Certified for Sport program. (NSF, short for National Sanitation Foundation, is a product testing, inspection and certification organization based in Michigan.)

Though he’s not currently racing, Crane remains in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s out-of-competition (OOC) testing pool.

“Some days the drug testers show up just as I’ve gotten out of the hospital, and they ask what I’m taking,” Crane said. “Sometimes it’s a long list of prescription drugs. Sometimes it’s just Klean supplements. I’ve always been a believer in healthy supplementation, and I’m currently trying to do everything I can to get my body to where it can be. Klean has been a supportive company and a great product to work with. They have a ‘Cognitive’ blend, which is designed to heighten all of your senses. And as someone who is recovering from a traumatic brain injury, I’m fully aware that the mind is this incredible part of the body that guides everything.

“Most of us that ride a bike, we may do sit-ups, or stretch, but we don’t do much for our brains. The ‘Cognitive’ blend has been a secondary defense. They also have an Omega, a fish-oil pill, which helps to strengthen connections in your brain. When I didn’t have those connections, I needed help to build them. There have been some crazy studies that have shown good recovery from horrific brain injuries that have been aided by fish oil. And I can take this knowing that it’s a product that I need, and also that I don’t need to worry about it, whatsoever.”

And though Crane has racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills, a lifetime of debt isn’t part of his immediate future. Because he was still 24 years old when the accident happened, he was covered under his parents’ health insurance policy.

“This will sound strange, but if this accident had to happen, I’m lucky it happened when it did,” Crane said. “My mom has worked in hospitals my whole life, so we have good medical insurance. I have been fortunate, and I’m grateful. My parents have been heavily involved with the insurance process. I don’t know how anyone could go through this unsupported. It’s not free by any means, but I’ve been lucky. If I were 26, when this happened, I’d like to think I’d have the best insurance I could have afforded, but who knows? It’s pretty silly to be a bike racer and not be worrying about insurance.”

And it’s those two words — bike racer — at the core of everything. Crane has used these two words to define himself for all of his adult life. Does he continue to define himself this way? Is it realistic to expect that he might return to the pro peloton, where he nearly lost his life? Time will tell, Crane said.

“It’s still very day to day,” Crane said. “Riding is still very painful for me. I’m doing what I can to strengthen my body, to get to the point where bike riding feels normal again. I’m trying to make sure I have the bike as a tool, for enjoyment, which is the reason everyone starts racing in the first place. That’s where my energy is lying, just to get out, ride my bike, and enjoy that. I’m loving being able to do it now. You really appreciate it when you have something taken away, and then it’s given back to you.

“Although I haven’t been doing the pro cycling thing this year, I have been able to hang out at the beach with my friends. It’s a matter of discovering all of the aspects of who you are. I knew that pro cycling would never be forever, and it’s nice to experience what else is out there. I’ve been able to see how this sort of thing can help me be a better human being.”