Cycling is a tough sport – and it can be dangerous, too. For amateur riders, the fear of crashing can put a block between ourselves and our potential, but for a pro rider a bad accident can threaten their livelihood.
To carve out a successful career a pro cyclist has to put that fear in a box at every race so they can concentrate on achieving the results that will help them to progress. But what do they do when that crash finally happens and rest is the only cure?
We spoke to UK rider Hannah Barnes at the Canyon//SRAM training camp where she’s meeting her team mates for the 2016 season. Whilst racing for UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling in August she suffered a crash which resulted in a break to the talus – a complicated anklebone that has three ankle joints attached to it. Still off the bike four months later, she’s doing an incredible job at staying positive, and we wanted to find out what’s keeping her smile so bright…
For around twenty minutes Hannah Barnes and I are chasing each other around a hotel. As the clock ticks on our meeting I scurry around the maze of corridors, keeping my ears pricked for the sound of crutches and desperately hoping she’s not limping between rooms herself. Eventually, I remember that all pro cyclists are twitter-ites, so I tweet her and five minutes later we’re settled in the lobby.
Hannah looks exactly as she did last time I saw her. Still tiny, with the same impressive quad and calf muscles and the same bright and infectious smile. Yet the 'injury boot' hasn’t been removed and she’s still on crutches – a shock since I’d thought she’d be back on the bike by now. We both did: “I had the results from the CT scan and they said it’s not ready" she explains, “it’s healing, and it’s healing well – but it’s just slow. They said it needed another five weeks to be 100 per cent better."
“You kind of take yourself away from cycling a bit, and just be a normal person. It’s hard, crutches drive me crazy, but I just try to forget about training and racing and what everyone else is doing and just focus on me."
That’s got to be frustrating, especially as she’s surrounded by the new team kit and bikes at the Canyon//SRAM training camp. Barnes agrees, but is very balanced and understanding – showing a wisdom far beyond her 22 years she says: “It is frustrating – but I’d rather they told me that than I rush it. It’s tricky - I want to get on my bike as soon as possible, but that could have really bad effects, so I just need to be patient."
The crash that actually caused the break was “silly" she says: “Something happened in front, a few girls went down, it was just after the feedzone where everyone is changing bottles and filling pockets, a bit distracted. I don’t really know exactly how it happened, but I think I just hit the ground really hard with my heel."
Her parents, who team TWC met over breakfast at a B&B before stage four of the Women’s Tour, are incredibly supportive and have been behind their daughter all the way – she says: “My mum doesn’t let me do anything! The sound of crutches freaks her out now. But they’ve been great. I always thought they were going to lose their patience – not with me, but with it [she points at the boot] but they haven’t at all they’ve been really good. Dad just rings me and says ‘I’m not worried at all, I know you’re very dedicated and motivated to get back to where you were’."
“I have days when I deal with it really well, and days when I don’t and I get quite frustrated."
Despite her wide smile, the girl who claimed a stage win and Best Young Rider at the 2015 edition of the Women’s Tour of Britain doesn’t pretend it’s all powder puffs and rainbows – she says: “I have days when I deal with it really well, and days when I don’t and I get quite frustrated. I usually do 7 days training a week, so going from training really hard – it was August when it happened so just before Worlds - to just stopping... It’s quite weird. I’m not very good at people doing stuff for me, I like to be quite independent so that was probably the hardest bit."
“It’s crazy how you have no appetite. I’ve gone from constantly being hungry to people having to tell me when to eat. I’ve gone through a lot of stuff that I never realised or expected... it’s been quite an experience."
Being with her new team mates is helping to keep Barnes motivated – but it’s never going to be easy. She says: “It helps to be with the team now. Watching them go off for a bike ride in the morning is hard, but overall it’s just even more exciting and motivating to be here. I’m finding I get to know the staff much better – when everyone’s out riding I’m with the swannys. I’ve got to know the sponsors better, so it’s kind of a good thing, but there’s a couple of hours when I’ve done everything and I’m just waiting for everyone to get back."
Training at the moment is limited to leg raises and physio. Some riders do single legged turbo sessions when they find themselves in this sort of position, she says, but it’s not up her street: "Apparently 20 per cent of your left leg your brain transfers onto your right. But I just want to focus on getting totally better."
“I’ve taught myself to knit! I can knit now… And I got my Christmas shopping about two months early. I did a couple of Spanish lessons. I try to do different things."
This is the longest time Barnes has had off the bike since she was six years old. So a very long time, and she’s had to keep herself occupied: “You kind of take yourself away from cycling a bit, and just be a normal person. It’s hard, crutches drive me crazy, but I just try to forget about training and racing and what everyone else is doing and just focus on me."
Seemingly always able to see the bright side, she tells me: “I’ve taught myself to knit! I can knit now… And I got my Christmas shopping about two months early. I did a couple of Spanish lessons. I try to do different things."
Crashing is a part of pro cycling, or indeed any form of cycle racing – she explains: “You’ve got 130 people trying to get to the finish line first, it’s going to happen. Half the time it’s my own fault though which is annoying."
"Sometimes you do get the feeling on the start line, a gut feeling that something is going to go wrong… I guess it is all part of it, that’s what we’ve got ourselves into, it’s the path I’ve chosen so you’ve just got to accept it really."
I have to ask how a pro cyclist deals with that risk – especially when it could put their career on hold for an unknown period of time. She says: “I do think about it. It’s a dangerous sport, everyone knows that. Sometimes you do get the feeling on the start line, a gut feeling that something is going to go wrong… I guess it is all part of it, that’s what we’ve got ourselves into. It’s the path I’ve chosen. You've just got to accept it really."
Fear of crashing can affect and inhibit us all – but what can we do to reduce our chances of that gut feeling becoming a reality? Barnes says: “Just race more, you just need experience. You need to be able to kind of judge the good wheels to be on, who is not so great. It took me a long time to work it out. But always being top 5 or 6. It’s hard but it’s safer."
"And I had to do team pictures the other day, and I had to put team kit on… I’ve just never felt so excited to wear lycra! I think just putting a helmet on – is going to be exciting."
Though I’m sure it feels like it’s been an age, it should just be a few more weeks before Barnes can ride again. I ask her what she most looks forward to – and I expect most riders who have suffered an injury can identify: “I’m most looking forward to just a ride to a coffee shop. Just the riding, and this time of year is my favourite time, just riding for hours with friends. I’m quite upset to have missed that. And I had to do team pictures the other day, and I had to put team kit on… I’ve just never felt so excited to wear lycra! I think just putting a helmet on – is going to be exciting."
There’s no set plan for her return – team DS Ronny Lauke isn’t going to rush it and neither is Hannah – she says: “We’ve set no goal, we’ll just wait until I feel I’m ready, and we’ll go from there. Hopefully once I can ride the bike it’ll just take a couple of weeks before I can do some training rather than just riding."
She does have some 2016 dreams –but is happy to let time and the injury take its course – she says: “I’d love to go to the Olympics, it’s my main goal to make the team but if it doesn’t happen it doesn’t happen. Hopefully I’ve got one or two more in the future so I might just extend my season four more years! I’m just trying to not dwell on it too much and concentrate on getting better."
Good luck Hannah!
Read more about recovering from the effects of a crash and the resulting fear here.