Petr Vakoč: Back to the pack in 100 days
The 26-year-old Czech rider – who will continue with Quick-Step Floors in 2019 – talks of his injury, subsequent recovery process spanned over several months and his goal of returning to the peloton.
Why 100 days? I am coming back!
I was hit by a truck and I am lucky to be alive. After three surgeries, months of rehabilitation and gradually increasing the training load it seems I might be able to come back. Not just back to normal life, but back to racing. My goal is to be on the start line again in 100 days from now.
It is a path with an uncertain finish line, but which in itself is a goal. I am passionate about racing again. And not just racing, but winning! I am working hard to get back to the level where I used to be. And even higher. I would like to share my story with fans as well with people overcoming obstacles in their life. I am approaching this path with humility, as you can try really hard, but there are things outside of your control.
Like when you get hit by a car. You can choose unfrequented roads, ride with lights on even during the daylight, and give cars priority even while you are riding on the main road. But in just a small moment, a distracted driver or simply bad luck can send you to the ground and your life might be over. I am grateful to be alive. To be able to return to a normal life, and despite some permanent consequences, to be on a quest to get back in the peloton.
Surely it is not possible to prevent all accidents, but I am convinced that their risk can be reduced. There is unnecessary hostility between drivers and cyclists. People in cars often do not realize how dangerous it is to pass cyclists only by centimeters. For me, this has been a topic of great interest during the recent months. I would like to change the situation for the better. Perhaps by introducing a rule to pass cyclists with a minimum distance of 1.5 meters, as is the standard in many other countries already.
My goal is to jump back to racing in February. I have an immense support from the team. I have the opportunity to take my time to get healthy and fit, without any pressure to prove myself in the last races of this season or to be ready for the very beginning of the next. I really appreciate it, in a professional sport it is not something to be taken for granted. Therefore, I can focus all my energy on getting back to full strength. If everything goes according to plan, in exactly 100 days I will pin the number on my back again and step on the start line with the rest of the Wolfpack.
Wish me luck!
100 days is my blog about my journey back to professional cycling after a serious injury.
My name is Petr Vakoč. I am a professional road cyclist. I race for Belgian team Quick-Step Floors. I competed at the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Olympic Games, I won the Czech Championship, and a bronze medal at the European Games.
In January 2018 I got hit by a truck during our training camp in South Africa. Now I am coming back. I would like to share my journey with fans and with people who are overcoming setbacks. Follow my path from signing a new contract to my return to racing. If everything goes well, I will pin a number again in exactly 100 days.
25 January 2018: Accident in South Africa
I have a feeling I am waking up from a nightmare. I realize what happened gradually. I do not know where I am, what is going on and why I am lying on the road on my back. Bob Jungels, my teammate, is leaning over me. He looks like being in a shock. And the dreadful pain in my back. I just puzzle it out. Africa, training camp, cycling. I must have fallen down…
I learn we were hit by a truck. Laurens! He is here with us. How is he? He will be alright, Bob says. The ambulance is coming. I just realize that I do not feel my legs. I start to fear, but at this moment I only focus on breathing. I am trying to move my legs. It is possible a little. Hopefully it will be fine. The tarmac is getting hard for my back, I can’t stand it. We are in the middle of the mountains, it is 80 kilometers to the nearest hospital. The deck chair is not any more comfortable. The journey seems to be never-ending, but I do not want to get any painkillers. I need to control my body. I know something is wrong with my back. But I still move my legs and I want this to stay like that. Luckily the hospital is well-equipped, and they send me to CT. Before every manipulation with me I tell the hospital staff: “Be careful! Be careful!
I am trying to fix the middle of my body as much as possible. Six vertebrae are broken, a tendon torn and a concussion. Tomorrow I will undergo a surgery. I meet Laurens at the Intensive Care Unit. He has a chipped hip, but otherwise he is OK.
26 January 2018: The first surgery
I was operated in the afternoon, not earlier. I did not care. I had swallowed so many painkillers that I slept for most of the time or did not know about the world. I wake up the following day in the morning. My legs! I am trying to see if I can move them. Yes, I can, uh. I am relieved. I will be fine. I will get out of this. I am connected to devices and everything hurts, but I know I will be alright. My brother and Mum will come in a while. They bought their flights before I was taken to the hospital. They are crazy, I say to myself. But thinking about it now, I can’t imagine being in Africa without them. My Dad stayed at home to be able to take their place later. I do not know now how long I will stay here. My family is fantastic!
29 January 2018: I am walking!
I am given a corset. I can stand up for the bed for the first time. I make first little steps. It is a great feeling to stand on my feet again. I need a support, I manage to make only a few steps, but it is better every day. My competitive character is shown, I must manage to do more and more every day. Once I overdo it and faint. Luckily, I asked my brother to hold me and help to lie down on the nearest table. A nurse took me back to my room on a berth. I decide to slow down a bit.
8 February 2018: Back to Czech Republic
I am flying home. I am thinking about a few options how to continue with my recovery. I decide to be in Prague. The specialists in Motol hospital are one of the best in treating spinal injuries in all Europe and I want to be close to my family. I do not know yet what is in front of me. I am aware of the further surgeries that I might need, but I hope they won’t be necessary. The transport from the airport is like a bad movie story. They carry me as if I was a sack of potatoes not a man with a broken vertebra.
Now I realize how lucky I was to meet the health professionals who took care of me after the accident. Nothing was prepared at the airport. There should have been a berth for me, but they ask me to go to the plane walking with crutches. I have not managed to walk for a hundred meters yet, so it is not possible. The nurse does not speak any English at all. But my Mum is there with me and arranges everything at the very last moment. Then everything goes smoothly. The flight is never-ending, but a medical plane is waiting for me in Frankfurt. I always wished to fly in a private jet, but never thought of this way. The ambulance is at the airport so the whole journey from Frankfurt to the hospital takes only less than two hours.
21 February 2018: Another surgery
I have had another surgery. I did not think for long. My body would possibly recover without any further surgeries, but it would be risky. It would mainly mean to forget any sport forever. There was no other option, if I want to be fully fit. I had a week to get some rest and then here comes the third operation. As it is said, I save the best for last. I wake up with a madding pain in my chest. I lost a part of my rib, but I have a metal structure instead of the first lumbar vertebra. I am amazed what modern medicine can achieve. Every breath is painful and every little move too, but I have gone through it. I have lost a lot of blood, so I get blood transfusions. My first thought – I must inform the anti-doping office.
17 March 2018: Going home!
You may imagine how much I have looked forward to this day. I spent almost two months in hospitals. Especially the last days were very long. But I feel well, I must stay in hospital only for the rehabilitation. The exercises are perfect and there is a superb team of physiotherapists who take care of me. But to be at home is to be at home. I am looking forward to my comfortable bed, healthy food and fresh air.
At home we think with my brother about a way how to adjust the roller trainer that would allow me to ride on it when lying down. I am still not allowed to sit. The pushing on the pedals is not that important as training but it helps to speed up the recovery. And I enjoy that a lot! The endorphins help keep my mind in a positive way. Of course, I follow my performances and I try to add a bit every day. I lie down so I do not need to be afraid of fainting. I add two hours of exercises and they take me to rehabilitation in a trunk of a car on a mattress. I feel again like being a professional sportsman.
14 May: Off with the corset
Finally! I can take off the corset. And I can sit. Freedom! I can go to a restaurant for a meal, go by car, travel and the main thing – ride my bike. For the meantime only the ergometer, but it is superb anyway! I start moving my back. My wild ideas that I will go for yoga and will get my back moving were too optimistic of course. After four months without any movement, I must be careful. I add new exercises. I enjoy watching the progress. I manage to be in good mood, I follow the progress since the accident and I do not compare the performances with the time before my injury.
1 June: First time cycling outside
After a fortnight I am given a green light from the doctors – I may go cycling outside. Fantastic! I feel like when I was before the start of the season ahead of the first race. Excited, a bit nervous, full of expectations. I feel the wind, I enjoy watching the road passing under the wheels, I watch the changing landscape. I feel like cycling for the first time. I fully realize why I love this sport so much. The fear what would it do to me to see a car passing me is gone. I am not afraid. I feel the pure joy of being able to turn the pedals. I am grateful that my body is getting fit.
26 June: Czech Republic Championships
I know it is not far enough to restart racing. I help with the preparations. Together with Roman Kreuziger, Pavol Habera and Jiří Langmajer we shoot a video about the safety on the roads. It is a very urgent topic for me and something I want to devote my energy to in the future. I am involved in the design of the trophy for the winner and I have a chance to watch the fascinating process of its production in the Moser glassworks. I enjoyed the race as a forerunner and a spectator. The atmosphere is wonderful. I can’t wait to start racing again!
July 2018: Training sessions in Livigno
I leave for Italy a week before the rest of the team to get used to the high mountain environment. I am really looking forward to the arrival of the boys. I meet most of them after half a year. It is a very emotional experience to train with them again. I hope to be able to go through at least a small part of the training sessions. I am making a fast progress in my performances. I go cycling every second day and manage to go for almost four hours. Sometimes I had myself driven uphill by car, but otherwise I manage it quite well. I am in euphoria and convinced that I will restart racing at the end of the summer.
July 2018: Tour de France
I leave the Alps straight for the Pyrenees and I meet the rest of the team on Tour during the rest day. I watch a stage from a follow car. It is a very intense day. Philippe Gilbert has a horrendous accident when he falls into a ditch. I sit in a car and watch a group of people getting down the gorge for him. I am stunned, everything that I had gone through in the last months comes through my mind and I hope Phil is alright. After a couple of minutes he comes out and covered by a blood stain he finishes the remaining 60 kilometers, although it is revealed later that he has a broken kneecap. The final phase of the stage is amazingly exciting. We are just a few meters behind the leading group, but we have almost no information how the races is going. The television is out of order, the signal is too weak to follow the race online, so we only get partial information from the radio. Julian Alaphilippe is going superbly. And he wins! I can’t describe the feeling when you witness your teammate and a great friend winning a stage of the Tour.
August 2018: Setback
I did not expect that. The medical scan in Belgium confirms that I have damaged nerve pathways in my left leg. It was weaker since the beginning. The hamstring does not function well. I am not able to run. It is not shown so much when cycling, but a few per cent of the performance is missing. I feel it is getting better gradually, but nobody can predict if the leg will fully heal. The return to peloton is postponed. I will not race this year. But I am willing to get fit and prepare for the following season. This will not break me down.
September 2018: United States
I leave for America to train there. My brother had permanently moved to Seattle in the spring. It is a great chance to visit him. I enjoy that we may spend some time together and we train in the Washington Mountains. I spend the next two weeks in Colorado with a friend of mine at the altitude about 2000 meters above sea level. It is a fabulous place for training. My training results come close to the racing values.
October 2018: New contract and return
Another medical scans in Belgium. I have made a great progress in training but it is still unclear whether I will be able to race. The nerves in my left leg are still damaged and the healing process is slow. The development is positive, and mainly, the performance tests end well. It is not clear how much it will limit me during the races and if I will be able to get back to my previous level, but the team is behind me. I should restart racing at the end of February. I am grateful for all the support of the other riders, coaching team, doctors, management. I can devote all my energy to rehabilitation and training to be able to return in the best shape. I do not feel pressure from the team. This is not a rule in the professional sport. I sign a one-year contract. The adventure continues!
Photo credit: ©Sigfrid Eggers
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