Coming back from an injury is always a personal journey. The pain, the progress, the setbacks, and the eventual recovery. People can watch as you work hard from fall to return; they can empathise and sympathise with how your life has been changed by the outcome, but they can’t feel it with you.
During my career I’ve had injuries that have spanned almost the entire spectrum. From small crashes to catastrophic ones.
One question I have always been asked when I’ve returned from a crash is how I’ve just jumped straight back into being the rider I was before. I don’t mean physically, of course. But in terms of confidence on the bike.
I might be a slower version of myself when I first get back in the saddle, but I’ve never been phased by crashing. I would take as many risks after injury as I did before, which is almost certainly not a good thing. I would descend just as fast, and love it just as much.
I never had an answer for why this was, and as a result never really had good advice for anyone. I honestly think it was just chance. I always crashed in a way that meant I had to jump straight back on the bike. My brain simply never had time to put up its defences. Even when I smashed my face open in a race I still finished the stage before climbing off.
The only exception to this was when I got hit by a car, but lack of fear is the only good thing that came from the head injury and subsequent memory loss. You can’t be afraid of something you don’t remember.
When I broke my wrist earlier this year it was the first time this didn’t happen.
While breaking my back and neck was obviously the most debilitating injury I’d ever experienced, and breaking my sternum the most painful, this one was different somehow. From the moment I looked down and saw my destroyed wrist, to the days I spent lying in hospital with nothing being done, I was aware of the impact it was having.
It wasn’t just the unbelievable pain that I was in right up until surgery; it was the fact my hand was snapped over my wrist for that entire time. It was the loss of function and feeling. There’s something about a displaced break that plays with your mind. It was as much of a battle to not let that psychologically beat me as it was to cope with the agony I was in.
When I returned to the bike a couple of months later I could feel that I was afraid. On the road it wasn’t a problem. Over smooth ground I was the same rider, but as soon as I ventured off the tarmac and out of my comfort zone it hit me. I could no longer take risks. And I’m not talking about the stupid all or nothing risks over extreme terrain; I would put my foot down over every obstacle. A rut in the trail, a slippery patch of mud, a rough patch of gravel. Each time I lost the feeling of being in total control I would see myself crash again. I could almost feel the pain. My defences were up.
Of course at the time it felt like this would never change. Each day I became more aware of the new limitations my own fear had imposed on my riding. I would get frustrated. Panic wasn’t something I was accustomed to. But every time I felt the wheel slip from underneath me it reared its ugly head.
I decided very quickly that my only option was to feel the fear and do it anyway. I would make myself go off-road over terrain that made me uncomfortable. I would bail, then turn around and try it again. I would ride the same stretch of trail over and over until I could do it without thinking.
For weeks I felt like I was making virtually no progress. The tiny improvements each day didn’t feel like enough. On their own they were almost unnoticeable. But I forced myself to push further into the discomfort.
Then today I went for a ride. I took my mountain bike out of the garage, hopped on, and rode through the woods with a big smile on my face. The bike slipping and sliding beneath me through deep mud, clattering over ridges and ruts, grinding over steep, technical climbs, flying down single-track descents.
As quickly as I felt I had lost the ability to have fearless fun on the bike, it was back.
I don’t have full function in my wrist yet, but I can work with that. I’m adapting the handlebars on my bikes, and I’m putting a lot of time into physio and strengthening. That’s the easy part. It’s black and white. What’s more important is that there is no grey area anymore. No invisible obstacle standing in front of me. My mind is back on board.
So I guess my advice is to lean into the fear. Don’t let it own you. Whether you feel it or not, it’s in your hands what you do with it. Start small, and before you know it the boundaries have shifted. You won’t even remember what it felt like to be afraid.
The only way out is through.