Cyclocross

Bjorn Selander’s long comeback to pro racing

One of the most talented racers of his generation, Bjorn Selander saw his career upended by Iliac artery endofibrosis.

When the dust settles on his 2017 cyclocross campaign, Bjorn Selander will measure his overall success not by victories and losses, but by race finishes, high fives, and smiles. For Selander, 29, simply pinning on a number marks a triumph in his return to elite level cyclocross.

“It’s a comeback and it’s a new beginning,” Selander told VeloNews at last month’s KMC Cyclocross Festival. “In my heart, I never truly left, so I think of everything just as forward progression.”

A decade ago Selander was one of the country’s brightest young talents, with a career trajectory aimed at grand tours and cobbled classics. Winner of a junior and U23 national cyclocross championship, Selander also scored impressive results in national and regional road races. He specialized in hard, tactical races that required repeated accelerations.

Selander comes from a racing pedigree; his father, Dag, had been a professional cyclist and an Olympic cross-country skier. In 2009 Selander joined Axel Merckx’s original Trek-Livestrong development team, making the jump to the WorldTour with Team Radioshack the following season. In 2011, his second season with the team Selander finished the Giro d’Italia and Paris-Roubaix.

That year marked Selander’s peak. In the ensuing years, his career nosed downward. In 2011 and 2012 he often was a DNF at lesser European races and struggled in the hard, tactical races where he had previously thrived. Selander raced one year with the Canadian SpiderTech squad at the Pro Continental level before riding for four seasons in the domestic peloton with Optum-Kelly Benefits Strategies.

Selander struggled to contribute in the domestic peloton—a strange challenge for someone with his talent.

“There were times when it was just like, yep, I’m not good anymore,” Selander said. “I was so frustrated. I couldn’t race. I could ride all day but when you really dig deep, I couldn’t do it.”

The sudden drop off in results corresponded to an uptick in injuries and pain in Selander’s right leg and back. He first noticed a reoccurring strain to his right side at the 2011 Giro. The next season, the pain quickly spread from Selander’s right leg into to his back. During race efforts, the discomfort followed a similar pattern, Selander said: his left leg tingled as the intensity increased; then his right leg cramped and he was forced to ease off. His aggressive accelerations were gone.

Since the pain was on his right side, Selander said he focused his recovery efforts on that half of his body.

“I was looking on the right side which is why this whole issue has taken longer than I would have liked,” he said. “There were times when I thought I had figured it out, but deep down inside I knew something was still up. I was so frustrated, you know. Some days it was so hard that I couldn’t ride.”

Six years after his initial pain, Selander now understands the chain of events that were occurring within his body. His left leg was actually the culprit; that pain on his right side was simply the result of overcompensation and overdevelopment.

Selander suffered from Iliac artery endofibrosis, the vascular disorder in which blood flow to the legs is disrupted by thickening or narrowing of the artery that feeds the legs. Multiple cyclists have seen their careers disrupted or ended by the condition: Joe Dombrowski, Rob Squire, Stuart O’Grady, and Mari Holden, among others. Riders often complain of numbness or tingling in their affected limb. While the sports science community has learned more about the condition in recent years, IAC is infamously difficult to diagnose in pro cyclists. Doctors often believe the root of the pain to be in musculoskeletal problems and prescribe rest or recovery. One study of the disorder pegged the delay time between the onset of symptoms and the correct diagnosis to be anywhere from 12 to 41 months.

Selander’s diagnosis took years to materialize. He said doctors initially ruled out IAC with blood pressure tests and an ultrasound scan; instead, they believed the root of his problems was due to imbalances in his musculature. He rested and did physical therapy, with mixed results.

Finally, in 2015, Selander asked a doctor to perform an angiogram. The expensive X-ray test uses dye to show circulation in the vascular system.

“It was pretty obvious. The doctor didn’t even need to point it out where it was pinching,” Selander said. “It looked like there was an hourglass in my leg.”

In September 2015 Selander went under the knife for corrective surgery. He said he had to finance for the operation himself and is still paying off the bill more than two years later. The recovery from the surgery took longer than Selander expected. He anticipated a return to top-level racing in 2016, but said he suffered from imbalances in his leg strength, which caused a series of additional pain. He went unsigned in 2017, opting to instead work as a coach and focus on his recovery. He went on a few bikepacking trips and rode for fun.

Toward the middle of the summer, Selander saw the coming cyclocross season as an opportunity to return to pro racing. He signed up for the Cross Vegas, and was stunned when he finished fourth place. Several weeks later, Selander raced aggressively at the front of both rounds of the KMC Cross Fest, finishing fifth place in the second event. In both races, Selander sprinted to the front of the men’s field from the gun and launched a series of hard accelerations.

Selander’s father, Dag, was in attendance at the KMC races to work as his son’s mechanic. The elder Selander said he has continually been impressed by his son’s resilience to stay in pro cycling.

“Especially mentally, I had no idea how strong he was,” Dag Selander said. “I knew he was strong physically.”

Selander has no idea whether he will win another bicycle race. At 29 he is hardly too old to quit, yet nearly half a decade of his best years have been burned. He would love to race Paris-Roubaix one more time, or maybe do another big stage race. Rather than focus on the long-term impact of his lost years, Selander says he just wants to focus on the thrill of racing cyclocross.

After all, having legs that can accelerate him to the front of the race is a welcomed sensation.

“I know I have the ability and the genetics, I believe in that,” Selander said. “Sometimes believing in yourself is really what it’s about.”