The Belkin team riders who swept up at the nine-day long Tour of Hainan returned home with just as many stage victories and some cash in their pockets for their holidays, but more importantly for Dennis Van Winden, the Chinese race marked his come-back as a pro cyclist after four surgeries, six months off the bike and doctor's predictions that he would never race again.
A year ago, on November 15, Van Winden underwent an operation to his iliac artery to address a condition that had impacted his cycling performances for four years.
"I didn't have energy in my right leg, and I was producing more and more lactate," he said.Having one surgery to address the issue is fairly common for cyclists, but the 25-year-old Dutchman had to go for a second surgery on December 7, a third one on December 30 and a fourth one on December 31st.
"The surgery was successful but a band in the artery created a bacterial infection in my blood," Van Winden told Cyclingnews.
"It didn't heal on time. The main artery was bleeding. It was painful. I couldn't feel my leg anymore. The pressure from inside was getting high. I had a 42-degree fever when I was at the hospital. I had to call a doctor if I wanted to do anything, like eating. They were scared that I'd faint."
His hematocrit dropped to 17 and his hemoglobin to 4.1 for eight days. "Under 5.5, it's critical," he said.
"The doctors told me that I'd never ride a bike anymore," he said. "But I was in a survival mood. I wasn't thinking too much, so I never believed what they said about my cycling."
"I didn't touch the bike for six months. The first rides were very slow and no longer than half an hour. I improved a lot after I resumed racing with the Rund um Köln at the end of May, but to recover 100% of my capacities was very difficult. I kept on fighting."
Van Winden was determined to have another shot at pro racing. "I've worked very hard to be a pro cyclist, I didn't want my career to end so quickly. The team has always supported me. In my first races back, I tried to help, but I couldn't do much until the Tour of Beijing, my first World Tour race where I could finally do good work for the team."
The Tour of Hainan confirmed Van Winden's own impression of a real comeback. "Everyone was tired from a long season, but we remained focused and closed together for the nine days of racing, going to bed at 9:30 pm and waking up at 7:00 am, happy to go and chase another victory," he said. "It shows what kind of team we are."
Van Winden has one more year on his current contract. "I feel my body is totally reset and prepared for a great season next year," he said.