At last week's BMC Racing Team camp one noticeable absentee on the training rides was Scott Nydam. The winner of last year's Tour of the Battenkill and the 2008 KOM jersey at the Amgen Tour of California was not cleared by the team to ride. It has been a pretty complicated chain of events, but Nydam's crash last April in the Tour of the Gila was his fifth major concussion, two from his childhood and three from cycling which have left his future in the sport in doubt.
While Nydam seemed to recover quickly from the Gila crash, a trip to see neurosurgeons at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, California changed all that. The doctors quizzed him about all his previous head trauma and came to a stunning conclusion. "He told me 'I think you are done for the season'," said Nydam.
"The nature of looking at brain injuries is that they believe concussions have a cumulative effect," said Nydam. The doctors were concerned that during Nydam's most recent concussion he had experienced bleeding meaning that the lining around the brain, the meninges, was damaged. Since the meninges cannot repair itself Nydam's brain has lost some of its protective layer. Any subsequent crashes could have tragic effects.
"As it stands now, statistically, with five traumatic brain injuries, four with loss of consciousness, the last one being a contusion, I am at a higher risk of early onset of amnesia, dementia, anxiety disorder, depression, etc.," said Nydam.
Nydam had some brain evaluation tests done at Stanford last August, three months after the injury, and scored only in the 20th percentile for brain functions. The doctors then told him he should never ride his bike again.
Through one of the BMC team doctors, Scott Major, Nydam got hooked up with a program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Immediate Post-concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing(IMPACT) program. The doctors there work with professional athletes in football, baseball, etc. and specialize in injuries from high impact sports.
The doctors ran similar brain evaluation tests as those done at Stanford. Nydam's results improved to 60 percent meaning he is definitely improving. "But, just because my symptoms are gone doesn't mean I am any safer. That's what makes it hard to talk to anybody about this because they say 'Scott you look good. How are you feeling?'," said Nydam.
The doctors cleared Nydam to train, but the heart of the issue is that whether or not a rider is training or in a race, he is still going at a high rate of speed and could have an impact.
"I have to give Gavin Chilcott, Jim Ochowicz and the team, working with Dr. Major and Dr. Max Testa, a lot of props in that they helped me work through this and figure out a way to keep me in the sport. They told me that we will have a meeting in June about my progress, but until then, they don't want me to race or to train. The team is completely supportive," added Nydam.
Can Nydam just give up racing his bike and move on? "I really didn't realize how much cycling has become part of my life and how much I do care about it. I restructured my entire life based upon the bicycle and in the process I found someone out here, Jennifer, who I married. My friends, my network are all based on the bike. It kind of snuck up on me that I cared about racing my bike about as much as anything I have ever done.
"As an up and coming professional racer, you are often asked how much you are willing to give up to make your career happen. It is always a question of how much you are willing to give up. Then all of a sudden, throw this into the mix. You have a chance of hitting your head and not having the same symptoms, but something worse. Is that worth that much to you?"
What does Nydam think are his chances of returning to racing? "I don't want to answer that question. I am not ready to. I will meet with Jim Ochowicz and Gavin and the doctors from the team in June and we will come up with a plan from there."