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Marion Clignet's Back

A self portrait
Marion Clignet: 3000m pursuit
1999 World's, Berlin

"I went from a silver medal in the 1996 Olympics to a world title plus world record in the 3km pursuit. But from there it was downhill with a blood test showing that I carry a gene called HLA-B27, making one suseptible to inflammatory arthritis.

It started in the winter after the Games (end of 1996) - my lower back was hit first. I had an operation in March whereby needles are inserted into your back and then electricity is run through the needles in order to numb your pain receptors. Loads of fun followed by ten days of lounging around and lots of electrostimulation to at least keep my muscles awake. Shortly after (at the end of March 1997), I joined my team in Italy to race the Giro de Pordenone, a three day stage race.

We started with a 6km prologue which, after what I'd just been through, I won! I couldn't believe it - my back was ok but pain was starting in in my knees and feet. I tried to ignore it hoping that it was a passing something or other, who knows.

Stage two was a circuit race and I pretty much limped to my bike, the pain was severe but I had the leaders jersey and wanted to finish this race. Finished in the front group and kept the jersey but was really suffering.

The last day was a wicked circuit - up one side down the other with an uphill finish. Bellutti was 3 seconds down and really wanted to win. My knee wasn't happy at all, there was a point on the last lap where I could've countered and gone off solo (or tried anyway) but the pain was too much and I was trying to pedal with only my left leg. Came in for the field sprint and kept the jersey. Oooofff.

The following day the girls decided to do a sauna, relax, etc...I decided to join them hoping this would relax my pain. The heat brought out the inflammation and both feet and my knee were on fire. I limped over to the pool and soaked a bit hoping all would calm down. No such luck. Tears started to flow as I really didn't understand what was going on and off we went to see a podiatrist. From there, I flew home to France to see my osteopath who at first misdiagnosed me with algodystrophy and then caught himself. Off I went for more scanners, xrays, etc. - the works.

It was about this time we found the HLA-B27 and realized it was arthritis. Treatment? Goldsalts and anti-inflammatories - oh fun. The pain got worse, I couldn't walk, and worse of all I couldn't ride and didn't know when or if I'd be able too. I spent alot of time sitting at home with my compex (electro stimulation to keep the muscles toned). After five months and still no progress and above all, worse pain, I was admitted to the hospital for five days under cortisone. Great stuff - no pain for five days and then? Back to the same old routine.

By now it was September 1997 - I'd dropped about 7 kilos and was pretty toned due to the electrostim and was managing to swim laps every day only using my arms 'cause the legs hurt too much. I had put it in my head that I was going to race the tour of Tuscany at the end of October. I started riding on my trainer - the pain in my knee was much calmer and my feet were bearable.

Off I went after four weeks on the bike and because I'd dropped so much weight, I managed to make it up the climbs in the front group every day and do some decent work for my team mates. I went home happy. a few days later though I had to pull out of a time trial - the pain was back mach 5 and I couldn't even think. I was starting to think that if this was a lifetime thing then this life wasn't for me. At least on the bike you control your pain - this was beyond my forces.

Over the winter of 1997/98 I tried other treatments and finally ended up on a trial run with Methyltroxate, a potent drug used on cancer patients. I had also decided that dammit, the first World Cup for women was going to be in Australia and I was going to participate. Perhaps going to Australia to train would do me good. It was far from here so maybe far from my present pain?

I got half way to Oz - Hong Kong, and was about to reboard the plane when I was politely told that I had no visa and couldn't get on. I had no idea that I had to have a visa. A bit overwhelmed I called someone I knew from Air France who put me on hold while he tried from France to sort things out. Meanwhile I wandered off to look at some small shops and fell to the floor! An epileptic seizure - more par for the course. I woke up to a few smiling faces asking me if I wanted to go to the hospital or see a doctor! When I regained my bearings, I said thanks but no, I had to be on my way.

Air France put me up for the evening, directed me to the consulate, and off I headed to Oz. I landed in Sydney in the morning and met up with an old pal who took me to his flat. If I remember rightly, we even went for a ride in Centennial park that morning but only after stopping in at Caluzzi's for some coffee.

After a few days I met up with all who ride in the area. Thanks to jetlag, getting up at 5 am for a ride was do-able. After a bit I hooked up with James Victor who agreed to let me come and train with the girls in Thredbo in the Snowy Mts (about 600 km from Sydney). All was going ok - felt alright, with some mild pain. I convinced myself that the pain was gone and I was really starting to enjoy life again. However, the problem with Methyltroxate is that it does reek havoc on your system. It made me much more susceptible to having seizures, and since I was trying a new treatment for them as well my system was having a ball.

The first few days in Thredbo were awesome. Did some great rides - the girls were staying up the mountain and I was down in Jindabyne. We met in the parking lot of a store before heading out for our day's journey. On one of the days they apparently found me having a seizure so I was carted off to the local hospital. The next few days went a wee bit better but slowly, the pain crept back. I ended up having to pull out of the ride back towards Sydney which broke my heart. I was only able to pedal with one leg and the other one wasn't so happy either.
Clignet during the 1999 World's
points race, where she won gold

Once in Sydney again I stayed with Kristy Scrymgeour, who I believe was recovering from a broken collar bone at the time. One morning we had both decided to ride the trainer by her poolside. I was a bit hammered and stopped early to lie in the sun. Kristy kept on and apparently heard me scream.

I can be a real moron at times - I can feel seizures coming on and if I take something can avoid them. Instead I tried to fight past it thinking I could conquer it with no problem. Result? Fell into the pool whilst in the midst of a seizure and Scrymo with her arm in a sling jumped in to save me. That was just about it for me. Drew the line right there. No more riding or racing until the seizures are back under control and the inflammation disapears from my joints. I felt pretty empty having to make such a decision but there was really nothing else reasonable to do.

I decided I'd start the World Cup but knew there'd be nothing for me to do there - what a bummer - left Oz feeling pretty down but happy all the same that I'd discovered such a wonderful place and met some really awesome people. Got home April 1st and it rained in France 21 days straight. Just what I needed for my morale. As soon as I got in, I returned to my old epilepsy medication and began searching for an alternative to Methyltroxate.

Through the help of an English mountain biker, I discovered a man in England named Brian Wellsby who runs a company called Be Well Nutrition. She said he might be able to help. I'd already seen magnitizers, acupuncturists, etc and was ready to try anything. I spoke with Brian quite a bit, sent him my blood test results, then waited for his reply. He was convinced that my immune system was a bit under the weather and if we were able to strengthen it all should come back to normal. He started sending me drinks he was making out of soy,yeast,and B vitamins as well as antioxidants. The day I started drinking what he sent and stopped the Methyltroxate things did seem a lot better. I stayed off of my bike for about 9 months, and when all seemed ok I started walking to get used to some slow activity.

1999: - After two years of suffering from arthritis, finally finding a suitable treatment, I decided that this year would be my transition year to see if I still had it to prepare for the Olympics. Slowly but surely I worked my way back onto the bike - starting up again was tough. I was riding butt slow and was pretty hammered. Decided that just in case I'd go to school and work at the same time cause you never know. So I got my coaching levels and worked for an international women's race trying to find sponsors. I progressed slowly, very slowly but I felt it coming back all the same.

I rode my first race in March 1999 and won the time trial. Afterwards I raced with the men quite a bit on the weekends and after both work and school were finished I raced the Giro di Italia. My first stage race since 1996. 11 days. Managed to win the field sprint the first day which put me in pink due to the disqualifiaction of the winner. The rest of the race went fine - I managed to do some good work for the team and above all regain some fitness.

From there I split my time between a few World Cup events on the track and the road. All my sensations came back progressively and my times improved from race to race. Never having done the points race, I decided to give one a try at the first World Cup in Mexico this year...scared the living shit out of me and I really did not have fun. The next race in Texas though, was a bit better, and the French nationals were even fun, despite being mechanic, rider, manager etc. I managed to get third and forget about my fear.

At the World Cup in Cali when two Colombians started punching each other mid-race I said "Yeah, well, I'm outta here now". I took off, lapped the field and won. I never, however asked to ride the points race at the World's - I just wanted to win the pursuit, if possible. When I called the coach for some last minute details and he told me I was riding the points as well I asked him if he was ok: "Yeah, no worries," he said, "with your pursuit training you'll do fine".

I went back to Italy after the World Cup in Colombia to train and race and take a look at the TT course. I knew that this year I coudn't be a factor but I could use it as a trampoline for the track worlds. Hammered myself getting ready for the TT, lots of behind the car workouts, power workouts, etc. I rode the TT and headed back to France for a mini-training camp on the track at Bercy. I was pummelled - could pedal ok but was really tired. Drove home a bit early, seven hours to Toulouse, and slept as much as I could. I still managed to force myself out for one and a half to two hour rides, coming back absolutely stuffed.

For some reason it didn't worry me too much. I figured it was recuperation and I'd bounce back for the World's. Maybe it was Spiderbait or Greenday, both of whom warmed me up for the pursuit."

Marion's World Championship didn't get off to a blazing start, when she left her shoes on the plane. However, she came good with firstly a gold medal in the pursuit: "After riding a 3:32 in the qualifying series in the pursuit, I was thinking that maybe someone was holding back and the race would start in the semi's. Both the semi's and the finals went really well" to understate things somewhat.

Following this, she was relaxed for the points race where she won a second gold medal, narrowly beating Judith Arndt (Ger) and Sarah Ulmer (NZ). The parties that ensued were fairly wild, summed up by her comment "at least I dont have to cook, I've been invited out every night and last night they made me a tremendous chocolate cake with a chocolate bike on top! I may have to join alchoholics anonymous after all of this. Wow. Now I can pay rent next year for sure."

Two World Championship gold medals after barely being able to ride for two years was a pretty remarkable achievement, and she can certainly be included in that select group of cyclists that have come back to the top after severe injuries and setbacks.

Some bio details:

5 time French pursuit champion
2 time French road champion
1 time French tt champion
1 time U.S. TTT champion
World TTT champion (1991)
World 3km pursuit champion (1994, 1996, 1999)
World points race champion (1999)
World Cup wins in 3km pursuit & points race in Cali, Colombia (1999)

World 3km pursuit record holder

More than 150 road victories

 

Judith Arndt (l), Marion Clignet (middle), Sarah Ulmer (r): Podium, points race, 1999 World's

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