From the pages of Velo: Lucky to ride

Despite his string of bad crashes and major recovery time, Craig Lewis says walking away from cycling would be a harder way to live

Editor’s Note: This profile on Craig Lewis is the fourth 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.

Lucky to Ride

It’s physically uncomfortable for third parties to recount the injuries Craig Lewis sustained in a horrific 2004 crash at the Tour of Georgia. Lewis, riding for TIAA-CREF, was riding a time trial, head down, blasting downhill. A car slipped onto the course and he careened into the passenger side at full speed. Lewis came as close to dying as imaginable; a minister was summoned to the emergency room to administer last rites.

The next four weeks are unaccounted for in Lewis’ mind. He spent the days deep in a fog. He’d broken more than 30 bones, collapsed both lungs, and had broken both sides of his jaw, his wrists — “just everything,” Lewis says. “It was in the front yard of the hospital. I think if it was another block away I probably wouldn’t have made it.”

His recovery began from scratch. His jaw was wired shut, and as he lay in the hospital bed he lost 40 pounds, meaning the 5-feet-11-inch Lewis weighed less than 100 pounds.

“I was just learning to move my arms again, move my legs again. Eventually, they took the wires off my mouth, so then you’ve got to learn to chew again, because you lose everything in your mouth, too,” Lewis says.

The odd thing about it was that Lewis never thought he wouldn’t race again. He got home from the hospital in May, and the Giro d’Italia was on television. Lewis had never broken a bone up until that point, and he thought this was just a freak accident. “I wasn’t going to let it change my desire to ride a bike,” he says. “So I jumped back in. And my first race back was the Tour of Georgia.”

Recovery was slow. But that was to be expected, given the fact that his liquid diet for 12 weeks altered the way his body processed nutrients. It was hard for the already-lithe Lewis to gain weight, and he was anemic for two years after the Georgia crash. He’d finish races sheet-white, drawn. “It was miserable for a long time. But I still consider myself lucky to be able to race a bike for a living. And I can always go down a different path. It’s my choice,” Lewis says. “It’s a long healing process mentally. A lot longer mentally than it is physically.”

Lewis worked his way back to strength and to relevance. In the 2011 Giro d’Italia — the very race he watched on television while he was recovering from his previous crash — he was riding for HTC-Highroad, and putting the finishing touches on a grand tour performance in which he proved as versatile as he was gritty.

But on stage 19, Lewis and teammate Marco Pinotti came around a corner and piled into a traffic sign. The riders in front of them had barely missed it, but weren’t able to point out the hazard to those who followed. Lewis left in an ambulance with a broken femur and busted ribs. He spent three weeks in a hospital recovering from a ruptured muscle, known as compartment syndrome, which nearly cost him his leg. “I broke the sign, and the sign broke my leg,” he says calmly. That’s sort of how Lewis is: everything is said evenly, without much emotion.

His femur broke mid-shaft, and the healing never really took. He needed seven surgeries instead of just one. The bone is still not perfectly joined. There’s a rod from his knee to his hip with screws in it. He takes out his phone, and shows a photo. There’s a rod, clear as can be, and the bone built up around it, forming a lump. The bone rejected some of the added material, and began to eat into his muscle tissue. Until only recently, he could feel the bone shift.

It was a second injury that could have halted his career. And it was enormously frustrating. “I had finally found my role on the team. Something I was excited to do and happy to be a part of. It was tough. It’s not like I was winning races, but I was winning races for other guys. Once you get injured like that and you don’t have the WorldTour points or the victories on your resume, they’re going to replace you with someone else,” Lewis says.

He thought about quitting. He didn’t. HTC dissolved, and Lewis found himself looking for a job. He signed on with Champion System, which he says he sees as an opportunity. This season — almost inconceivably, when you consider the elite level he races at and the depths from which he has risen — he won the first stage of the Tour de Beauce, and rode well in the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and the USA Pro Challenge. He thinks about road conditions more, and he doesn’t take the risks he used to. He thinks that while he may miss a few opportunities, he’ll gain many more by staying upright.

“I have a lot more goals off the bike now,” Lewis says. “I think a lot of people waste a lot of opportunities by just focusing solely on winning races. The beauty of the sport is the people you connect with and the doors it opens all over the world. I think taking advantage of that every step of the way is vital.”

Sometimes quitting still weighs on his mind. But whatever Lewis does now, he hopes it’s on his terms.

“I think that’s a harder way to live,” he says of walking away. “If you just stopped, sure, you’re going to move on, but who’s not to say 20, 30 years down the road you’re just so depressed. You let that ruin that part of your life.”