Road

Rigoberto Urán’s long and painful journey back to pro cycling

Rigoberto Urán is racing in Colombia this week for the first time since his painful crash at the Vuelta a España. The crash in August had a tremendous impact on his career, and forced him to embark on a long and painful road to recovery.

Rigoberto Urán arrived at a hospital in Barcelona last August, only hours after he left a hospital in Castellón de la Plana, several hundred miles to the south. Urán had crashed hard during the Vuelta a España’s sixth stage, and the Colombian champion was in significant pain. He had broken his left collarbone, the same one he had broken earlier that year at Paris-Nice.

As doctors examined Urán, they realized his injuries were even more severe: broken ribs, shattered scapula, and a punctured lung.

“When I went to the first hospital in Castelló, they did x-rays but they weren’t good because they couldn’t see that I had a punctured lung, which is what complicated things,” Urán told VeloNews this week. “They knew I had a fractured scapula, and collar bone but the worst of the injuries was the lung.”

Urán released a statement through his EF Pro Cycling team in those early hours following the crash. Yes, riders crash a lot, he admitted, and riders are cognizant of what it takes to recover from major injuries. The statement lead fans and media alike to assume the Colombian would soon return to the pro peloton, as he had done after his various injuries and crashes. He had simply hit a string of bad luck and it was time to take a break and recover.

Urán is a major celebrity here in Colombia, and is mobbed by fans everywhere he goes. Photo: Maximiliano Blanco/Getty Images

But, something didn’t feel right this time. And his checkup in Barcelona confirmed his worst fears.

“I arrived and they did another routine exam,” Urán said. “That’s when they realized that in reality not only was it my scapula and collar bone, but also broken ribs and my lung, so we learned that it was far more serious.”

The trip to the hospital in Barcelona began one of the most challenging periods of Rigoberto Urán’s professional cycling career. In the ensuing weeks he contemplated retiring from the sport altogether at age 33 as he dealt with the painful injuries and rehabilitation. After weeks of rest, rehabilitation, and physical therapy, Urán decided to return to pro cycling at this week’s Tour Colombia 2.1.

“Every day I work in rehabilitation, many hours of therapy and on the bike so that I am able to be here,” Urán said. “When one is in a race, and you get to the starting line, obviously I want to be fine because of my respect for my team.

Urán’s journey back began in that hospital in Barcelona. Doctors told him he would need to spend no fewer than 10 days in the hospital to allow his lung time to recover. Then, he would need to undergo surgery to repair the shattered bones. He was moved to an intensive-care unit.

Urán’s recovery from his crash has taken months. He’s still not back at 100 percent. Photo: Maximiliano Blanco/Getty Images.

In total, Urán ended up spending 23 total days in the hospital.

“In the moment I was pretty calm because I thought, okay it’s the scapula and the collar bone, they’ll operate tomorrow and I can relax,” Urán said. “After the operation – I had crashed towards the end of August and I returned to the bike at the training camp in California last December, close to three and a half months later.”

Urán had crashed plenty times before, something that is part of the sport. He admits when the peloton picks up speed around a turn, or is flying down a descent, there is a little fear that was not present before the crash, or after any other crashes he has experienced in his career.

The crash at the Vuelta was one of these crashes. A touch of wheels, screeching of brakes, and then thud against the hard tarmac. Yet the fallout from this crash was far more serious than anything Urán had dealt with in his career, and it had a huge impact on his career and his family.

“When you’re in a hospital its difficult, because you experience a lot of negative thoughts,” Urán said. “My family was also telling me that it was not worth it to continue racing. But I always tell them I can’t make those kinds of decisions when you’re in such a complicated situation.”

After returning home, and he had recovered enough to get back on the bike he went straight to work. He spent many hours with physical therapy and rehabilitation through the months of December and January to make his return to the Tour Colombia 2.1. Finishing well behind his team during the opening team time trial, it was clear it would take more time to see Urán return to his previous form.

Urán said he contemplated his pro cycling career after the injuries. Photo: Maximiliano Blanco/Getty Images

“Physically I had been feeling very good when I was training at home, but upon joining the team here [in Colombia] I could tell I’m at a lower level,” Urán told reporters in the pre-race press conference. “The recovery has been really great and obviously for me, to regain my mobility, but I wanted to return. It’s been many years since I’ve raced in Boyacá, the last time was in 2004 in the junior category. It’s a good race to begin with, to share with my teammates.”

It was Uran’s decision to return to Colombia, even though he is not on top form here. He was a late addition to EF Pro Cycling’s roster, and his name was added to the list just days before the start. Watching him inch through the hundreds and thousands of fans in his country after each stage, it’s easy to understand why. He is loved and adored in Colombia, a perfect environment to return and test his form.

“He made the decision he wanted to race and so we’ve been doing everything we can to support him in that,” said Jonathan Vaughters EF Pro Cycling’s CEO. “He is fully focused this year and has made a remarkable comeback. The injuries were really severe – whenever you break your scapula that’s the hardest bone in your body to break. He still leans a little bit to one side on the bike but he’s been really remarkable in his consistency and persistence in getting all the PT done.”

Riders in the peloton this week are also happy to see Urán return. During slow points in the race, when the peloton has been rolling along, riders have ridden up next to him, pulled out their smart phones, and snapped selfies with him.

“I’m enjoying every minute,” Urán said. “It’s moments that I need to enjoy from training to being here at the races, these are the moments you forget when you’re experiencing a bad time.”

VeloNews spoke to Urán after the finish of Thursday’s stage 3, when he finished in the pack on a flat sprint day. He said he still feels pain at times during the race, however the discomfort is nothing more severe than what he expected. Despite the psychological effects from the crash, Urán said he feels no fear here in Colombia of crashing again.

“I’m doing physical therapy,” Urán said. “You have good intentions but in a race everything is different – you go a little past your limit. There is a little pain but nothing that I’m worried about.”

Ever the showman, Urán has been one of the most visible and popular riders at the Tour Colombia. Photo: Maximiliano Blanco/Getty Images

Urán said he purposefully has a bad memory, and that he hopes to soon forget the crash from this past August. He believes that looking ahead, and not behind, gives him an advantage.

“What happened in the past is in the past, we’re in a new year now,” Urán said. “In cycling there are days that are very hard and very complicated. Now that I’m doing better, my family is happy for me. If you know that someone enjoys their work, I think it’s best to leave them to it. Everything in life has a reason.”

Urán’s 2020 racing calendar is uncertain due to his continued recovery. Speaking before the race, he says his main objective is a full recovery with good form to arrive on the starting line at the Tour de France this July.

“What this sport has, and what cyclists deal with – you crash and then you get up and return to good form,” Urán said. “I enjoy this sport, I love being on the bike and going to the races. When I’m going well, I like to enjoy them and to help my teammates. I love all of it.”