For now the Team Sky rider is using Zwift to keep his fitness up, and along with underwater treadmills, rowing machines and daily physiotherapy, is slowing making his way back to full health. However, due to the seriousness of his accident that left him with 20 broken bones, he has no real timescale for a return to competition. In an exclusive interview with Cyclingnews, Rowe opens up about his rehab routine, the mental strains of a serious physical injury and how he's taking his recovery one step at a time.
Rowe sustained a broken tibia and fibula on a white-water rafting accident while on his brother's stag-do in August. He underwent an operation and has a metal rod holding his leg together. He can now pedal with one leg, while the other either rests on a chair or soft-pedals using a mountain-bike pedal, but his riding is confined to short and gentle indoor sessions.
"Initially you make these massive steps and you make massive improvements over a short period of time and then you get plateaus," he tells Cyclingnews.
"At the moment everything is healing well and there's no need for more operations. It seems to be going really well but then I looked at the scans from two days ago and I realised that the knee is still a mess. There are still some bones that need to heal but if you'd told me that I'd be at this point at the start of the operation, with this level of healing, I'd have taken it."
"It was really horrific," he says of the accident.
"I jumped from a low height, maybe four or five feet. But I wasn't expecting the impact so I took it all with a straight leg and I basically shattered everything below the shin. Everything below that was broken in some way or another. It was twenty-odd breaks in total.”
The seriousness of such an injury means that there's no absolute guarantee that Rowe will return to the very top of the sport. It also means that the Welshman cannot be too tied up in the exact amount of recovery time he will need. It has been eight weeks since the accident and for now the 27-year-old is just trying to keep active.
"After three or four weeks I was riding Zwift with one leg in a full cast. I put a mountain bike pedal on the one side with the broken leg and I was pedalling with the okay leg, and then next I would put my broken leg on a chair and swap between the two ways of riding. To be honest it was more for my head and just keeping the heart and lungs going, rather than just being sat on the sofa.
"With this type of injury there are no guarantees. Each person is different. With the progress I've made so far it's looking more and more likely that I'll get back to 100 per cent. It's going to be a long process but that's okay, as long as I can get back to where I was.”
Having the right mentality
One of the biggest challenges for a rider in Rowe's position is dealing with the mental strain and anguish that comes with such an injury. As a professional rider Rowe is used to the regime of an elite athlete, and while racing is in itself a highly demanding sport, Rowe admits that his life has been turned upside down. Understandably, there are good days and there are bad ones, but Rowe is determined to come through.
"When you're a bike rider, riding a bike is the easy bit each day. The hard bit is the regime and doing the right things off the bike. You'd do your five hours on the bike, you'd come home and then you'd be done. Now you do something in the morning, something in the afternoon and then something before bed. My time is broken up more and you don't really get any rest. But it's something that needs to be done. You're taken out of the environment of being a bike rider, being at the pinnacle of the sport and your life is turned on its head for a short period of time. It's certainly a challenge but one that I'm grabbing by the horns so that I can get back as soon as I can."
Watching the World Championships from his home was one of the hardest moments for Rowe. For the last few years he has been a mainstay in the Great Britain road team and as a trusted domestique the race was one of his main objectives in the second half of the season. This time around he had to sit by as Ben Swift secured a top-five position but the Worlds hit Rowe hard.
"There are days that are tough," he says.
"The World Championships was one. I don't really watch much cycling on television but that day made me gutted. I've ridden the Worlds and represented GB every year since 2009. To miss it under these conditions was quite a tough pill to swallow. That was one time when I thought 'I really had to be there' and that was hard to take. I know that when the Classics start next year with Omloop and Kuurne, that's going to be hard too. There are high and lows though. I was at the Tour and part of the success and then boom. That's life and you've got to deal with it."
Rowe has roughly three months of sustained rehabilitation before a return to riding on the roads can be considered. He's eager to make that step, knowing that the Classics – his greatest passion – are months away. However, the realistic nature of his injury means that he will miss the Spring campaign. A return to racing in the summer is more likely.
"I'm ticking down the days and trying to bring that day as close as possible. It's not going to be this year but hopefully it will be the first part of next year. I think that's a realistic goal. As far as racing, that's more of an unknown. You sit here and go through exercises and you dream of coming back.
"You think how amazing it would be to ride a Classic but I don’t think that’s going to happen. Maybe I'll return around the Tour de France but everyone is different. One guy could return after six months, one guy could return after 18 months."