Just over eight months ago, Keagan Girdlestone was rushed to hospital in Italy and was fighting for his life. The 19-year-old South African, now living in New Zealand, had been involved in a horrific accident during the Coppa della Pace race in Rimini and had lost a significant amount of blood, having severed his carotid artery and jugular vein.
Girdlestone has since had to learn how to walk again and has only recently been able to drink water without the worry of choking. A testament to his determination, Girdlestone competed in his first race at the end of January, despite being under advice from the doctors not to push his heart rate above 145, to make sure his 'neck stays in one piece'.
The decision to race had been a last-minute one. He had previously intended to head to the national track championships at Invercargill as a spectator. When that fell through, he decided to go to the race, where his dad was already due to ride.
"They asked me if I wanted to race and so I thought I may as well. It was very spur of the moment," Girdlestone told Cyclingnews from his home in New Zealand. "As I was riding, Dad was looking after me, and I felt like I was 10 again."
Following his accident, it would have been understandable if Girdlestone had been apprehensive about his return to pack riding, but it was like, well, riding a bike.
"It was pretty normal; I never really felt that it was very different to the last time. When I got into the bunch, I didn't really feel nervous at all," he explained. "Obviously, I didn't want to fall, so I was worried about that but while I was riding I never really thought about it, so it was ok.
"It was very exciting. It was good to be back with people that I'd raced with so it kind of felt like nothing had really changed, except I was pretty useless."
A first race under his belt, Girdlestone is eager to do some more and has already pencilled in his next two in the coming months, one of which will take him into the mountains.
Coming back from the brink
The mountain that Girdlestone had to climb following his accident can't be understated. He had been competing for the Dimension Data development squad at the Coppa della Pace when he crashed on a descent. As he was making his way back through the race caravan, he crashed again. This time he went through the rear window of one of the support vehicles, severing his carotid artery, jugular vein, and nerves and muscles in his neck.
For many, injuries such as those would have meant certain death, but doctors were able to save him. However, he had endured a lengthy period without blood or oxygen going to his brain, and this would only be the beginning of his battle.
"I found that [the rehab] was actually more difficult than any of the bicycle training that I did in my life," Girdlestone said.
When asked what the biggest challenges were for him in the immediate aftermath of the accident, he added: "Learning how to walk again, and getting back the strength in my upper body.
"At one point, I couldn't even squeeze a deodorant bottle. I had to get strength in my fingers. I couldn't drink water because I would choke on it all the time. My neck muscles were so weak that they weren't closing and water would go into my lungs. The oesophagus wasn't closing properly because of the weakness in my neck."
It would be 22 days before he could leave the intensive care unit and more than two months before he was allowed to fly back to New Zealand, where he was welcomed by an emotionally charged Haka performed by students from his former school. Last October, he was able to do his first outdoor ride since the accident, saying afterwards that he had "never felt so alive".
While he has completed his first race, there are still plenty of hurdles for Girdlestone to clear before he can really push himself. The biggest of those is his heart rate, which the doctors have advised him that he should keep below 145bpm to prevent any further damage to his neck injuries. He hasn't always stuck to that, pushing it as far as 180 but only for a short time.
He has also been struggling with functionality in both of his arms. The left works 'almost as normal' but is lacking in co-ordination. The bicep in his right arm is currently paralysed and, while he has learned to flex his arm utilising other muscles, he may need to have an operation to help the recovery - something that he's keen to avoid.
"There's a small chance I'll lose the feeling in my fingers and I definitely do not want to lose movement in the right hand as well because left hand doesn't work very well," he explained. "If I lose control of both hands then that would make life very difficult."
It's hard not to be affected by Girdlestone's optimistic nature; it's almost infectious.
Despite everything that he's been through in the past eight months, he still has a positive outlook on life. He's harnessed that through his social media accounts - particularly Facebook - and posts messages of encouragement with hashtags such as '#nevergiveup' and '#impossibleisnothing'.
The accident has become a part of Girdlestone, and he proved that with a tattoo on his left arm of a wooden cross with a helmet on the top, the word Rimini across it, and the date of his crash underneath. In a Facebook post, he wrote that the tattoo was "signifying a new me as the old me died on the streets of Rimini that day!"
The new Girdlestone is not letting the challenges he faces get him down.
"I think it would be frustrating if I didn't think that I would be able to race again properly but I know that I will so it's all about being patient. I think that I've learned how to be that over the last couple of months," he said.
"I think that things are starting to fall back into almost normality. I'm beginning to feel like the old Keagan, obviously with a few differences. I'm never going to be exactly the same but I guess I approach life a lot differently."
Racing 'properly' again is what's driving Girdlestone forward, and he still hopes to ride at the top level. "I always had dreams of winning the Tour de France," Girdlestone said. "Now, I'd just like to race it and see how it goes and make a decision from there. I'd still love to do the Olympics, Commonwealth Games, the World Championships. There are a lot of races that I'd like to do."
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