Craig Lewis faces long road to recovery

For the past seven years, Craig Lewis has been living his dream as a professional cyclist, but this July he is also recovering from another nightmare. The HTC-Highroad rider is stuck at home watching his teammates race the Tour de France as he recuperates from a broken left leg suffered at this year's Giro d'Italia. He's only just getting back on the bike almost two months later.

"I've started riding outside this past weekend and I have been cleared to start putting more pressure on the leg," Lewis told Cyclingnews.

Out was his date with the Dauphiné, as was using July to build to another peak in August for the Tours of Utah and Colorado (the USA Pro Cycling Challenge). Instead, he's slowly building back up to his normal level.

"For now, it is hard to say how soon I will be back racing. In just a few short rides I have improved greatly, so if this trend continues I hope to be back for the Canadian races," he said of September's GP Montreal and Quebec. "I think a start in Colorado would be possible, but I'd rather make sure that I am ready before I jump back into things. I am just focused on a steady build up over the next couple of months and then I hope to be fit and ready to race out the remaining of the season."

In an era of wall-to-wall Grand Tour coverage, Lewis' crash was obscured by epic racing, bad weather, and trees. He was flying downhill on the Giro's Stage 19, riding with teammate Marco Pinotti in support of team leader Kanstantsin Sivtsov, in one of Sivtsov's last opportunities to make up time on Contador, fifth on the general classification that day.

Going at about 50kph, he didn't see an unidentified obstacle in time and hit it full-on, breaking his left femur as well as several ribs on his right side. Pinotti crashed out of the race with him. Lewis was taken by ambulance to the nearby hospital at Domodossola. Then, because Highroad team doctors work out of Hamburg, Germany, he was flown to Hamburg, where he had five surgeries to repair the damage, the first on May 27th, last one on June 7th. A titanium nail was implanted in the bone to speed healing.

On June 15th he flew back home to Greenville, South Carolina to recuperate. Physical therapy has brought mobility back and swelling down. He's been in the pool, walking, kicking, swimming, working on getting the legs moving. He got on a recumbent exercise bike on June 29th.

Full recovery is not an if, but a when. Broken femurs are hardly unknown at the highest level. Chris Horner, Linus Gerdemann, Rinaldo Nocentini, among others have recovered from broken legs. And Craig recovered completely from a crash at the Tour of Georgia in 2004 where he punctured both lungs, broke 48 bones and spent 27 days in the hospital.

He's already down to one crutch. He rode an upright exercise bike for a week, and is back riding his Specialized Tarmac.

What's crushing is he was hitting all his objectives for the season and becoming an integral part of HTC-Highroad's hilly classics team, their sprint team and their climbing team. The kind of guy who, if there was a competition for most kilometers spent at the front in a stage race, would be challenging for or wearing that jersey.

Lewis himself sees his 2011, at least until the crash, "close to a perfect season…I definitely stepped up this year. I was more consistent and reliable for my team, as well as confident in myself."

According to HTC director sportif Rolf Aldag, "He was a big factor in our TTT win at the beginning and he was very consistent throughout the whole Giro." He rode tempo at the front, eating away breakaways, he climbed with the first group in support of "Kosta" until the final climb on all the climbing stages. He even made the long breakaway on the brutal four-col mountain stage that finished atop the Grossglockner.

Aldag also sees a rare quality in Lewis. Consistency. He explains, "Craig is the sort of riders that is very good at being consistent. We don’t need him to be 110 per cent at any one race but we need him at 99 per cent throughout the whole season and he is able to do that." Highroad has found that Lewis can go pretty much anywhere and ride well. And at 25, he's a veteran of the team and sport, and is, according to Aldag, "willing to teach the younger riders," as he did at this year's Giro.

While any bike racer is itching to get a number on their back, Aldag stresses the big picture. "It would be great for him to come back and race this season but if we risk long term damage to his body then we won’t risk that. But psychologically it would be better for him to be able to come back towards the end of the season and it remains the goal. He’s very diligent in his therapy and we can see that he’s improving every day."

Now that he's home and watching the Tour, it's hard to get him talking about the pain and frustration, but easy to get him on subjects he likes. "I've always enjoyed watching the Tour. It's never been a goal of mine to be there, so I'm not upset at all not to be taking a start." If you follow his tweets, you'll see he's a bike racing super-fan, commenting on the stages as they happen.

That he's involved is not surprise to the Highroad management. "Craig is the sort of guy who wants to help out in any way in a team situation," reports Aldag. "As soon as he crashed he immediately offered to help with the website and other things. His main goal is to keep his recovery on the same level as he has managed to do until now."

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