Ella Harris talks injury rehab, a late season comeback, and quarantining in New Zealand

This is the fourth Google Document I have opened in order to start writing this blog so bear with me, I’m not quite sure what path or rabbit hole I will end up going down with the subject of this! The world has been changing rather rapidly and my movements up until this point had been somewhat uncertain, not really knowing where or what I would be doing with myself even in the week that was following. Currently as I type, I’m sitting on the bed of my hotel room on day six of my quarantine period in New Zealand, but given that I’m not feeling 100% and a close contact of mine has tested positive for the virus, who knows where I will be this time tomorrow once my test results return. I better finish writing this before then, otherwise I might be restarting for the fifth time.

Quarantining in New Zealand looks a little something like this

Backing up the truck to my previous rambles for Voxwomen, I spoke about where I was at six weeks after my femur break. Obviously time just flies when you’re having fun, because it’s now been 14 weeks since I ironically crashed on a sealed section of the Strade Bianche course. Okay, it hasn’t been the most exhilarating period of my life, but I’ve been rebuilding nicely and have come along leaps and bounds… Not 100% accurate, I still can’t run further than 100m yet, but you get the idea. Although I was well and truly riding again five weeks after the crash, fitness and biomechanically speaking I was at a very low point. It’s incredibly rewarding to think back to my first ride out on the road where I dreaded intersections because I had no leg strength to push away, or when the sight of a slight 5% hill would send me into a mild panic. I was simply unable to recruit the right muscles and enough strength to efficiently propel myself through any resistance, and certainly didn’t have the fitness to compensate for this. When I tried to put any power out, I felt like a baby deer with a distinct lack of control and my legs flailing all over the show. It’s still a daily challenge to perfect my position on the bike and to ensure that all my muscles are working in sequence as they should, but I’m now feeling a lot more stable on the bike and like I have a reasonable level of strength again.

It hasn’t been all plain sailing to reach the point where I am at now, there was a period of a couple weeks where I was unable to even walk to the supermarket without my knee joint seizing up in pain. I really thought I had arthritis, but fortunately it was just the joint reacting to a lot more movement than it had been used to in the prior weeks. I managed to badly strain my piriformis which was a real pain in the bum (joke intended), creating issues for my tailbone also. This required a week of very limited riding, with another additional handful of days off the bike thrown in due to a bonus knee ligament flare-up. I honestly think it’s going to get to the point where I could be considered as a self-taught physio, because I’m rapidly gaining solid first-hand experience in a whole variety of injuries. I recently came to the realisation (well my physio did), that my leg has been tracking in a different direction than it did prior to the crash, a subtle change from which contributed to the problems above. Upon reflection, this makes sense that the general movement patterns would change when you get a giant nail stuck into your leg, but was something I hadn’t consciously considered. All of these issues indicated to me that it’s imperative not to do too much too soon when returning from a serious injury or major time off the bike – your body and its many components are simply not programmed to handle any major loads, and it takes time to gradually rebuild them to a point where they can cope with a certain level of stress. Just like your cardiovascular fitness, you’re not necessarily capable of riding for four hours after very minimal exercise, and neither is your body. I compensated for a lack of strength or capability in some areas by over-using others, unfortunately to past their limits.

There were many times during my rehabilitation that were quite difficult; multiple days merging into one and all feeling the same, very ‘ground-hog day’ style. Just training after training; feeling weakness in one side, not producing the power I once could and continually fending off little injury niggles, but nevertheless grinding away and gradually improving with each week that passed. It was the thought of being able to participate (note the intentional use of the word participate, not race) that spurred me on as the light at the end of the tunnel. Although I certainly wasn’t going to be anywhere near my top fitness and I would be not riding at a competitive level, I liked to think that what I lacked in form could be made up for in motivation. My comeback race was supposed to be the Bretagne Ladies Tour in France, however ironically with the season being pushed so far back, it was a victim of the European Covid second wave. Who knew earlier in the year when races were being rescheduled, that the period would not be limited due to off-season requirements and winter, but rather a resurgence of this blimmin’ virus.

The great outdoors!

By some small miracle, I was able to take to the startline at the Madrid Challenge which despite the powerful return of ‘you know what’, actually went ahead. When I was told I’d be able to race towards the end of the month, I assumed it would only be in Bretagne as very large question marks were hovering over Spain and the Vuelta before the event had even commenced. To have Bretagne cancelled was incredibly disappointing as I thought it would be my only realistic chance to race in Europe again this year. Eye-witnesses can attest to my theatratics and the tantrum I had while rolling around on the floor upon receiving the dreaded email. It was a two week wait between the postponement and the still tentative Madrid Challenge, yet once Catalonia went into a semi-strict lockdown and the Madrid region was doing similar, it seemed that travelling 7 hours down the country was out of the question. Despite the uncertainty and the regular Twitter refreshes to perhaps discover a cancellation rumour, the Vuelta stages kept rolling on each afternoon, and as long as they did there would be a race for us in Madrid. Kudos to the event organisers who could have very easily placed the women’s race (which let’s be real was already a side-show) in the too-hard basket, yet the challenges were worked around and it was still full steam ahead.

I found it quite amusing on social media in the lead up to the event, with riders talking about their off-seasons or finally being able to round out their 2020 racing calendar, whereas I was building up for ‘take three’ of my season restart. I treated the race like closure for my injury, to end a challenging chapter of my life. It had been three months after my crash and similarly so since my last race – to say I was excited and motivated to be back at a race in the team environment was an understatement, although I will admit that the doubt surrounding the likelihood of the event still running did dent this somewhat. For what was the last race of the season, for me it was very much like the first and as if I was coming into it fresh from a block of winter training.

In the build up to the event, I was a little anxious about being back in a bunch again and whether I’d have the bike handling confidence to take on a race situation, but as soon as we rolled out of neutral on day one, something clicked in my brain and I immediately felt like I was back in race mode. Stage one consisted of a 90km road race with a small dose of crosswind action and a couple moderate climbs, while day two was one sole 9km technical TT before a 100km circuit race in central Madrid on day three. It was actually quite a nice event to return to racing with as although it was World Tour level, the roads were wide and the field was relatively small. I knew it would still be a shock to the system, given that I had no speed in my legs and my training was very much in a rebuilding phase. It really was similar to coming into a new season as within my training, short/high-intensity efforts were extremely limited and it was more a case of strength training and threshold work both in the gym and on the bike. Getting through the first stage and ticking off race number one was a success in itself for me – I really struggled whenever the bunch accelerated out of a roundabout or through a small town, but I was able to mix nicely within the peloton and thankfully stay upright. The second day was a mixed bag as initially I felt rather unmotivated after previewing the TT course – there were quite a few fast downhill straights and technical sections to negotiate, so I wasn’t feeling very positive as I lacked the strength to really push through sections like these, or the bike-handling confidence to take the corners at speed. Mentally I always hate the build-up for a TT but once I started I almost found myself enjoying it, and immediately felt like doing another afterwards because I knew there were lots of things I could have done better. My result wasn’t anything to write home about, but I felt satisfied in the knowledge that my power output was okay and that through improving factors such as positioning and having more TT experience in general, I could have saved a fair chunk of time. In the final stage, I truly discovered that I only really had one gear available to use, which was just a steady tempo – anytime the pace went beyond this I couldn’t match it. I’ve never been a rider with much punch anyway, but coming out of this injury and training I have zero acceleration or speed. Physically in the heart and lungs I felt fine and capable of more, but my legs couldn’t keep up with the changes in pace around hairpins and in attacks. It was quite bizarre, my legs just weren’t able to go around fast enough and the bunch would ride away from me, despite feeling comfortable and ready to go from the waist up.

Coming away from the three days, I actually felt rather tired and in the final stage, my legs were really suffering. It was a big wake up for my body and despite doing a reasonable amount of training, you just can’t replicate the specific intensity that racing brings and the mode that it switches on inside. My main objective was just to experience racing again to gain confidence and confirmation that I was on the right track before heading home to continue my re-build over summer. I really enjoyed the opportunity to be back with the team at a race, and to just get a feel for it all again. It was a good indication of where I am at, and what areas I still need to really work on.

So as many conclude their seasons with naturally mixed feelings, it really feels like we are ploughing into the unknown with this virus and just how the future will look. To put it bluntly as only it really can be, 2020 has been an absolute write-off. What a shocker of a year. I am certainly not a sentimental person and don’t normally make a big deal about intangible, small or trivial things, but this year I am making an exception. For once, I am going to be reaching December 31st and looking forward to welcoming in that new year, even if the realist in me says that it’s just a number change and that normal transmission will still resume the next morning after the celebrations. Regardless, I would like to sweep this year under the carpet and forget that it ever happened, all while looking forward into 2021 wearing rose-coloured glasses and ready to start afresh.

Another snapshot of life while quarantining in New Zealand

After significant amounts of umming and ahhing over whether I should remain in Europe for winter or return home, it was decided that I would travel back to New Zealand and enjoy the kiwi summer. There were many factors that played a role in influencing my decision and I was incredibly torn because I am very fond of living in Girona and I will have to miss pre-season preparations with the team, but deep down I know that it is the right decision. It will be a very long while before the time is right to return again otherwise, and I don’t want to be feeling unhappy or home-sick before the 2021 season has even kicked off. Going home will be good for motivation, to recharge the batteries and to feel revitalised heading into the next season. Ultimately, there is no value to being in Europe when it isn’t important yet still having the thoughts of home building up. One key lesson that I’ve found has been really drummed into me and no doubt others throughout this year, as that it’s important to have other aspects in your life to turn your attention to when it isn’t necessary, or when you’re unable to be focussed on cycling. I like to think about having cycling as a part of my life, but not my whole life, so I think being able to distract myself away from the bike with other hobbies and interests will be great for achieving a sustainable long-term perspective on sport. Being back home with family, keeping up my Spanish practice, exploring my own backyard, catching up with different friends, hopefully gaining work experience towards my university degree and going on little holidays over the summer should be valuable for maintaining this approach and getting the best out of myself on the bike come next year. And when I finally escape out the hotel doors after two weeks of Government managed quarantine, it will be refreshing to be in a country where from a prevalence perspective, Covid is largely non-existent and daily life is business as usual. I think it will take me quite some time to get familiar with not actually needing to wear a mask outside the house, however.

You’d think that 2020 would lose some of its momentum and wind down as we head towards the end of the year, but the turbulence and wild nature is seemingly continuing to rage on, with many European countries still grappling to regain control over their health situations. I am intrigued as to what I will be returning to in Europe after my summer back home is up, whether the general lifestyle in Spain will be relatively normal and if the racing situation will be similar to that of 2019 compared to 2020. I think if this year has taught us anything however, it is to expect the unexpected – you really can’t take anything for granted, so to live in the moment and make the most of everything at any given time is really the only thing to do. Out of all challenges come personal growth and learnings and although 2020 has been a very unusual and difficult year for most, there are still many lessons that can be taken from it, both from a personal and from a wider perspective. We’ve all come through long periods of discomfort – characteristics such as perseverance, determination, resilience, discipline, patience and commitment have been heavily called upon.

If you’re reading this blog, you’re likely to be a cyclist, and in which case I would suggest that you’re incredibly lucky to have the ability to ride a bike. I’ve come to realise throughout this year, that even little nagging tasks or events on the horizon, can have a major impact on your mental state – whether you’re consciously thinking about them or not. It’s when I enjoy cycling for what it is that I am able to appreciate the simple pleasure of a bike ride, and affirm to myself that ultimately we don’t really need that much to be happy. Heading out for a pedal around your favourite loop for however long your heart desires can sometimes be the best medicine and bring that extra dose of happiness required to get through the tougher times. Even though mentally 2021 will be a fresh start, reality will quite possibly be largely the same due to the major global pandemic that doesn’t appear to be going away in a hurry. Hopefully we won’t require to call upon quite so many coping mechanisms and strategies in 2021, but a bike is one that will always be there and ready to give you the time out you need. There is a reason why the uptake of cycling across the world was a growing trend in 2020, one that has filled many with hope and joy via the ability to stay mentally and physically healthy through the highs and lows. A big lesson for me in 2020 was to remind myself what the attraction to the sport was and why I felt the desire to jump back on the bike for that second ride – a bike is a fantastic tool for moving forward both figuratively and literally, so don’t underestimate the power of it. I hope that my summer will be spent exploring some new roads, enjoying the sunshine and also utilising the happiness-inducing nature of pedalling. I wish to move forward into the new year with a renergised mind and body, some natural reservations, but also be equipped with a strengthened readiness to get stuck into whatever else is thrown in my direction.

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