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An interview with Henk Vogels
Captain Courageous: A return from the dead
In eight seasons as a professional bike rider, averaging 35,000-40,000 kilometres a year, Henk Vogels had never broken a bone. Then on June 28, a high-speed, almost fatal crash changed all that. Many thought he was dead; others felt sickened at the sight of what they saw on the roadside. But someone up above has given Vogels the gift of life, and as Anthony Tan writes, the Aussie hard-man could well bounce back to his biggest year ever.
102 KILOMETRES PER HOUR. 64 miles an hour. Whatever way you look at it, it's a damn fast to be going on your bike. Especially if you've just put your Colnago C-40 into the back of another bicycle, ripped 10 out of 28 spokes from your front wheel and you're tumbling out of control - which is exactly what happened to Henk Vogels two months ago on the third stage of the Fitchburg Longsjo Classic.
"Well, yeah, I should be dead," says Vogels in typical deadpan Aussie humour when asked whether he considers himself lucky to have been able to celebrate his 30th birthday last Friday. "I still can't remember anything about the crash at all; I'm still going off people's reports and what my team-mates have told me."
In the spirit of the typical bike rider, Vogels happily tells me his georgeous, custom-made Colnago hasn't got a scratch on it. "So I must of hit his back wheel, crashed over my bike, broke my neck, smashed into the guard rail, then went back in the peloton," he guesses, almost sounding as if he got up, brushed himself off, and rejoined the race. (Though from how his wife Cindy described his condition when she flew over to meet him, you know how ridiculous that scenario sounds.)
By contrast, the start of the season couldn't have gone much better. At the end of last year, with stage wins in the GP Cycliste de Beauce, Herald Sun Tour and victory at the USPRO Criterium Championship, the affable Aussie could have signed with just about any US-based team he wanted to. However, he chose Navigators because team director Ed Beamon told him about the team's ambitions not just domestically, but in the classics heartland of Belgium - a place Vogels was aching to return to. And by signing 'rouleurs'* like Vassili Davidenko, former Russian champion Oleg Grichkine and Vogels, the team was at least on paper, a very handy crew for the spring classics.
But it was Henk who wanted it most. A strong, well-built individual, Vogels spent his first five years in Europe on division one teams that included Novell, Rabobank, GAN and Credit Agricole. He learned his trade in the toughest of one-day races, excelling in events such as Het Volk, Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders and the queen of them all, Paris-Roubaix, where he was twice tenth and became touted as Australia's greatest classics rider since Phil Anderson.
"I said this is it, this is the calling - come back to Europe and do well," repeated Vogels to himself upon his return to Belgium in early March. "The two weeks leading up to Gent-Wevelgem, I could feel myself getting stronger and stronger in every race and every day of training, and I knew things were going to go well, so I had my sights set on Gent-Wevelgem as my biggest race of the year," he recalls.
In the hors catégorie-classified event, the super-strong Aussie made the first break of 26, hammering up the steep cobbles of the Kemmelberg with the likes of Johan Museeuw and eventual winner Andreas Klier, then making the crucial break of 12 with 40 kilometres remaining. While Klier was simply too fast for Vogels and Tom Boonen in the sprint, the result showed the cycling world that the Australian was still competitive with the best European one-day riders.
"I totally felt I was fully back," says Vogels with the confidence of a seasoned pro. "We missed out on Het Volk being a division two team, and it's a pity I didn't get a start in Paris-Roubaix - there were guys there in the first 10 and 20 at Gent-Wevelgem who finished top 10 or top 20 in Roubaix, so I think I could have been up there, or at least mixing it with them."
His spate of success continued at the UCI 2.3-ranked Tour of Georgia stage race, where Vogels rode an excellent prologue before taking the first 223 kilometre stage from Augusta to Macon, and in doing so, assuming race leadership until the penultimate day. On that stage however, the parcours was not to his liking, and Vogels soon succumbed to the might of the untouchable Saturn trio of Chris Horner, Nathan O'Neill and Tom Danielson, the latter just signing a two-year contract with Giancarlo Ferretti's super-squadra Fassa Bortolo.
Asked if the Team Saturn Trio are simply too good this year, Vogels concedes: "As far as going uphill, they've been pretty much untouchable; the only other guys I've seen that can keep up with them are Chris Wherry and Scott Moninger, who should both be in Europe anyway, and I know one of them will be next year.
"Actually, there's not a lot of guys in Europe who could stay with those three guys when they go; I mean, the road goes uphill and Tom Danielson almost starts laughing he's so excited," quips Vogels. "He's 48 kilos or something ridiculous - I mean, I'm a 78 kilo guy! But Navigators and Saturn have different agendas."
With a second at Gent-Wevelgem and Route Adelie a case of mission complete, his next objective was the Wachovia USPRO Championship road race in Philadelphia. After popping back to his home on Australia's Sunshine Coast to see his wife for the first time in three and a half months, Vogels was psyched for a win, but only managed eighth place - his worst result in three outings. Satisfactory for some, but as a past winner of the event, it was a disappointing ride.
"I definitely think I could have ridden a smarter race," he acknowledges. "I think my biggest mistake was to try and go with the breakaway when we already had someone in it. We had Oleg Grisckine [in the break] before the finish, and just after I went across, we got swamped [by the peloton]. So when it came down to the sprint, I found myself totally out of position, and I just didn't have enough in the legs. Though last year was a breakaway and I didn't go for it, and I paid the price by winning the bunch sprint and only coming fourth, so this year I got myself in the break, but it didn't pay off," he says.
Vogels may have been disappointed, but was far from disheartened: "I had a great a start to the season as far as showing what I could do. Unfortunately Philly didn't happen for me, but I had a little break and was just starting to rack up the miles to do well in Chicago, New York City and San Francisco," he says.
But just as the kilometres began ticking over again, Vogels soon found himself in Massachusetts University Hospital with a broken neck, a triple break in his ankle and suffering from massive head trauma after his horrific crash at the Fitchburg Longsjo Classic.
"I woke up and had this massive pain in my ankle and saw I had no skin on the right-hand side of my body," Vogels tells me as he recalls waking up the day after the crash. Compounding the trauma was the realisation that he had also broken his C7 vertebra, and his wife Cindy and three year-old son Jett were 13,000 kilometres away, making him feel helpless and isolated until Cindy arrived five days later. "I didn't even know which country I was in at first."
When team-mates, riders from other teams and club riders who don't even know you from a bar of soap come and visit you in hospital after a crash like Vogels had, you know things aren't too good. And when you can't even be bothering turning the pages of the latest Playboy your good wife has thoughtfully brought over for you or the multitude of Hustlers and Maxims the lads from Prime Alliance, and Saturn have strategically placed next to your bedside table, something's clearly very wrong.
"Yeah, it's true," chuckles Vogels when asked about the veritable feast of porn he accumulated in the space of two weeks. "I didn't know what was going on for a long time, but when I woke up, I had three Hustlers, some Playboys, a Penthouse and a Maxim... there was like fifteen magazines there! All the nurses thought I was a dirty bastard, but I wasn't considering reading anything at that stage." Geez, I think to myself, he really was knocked out; those mags aren't for reading, Henk.
Two months on, Vogels finds himself back home in Buderim on the Sunshine Coast, still unable to walk, although thankfully, he tells me his been 'reading' quite a bit (a sure sign of improvement), with the prognosis looking good.
As well as being under the watchful eye of one of Australia's top orthopaedic surgeons, Vogels has been making daily trips to the hyperbaric chamber at Brisbane's Wesley Hospital, where he is 'immersed' at a virtual depth of 14 metres using 100 per cent oxygen to increase the rate of recovery on his pinned ankle, held together by no less than 12 screws. So positive is his rate of recovery in fact, that Vogels is expecting to begin training indoors on his home trainer as early as this week - even before he learns to walk again.
"I should be back on my bike before I can put the full weight on my ankle to get that [pedalling] motion going again," he says, "but I won't be out doin' big k's while I'm walking. Hopefully, I should be training quite well by mid-to-late October, but I'm not going to push it - I'm just going to make sure it will heal properly for next year."
Speaking of next year, something really huge could happen for Vogels. He makes a point of telling me this will be his longest break since he was recruited by the Australian Institute of Sport as a promising junior roadie almost 15 years ago, and from past history, many riders have experienced their best year ever following a sustained period of rest.
"I'm going to have the biggest rest of my life, and next year, I could bounce back to something huge," he says with optimism, struggling a little to contain his enthusiasm. "I've been racing 35,000 to 40,000 kilometres a year since I was 17, so this is the longest my body has had a rest since then. I think Chris Boardman did his ankle in 1996, but he bounced back to have his best year ever the following year," cites Vogels.
Despite Spanish cycling taking a tumble recently with ONCE and iBanesto announcing their withdrawal from cycling, Vogels is equally chirpy about his chances of securing a top professional contract in 2004, believing there's always room for someone with the talent to win, particularly in the one-day classics. With teams like Bianchi wishing to strengthen their classics line-up, Patrick Lefevere's Divsion II Bodysol-Brustor team now confirmed, and Lotto-Domo and Rabobank also on the look-out, Vogels has a point. But more importantly, a solid chance of returning to Europe next year.
"I think you'll see things turn out very differently in the next two to three weeks," says Vogels. "There are a lot of teams over [in Europe] that have shown interest in me to ride the Classics next year, but there's also a new team in America [HealthNet] who are also very interested, and I'm definitely not discounting my current team, who could be going bigger next year as well. So I think there's always room for someone in good form, and I think those teams are smart enough to know when they can pick up some good classics riders like myself."