From the pages of Velo: ‘I felt like I was going to ride my bike forever’

After her crash and spinal cord injury, Tara Llanes ultimately had to give up on her previous life to embrace and build a new one

Editor’s Note: This profile on Tara Llanes is the final of five rider profiles that originally ran in the December 2012 issue of Velo, The Danger Issue. This week, we’ve 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.

‘I felt like I was going to ride my bike forever. And I would have. Ever and ever.’

I made it to Beaver Creek yesterday afternoon after an hour and a half wait in the car rental line. There were scattered thunderstorms the whole way, but that’s just Colorado.

The course looks good. Eric Carter helped build it so there looks like a lot of passing to be made. It will be longer than any of the other courses with some technical jumps as well. Should be a good one.

I have to keep this short cuz’ I have to get to practice. We have practice and seeding today and then finals tomorrow.

Ciao, Tara

That’s Tara Llanes’ final journal entry on her old website. The next day, Llanes broke her back in the Jeep King of the Mountain dual-slalom finals. She qualified first and was feeling smooth. But when she rolled into the start house, Llanes remembers nothing felt right. Her pedal felt funny. Her goggles were a bit crooked.

Then the gate opened, and Llanes fell behind instantly. “I was just all over the place,” she says. She couldn’t do anything else right. “I felt like a beginner,” she remembers.

She couldn’t stomach the idea of packing it in. She faced up to a section of rollers, unsure whether she should try to clear them or pump over. “That was the last thing you need to have going in your head,” she says.

Llanes is one who would know what should be running through her head: She’s been racing her bike since she was a kid. It’s all she did, all she thought about, first ascending the ranks through BMX, then making the switch to mountain biking. She was the 2006 national downhill champion, and a two-time national four-cross champion.

Llanes came to a roller just before a set of jumps. She didn’t lift her front end up, and put her face square into the lip of the jump. “My hands didn’t even leave my handlebars. My head just hit,” she says. “The initial break was my neck, I think, and what happened was my body had nowhere to go, so I just scorpioned up.

“I folded in half a little bit.”

She remembers it was hot. Remembers falling down the face of the jump. “I felt like my body was rolling down the face of the lip and I didn’t really have control over it or something,” she says. Soon, the medics were there. They asked her to move her toes. “I’m like, ‘All right.’ I moved my toes. And then they just looked at each other.” She was screaming. The pain in her ruined lower back surged.

After a helicopter ride, she ended up at Denver Health Medical Center. Seven hours later, with two titanium rods slid into her back, Llanes remembers a doctor who told her she’d never walk again. “I pretty much told him where to shove it,” she says. A week or so later, that same doctor noticed how hard she worked, and told her maybe he should do another surgery to shave the rods down so it would be easier for her to walk one day.

It’s been five years since the crash. The short story is that she can’t walk. At least not yet. Just before she was driven home from Denver to Southern California, she was able to move her left leg, just a little. That was a major indicator. But it was too much of a teaser; it happened so soon after the injury and just that tiny bit of movement altered the trajectory of her thinking.

“It really has messed with my mind a bit, trying to just figure it all out. And understand. You feel like you’re in a — I don’t know how you put it — it’s just a trip. It’s one of those things that’s happening but doesn’t really feel like it’s happening,” she says. “It’s being paralyzed. How could I think that it wasn’t going to be that hard? I was like, ‘I can overcome whatever I put my mind to.’ But I just thought it was going to come sooner.”

Sooner is years later. Llanes put in a year’s worth of work at Project Walk in Carlsbad, California, a high-level recovery clinic that cost $3,200 a day to attend, which she paid for with donations and support from the bike industry. She got stronger. But she still can’t put one foot in front of the other.

“It took time for me to just get through the day and figure out — it takes me so much more time to do things than it ever used to. I have a rhythm of things, and I’m faster at it. But I hate that I always feel like I’m the one that’s the slow one. Ugh. I hate that.”

Llanes, now 35, lives in North Vancouver, with her wife, Elladee Brown, with whom she used to race. In the last year, she took a job as a product rep for Pearl Izumi. It’s something she’s latched onto with the same ferocity with which she rode her bike. Whatever Llanes does, she goes all in. “I need to be sure I can take it on and do it 100 percent. Working with Pearl? It’s all I want to do. I want to do more than 100 percent,” she says.

Sometimes, she rides. And sometimes, she wrecks. She crashed a four-wheeler the first time she rode one — drove it straight into a tree. She’s on a modified bike now, one with two front wheels and one in the back. And though she’s grateful to ride, she notes the gap between today’s bike and the one she used to race. “None of these bikes will ever, ever be what my bike was when I was racing,” she says. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh my God, everything is fine!’”

Llanes doesn’t do as much physical therapy now. It’s strange to think that working to get back her old life was getting in the way of a new one, but that’s how she sees it.

“There came a time where I felt like I needed to move on with my life. My entire life revolved around physical therapy. I just felt like, ‘I want to go hang out with friends, I want to do things.’ And I wasn’t.”

She’s working on finding a balance. Some days are better than others. But in her voice there isn’t a hint of defeat. “Yes… everything is really awesome. But in terms of my physical ability, and I say probably, it will always affect me a bit mentally and emotionally until I can find my balance,” she says. “I’ll be at my car, and I’ll be at a stoplight and I’ll see someone ride by. I mean, jeez, I live in the Mecca. Northern Vancouver, and I can’t ride my bike? That’s like torture.”

Crashes are different. They happen for infinite reasons and in infinite ways. But those hitting the ground all have the same thing inside them, the thing that carries them. The common thread that stitches riders together through the years, crashes, and concussions is one simple truth: Once a rider, always a rider, in one form or another.