The highway was wide, straight, and predictable. It was early in stage 3 of the Tour Down Under, before the break had formed, and attacks were still launching off the front. The gas was on, 180 heads bowed down to stems, as Lawson Craddock (Giant-Alpecin) tried to move up the side of the peloton.
He has one distinct memory of the crash that followed: upside down, hanging in the air, thinking, “This isn’t going to end well.”
The pothole came out of nowhere, Craddock said. He tried to bunnyhop it, but his back wheel didn’t clear the gap. He went head over heels, smashing his chest, breaking his sternum manubrium, separating the AC joint in his shoulder, and fracturing a small but vital bone (aren’t they all?) in his left wrist.
“This is by far my worst injury on a bike. I’ve been racing for 13 years now, and I’ve never gotten anything worse than road rash,” he told VeloNews. “Normally after a crash you have to turn your brain off once you get back in the pack. I’m hoping that instincts take over, and I’m not scared by it.”
The crash was just over a month ago. His recovery is almost complete; he’s just days from his first outdoor ride, maybe a week from returning to his European base in Girona. A month banned from riding outside is never easy, but for a professional, it can threaten a season.
Yet Craddock believes he can be ready to race again within three weeks. He says his season goal, improving upon last year’s third place overall at the Tour of California, is still attainable.
Technology is changing how pros return from injury, much like it has also aided amateurs forced to ride indoors by bad weather or long days at the office or busy lives.
Stuck inside, Craddock turned to training with Zwift, an online multiplayer training game that uses power figures provided by either a power meter or a smart trainer to allow for real-time racing against other riders around the globe.
A month ago, Craddock had never heard of Zwift. But following his crash, he spotted a few other pros, like Laurens Ten Dam and Ted King, posting Christmas tree-shaped rides on Strava from a strange island in the middle of the Pacific. “I was like, ‘Where are these guys? Are they doing some training camp? I’ve never heard of this place,” he said.
His curiosity piqued, Craddock looked into the source of these mystery rides. The answer: virtual avatars of Ten Dam and King were on “Zwift Island,” a real, uninhabited island that Zwift has commandeered and laid its virtual course upon. When riders use Zwift, they end up with a real GPS file that they can upload to Strava, as if they had ridden on the island. Craddock’s agent got him set up with an account, a laptop, and an ANT+ connector for his power meter, and he’s been using the service since.
A few days ago, he rode a century. Last week, he rode over 21 hours. Every minute was on the trainer.
“I never ride on the trainer a lot, but when I crashed, I was looking at a month of trainer riding, and I was looking for anything to make it more bearable,” Craddock said. With Zwift, “you’ll be sitting there, and you’ll see a guy sitting on, then he’ll attack you, and of course being competitive you can’t have that, so you attack them back. So you get five or six guys just going as hard as they can; it’s just kinda fun. To be able to ride with other people is a huge factor that makes it pretty entertaining,” he said.
“I did a hundred miler the other day. I did two hours right when I woke up, got off, made a quick smoothie and ate a bagel, then jumped back on and did another three hours,” he said.
Craddock’s hours on “the island,” as he called it, will go down once he can ride outside, an occasion that is only a few days away. But as he prepares to race again, he says he’ll use it for early-morning rides before flights, or for when he just can’t get outside due to weather.
He hopes to be back in a real peloton soon, and is confident that he hasn’t lost too much fitness to the injury. His scheduled start at Vuelta Andalucia had to be tossed out, but Craddock hopes to jump back into his original schedule with the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, which begins on March 23. From there, the Texan will be racing and training hard in preparation for the Tour of California.
“I’m really hoping that the form will come back pretty quickly, and I can do something there,” he said. “I love racing in front of a home crowd.”