At least once a month, while making small talk on a plane, or while at an event or in an elevator, I am asked the following question: "So you are a pro cyclist? Have you done the Tour?"
I am sure most cyclists, from those trying to eek out a living to Chris Froome, often find themselves being posed the same question. Most people know about the Tour and nothing else about cycling, so to answer "yes" immediately legitimizes the rider's credentials in the eyes of that person. To answer "no," plants a giant seed of doubt in this person's belief in your abilities. "Is this the same dude that fills my newsfeed about completing his third ½ ironman?"
The same can be said for runners and the Olympic Games. As a runner, to say you are an Olympian immediately legitimizes your current, or former, abilities at every dinner party until you hit the nursing home. So, despite my accolades as a runner in high school, and even university, if I was ever asked about my participation in the Olympics, I would have to answer with some awkward, circuitous response, filled with "ifs" and "buts", that attempted to validate my qualities as a runner, but ultimately resulted in a "no." As vain as it sounds, one of the many reasons why I quit my job and committed to riding my bike full-time was to no longer have to answer that question in the conditional tense.
After breaking my hand in Liège, I had a three-month block of highs and lows that I will one day write a book about, but by late June I got my momentum moving in a positive direction. Due to my early-season successes I had been selected for the Olympic Games and I would be heading back to Europe to put my final touches on my preparations for Rio. My first race back, the Tour of Poland, was a six-day stage race through the former Soviet Bloc country.
I had a shaky start in Poland, but by stage 3, after three months removed from racing, I felt I was getting my mojo back. However, 60km remaining on the 240km stage, leading into the first climb of the week, the peloton was nervous. I was on the right side of the road, close to the front of the peloton, when the scrape of carbon on asphalt and the squeal of skidding rubber came from my left. At well over 50 kilometres an hour a domino effect happened in the peloton, and I almost escaped the carnage, but I didn't. The last speed recording on my Garmin was 45.7km/h before it dropped to zero. This was not your typical slide-out crash. The way I fell meant that, instead of sliding, my left hip slammed against the pavement. This resulted in a low amount of road rash, but I heard a crack, and when I stood from the pavement I knew something was wrong with my hip. It could have been worse. Several riders were sent to the hospital, but as I rode my spare bike, alone and grimacing for the final 60km of the stage, I couldn't help but think that I had once again ruined my dreams of taking part in the Olympics.
It was denial that led me to ride those final 60km, and the next day's 220km stage. When my director, Erik Van Lanker, asked me if I was OK to race the following day I felt like the guy that loses his arms and legs while defending the bridge in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "t'is just a flesh wound." I couldn't activate my left glute, so I would stand looking at the bike thinking "how the hell am I getting on this thing."
When mounted, I could stand on the bike, but pedalling seated was excruciating, and I knew if the pace was anything more than pedestrian I would be in the cars. I started the race thinking; I will pull out at the end of the neutral start. When the white flag went up signalling the end of neutral, I said, "screw it, I will pull out at 10km." When I hit 10km I said "screw it, I will pull out at 20km," when I hit 20km I said I "screw it, I am pulling out at 50km." This was how the entire 220km went.
Each time the pace increased on the flats I would find myself dangling in the cars. It was the ugliest ride of my life, but I was worried that in not finishing this stage I would be giving in to the idea that I could not race the Olympics. It was a stupid notion but this is what drove me to finish that stage, and when I did, some 20 minutes down on the leaders, I took solace in knowing that with three weeks to go before the games I could get back to a place where racing Rio was a possibility.
The day following, with rain coming down, and my hip feeling worse, I decided racing another 220km in awful conditions would only cause further damage, and upon consultation with my directors Erik and Bingen Fernandez I abandoned the race. This was the right move. With torrential rain, crashes in abundance, and the temperature hovering around 8 degrees, not starting was likely what kept my dreams of racing in Rio alive.
In the week after Poland, each day I hobbled out of bed after an ibuprofen fueled and restless night of sleep, and convinced myself I was OK to ride. I would mount my bike like I have seen masters in the 60 plus category, and as long as my left leg's pedal stroke was perfectly symmetrical, I would be OK. However, the slightest asymmetry in my pedal stroke, or a mistake in gearing would send pain firing up my back and down into my shin. Riding for the first week after Poland reminded me of what it was like to run on a stress fracture. I love running, but running on an injury sucks all of the fun out of the sport. For the first time, during that first week post crash, I didn't really enjoy riding my bike.
As each day passed though, my mobility increased, and my power began to creep back to the levels pre crash. Two weeks later, I would start San Sebastian Classic, my final race before Rio. I had a decent race in the Basque country. I covered a major attack from Mikel Landa, in which we bridged across to the break, and I played a role in leading out Tom-Jelte Slagter for the final climb. I finished that race, and thought my shot at a result in Rio was still possible.
The Olympics is Neverland
My flight to Rio was one of Olympic proportions. I met up with Hugo Houle at San Sebastian. He's a member of AG2R, one of my two Canadian teammates and an all-round great guy. We embarked on a 29-hour travel day. The length of the flight in some ways made the significance of our arrival that much greater. When you take a 1.5-hour RyanAir flight to Maastricht, it is hard to believe that you have really left Spain. This time it really did feel like we were going somewhere.
Since childhood, I have viewed the Olympics as the pinnacle of sporting achievement. My expectations of the games as a kid, and the fantasy that I created in my head about the games, I began to think, as a jaded adult, could in no way live up to those dreams from childhood. I hate to admit it, but a part of me felt like going to the Olympics would be like going to Disney World with your parents when you are 16; basically going to a place that you had put on a pedestal for your entire life, only to be old enough to realize your parents forked out several grand for you to stand in line.
Although the lines do rival those of Disney World, the Olympics not only lived up to, but surpassed my expectations. Hugo and I arrived jet-lagged in Rio to a gauntlet of photographers, journalists and TV cameras. We were ushered to the village where we were greeted by among others Hayley Wickenheiser (the greatest female hockey player to play the game) and Curt Harnett (Multiple Olympic medallist, Pert Plus model, and a hero of mine growing up). We received tons of cool swag, took in views from our digs, and soaked in the fact that we could officially call ourselves Olympians.
Being in the Olympic Village, particularly in the final days leading up to the games, is like being in Neverland. There is this undeniable hope that exists in the Olympic village prior to the games. Thousands of athletes, at the peak of their abilities, live with the knowledge that in just a few short days they can do something great. It is a beautiful thing to witness.
People rarely have the gift of being able to define when they are at their best, but the majority of people walking to and from the cafeteria, waiting in the laundry lines, and standing awkwardly beside me in the elevators were at their life's pinnacle. As Hugo, Antoine Duchesne (the second of my teammates, who joined us after a flight from France), and I ripped around the village on the town bikes provided to us by the Canadian Olympic Committee I could feel this anticipation and this hope build. I'm not a spiritual guy, but I can't describe recognizing that as anything but magic.
As beautiful as it is to be a part of, being in the Olympic village was also a reminder of mortality. In a few short days the events would end, the races would be run, and that peak would be over. But to exist in that time before, where possibility was tactile, and the zenith of human achievement was in abundance, made me feel like I was in Neverland. I mean I literally saw a guy who was like 7'2" eating in the same room as a girl that was 4'5". The body types, and the people that I saw while I was there were specimens. Hugo, Antoine and I joked that when we wore pants, when compared to some of the basketball players or lifters walking around the village, people probably thought we were staff; compared to those guys, it felt funny calling ourselves "Olympians."
I spent a lot of time in the days leading up to my race thinking about where I was. It was weird. For someone who has spent the better part of 20 years wanting to be in a place, it was odd to have arrived. However, when I set my goals at the start of this season, I didn't set the goal of participating in Rio, I set the goal of winning a medal. As crazy as that seems now, based off of my improvement curve, and my abilities, if things lined up, and I had the race of my life, I don't think that goal was outside of the realm of possibility. So, in the days leading up to the race I tried to realistically assess whether the impact to my hip would result in me changing this goal. My conclusion, it wouldn't. I would race to win, and if I failed then at least I tried.
Before our pre-race meeting I told Antoine and Hugo that I thought I could hang with the leaders on the final climb of the 240km race, and Kevin Field, our team's coach echoed this sentiment. We wouldn't go for the early break, we wouldn't try a move in order to get away before the big names hit out, we would wait and race the hitters in the hopes that I could hang.
Antoine and Hugo ushered me around the opening kilometres of this race like I was a king. Antoine, who rides for Direct Energy and is turning into a true cobbled classics specialist, proved his worth in spades as he sheltered me from the wind and gave me a clear line all of the times we passed over the 2km cobbled section on the Grumari circuit. Hugo, who would race the TT three days later, ensured that I was well fed, hydrated and protected going into the climbs. I said I wanted to race to win a medal, and those two guys worked for me as if I could win. Going into the first decisive climb of the day, Antoine and Hugo provided a lead-out on par with the Italians and Brits. For the first time, in decades, Canada was at the front of a bike race, with a lead-out train challenging that of the perennial super-powers.
I came into the climb third wheel, and as Steve Cummings set a break-neck pace over the first rise prior to the 8km La Chinesa climb, I could not have been better positioned. Until La Chinesa, I rode a technically good race; I was smooth, I never panicked, and when the decisive attacks began, I was in position. But, when it came down to it, I didn't have the legs. There were a lot of guys that were just better. I made it over in the front group the first time up La Chinesa, and at the 6km mark of our second ascent, I came undone. I could have backed off earlier in the climb in an attempt to salvage a higher placing, but I went all in to hold that front group, and I was rewarded for my efforts with one of the biggest blow-ups in my athletic career.
Riding the third time up La Chinesa was one of the hardest things I have done. After spending the last six hours with a helicopter buzzing over my head, brakes squealing, and the roar of a crowd in my ears, there was silence, and I was pretty much alone on the climb. I had a lot of time to think about what had just happened. I was devastated that I couldn't follow the leaders when it mattered and I was sad to know that I would fail at what might be my only shot at Olympic glory. I was also hurting so bad that getting off of my bike and abandoning was a real possibility. Because of this, every pedal stroke that drove me forward was a victory. I was so happy to cross the line at the end of that 6.5-hour slog, in 55th place and 20 minutes down on Greg Van Avermaet, the race's worthy winner, that I had almost forgotten how angry I was at myself for my failure. That anger and sadness came back hard as I sat alone and exhausted in the post-race locker area. Everything I had worked so hard for, that so many people invested in (my coach, my wife, my parents, B2Ten, my team, etc.) had, in my mind, gone to waste. If I wasn't so dehydrated a tear, or two, would have been shed.
The mind is a powerful thing
The day after I abandoned the race in Tour of Poland. I was alone in the hotel, as the rest of the team prepared to take on a stage that would eventually be cancelled. I was sitting alone in my room and I decided if I wanted to race the Olympics I would first have to be able to walk upstairs. So, I limped over to the staircase, and looked up at the flight of steps in front of me, and thought of that scene in Kill Bill when Uma Thurman looks down at her paralyzed legs and says "wiggle your big toe." Taking one step up, with my left leg, at that moment, might as well have been like forcing myself to wiggle my toe after spending four years in a coma. I stood there looking at the steps in front of me and thought if I could walk up these stairs, I could ride in the Olympics, and so, I did.
Deep down, I knew something was not right with my hip. When I walked it reminded me of the way my old running coach walked in the weeks after he had gotten his hip replaced. However, when the x-ray revealed that there were no fractures in the pelvis, where I said I was experiencing pain, I jumped on the idea that nothing was wrong, and that the Olympics were still a possibility. Regardless of an image on a screen the sensations that I was feeling when I walked, got out of bed, or simply existed were indicative of something being wrong and, so were my blood profiles.
One of the great conveniences of the biological passport system—aside from catching dopers—is that, over time, you get a pretty good idea of where you should be at concerning your hematocrit, hemoglobin, testosterone, etc. I had my quarterly blood test shortly before I took off for San Sebastian and the numbers were cause for concern. Everything was way down. In all of the blood tests I had taken before I had never registered numbers this low, and aside from the crash, there was nothing that could account for this significant drop. We tried to brush the numbers off, but even after the games I still could not lie on my left side or activate my left glute, so, on the insistence of my team and my coach I was ordered up a CT scan. The image showed that I had been riding, and racing, for the past month with a partially displaced fracture in my left femur.
I don't think I have ever been more relieved to find out that I had broken a bone. My performance at the Olympics had my coach, and I, searching for an explanation. I knew, going up La Chinesa I was not performing at my best, and ignoring my hip, I thought that maybe I had just choked. Hearing the doctor's prognosis was in many ways a relief. In retrospect, at three weeks post impact, my body was still diverting its energies to healing a major trauma to my skeletal system, and less concerned about expending energy for a bike race.
In no way do I regret racing Rio in that condition, and having experienced what I experienced, I would have tried to go even if I had lost a limb. However, it was definitely denial, and not pain tolerance, that enabled me to race. Had I abandoned Poland after the first stage and gone to a different hospital, or had the x-ray machine in Spain taken a wider shot of my hips, I most likely would have pulled the plug on my Olympic ambitions. I would have not gone to the games, and I would have continued to struggle in validating my abilities at dinner parties.
Canada's Michael Woods is a former middle-distance runner turned road cyclist and he races for the US WorldTour outfit Cannondale-Drapac Pro Cycling. He proved his climbing ability on the world-class stage in February 2015 when he rode into a fifth place during the queen stage 4 of the Volta ao Algarve in Malhão behind stage winner Richie Porte, world champion Michal Kwiatkowski, Jon Izzagire and Geraint Thomas. You can follow his blogs on Cyclingnews during the 2016 season, his first year on the WorldTour, on his website: rustywoodscycling.com, and on Twitter: @rusty_woods.