A pothole on a shady road, a high-speed wobble, and, before he could react, Carl Fredrik Hagen was violently thrown into a guardrail.
In an instant, the Israel Start-Up Nation all-rounder was living every cyclist’s nightmare: a high-speed impact with a solid, unmoveable object.
Though it all happened in fractions of seconds, Hagen remembers every instant. The jolt of the impact as his front wheel hits the unseen pothole, the jerking motion as he’s thrown toward the guardrail, and then the impact and somersaulting fall into a ravine replays in his memory like a still frame from a slow-motion film.
Two trees stopped him short of a boulder. The adrenaline kicked in, and Hagen managed to drag himself back up to the road.
But something was quite literally missing — his right arm. He could not see it, feel it, move it, or touch it.
“I was afraid that I lost my arm,” Hagen told VeloNews. “I couldn’t find it. I couldn’t feel it.
“It was behind me,” he said, twisting his arm to try to demonstrate its odd, grotesque position. “My arm was behind my back. It was also cold, maybe 5C. It was not snowing or dangerous, but I had on a lot of clothing, so I could not see if I was bleeding or what.”
‘My bike went from 40kph to zero in one second’
Hagen calmly sipped a glass of water in a hotel lobby in Tel-Aviv last month when he meticulously recounted the horrific crash in detail to VeloNews.
“I was really scared. I remember every detail,” Hagen said. “It was the most pain I ever felt in my life.”
- The Vuelta’s most unlikeliest rookie GC contender
- ISN signs Hagen as helper and leader
- Riders enjoy relaxed COVID scene at ISN camp
Hagen, who joined Israel Start-Up Nation in 2021 with big ambitions, knows it could have been so much worse.
“My bike went from 40kph to zero in one second,” he said. “I lost control and went straight into the guardrail. The right side of my handlebar went outside the guardrail, and the rest of my bike went inside.”
In the moment of impact, Hagen’s body smashed into the guardrail, with his right shoulder, already the body’s most mobile yet vulnerable joint, taking the brunt of the impact.
His arm was completely blown out of the socket and was literally left dangling behind and down his back.
Doctors told him the injury only happens to 2 percent of patients who injure their shoulders.
“My shoulder was up here and my arm was behind my back,” he described. “That feeling that you probably lost your arm, and never be able to ride and take the handlebar again, that was the worse feeling I ever had.”
Hagen just shook his head as he recounted the crash and his subsequent recovery.
Incredibly, he did not break his collarbone or suffer any serious injuries to his back, neck or legs. He did break his arm in seven places, and suffered severe tears and bruising to ligaments, tendons, and muscles that held his shoulder in place.
“My whole shoulder was destroyed in the crash,” he said. “I was really, really lucky in the end. I landed just 10cm from a big stone near my head. I had no trouble with my head, back, or neck after the crash. Nothing else, just my shoulder.”
From cross-country skier to Vuelta top-10 in short order
His crash last March abruptly sidelined Hagen’s otherwise upward career trajectory.
Norway has produced some big winners, with riders like Alexander Kristoff and Thor Hushovd, but Hagen is the best GC prospect the Scandinavian country’s seen in a while.
And in an instant last spring, he thought that was all over when he catapulted into oblivion.
“I managed to climb up the hill back to the road, and I was waving my left arm that was not injured and I was screaming a lot,” he said. “A car stopped, and I said, just call an ambulance. I never had so much pain in my life.
“Once I was at the hospital, and things were looking better, the first thing I asked about was, ‘when can I ride my bike again?'”
How big is Hagen’s motor?
Bigger than most.
Now 30, his trajectory from hobbyist cyclist to professional WorldTour racer is among the fastest and unlikeliest in recent history.
A keen runner and cross-country skier, Hagen was working part-time in a bike shop when a local coach said he’d help him train if he took up cycling more seriously.
“He could see a talent in me that no others could see,” Hagen said. “He started to coach me for two years with the mountain bike, and then I was picked up by a continental team with Thor Hushovd [Team Sparebanken Sør], and I raced my first road race in 2015.”
Hagen was a jack-of-all-trades athlete during his youth, playing football before moving into endurance sports in his teens. He used to run in the woods near his home, as he puts it, ” to clear my mind.”
In two seasons with the Continental team, he scored a handful of top-10s, enough to bounce up to the ProTour, Norwegian-based Joker Icopal team for 2017-18.
In his first season, he nailed his first stage win at the Tour de Alsace in France and finished second overall, just ahead of current WorldTour riders Brandon McNulty and behind Lucas Hamilton. The next season saw him win his first stage race at the Tour du Jura.
“I joined Joker for two years and I got my first pro contract with Lotto in 2019,” he said. “I was 27.”
Those results got him noticed by Lotto-Soudal, but no one could have guessed what he could do at the Vuelta a España. He clawed himself up and over Spain’s steepest mountains, and he was in the top-10 by the start of the second week. Hagen’s tenacity saw him hang on to finish eighth in Madrid.
“My career was growing so fast,” he said. “So far, the curve has been up, up, up. This year  it flattened it out a bit with my injury. It happens in sports, and I’ve been lucky that it was only my first big injury.”
Targeting two grand tours in 2022
Hagen’s injury and subsequent recovery only served to remind him how tenuous a professional athletic career can be.
Hagen underwent surgery and months of rehab work in Norway, but he was lucky enough that he suffered no career-threatening injuries and his arm is now fully functioning.
“I was on the indoor trainer three days after my crash,” he said. “I managed two months after the surgery to have my first ride outside. Two months later I raced the Deutschland Tour in August. That was two or three months earlier than expected.”
And the experience over the past year only steeled his resolve to resume his upward trajectory.
“I can be happy with where I am because I am back in the peloton. This season was so much harder than a normal racing season because of all the extra work,” he said. “My goal is to be back stronger than I have never been before.”
Carl Fredrik Hagen made his Grand Tour debut in the 2019 Vuelta, aged 27. In the 2020 Giro he’s now 29 🤯
— Felix Lowe (@saddleblaze) October 2, 2020
For 2022, he wants to avoid potholes lurking in the shade, and revive his grand tour ambitions.
“I am now 30, but I only turned pro three years ago. This will be my fourth year,” he said. “I look at myself as a young cyclist. Why I love cycling now and what’s my biggest motivation is that I still have so much to learn. I learn new things every day.”
Hagen wants to make up for lost time and hopes to be racing at the Tour de San Luis in January. From there, he plans to pack in as many race days as possible, with the goal of racing two grand tours in 2022.
“I’ve done the Vuelta and the Giro, and as a GC rider, it will not surprise anyone that I want to do the Tour de France,” he said. “Not just once, but many times, and I want to do it thinking of good results.”