“A five-month hangover.”
That’s how Leif Hoste described the debilitating head injury that nearly derailed his career last year.
While the veteran Belgian classics star is only half-joking when he explains the excruciating pain that he had to endure for much of 2011, he’s more than happy to be back in the peloton.
“It was painful. It was not a sharp pain, but a constant, numbing pain. It was like a hangover, but one that wouldn’t go away,” Hoste told VeloNews. “It was just awful. All I could do was lie in bed.”
Hoste crashed hard on his head in last year’s Three Days of De Panne and spent nearly six months trying to figure out why he was suffering dizzy spells and blistering headaches that forced him to retreat into his bedroom with the curtains pulled closed for days on end.
It took a half-a-year for doctors to finally diagnose what had happened. In the meantime, Hoste’s cycling career was in tatters.
“I crashed on my head and I had a fracture on my skull. I lost the liquid that is around your brain,” he explained. “It gave me a lot of problems and headaches. It just got worse and worse. I couldn’t do anything. No biking, no swimming. I couldn’t walk more than five minutes.”
After visiting neurologists in Belgium and Italy, doctors finally determined the cause of Hoste’s endless hangover.
The impact of the crash punched a small hole into the thin sack that envelopes the brain — called the dura mater — and some of the protective liquid that provides cushioning and support for the brain had leaked out.
Hoste’s brain was literally being squeezed inside of his own head, causing nausea, dizziness and numbing headaches.
“The first few weeks, I just had a headache; later it got worse and worse. After one hour on my bike, I had to rest three days in my bed with no lights on,” he said. “It was terrible. In the beginning, it was a bit of a headache; then it wouldn’t stop. There was no end to the headache.”
A week after the crash, Hoste actually managed to race to 56th at the 2011 Tour of Flanders and start, but not finish, Paris-Roubaix.
That’s when Hoste put up the white flag. Those were his last races until his comeback with Accent.jobs-Willems Veranda’s this February.
“I crashed at De Panne and then I raced Flanders and Roubaix. Those are races that I prepared for [with] so many long months of training and I didn’t want to give those up to a crash, but maybe in the end, it wasn’t worth it,” he said. “After that, I was five months without anything. Not even a swim or a walk. Just five months in bed.”
In the wake of the crash, Hoste and his Katusha team were desperate to figure out what had happened.
Hoste visited numerous doctors and underwent a variety of scans and procedures, but the injury remained a mystery for months. Finally, when physicians figured out what had happened, it was a pretty easy fix.
Hoste underwent two epidural blood patches, when two rounds of 200ml of his own blood were injected into his spinal column. That helped replace the missing brain fluid and Hoste’s never-ending hangover was cleared up within two weeks.
By then, his 2011 season was a wash. Hoste hadn’t had that much time off the bike since he was in his teens and he was shocked out how his body reacted.
“That was at the end of September. The whole time we didn’t know what exactly was the problem. After two weeks, I was able to ride the bike again,” he said. “I have no more problems in the head, but my body was a mess. It took a long time to be able to get close to full strength.”
Hoste and Katusha reached a mutual agreement that allowed him to leave the Russian team and sign an interim contract for 2012 with Pro Continental Belgian outfit Accent.jobs.
Understandably, the veteran Belgian star was a nowhere man during this year’s classics.
Largely thanks to the presence of Hoste, the Belgian squad got invites to all the major spring classics except Roubaix, giving Hoste a chance to rediscover his racing legs without too much pressure.
“I did as well as I could. I was always good, but not great. I could feel that I missed the season without competition, that’s why I was off in the spring classics,” he said. “It was a hard winter to come back and to get some form and good condition. OK, I did my best. If you have a whole season without racing, it’s not so easy.”
Hoste rode into the top 20 at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne early in the spring and made it through every race he started this year, save for two.
After the spring classics, Hoste has been getting in as many race days as he can, riding the eight-day Tour of Turkey, the Tour of Picardie and the Tour of Belgium in May alone.
“I can tell I am missing a big, three-week tour in my legs. The most I have raced is eight days in a row in more than a year,” he said. “You really feel that difference with those last percentages that you really need to try to win.”
His next major goal is the Belgian national championships later this month, where he hopes to have a shot at winning a third national time trial title.
The team will then race the late summer races, such as the Eneco Tour, where Hoste hopes to impress some team bosses with his form.
“I am looking for another team for next year,” he said. “I hope to get back to a ProTour team [sic] and make some nice races, whether that’s working for somebody or doing my job. I am optimistic.”
At 34 and after some close calls for big-time success, Hoste says he’s not taking anything for granted anymore.
And the Tour of Flanders, the race where he’s finished second three times?
“It’s going to be difficult, but the dream is still there,” he said. “If you are three times second, of course you want to win. I am also realistic. I would like to keep racing a few more years. It is what I love. I still love to train and race, so why do something else?”
Hoste said if he managed to pull off a big Flanders ride or win another one of the big classics, he would have one heck of a party.
He’s just hoping the hangover doesn’t last five months.