Although it's a reputation he'd probably rather not wear, Michael Torckler is proving himself to be the king of comebacks. The 24-year-old from New Zealand has overcome two major career setbacks – the latest a potentially fatal encounter with a wayward California automobile in June – to make his debut with Bissell Pro Cycling last week at the Tour of the Southland in his home country.
Torckler had originally signed with Bissell in June and planned to ride the Cascade Cycling Classic, the Tour of Utah and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge with the US-based UCI Continental team. But that plan took a frightening turn when he collided with an oncoming car while training with the team in Northern California. He was on a high-speed descent when the on-coming car cut into his lane while navigating a tight corner and struck him head on. The vehicle's operator, suspected of drunken driving, fled the scene but was arrested later.
Bissell director Omer Kem remembers getting a phone call the Sunday after the team wrapped up the Nature Valley Grand Prix and hearing team manager Glenn Mitchell on the other end of the line telling him Torckler had been struck by the car. And things weren't looking good.
"Glenn called me and said that he had gotten a call from someone in New Zealand, because the police found Mike's phone at the scene and called someone in New Zealand," Kem said. "They basically told Glenn to go to the hospital because we think he's going to die. It was the worst thing you could possibly imagine."
The 2012 Tour of Borneo winner had suffered a broken arm and more than 20 fractures to his skull. The initial injuries were horrific; Torckler's face took the brunt of the impact, while his helmet was largely unscathed. The hospital where he was taken initially listed him in critical condition.
But despite the frightening nature of the injuries, once the swelling subsided and CAT scans revealed he did not suffer any brain damage, his condition was downgraded. The long-term damage was much less severe than first believed, and he began a miraculously quick rehabilitation, an arena in which Torckler had previous experience.
A momentary slip and successful return
Torckler turned heads in 2010 when he won the Tour of Wellington, joining the likes of past winners Julian Dean and Hayden Roulston. He signed with the UCI Continental Pure Black Racing team for 2011, but a freak off-the-bike accident on a muddy stairway during a preseason training camp broke his kneecap in two. He missed the team's entire US campaign that season and didn't start racing again until September of that year at a local one-day event in New Zealand. Torckler's comeback from that injury took some time, but once he finally made it back into the peloton he picked right back up where he left off. He went on later that season to win the one-day K2 Cycle Classic and then the overall at the Taupo Cycle Challenge.
In 2012 he enjoyed an impressive early season of racing in Asia with Pure Black, leading the Tour of Borneo from start to finish on his way to the overall win. He also posted an eighth overall at Jelajah Malaysia. Torckler's last race before the late-June collision was the Tour de Beauce, where he finished 19th overall, 3:50 behind winner Rory Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare). Then he headed for California and the informal Bissell team training camp before the upcoming block of stage racing.
"I was looking forward to those races because they would probably suit me pretty well and my style of riding. So there was some good stuff lined up," Torckler said this week from his home in New Zealand. But it obviously wasn't to be, and now Torckler is in the midst of his second comeback in just two seasons, which is why the ride at Southland meant so much to him. "It's been a couple of seasons that I've been out of action now pretty much. So I'm pretty keen to just get amongst it, for sure."
Back in the peloton ... again
Although he finished 61st place at the Southland tour, more than 35 minutes behind overall winner Mike Northey, Torckler showed brief glimpses of his previous form during the flat, windy eight-stage race that didn't necessarily favor his climbing skills. Kem said Torckler performed well despite limited training, even providing teammate Carter Jones with a final, devastating lead out on the way to Jones winning the stage up Crown's Range.
"The team took over leading into the climb with a couple kilometers to go," Kem said. "It was Jeremy (Vennell), Chris (Baldwin), Torckler, then Carter. For Torckler to do the last big turn and basically drop everybody, that was really fantastic to see and sets him up well for having a good winter – I guess summer there – of training coming into the season."
Torckler will likely return to the Santa Rosa area in late February to train with fellow Bissell Kiwis Vennell and Patrick Bevin before the team's official training camp in March. Although his 2013 race calendar has not yet been set and he hasn't picked out his targets for the year, the big races he missed out on in 2012 will definitely be on his radar, including the Tour of California in May.
"I would love to get a start in California, that would be pretty awesome," Torckler said. "I'll certainly be trying to have the form as good as possible for those races. It's pretty tough having to go through rehab again, so it's good to have those races in your sights to keep you excited."
And Kem has big plans for Torckler as well. The Bissell director says Torckler has shown himself to be a strong time trialist who can also climb really well, making him a potential winner for some of the shorter time trials in the US. Kem believes the US schedule will provide Torckler with some prime opportunities early in the year, and he hopes to eventually watch Torckler fulfil the long-term potential that has twice been put on hold.
"We see big things for him," Kem said. "But he's kind of off the radar for a lot of people, so we're going to be able to develop him in house, and with the calendar we have I think we can have a good balance of some races that he can be successful at and help him grow as a rider. I think he'll have a good season. He's young, he'll grow with us and get stronger. Our hope is to grow him into someone who can be winning bike races here in the next few years."