13 March 2013

Advice for Andy

Sometimes things are never the same again

And that is okay.

We are all watching Andy Schleck struggle. Did you see how sad he looked after pulling out of Tirreno-Adriatico two days ago? Andy needs a hug and some words of encouragement.

I want to save Andy some time and heart break and tell him that none of us can go backwards, we must go forward, and sometimes we are forever changed. For good, for bad, but definitely for different. Accepting that we may never be the same, but will heal over time, and can recreate ourselves anew may be of help to Andy.

But the point is - it is up to Andy! 

Not to those who criticize. Andy Schleck is attempting to return from an injury that has changed him physically and possibly mentally. It happens to a lot of us, but we don't have the pressure this young man has on his shoulders to meet expectations. Andy is a phenomenal cyclist, and I believe he still has it in him.

Don't cyclists get injured frequently - yes they do, and athletes are excellent at following advice, handling pain, imagining success and pushing through. Chances are Andy has good doctors, a good trainer, did his exercises, intended that he would bounce back as he had done before. But we don't always have control over what changes us and how.

You can't change a person 

Well that might be true, but injury sure can. We all know that an injured athlete is a pitiful sight. A body addicted to movement becomes broken and told to rest. Healing becomes an out-of-sync dance of mental and physical recovery, with constant questions about a return to normal. It is hard to reconcile trying to be as good as we once were if we feel that normal is threatened.

I listened to Tour Chats the other night with guest Jonathan Vaughters, the most interesting point he made was that riders now have to struggle with lesser-performance after deciding to race clean. Mentally the riders have to realize that they might never be as good as they once were, even if their performance was fake, it can be a tough realization going forward. Change in performance or health is scary, voluntarily or involuntarily from an accident.

Mental health in sport is rooted not only in will, but in survival

We have a way of protecting ourselves, and yet fiercly fighting for what we know we are capable of achieving. I'm not talking mind-body emotional stuff, I am talking brain function. This is why healing is so complex. It is both an intellectual check and balance and an involuntary matter of the brain protecting us from further injury, so much so that our skill-set and will can be over-ridden. It adds complexity to the total healing process, and it is not wise to discount it.

This is something I know a bit about, not just because I have a degree in Psychology but because I have had a lot of injuries, and not all injuries are created equal. Two and a half years ago I broke my pelvis in 4 places. I am fascinated with how the brain works because to me the injury seemed 75% brain and 25% body. The first thing that happened was that my brain shut down my body, basically paralyzing parts of my lower body as protection. There was nothing I could do but wait out the unknown. The fractures were the least of my concern. I was on a cannot-be-controlled ride.

Oh I kept doing

My positive attitude had me attacking the healing process from all angles. I expected a lot from myself, as I always had, and I wasn't naive, I knew there were risks of damage from fear, which can surface in unsuspecting ways later on. In 1996 I had broken my leg so severely tele-skiing in the back-country I was in a full leg cast for over 4 months, then braces, finally I had to relearn how to stand on my left leg and to walk again. All went fine, I even returned to skiing the next year. Then suddenly 4-years later, I could no longer remember how to make a telemark turn. I stood on the slope and had no memory of what to move first, it was as if I had never learned how to ski. I could alpine ski, but never really tele skied again. Latent Fear.

After I broke my pelvis mountain biking, I again returned to cycling within the year, but this time my fear centered around people. I was afraid to ride with others. I could no longer descend as skillfully as I once could, and I got downright angry at expectations or pressure. People assumed I could turn my great tolerance for pain into riding harder, but my brain was stuck in flight mode and not fight mode. Which looking back was appropriate because I was still healing.  

After a serious injury that took away my self independence, I went into a state of self-preservation and gratefulness to simply be alive and able to get around. I no longer related to others, lost any competitive edge, saw them as not realizing how precious life can be, and in no way wanted to be anything like "them". Was I a protective pansy, as some have accused Andy of being, or was I in instinctive survival mode?

I'm tough, what is going on?

Even more heart breaking, I was a cyclist, it was my identity, but I couldn't ride as I had before.

I barely made it a year before people were making comments about me not being an adequate cyclist. I even received a comment that I had no place blogging about cycling unless I was able to ride at least at the level I had before. People can be so cruel. They had no idea what I had been through. Inside I was still a cyclist. Finally I realized that title was determined by me and only me. Comparisons and cruel assessments from those who did not know the full story were hurtful and harmful. Encouragement goes a long way!

I wish everyone would give Andy a break and understand how hard he is trying. 

This is not the time for criticism or tough love, this is the time for understanding and encouragement, to respect and allow Andy to reconnect with the reason he loves to race a bike. In the blog Flandria Cafe, the author recently offered Andy some advice, "Go somewhere warm.  Or not so warm, maybe that's better.   Unplug from the Radio-Schleck entourage for a few weeks.   No texting and tweeting.   Unplug the SRM.  And just ride your bike like you did when you started.   For hours and hours.   And hours.    And when you're done, eat a little and sleep a lot.  Then get up and do it again.  Repeat"

Accurate honest helpful advice. Any bike rider knows that we feel our best when we simply get out and ride. That riding hard actually increases the sense of safety and well-being. If Andy rebuilds that foundation, he'll blow away the doubters, find his confidence and connect the dots back to his love of competition. I worry that he is not in the best team to find that support (a lack of support which began before his injury), so I hope Andy has the ability to make it happen on his own.

For me, I found the first returning glimpse of my love of cycling almost a year and a half later when I traveled to Belgium and rented a 10 euro bike and spontaneously pedaled up the Kwaremont and Koppenberg wearing jeans. Yes, I had been blogging away, writing about cycling, traveling all over the place chasing bike races, and yet what I was really searching for was my lost love.

Most of this blog was created because as I healed from that broken pelvis, I used the time that I would have spent riding a bike to write about bikes. Perhaps it also helped me, to find inspiration through the achievement of others. But only through my own riding, on long free rides when I can feel my strength building, do I feel a hope of reconnecting with my love of cycling.

Things may never be the same for Andy, they aren't for me, but I have a chance to reinvent myself anew. Even if I am not as fast or as fit as I once was.

I am a cyclist. And I don't care what anyone says. Neither should Andy.


I pump the tires.
Place the bottles where they belong.
Hear the click of my right shoe. Half a pedal stroke, a second click. I'm off.
The cool air flows over my arms. I am moving.
The first minutes offer a snapshot of what my ride will be. The first gear chosen tells me how my legs will feel.
I find my spot on the saddle and fix my gaze forward.
My mind clears and I settle into a rhythm. In the same moment a flash of confusion tells me I've just begun, I've ridden for hours, it is time to stop, I want more. This is experience talking.
I've ridden a bike a lot. My body remembers ever mile as one.
It is a knowing comfort on a bike, a place to feel at home.
The notion of a new mile covered, a new corner turned, has me longing for more.
I turn the Pedals. I am a road cyclist. 
With a long way to go. 

    ~ poem by Karen Rakestraw (Pedal Dancer) © 06 September 2011

Another inspirational story took place during the same stage of Tirreno Adriatico where Andy Schleck abandoned, when Taylor Phinney would not give up in a courageous effort to race himself to the finish line, alone. This Is Not a Story About Last Place, By Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journa.

Update 19 March 2013: Schleck: ‘My goals are still the same – the Classics with Liège and the Tour de France’, By Velonation

Update 31 May 2013: Mind Games: The psychology of fear, By Chris Case for VeloNews

Also I would like to further add that I was fortunate to meet a very dear friend, Olivia, who had a traumatic injury herself. Although Olivia is an accomplished runner and triathlete, our experiences were very similar. She made me feel normal and hopeful, and definitely nurtured my recovery and sense of well-being by making it seem much less serious yet real and nothing to be ashamed of, instead a transition that could be overcome. A friend in need is a friend indeed.