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From the pages of Velo: A week without memories

Timmy Duggan faced down the odds and rode his way back from a horrifying 2008 crash to become the 2012 U.S. professional road champion

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Editor’s Note: This profile of Timmy Duggan is the third of five rider profiles that originally ran in the December 2012 issue of Velo, The Danger Issue. This week, we will run Matthew Beaudin’s “After the Fall” feature, which profiles five athletes and their paths back from injury, in five installments.

After the Fall

Tara Llanes smashed her chin into the top of the berm. Her lower half arched, folding her in half. She rolled down the hill, her legs seeming as if they were anchors. She was paralyzed, from the waist down.

Timmy Duggan can’t remember what happened. He’s been told the story: a hard crash, convulsions, blood.

The car pulled in front of Craig Lewis mid-descent on a time trial. The impact shattered the lithe Lewis to bits. Both his lungs collapsed, and more than 30 of his bones splintered. Both sides of his jaw busted. Had he not been hit on the front lawn of a hospital, he could have died right there.

They came one after the other for Scott Nydam. He smashed himself up in the Amgen Tour of California, took six weeks off the bike, but remained in a haze. He hit the pavement again at Redlands, and again at the Tour of the Gila. The fog never lifted, and he never recovered.

Saul Raisin crashed heavily in 2006 while racing at the Circuit de la Sarthe. When he came to, it was six days later. Doctors thought he was more likely to be an organ donor than ever ride a bike again.

Sometimes people make it back. Sometimes they don’t. This is a story of both. Sometimes it’s worth it. Sometimes it isn’t. After an injury, the idea of “success” is redefined. These are the stories of five elite American riders, of five crashes that altered careers and lives.

A Week without Memories

To hear people tell the story of Timmy Duggan’s 2008 crash at the Tour of Georgia, it’s a miracle the current U.S. national road race champion can speak and breathe, let alone turn the pedals. Even reporters averted their eyes as Duggan lay on the ground, convulsions pulsing through his slight body.

“I don’t remember anything for a week,” Duggan says. “From what people tell me, we were going down a hill really fast. Sixty miles an hour. At the bottom of the hill, we were crossing over a bridge, and there was a crack in the road. Some riders in front of me stuck their wheels in the crack and ate it. And I ran into the back of them and did a nice little swan dive of some sort into the pavement.”

That swan dive resulted in a subarachnoid hemorrhage (bleeding in the brain) and a subdural hematoma, a collection of blood on the brain’s surface. “It’s a big deal. I think I’m a lot luckier than I even know myself,” Duggan says. “You look at the stats, and most people who have that injury are dead. I thank God every day that I was that fortunate.” He also broke his collarbone and scapula in the fall. Seems like an afterthought.

Duggan, who was riding for Garmin-Chipotle at the time, spent a week at the hospital in Athens, Georgia, and flew home to Colorado, where he entered rehabilitation at Denver’s Craig Hospital. His immediate question — every rider’s immediate question, it seems — was when he could ride again.

“It was, ‘What’s my recovery going to be like?’ Every day that went by just got more and more frustrating, because even your brilliant neurologist, he doesn’t know the answer. All they can say is, ‘You know, it probably would be better if you didn’t race. And it probably would be better if you never hit your head again.’”

What would happen if he did? “You could be fine or you could be dead,” Duggan was told.

Duggan’s goal was to improve, if only just a little, each day. “At a certain point, you have to decide — if you decide not to keep racing and sit on the couch for the rest of your life, then that would definitely be safer. You’re less likely to hit your head. Whether it’s my injury or someone else’s, you’re making the decision to come back to your sport. At that point in my career, I certainly had a lot of unfinished business in the sport, and I certainly had to weigh that.”

He wondered what would happen to his wife, and to his family. In the end, he decided he’d come back. And that perhaps sped up his recovery. It gave him a physical goal — something to think about, and something to strive for. “That was the one thing I was getting up and thinking about every day,” Duggan says.

It helped that Garmin and Jonathan Vaughters provided Duggan with anything he needed beyond what insurance covered. “I had all the tools I needed to come back successfully, and I’m forever grateful for that,” he says. “All I had to worry about was my recovery.”

Toward the end of the 2008 summer, Duggan began to train lightly. He couldn’t let his heart beat too fast. If his blood pressure went too high, his brain would start bleeding into itself again. His goal was to race the U.S. Professional Time Trial Championship at the end of the season, because the risks were low, compared to a road race. “That ride was, for me, more of a ceremonial comeback. Saying, ‘I’m at least back and I could compete.’”

In early 2009, Duggan marked his proper return at the Tour Down Under. Every ride was hard. He had to re-learn everything he once knew how to do on the bike. “I had to learn all of my mental processes all over again,” Duggan says. That went for his life off the bike, too. “I had to relearn a lot of that stuff. And it’s not really things you could have seen by talking to me at that time. But in terms of my emotions and mental processes, those were the things that were most shaken.”

The incremental improvements Duggan was hoping for never seemed to materialize. “And then, for me, I had a breakthrough day at the [2009] Dauphiné, when I was second on the final stage, just nearly missing the win by half a wheel. But for me, that was as good as a victory. That told me I was back. That I can do this.”

The grueling comeback had taken a toll, and during the race just before the Dauphiné all he could think about was quitting. But from that stage on, Duggan, 29, knew he was back where he belonged. Since then, he’s won the U.S. Professional Road Championship (this year) and finished in the top ten in the 2011 Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, riding for Liquigas-Cannondale. Duggan also rode in this summer’s London Olympic road race. His future is uncertain, however; the team he was to race for in 2013, SpiderTech, has decided to forego racing next season in hopes of attaining WorldTour status in 2014. [Duggan landed at Saxo-Tinkoff for 2013 after this story went to print. —Ed.]

Physically, Duggan is tuned up. Mentally, there are still moments when the accident crosses his mind. And in the professional peloton, confidence is currency. “As an elite athlete in a risky sport, so much is based on these instinctual, instantaneous actions at high speed with big consequences. And these things have to happen in a tenth of a second, and you’re going 50 miles an hour,” Duggan says, recalling a sketchy moment in a tailwind. “Instead of diving in, being the aggressor, saying, ‘this is my fuckin’ wheel, get in the gutter and get out of my way’ it’s, ‘Oh man, back off.’ And instantly you have that little hesitation and you lose 20 wheels and you can’t get back.”

Duggan says he now clicks his brain off when things get hairy. “To not think. Don’t let any verbal language go through your head and you just do it without hesitation because you know you’re good enough and skilled enough to handle whatever situation it is.”