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The Bobby Julich Chronicles, April 20, 2009

Crashing is the cyclists' curse

By Bobby Julich

Bobby Julich
Photo ©: AFP
(Click for larger image)

After another serious spill in the Amstel Gold Race, it seems that 2009 is quickly becoming the year of big crashes and severe injuries to top riders in the peloton. With accidents taking out so many riders - guys like Kim Kirchen, Oscar Freire, Tyler Farrar, David Millar, Chris Horner, Stuart O'Grady and Lance Armstrong, the question has to be asked: what's going on?

Crashing is just part of cycling and it can happen to anyone at any time. It's a dangerous sport under the best conditions, but factor in bad weather, bad roads, fatigue, unruly fans and pressure, and it's amazing accidents don't happen more often.

It's sad to see a pro rider's form and plans go down the drain because of a crash and early season injuries can severely truncate the programme of a rider who was targeting the Classics. Others with goals later in the season are a little more 'fortunate' as an accident can be considered another bump in the road.

I think that cyclists are some of the toughest and most determined athletes in the world when it comes to returning to competition after a bad accident. If you saw Rivaldo rolling around on the ground pretending to be injured at the 2002 FIFA World Cup, you wonder how he'd feel after crashing at 60km/h!

Unless the crash is really bad, the rider's first thought is to get back on the bike as soon as possible, sometimes with fractures, broken bones and their backside hanging out of what is left of their shorts for the world to see live on TV.

The effects

One of the highest-profile crash victims in 2009...
Photo ©: AFP
(Click for larger image)

Broken collarbones, ribs, and wrists seem to be the most common injuries sustained in crashes. Bones can heal (sometimes incredibly quickly) but the worst crashes are the ones that disturb the psyche. Those are the most difficult to get over because all of a sudden, you 'see the fear' much sooner than you used to and it can be paralysing.

The effects of crashes can vary greatly between riders. Some bounce back quickly while others can take much longer to heal. I think that youth brings bravado, where pushing the envelope of recovery is a good thing. Age and wisdom mean that things like long-term health, kids and family start to become factors in the recovery process - that's when it can get tricky.

The body is like a memory chip and for the more sensitive riders, this can be a problem. While a rider may have recovered physically after a crash, something may still be amiss. Suddenly they brake harder on descents or sit up in sprints when that was previously unthinkable. It's like driving with the parking brake on.

The faster you accept and clear this up, the faster you'll feel like your old self again.

In extreme cases, talking with a psychologist or seeing a body therapy specialist can help clear the 'blockages' in the mind and body. I know that this may not make sense to many (they are the lucky ones) but for people that feel no matter hard they train, something is holding them back, this could be a great help.

I was lucky enough to get through my career without ever breaking my collarbone. Some claim that "you aren't a real cyclist if you have never broken your collarbone". That may be true, but I would have traded a few of my more serious crashes in for a "simple" broken collarbone any day!

My crashes at the Tour de France were the ones that really affected me. Blame seems to help after a serious crash but if it was 100 percent your fault, it becomes more difficult deal with. I crashed twice in time trials and both of those just happened to be at the Tour; each time it took me out of the race.

Even though my injuries were "only" a broken elbow and four broken ribs in 1999 and a broken wrist in 2006, these accidents were monumentally pivotal in my career, so I hope you can see that I am talking from experience.

Crashing on the biggest stage

Julich moments before his spill in the 2006 Tour de France.
Photo ©: Sirotti
(Click for larger image)

In 1999 I was a mental milkshake both on and off the bike. I was on the Tour podium the year before and should have gone into the '99 Tour with extreme confidence. That wasn't the case. I was on a team that didn't give me the support I needed and just thought that things would go the same as the year before. I wasted so much time and energy looking after my own training, health and material, that I arrived at the start of the Tour mentally exhausted.

I had major allergy problems just before the Tour and I had to fight to get on the team like a neo-pro. I remember well that even though my condition was not that bad, I was lacking confidence. Being a bit of a perfectionist, I couldn't just let the little things go and I paid more attention to all the little things that weren't going well.

I had a decent split time, but for some reason I panicked and decided to take the descent "full gas". I had a motor bike following me during the race, but the reason why my crash wasn't on live TV was because the motorbike couldn't follow me fast enough on the top part of the descent. I came into a hard, off-cambre turn to the left and knew I was going too fast.

I suddenly thought to myself, "you're going to crash, but make sure that you jump the curb and crash into the trees because if you crash before that, you are going to hit that curb and do some real damage". I know it sounds impossible to imagine all that going through my mind in a blink of an eye, but I swear it did. Moments after my inner dialogue, my front wheel slipped out and I crashed into that damn curb, breaking my elbow and four ribs in the process.

When I tried to get up it felt as if someone was pinning me down with a sharp spear. As the last few riders came by me on their way to finishing the time trial, all I wanted to do was hit the reset button and start all over!

My crash in stage seven of the 2006 Tour was very different from 1999. Before the race I felt like I was in the form of my life after again struggling with allergies in the Giro. I helped Ivan win the Giro, rested well and then trained very well with the team in the Alps and another camp in Tuscany.

Unfortunately what greeted us before the start of the Tour seriously threw me off my game. The whole Operacion Puerto saga hit the race like a lightning bolt and our leader, Ivan Basso was in the middle of it. Eventually he decided to leave the race, but we were left to pick up the pieces.

Dmitriy Muravyev (Astana) takes a spill
Photo ©: Sirotti
(Click for larger image)

The situation with Ivan affected me deeply and I was a total zombie for the first few days of the race. Gradually I was able to get back into the rhythm of the race just in time for the time trial. The morning of the TT we went out to ride the course, but had to skip the first few kilometres because the race caravan was in the way.

During training I couldn't feel the chain on my bike; I felt incredible and after a few accelerations, I shut it down and decided to save it for the afternoon. I did the best warm up of my life and I've never been so happy with my material. I honestly thought that this was the day I was going to check two major goals off my list:

1) Win an individual stage of the Tour, and,
2) Wear the yellow jersey.

What happened next was WELL documented and viewed time and time again on the networks covering the race. As I was lying in the middle of the road for the second time in a Tour time trial, I again tried to hit the reset button, but it wasn't meant to be.

There's no real technique to staying away from crashes. Of course, paying attention, respecting others and being towards the front or side of the peloton can help, but there are no guarantees.

Know your limits and your material's limits (in certain situations) and always stay alert and focused. Luck is a big factor in the end, but sometimes you have to make your own luck and see the danger before the point of no return.

Safe riding and racing to you all,

See also:
The Julich chronicles: From behind the barriers
The Julich chronicles: Battle of the bulge
The Julich chronicles: Cross-training with the pro
The Julich chronicles: The business of cycling
Bobby Julich: Nostalgic Julich hangs up wheels

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