DANZHOU, China — To say it’s been a long year for German sprinter Max Walscheid is an understatement. Less than 10 months ago, the 23-year-old neo-pro found himself lying bruised and broken along with five of his Giant-Alpecin teammates after the team was involved in a head-on collision during a training ride in Spain.
John Degenkolb, Chad Haga, Warren Barguil, Ramon Sinkeldam, and Fredrik Ludvigsson joined Walscheid in the carnage along the road in Calpe. All suffered varying degrees of injuries — with Haga, Degenkolb, Barguil, and Walscheid enduring the worst.
While Degenkolb mended a shattered finger, Haga recovered from substantial facial injuries and Barguil healed a fractured wrist, Walscheid spent 12 weeks on crutches following two surgeries required to attach metal plates to a fractured thumb and a broken tibia.
For Walscheid, every day off the bike was another day spent counting down the hours until his eventual return.
VeloNews caught up with Walscheid, who was wearing the yellow leader’s jersey at the Tour of Hainan on Wednesday just prior to his third straight stage win — the first victories of his fledgling pro career — to find out how far he’s come and just where he plans on going.
“I tried to keep working through rehab, and the only things on my mind were the races I would be going to once I returned,” he recalled. “I am lucky in that I have a good team around me that believes in me and that has given me the motivation to succeed.”
Walscheid admits he wasted little time in terms of recovery, but perhaps returned a bit too soon.
“I tried to start rehabbing as soon as possible,” said Walscheid, who came back to racing at the Tour of Belgium four months after the accident. “I did my first race at the end of May, but I was far from good shape. I had two weeks training on the bike before the race and I struggled — I was not ready.”
Walscheid continued to progress and proved he was coming good with a second-place finish behind three-time national champion André Greipel (Lotto – Soudal) at the German road race championships in late June.
But soon afterward, an unexpected illness set the 2014 under-23 national champion back yet again.
“My shape was progressing,” he said. “The nationals result showed I am a strong sprinter and can ride a good final, but my endurance was not where it was before the crash. By August I was in good form again, but then suffered a lung infection. It was a depressing time for me.”
While all six riders are nearly fully recovered from their physical injuries and have successfully returned to racing, the mental scars for some still remain — something that Walscheid has been made all too aware of in his comeback.
“It’s mentally been a really tough year,” admitted Walscheid. “Confidence is really important for me, and at times a lack of it has cost me in races. But now I can see that I can really bring it on the road and that will help me moving forward.
“Perhaps I’m even a bit further along mentally than I was before the crash,” he continued. “Now I really know how shitty life can be, but I’m totally over the accident now. I realize it can happen again, but I don’t dwell on the past or live in fear of the future. I hope for the best, prepare for the worst and make sure to enjoy every moment as it comes.”
With his career back on track, Walscheid will turn his attention toward next season and a possible shot at Scheldeprijs in 2017, but not before he soaks in his unexpected accomplishments to date.
“I said at the beginning of the season that I wanted at least one victory this year as a professional, which was an ambitious goal looking back at how my year started,” he concluded. “I already have three wins and I hope it continues like this.
“I can’t believe it really, for better or worse, this year has gone by so fast and I count myself very lucky to be winning races and to be alive.”
Aaron S. Lee is a cycling and triathlon columnist for Eurosport and a contributor to VeloNews.