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Leah Thomas ‘nervous excited’ for TT world championships after injury-blighted 2022

The Californian struggled with a neck injury since the start of the year after suffering two slipped discs.

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Leah Thomas says that she’s “nervous excited” for the UCI Road World Championships following a season that has seen her struggle with injury.

The Californian has been laying low since the end of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift in July as she continues to recover from a neck injury she sustained at the start of the year, but she’s raring to go in Australia.

Thomas has been in Wollongong for several days, and is getting ready the time trial this Sunday. She will also be riding the road race, but she’s only looking at the TT for now, a discipline that she took the U.S. national title in this season.

“I’m nervous excited for this race. I really enjoy time trials and doing the work to try and figure out the best way to go about it. Time trials are tricky and all you can do is what you can do on that day,” Thomas told VeloNews from her hotel in Wollongong. “It is a little bit nerve-wracking but normally I would come into a world championships and I’m sick, I’m injured, or it’s the end of the season and you’re just running on fumes and trying to get to the end. I don’t feel like that here, I’ve got energy and I can put a lot into this.

“I’m really excited about that. I feel like I’ve done the work and now it’s about seeing if the work was good enough. I think that with the cards I have been dealt, I have done the best I can. If things don’t go as I want, it’s hopefully a good learning opportunity.”

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Thomas moved to Trek-Segafredo from Movistar last winter and she was hoping to get stuck into the team’s aggressive style of racing. However, a pinched nerve left her with limited motion in one of her arms.

Though she initially thought it was a minor shoulder injury, Thomas needed spinal surgery before she got her season underway. She’s managed just 33 days of racing so far this season, and in most of those she has had to battle through the pain barrier.

“It was a little bit scary. I didn’t expect it to happen. I thought I was fine and then I would try to open a bottle and I just didn’t have the dexterity in my hand,” she said. “I was under the impression that [the doctors] were being overly dramatic. I got a scan and they were like, ‘we want to send you to neurosurgery.’ And I was like ‘I think you guys are blowing this out of proportion, I think I just hurt my shoulder.’ Because the nerve pain was radiating to my shoulder.

“They told me I needed this surgery, and I wanted a second opinion. I went to this doctor whose whole role is pain management and they don’t want to recommend surgery. After the test, where I smashed myself in the face because I couldn’t control my arm, the doctor said I should definitely have the surgery.”

Throughout all of the challenges, one of the shining lights for Thomas this season has been her national time trial title, where she managed to beat Amber Neben by 44 seconds on a 23.3km route.

“I feel really fortunate and proud to continue to do the work, even when I wasn’t seeing all of the results and it was hard and painful,” Thomas said. “It just wasn’t enjoyable to be on the bike, it was definitely a chore. When things did fall into place, I did have that fitness to tap into.

“I had a great time trial and I was pleased with it but the nerve was still angry and then the muscles got tight and then it snowballed later.

“Now, I do have a lot more neck strength than I did in June, I’ve spent many more months of doing PT. Now, I don’t get that whole chain reaction that I did. Before the nationals, I had been on the TT bike twice.”

Moving in the right direction

She had surgery in February, and she initially recovered quite well, but that was just a small part of the process. Bike racing, particularly time trialling, require plenty of use of the neck muscles and it would take a lot of time for her to build up the strength she needed.

Even by the Tour de France Femmes in July, she was still quite literally feeling the strain.

She got to the end of the race, but the team then let her go back to California and do more physical therapy on her neck. After more than six weeks away from racing, she feels like her health is moving in the right direction.

“I definitely would like to say I’m there, I’m very close. It has been a long season and a mentally tough season going through all of that, despite all of the support I’ve had,” she told VeloNews. “It’s hard not to be able to ride how you’re used to riding. I believe I’m over the hump, but I’ll wait to see. I’ve had good blocks of training coming into this, but I definitely haven’t gone through the foundations that I have done in a typical year. The nice thing is that I have some fitness and I feel much more healthy.”

Thomas will be representing the U.S. for the fourth time in the TT discipline, along with Kristen Faulkner, who is doing it for the first time. Between them, they have a strong chance of getting Team USA onto the podium.

However, Thomas is not thinking too hard about where she might finish, it’s all about leaving it all out on the road.

“The way that keeps me motivated and focused and not freaking out about everything is measuring myself against myself. So, I want to have the same kind of time trial I had a nationals,” she said. “I had a good pacing strategy and I executed that strategy well that day, I had done my homework on the course, all these things that I wanted to do. The parts that I can control, I want them to go well as they should go.”

Sunday’s time trial sees the riders tackle a 32.4km course, which takes place over two laps of a technical circuit around Wollongong. As with most city center circuits, there are plenty of twisting sections to deal with.

“There’s a lot of corners. The nice thing is, I was actually more intimidated by it before coming here and looking at it on VeloViewer. Coming here, it’s still tricky, especially the first part of the course, but it’s less tricky than I thought it was going to be,” she said.

“A lot of the corners are pretty open corners but it’s still a long course. It’s not an overly fast course. It’s about how are you going to do this for almost longer than you ever do a time trial. Finding that balance is tricky and if you mess it up then there goes your shot at a good result.”

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