Healing from bike crashes and yearning to ride again

By: Sarah Braker

One the most memorable moments from the 2016 Olympics in Rio was also one of the worst. Dutch cyclist Annemiek van Vleuten crashed into a curb during the women’s road race, ten kilometers from winning Olympic gold. She suffered fractures in her spine and a concussion. Only a month after her horrific crash, van Vleuten was back on the bike, winning the prologue of the Lotto Belgium Tour. Trixi Worrack, a German pro cyclist, has a similar tale. She lost a kidney after crashing during the Trofeo Alfredo Binda WorldTour race in March of 2016. She returned to cycling and competed in the 2016 Olympic Games. John Degenkolb, another German pro, returned to cycling in May of 2016. He was hit by a car while training, nearly lost his left index finger, and had to learn how to brake with four fingers.

What is it about cycling that compels these riders, and others like them, to return to riding after horrific and life-altering crashes? Craig Lewis, a retired pro rider based in Boulder, Colorado, thinks he has the answer. “Getting out on a bike, having that freedom and excitement, makes me feel alive,” he says, “After weeks or months in a hospital bed, that’s all you want back.”

Falling hard

Craig's love for riding bikes began with mountain biking as a teenager in South Carolina. He switched his attention to road riding after working in a bike shop and turned pro in 2004. He won the Team Time Trial in the 2011 Giro d’Italia, and competed in many other prestigious races all over the world. “I would never have thought that the bike would introduce me to my wife, take me across five continents, and teach me the work ethic needed to launch my own business,” he explains.

As Craig describes it, he hasn’t had many crashes, “but when I did I made them count.” His first major crash came during the 2004 Tour de Georgia. “An SUV pulled on the Time Trial course in Rome and I plowed into it at 35-40mph,” he recounts. Craig suffered broken bones, two collapsed lungs and a shattered jaw. The second major crash came in the 2011 Giro d’Italia during stage 19. “We were coming around a bend in the road and the riders ahead of me weren’t able to point out a medal post in the road so I hit it at 35mph.” Craig shattered his femur, broke some vertebrae and lost movement in his right arm for about a month.

Back in the saddle

The rehab after each incident took about a year, Craig says. “I had to start over as if I were a two-year-old learning to walk. I was pretty helpless trying to regain balance or learning to chew again after 12 weeks of not using any of those muscles.” Despite this, when asked how soon he thought about riding again, Craig says it was immediate. “I remember talking my brother into taking me on a ride before I could even really walk,” he says, “my mouth was wired shut, but we got out there.” Lewis missed the freedom, adrenaline and camaraderie of the sport. “It’s extremely unfortunate to have to go through all of the setbacks and struggles that are involved with serious injuries, but they really make you appreciate life that much more,” Craig explains. 

He may have reached the highest levels of the sport, but when it comes to his motivation for returning to cycling after his crashes, Craig focused on the reason he first got started: the enjoyment of being on two wheels out in nature. Craig explains that there will always be some residual fear when he’s riding, but that he never once thought about giving it up entirely. “Cycling will always be in my life,” he says, “I love the places it can take you, the distance you can easily cover and the people that are connected with it.”