Chris Butler (Caja Rural-Seguros) is just happy to be alive, intact and in contention at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah this week after recovering from an early season injury and resulting infection that could have cost him his arm – or worse.
Butler, 29, is currently 15th overall in the 2.HC race, 1:51 down on race leader Rob Britton (Rally Cycling). It's a far cry from the Spanish hospital bed he was laid up in for months earlier this year after fracturing his elbow in the penultimate lap of the Classica de Almeria on February 15.
"I ended up having incredibly bad luck," Butler told Cyclingnews before the start of stage 5 in Utah. "I had three surgeries because we kept having to change the metal. But what was a million times worse than breaking a bone was that the metal got infected with a really scary strain of anti-biotic resistant bacteria that was potentially going to seep into the bone.
"That's when the whole year went upside down," he said. "Some people die from that. They could have potentially taken off my arm. With that you just take like a boat ton of IV antibiotics, just a concoction of everything to try and kill it. At that point I was three weeks in a hospital bed just rotating IVs every four hours, tied down in Spain."
As Butler was recovering in the hospital, his Spanish Pro Continental team informed him Caja Rural had secured an invitation to Utah. It was an exciting prospect for the American rider, but the outlook from his doctor was not good.
"I asked the doctor, 'Hey, can I do Utah?'" Butler said. "He looked at me and stopped and said, 'This year or next year?' I told him I wanted to do it this year. He laughed, said "that's impossible" and walked out.
Just 17 race days in his legs
It obviously wasn't impossible, but it wasn't easy either. Butler missed most of the season so far, only returning to competition in June at the Route du Sud. He has just 17 race days in his legs so far this season, and only nine weeks of training outdoors. But he said the good sensations are coming back faster than he expected.
"I feel like I'm bringing a wooden spoon to a gunfight," Butler said of his return to competition. "Originally the team was hoping that I could just start it, but things are coming back quick. The team supported me, and it's been fun. It's coming back quick, and I'm excited."
"It's sport. It's life," he said of the injury and long recovery. "Everyone has setbacks and you deal with it. So what I'm missing now in fitness I kind of have more in gratitude each day, and each day has more intention. You're more appreciative and more focused. That's what I'm trying to take from it at this moment."
Butler started out slowly in Utah, finishing 69th on the first day, which ended in a bunch sprint. He climbed to 15th place during the stage 2 finish at Snowbasin Resort, moving quickly up the general classification to 15th overall.
He dropped a couple of places during stages 3 and 4, but his 21st-place finish in Bountiful on Friday lifted him back to 15th. He'll face the Queen stage Saturday, then a difficult final circuit race in Salt Lake City on Sunday. It will be a big ask to maintain his top-15 result, but Butler is optimistic in view of his quickly improving form.
"I'm so excited to be here, and that stuff is coming back," he said. "There are no magic tricks in cycling. It's a hard sport. Everyone in this peloton has been working hard all year with race days, altitude camps and motor-pacing, and I just don't have that, but I'm trying my best and we're creeping up there. It's just fun just to be in America and be at the pointy end of a race."