Editor’s note: The following is a companion story to a feature in Velo magazine’s “Danger Issue,” which chronicles the crashes of five riders and their various tribulations, either to make it back to the sport, or back to life. As you’ll see, this story takes a look at what happens when riders don’t make it back. If you want to read the full print feature, pick up a copy of the magazine, which is out now.
BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — A wobble. An inch. A broken back, busted teeth, blood pooling, on the road and in the skull. Femurs snapped like toothpicks under a heavy thumb. Cringe.
The physical atrocities of severe bike crashes are tangible, stomach-turning. This is the cost of pinning on a number, of doing business and fighting for a living in a sport where the only protections are tights and Styrofoam buckets.
There’s another side to all the replays, the photos, the triumphant returns. After riders crash out of bike racing, there’s a loneliness that descends, wrapping its chilly fingers around daily life, squeezing riders who were once part of the peloton’s very chain. Sometimes, the things and the people that were there before fade away, along with the prospect of racing a bike again. Cycling, from the top down, is an identity sport — how many recreational riders define themselves as cyclists? Plenty.
From this side, the sport is much different. It has a way of forgetting its casualties, perhaps out of necessity to keep pedaling, heads down, into the wind. This melancholy reality of quitting the sport and walking into unknown futures is an incalculable cost, and sometimes it hurts much more than broken bones ever could.
In the six months after she creased her back in the final event of the 2007 Jeep King of the Mountain gravity race, Tara Llanes went to physical therapy three to four times a week in her native Southern California, hoping for her nerves to fire again, to be able to walk. For an elite-level athlete, the work is the easiest part; it’s the space between efforts that’s enough to swallow someone whole.
“The time that I was spending at home was really hard. I felt like I didn’t see too many of my friends. It was the hardest time,” she said. “I felt so isolated. I couldn’t drive yet. If I needed to go anywhere, I needed my mom or a friend of mine.”
Her mom lived only a short distance away, but it happened to be up a massive hill, and that’s no small feat for someone in a wheel chair, no matter how strong she is. “It wasn’t like I could just go out the door and roll down the street,” Llanes said.
She’d wheel down the street, a far sight from the athlete she once was, but with the same heart, the same mind. People just couldn’t see that much.
“I see it in their face,” she said. “When I’m going down the sidewalk they’re kind of looking at me as if don’t know whether to keep looking or not look.”
Llanes, 35, ended up splitting up with her partner after the crash, and wondered what would come next, if she’d be alone.
“Am I ever going to date? Is anybody ever going to want to date me?” she asked. “Your whole life — it’s amazing to me just how much standing does for your body. It’s absolutely unreal to me. It seems like something so simple that everybody does. And because I can’t do it right now, it makes so many things in life challenging.
“I thought, ‘am I going to be some crazy chick living at my mom’s house 15 years from now?’”
It’s been five years since her crash. She still cannot walk. But the industry has stuck with her and she with it. She now works for Pearl Izumi as a rep, and the companies she was riding for at the time of the accident didn’t run away, either. Llanes has gotten married to a woman she used to compete with, Elladee Brown. She’s not alone, not even close, but there are still moments that creep up on her, sitting in a car, watching a group of riders wheel past her in her new home in North Vancouver.
“I feel mad about what happened. I don’t resent cycling. I don’t resent mountain biking at all. It was an accident. It wasn’t something that anybody did. I’m certainly not mad about cycling. I love cycling — that’s what I want to do the most, out of anything in the entire world.”
For Saul Raisin, it was two heavy crashes that ultimately flicked the lights on his career. In 2003, he went headfirst into a barrier, knocked himself unconscious and busted half his teeth out. In 2006, near the finish of the Circuit de la Sarthe, he hit a patch of gravel. Raisin, an up-and-comer with Crédit Agricole at the time, sustained a tremendous blow to the head, and needed surgery to relieve the pressure on his brain due to bleeding. He fell into a coma.
The short of it is that he would never truly race again, even though he would make a farewell lap at the national time trial championships in 2007. The risk was simply too high: at a training camp with his Crédit Agricole teammates after the accident, he was doing things like running red lights without even knowing. He’s 29 now, and was 23 at the time of his last major crash.
Raisin still talks to Thor Hushovd, an old teammate. But that’s about it from those days.
“He sent me a signed yellow jersey from the Tour de France last year,” Raisin said. “But you know, the cycling community stuck with me for a year or two… It actually kind of reminds me of high school. You have all these friends, and once you get out, they’re not your friends anymore.”
Who knows why the sport forgets people it once heralded? It’s fairly common, right? The next big thing on the bike ends up to be nothing on the bike at all, for a constellation of reasons, some of their own volition and some not. Maybe it keeps others from slowing down, to not think of those who’ve gone before them. Maybe there’s nothing more to it than an inadvertent loss of consciousness, a motion blur in the rear view as the sport speeds on.
Scott Nydam left cycling after a series of crashes in 2009 left him with an “eggshell” of a brain, banged off his own skill far too many times, opening the young Nydam up to a cluster of maladies, from anxiety and dementia to Alzheimer’s Disease.
“I’ve definitely seen things from a different angle. I feel like I’m looking back upstream on this,” Nydam said. “It becomes your identity before you know it. For all that to be on stilts — it’s a house of cards, you know?”
Indeed, it is. Nydam, now 35, ended up walking away from the sport, as no doctors would put pen to paper and sign off for him to race a bike, after two crashes in two days at the SRAM Tour of the Gila left his brain reeling. He stayed in the sport full-time for a while, writing training plans for his BMC Racing squad. It felt like hanging out with an ex-girlfriend, he said: never quite right, always in-between places and feelings. There’s no moving on.
Nydam recently cut back to part-time with the BMC team and moved with his wife, Jennifer, and his young son, Jack, to the Navajo Nation, just north of Silver City, New Mexico. They’re expecting another baby in December. Jennifer works as a midwife on the reservation, because the student loan repayment program is solid and living expenses are low.
Nydam contemplates the cliff’s edge facing professionals, every one of them a catastrophic injury away from unplanned retirement.
“Dude, we’re all hanging by strings,” he said. But bike racers, top-competitors in anything, really, don’t like to be confronted with their own mortality. It’s not something that serves them, unless, of course, they crash out.
“These conversations are hard to have with other riders, because they’re in the game. I’ve always been one to promote chasing your dream and doing what you’re passionate about… I think it’s an easier thing for the riders who, throughout their career were able to put away hundreds of thousands, if not millions, for retirement. Whereas riders like me — I wasn’t doing that,” Nydam said. “I don’t know if there’s an exit plan that’s so clearly marked for riders like myself. It’s a difficult balance; the second you start think about what’s next after riding, then it’s already over.”
Too often, it’s over before it’s supposed to be.
“Bottom line, it’s complicated. There’s two different parts going on. I wish I was still out there just buzzing with fitness, trying to reach my own limit and potential. I love that experiment. I miss it. There’s not many things that are as daunting. It’s huge, trying to put yourself up against the highest standards in cycling,” he said. “And even at that point, it would still ask you for more. And it will take and eat up every bit that you give to it.”
And sometimes, the sport takes more than anyone’s willing to give.