Annemiek van Vleuten blog: Out of my comfort zone

Time trial world champion talks about overcoming a debilitating injury as she heads into the New Year

As some of you already know, I have been in a long recovery process after crashing during the road race at the UCI Road World Championships in Innsbruck in September. After the crash, x-rays showed that I suffered from a tibial eminence plateau fracture, which is also known as a tibial spine fracture, an intra-articular fracture of the bony attachment to the ACL on the tibia.

The injury required surgery to repair. That was three months ago, and I still need physiotherapy as part of my recovery process, but, I no longer need therapy to bend my knee or leg anymore because this part of my recovery has improved well. The treatment has shifted to improving how much I can stretch my leg because it needs to be 100 per cent to walk normally, so this is what we are working towards. The good news is that I have no limitations when it comes to cycling or training.

I was in Calpe, Spain, at the beginning of December and I managed to ride my bike for up to four and five hours without any 'reaction' in my knee; no swelling or anything like that, after these long rides. In Calpe, it was also the first time that I was able to ride while out of the saddle.

Unfortunately, I've noticed that I'm not at a level of fitness that I would like to be at in my training at this point in the year. Riding my bike is still a struggle at the moment, but I’m improving fast. In Calpe, I was suffering so much, even in long endurance rides, particularly as soon as the road went up a hill by just a metre. I lost all my power and coordination and it felt like I had to learn how to cycle again.

More good news, however; I am now at a point that I have regained a power-balance of 50 per cent in the left leg and 50 per cent in the right leg. A few weeks ago, this was still not balanced, and it was at 25 per cent left and 75 per cent right, so the improvement in this area has been amazingly fast, which is due to "memory function of the muscles," according to my coach Louis Delahaije. Also, I've started with some medium to hard efforts on the bike. Previously, the only thing written on my training plan was "just ride your bike and try to enjoy it."

The last months have been hard for me. At the end of the 2018 season, I was looking forward to enjoying my off-season — not only the holiday but I had planned on taking the time to enjoy all the beautiful moments from 2018.

Instead, I ended up sitting at home on a chair in my living room with my leg held up high, and I was not even able to get a coffee from my coffee machine and bring it outside or to my table.

A lot of people would say to me, "enjoy your time at home" but I don't think people realise how hard it is to enjoy your time at home when you can't do anything. Of course, I had nice catch-ups with friends and family, and as soon as I could move again, which was after five weeks, I started to get around on a town bike - a huge milestone.

When you are stuck in your chair at home, you have a lot of time to think. I was anxious about my recovery, for example, I wasn't sure that my knee would heal 100 per cent, but for now, it looks promising. There were also no guarantees that I would get back to the level I had in 2018, and so I would ask myself, "if I could get back to that top level, when would that happen?"

You're probably wondering how I managed all these thoughts and worries. Well, I forced myself to set small goals, and I looked forward to achieving them. I celebrated even the littlest accomplishments during the rehab process. I focused on my recovery by making a plan and not thinking about cycling-specific goals too much for 2019. It was a matter of prioritising - first things first - get myself on the bike, and then get fit again, and then start to make a plan to get 100 per cent race-fit again.

My friends, family, coach, and cycling friends and neighbours were so helpful to me during this period, and I also had a lot of fun with them. I did some presentations, too, for example, I spoke to young athletes that are part of the horse riding union in NL, KNHS [Royal Dutch Equestrian Federation] to inspire them not to give up too soon and teach them how to deal with disappointment. I gave similar speeches to people who are outside of the sports world; people who work for a local government in the city of Lelystad in the social care department. In this example, I prepared an hour-long discussion that was meant to help inspire them with my story and show them how people can set goals by reaching just a little bit outside of their comfort zones. Sometimes, moving out of your comfort zone will allow you to reach higher than you had previously dreamed.

So, while I am still in my recovery process, I am now at a point where I can look ahead to the 2019 season. I still aim to start my season at the Ardennes Classics: I don't expect it will be realistic to be there at 100 per cent, given where I have to come from, but between my coach, my team and me, we won't give up on this goal easily.

I will try to be back at my level in the Ardennes. My focus, however, is taking it month by month, to set my goals, and to try not to look too far ahead. We can't predict my recovery. Maybe I’ll race some races before the Ardennes, as preparation in a domestique role, which could be an option with Dwars door Vlaanderen – Ronde van Vlaanderen. It all depends on how everything is going and I have to discuss this with my team, but I will be back in the Ardennes for sure. At what level and in what kind of role is a question I can't answer right now. 

Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) astounded the cycling world during the 2018 season, winning a second consecutive world title in the individual time trial and securing top honours in the overall standings of both the Women’s WorldTour and the UCI World Ranking – making her the number one rider in the world. You can visit her website here

 

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