In January 2018, I was hit by a truck while training in South Africa. Laurens de Plus was also involved in the accident, while Bob Jungels was also there and gave me first aid. I broke six vertebrae and I'm lucky to be alive, and I didn't know whether I would walk again, let alone race my bike. But after three surgeries, months of rehabilitation and gradually increasing my training load, I am striving to come back. This season has been truly life-changing for me.
Many people think how unfortunate I was, but I look at it from the other side and I consider myself lucky: lucky to be alive and to be able to move my legs and to even have an opportunity to return to professional cycling.
I have had immense support from my team, family, friends and the public from all over the world. I was overwhelmed by all the messages I have received, and it made the painful healing process much more bearable. The recovery started with surgery in South Africa and then two more procedures in Prague Motol hospital. I had some of the world's best spinal surgeons piecing my spine back together and basically replacing one of the vertebrae with a metal construction. I will be forever grateful to them for their amazing work and the opportunity to get back to normal life, and even to professional sport.
Four months after the accident, towards the end of May, I was finally able to get rid of my chest brace, start moving, and I was allowed to sit – until then I could only lie in a bed or be standing up. I have never before realised how great sitting is! I could finally have a meal in a restaurant, drive a car, take a flight and sit on the bike, even though just indoors.
On the first day I was allowed to travel, I jumped on a plane to join the team at the Giro in Italy. It was amazing! I had been missing my teammates, the staff and also the racing buzz. I had a chance to follow one stage from a team car and also to watch the race as a spectator, which was something I hadn't really done in years. It was beautiful.
I started riding my bike again in June. Slightly building up the strength and effort, but the focus was still more on the rehabilitation. In July I got to spend two amazing weeks with the team in Livigno and a few more days at the Tour. I saw Julian [Alaphilippe] winning the stage from the team car right behind him. We've been on the same team together for six years and this is definitely one of the moments I will remember my whole life.
We have a quite unique atmosphere in our team and are all really close to each other. Seeing my teammates getting all the victories and being in frequent contact with the members of our 'Wolfpack' helped me to keep the spirit high. And although I was going to be out of contract at the end of the year, from the moment of the crash I knew that, if my health permits, I could continue with the team. Not every boss is like Patrick Lefevere. I am very thankful to him. I could channel all my energy into regaining my health and didn't have to worry about my future as a cyclist. Having a clear head made a huge difference.
I got back to full training in September. My power numbers started to look good and I was getting comfortable on the bike, but I was still a way off being able to race. My body still needed more time to fully recover and getting back to racing too early could have been detrimental. It was a tough decision to accept, as I have been eager to race again and I'm disappointed to have missed the whole season. However, I didn't lose the 'big picture view', and have been grateful to just be healthy and to be able to continue with racing at all.
I really enjoyed being in the role of a spectator, having some truly eye-opening insights from following the race from a team car and enjoying our victories even while lying in my hospital bed. All this just makes me realise even more how beautiful our sport is.
I always try to look at the positive side of things. In the last 10 months I have spent probably more time with my family than in the last five years combined. I got a different perspective on what is truly important, and I've learned how to focus on things other than cycling. I've had some very deep downs but also some high ups. I've tried to make the best of the situation and to just enjoy the little moments in life and never look back. I am incredibly grateful for being healthy again and cannot wait to get back racing. See you all on the road!
You can follow my journey back to the pack at www.petrvakoc100.cz.
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