From the pages of Velo: No longer the same

The stories of Tara Llanes, Timmy Duggan, Craig Lewis, Scott Nydam and Saul Raisin give new meaning to the term 'success'

Editor’s Note: This profile on Scott Nydam is the second 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.

No Longer the Same

The end of his career started long before Scott Nydam ever raced a bike. All told, he’s probably had five concussions: one when he was a kid, one while playing high school football, and three more while racing. It doesn’t take a doctor to know that’s too many.

While racing the Tour of the Gila as an amateur, he hit the ground and woke up in an ambulance. At the 2009 Amgen Tour of California, coming down a descent, he tried to pass his vest from one hand to the other and eventually to the team car. The fabric, he says, must have grabbed his brake lever and whipped him to the pavement. Nydam hit the deck, and the team car ran over his bike. By the time he came to, he heard the voice of team director John Lelangue. “I’m like, ‘Whoa, what’s my director doing here? That’s weird,’” he says. Team sponsor Andy Rihs and Lelangue were in the ambulance. They’d initially thought the team car had run over Nydam and killed him.

Nydam recovered. He figured, what the hell, he’d been knocked out previously. “No big deal, I’d been there before, right?” he says.

His first race back was the Redlands Bicycle Classic. He swung off the front in the criterium, feeling wobbly and nervous; he wanted to avoid taking out his own teammates, including Jeff Louder, the race leader. He later headed into the 2009 Gila, where he crashed twice, once in the crit and another on a descent. On the first crash, he wasn’t able to brace for impact. There’s a photo of him on the ground, and his hands are still in the drops.

The next day, Nydam jumped into a break with 11 others. He crashed on the final descent. “Nobody knows why,” he said. It could have been he was trying to put a bottle back, or touched a wheel. “I don’t remember,” he says. “No one knows.”

A week later — and a flight to a neurological trauma unit in El Paso, Texas — Nydam was looking at a calendar, planning his return. “I didn’t even know what a TBI was,” he says. “Our doctor had to explain to me what a [traumatic brain injury] was.” There would be no next race.

“I dug my own grave as far as my career,” Nydam says. “I’ve had enough concussions that the meninges, the scaffolding of tissue around the brain that holds it in place, has been damaged.” His final crash was at that 2009 Gila. It turned out to be his last race. No doctors “would put pen to paper” to allow him to return to the sport. Doctors at Stanford University told him to find another hobby.

“I’m like ‘Dude, this isn’t my hobby,’” Nydam remembers. “This is legit. It’s big in my mind. This is the world to me,” he said.

BMC management made it clear he wouldn’t be racing for the team again, but they honored the one and a half years remaining on his contract. At the time, Nydam wasn’t sure it was the right decision to stop. Now, it seems clear.

“I’ve had too many head injuries. No one can tell me how safe I am, or unsafe. They can just say that I’ve certainly got a high risk. I’m walking around with an eggshell. And I’m betting the farm,” he says.

There was a final team camp he attended before hanging it up. He remembers how the personal dynamics shifted once it became clear he wasn’t the same cyclist as the guy who won the mountain points classification in California in 2008, and the Tour of the Battenkill.

“From one year to the next, I was a rider who showed up at camp and people were glad to see me. People would come up and talk to me, directors would ask me about my girlfriend,” Nydam says. “The industry, and the fans, pay as much attention to you based on your ability to contribute. That’s why the big riders get all the attention — they can contribute so much to these races.”

Looking back at old stories, his head trauma is downplayed, if mentioned at all. A busted collarbone gets plenty of ink. The nature of head injuries is oblique, for journalists, for riders, for directors — as hard to define as a reason for a crash.

Due to his concussions, Nydam is a candidate for a host of potential problems in the future, from Alzheimer’s disease to dementia and assorted anxiety disorders. Asked if he regretted being a professional cyclist, Nydam took a long pause. “Damn,” he says. “No one’s ever asked me that.”

“I’d say yes and no. But mostly, I’m still here. I’ve got good opportunities in the cycling world. I know a lot of great people. Made some great friends. The bike took me out to California where I met my wife,” he says. “And that’s life. That’s living. Part of what makes cycling so beautiful is that it was a big risk. It was dramatic. It’s the modern-day version of some form of warfare. It’s contrived, but it feels heroic. It’s heroic to yourself, not anyone else, when you make it through those hard moments.”

Nydam let himself fall out of shape a bit — something that’s taken the edge off of his thoughts of razor-sharp fitness, and crashed-out hopes. He misses the livewire feeling of being at the pinnacle of physical ability, but he says he concentrates now on living more. He rides a Surly Pugsley around the washes of the Navajo reservation in New Mexico where he lives. His brain is recovering — he says he’s nearly 100 percent all the time, meaning his level keeps coming up bit by bit, but his frontal lobe injury will always linger, an invisible barrier. “I’m not the same friend. I’m not the same husband. Emotionally, the frontal lobe is what makes us human. I’m not the same person that I used to be. Hell, yeah, there is some regret. A lot of friendships have fallen away. And that’s not their fault. I don’t engage the same way.”

Nydam struggles with the fulcrum of regret. He comes back to it often in the interview, grappling with himself and bike racing. It’s helped him, and it’s hurt him. That’s just how it is.

“There’s a lot of opportunity out there, and there’s more opportunity than I had when I was racing. I can do anything, go anywhere,” he says. “We’re not a mind and a body. We’re a complete being. I swear to you, riders don’t know what’s going on — you’re changing your physiology. It’s a physiological phenomenon. People don’t know why they feel so good when they get on the bike. It’s a pretty potent way of existing.”