Ella Harris and her road to recovery

You know when someone tells you to ‘break a leg’ as a light-hearted way of giving you their good luck and best regards? Yeah well I tried it, and wouldn’t do it again nor recommend it to others.

I’m not one who pays too much attention to superstitions, but in this case my bad luck certainly came in a tidy group of three, all incidents neatly packed into three separate weekends.

The first crash was one of those silly slow-motion 10kph falls where you’re immediately laughing while still laying on the deck because of the ridiculous nature of it all, but somehow grow a massive lumpy bruise that lingers for a few days afterwards. It was on a classic Sunday bunch ride and occurred in what can only be described as the world’s slipperiest mud puddle. I had been forewarned about this ominous water feature many times previously and still managed to unsuccessfully negotiate it , but all was well and I kept riding. My ego took a small battering though.

The second crash came a week later at Durango-Durango, also a very silly occurrence but without the laughing in this instance. It was precisely 121m from the start-line (so my Garmin told me) during the neutral section when I became the victim of a powerful domino effect, with the riders in front slowing quite rapidly upon approach to the lead vehicle. I complimented the bruises on one side of my body with a couple on the other and gave my head an uncomfortable knock. I battled on for another 25km while swinging on the back of the bunch and feeling very out of sorts. I knew my time in the race was up when I burst into hysterical tears after narrowly avoiding a collision with a bottle in the feed zone, and then started hyperventilating. Not even my usual inner stubbornness could prevent me seeking comfort in the team van this time, that was my day done, and I was rather disappointed to miss the chance at racing a course that really suited me. If there’s one thing I have come to hate about cycle racing, it is watching everyone else finish from the sidelines when you’re supposed to be crossing the line too.

In hindsight, two crashes in two weekends should have raised suspicions that perhaps there was a higher power watching over me at this point, one that was seemingly really out to get me. The next week rolled around and I was in Italy, previewing the final 40km of the Strade Bianche course for the following day. It wasn’t even certain that I would be racing as a few easy non-bike days were required after Durango to rest the head. On the morning of travel, I had to complete power testing just to ensure I was capable of riding at a high intensity. Physically, I did not feel fresh at all and like I was fighting the bike without rhythm or any decent technique, but my numbers were good and my head was not a bother.

It was 9.30am and us six riders set off to ride, the heat of the day already becoming very noticeable. Even that morning, I was still a little uncertain of my form given the less-than-ideal build up and energy wise, I wasn’t feeling amazing. On the bike, my head felt a little bogged down with tiredness and my legs were heavy, but I trusted in myself that this little spin would help to dissolve the undesirable sensations and that I needed a ride to adjust to the heat. Come the next day, I would be ready.

It was the most innocuous and unassuming location that you could imagine and despite it being the Strade Bianche course, ironically the crash occurred on the seal. The road had an extremely gradual yet smooth, dry sweeping bend to the right and we were riding half that of race speed, simply cruising on what looked like a perfect piece of road in the Siena countryside. Without any warning, it was time for the third installment of my now regular crash diary. It happened so fast, my bike was whipped out from underneath me and both wheels just completely went. I was a bit of a wreck in the moments afterwards; no composure whatsoever and simply in a state of confusion at what had just happened.

It was the first crash I’ve had where I haven’t been able to get off the road afterwards, a slightly daunting and unnerving position to be in. I remember someone trying to remove my shoe with a subtle yank of my leg, and I consequently let out a massive scream. I sat on the hot tarmac with my DS holding the leg steady and comfortable – the real unsung hero in that moment. I was literally replaying and trying to comprehend how on earth the crash had occurred while waiting 45 minutes for the ambulance, examining a seemingly flawless road that bore no real reason.

Naturally me being me, I thought I had just pulled a few muscles and that a massage in the afternoon would sort me out, a typical cyclist mindset when you’ve got a start line to reach the next day. My leg was spasming and twitching uncontrollably with incredibly achy feelings in my quad/ hip flexor region. The pain was excruciating when I tried to move; I probably should have clicked on a little earlier that perhaps a muscular strain would normally be a little more forgiving than what I was experiencing.

I was taken to the hospital and that was where the rest of my visit to what I’ve been told is a beautiful area of Italy, was spent. No riding into the Piazza del Campo, no post race pizza + gelato combo or even a spot of Siena sight-seeing. It was 3 days of being completely bed-ridden where even slightly changing positions sent me into enormous discomfort. For someone who has a pretty high pain tolerance, having my bed sheets changed caused a humongous act of screaming and mass hysteria that most likely woke the entire hospital. After that traumatic episode, switching beds for the surgery made me very anxious due to the suffering I would have to incur. It is at this point I should also note that they don’t seem to be terribly generous with pain relief in Italian hospitals; evident when after 6 hours being stuck in the emergency department, I was finally given… paracetamol.

The whole incident really highlighted to me that if you are to injure yourself at a cycle race, you’re really at the mercy of whatever the closest hospital is and the services that they are able to provide. If a race is in a remote location or a smaller town with an equally sized medical facility, the logistics of being able to reach a hospital to receive appropriate treatment may be very difficult. It goes without saying that all hospitals and medical services have incredibly skilled staff who can perform life-saving treatment for those critical situations, but for more specialist cases, if they are unable to offer a specific surgery or procedure, then accessibility to somewhere that does could prove to be difficult.

I would like to make it clear that I’m not thinking my injury is anything special or life-altering, because it’s just a broken leg, but I feel very lucky that the local hospital in Siena was able to perform the best possible procedure to give me an optimal chance at 100% recovery. In terms of my ability to move and the logistics to get to another hospital eg. transport, insurance, administration etc. it would have been a challenge to go elsewhere.

There is a level of trust that comes with communicating to medical professionals in your own country whereby you almost develop a relationship and a rapport with those caring for you. With factors like cultural differences and language barriers, it can be a little unnerving to put all your faith into a medical team at a hospital you know nothing about in a completely foreign health care system. There is no checking Trip Advisor or Google reviews to compare the various services on offer and select what looks the nicest, in times of need the hospital just chooses you. To be honest, I had no idea what procedure was being performed on my leg prior to the surgery, I was simply hoping for the best as I knew the team behind the scenes were acting in my best interest. I remember laying on the surgical table watching all the staff relaxing and milling around before they set to work on my fragmented femur; to them it was literally just another day at work but for me the procedure was a huge deal that would determine whether I could make a successful return to cycling at the same level. It was quite a relief when the team doctor messaged me after seeing the X-rays to say how happy he was that they had used the technique he had hoped and that it looked great; also slightly disconcerting that even he was nervous about what they were going to do to me.

Injuries and crashes suck, and sitting on the sidelines watching races go on is very disheartening and frustrating. With the bizarre season that has ensued, it seems particularly disappointing to be injured right at the beginning of the ‘new half season’, after waiting so long for the calendar to recommence.

The recovery process is as much a mental game as it is a physical one, and I think a key part is acceptance and knowing that you’ll be out of action for a while. Dwelling on the incident and mulling over the ‘what ifs’ is fine at the outset, but ultimately it won’t change the predicament you’ve found yourself in. As I lay in my hospital bed during the first few days, I was thinking to myself that I simply cannot just choose to ‘opt out’ of this challenge that has been presented. There was no way to deal with the pain but to face it head on and trust that it would get better, I just had to be tough about it. I could throw my toys and act miserable about what had happened, but at the end of the day if I wanted to become a fully functioning normal human being again, I had to go through a demanding recovery process whether I liked it or not.

Emotions are natural and it’s completely normal to feel a mixture of anything from disappointment to moodiness or even a little anger at the world, but once the initial ‘grieving’ and reflective period is over, it’s about making the most out of the situation. A big thing for me was trying to find the silver linings and other ways that I could feel a sense of purpose and productivity in my life. I was in the Italian hospital for 8 days and after having the departure constantly pushed back, the day I finally escaped was one of the happiest I had had in a very long time. I was on cloud nine at the airport with the freedom to hobble around the departure lounge on my newly purchased crutches, and it almost felt like an honour to indulge in an over-priced under-delivered airport lunch. That coffee was incredible, and I had never enjoyed a fresh salad quite as much as I did that day after screeds of olive oil drenched tough pasta. Although extremely minor, it is important to really celebrate the small wins and to seek happiness wherever you can. Sometimes the little things can be the most exciting, it’s important to mentally also take a back seat from the usual hum of life when physically you’ve been slowed down, and to put things in perspective.

After leaving Italy, I found it really motivating and worthwhile to set myself little goals so that I constantly had something to strive for, whether it was walking with one crutch or increasing my leg press from 5 to 10kg (solid I know). From Italy, I went to BG Klinikum in Hamburg, a hospital that CANYON//SRAM is affiliated with. I did four weeks of rehabilitation work there and mentally, was in a really good head space as I just wanted to work hard and overcome the weaknesses presented by my leg. I am a fiercely independent person and even having people carrying my food tray at the cafeteria made me feel guilty, so with 2 hours of gym and 1 hour of physio every day, I was constantly challenged and extremely motivated to get better each session that passed. Obviously my 4 week ‘holiday’ in Germany was rather impromptu and staying at a hospital for this duration wasn’t the nicest at times, but it certainly came with silver linings. I was able to fill my spare time with exploring the city of Hamburg and tried out as many of the amazing coffees shops as I could. I now know the Hamburg CBD like the back of my hand and am also very well acquainted with the public transport network, so although I was in the city due to far from desirable circumstances, I found joy and purpose in channeling my inner tourist. City walking and cafe crawling are some of my favourite pastimes, so this acted as a big incentive for me to improve my mobility in order to see more! I highly recommend a boat cruise on the Elbe River by the way, a lovely afternoon excursion.

The time I had off was excellent for growing my motivation and desire towards getting back on the bike; I saw it as an opportunity to start afresh on a clean slate and to come back into training in a much better overall position than where I was prior to the crash. During the lockdown period and the couple of months that followed, I was never 100% healthy and constantly bogged down by little niggling injuries that would come and go. I was never able to truly get into a solid training period and mentally I wasn’t in the optimal headspace.

I will admit that at the four week mark post crash I had the biggest meltdown of my entire life and was in a complete state of hysteria and despair. I have actually never had such a big cry as I did that day, not even when I locked myself out of my apartment on a public holiday and then received the lock-smith bill (another story for another time). La Course was on that weekend and I wasn’t there, I wanted to ride on Zwift but had no bike, and it was still another whole week before I would head back to Girona to be reunited with my beloved Canyon. After managing to finally compose myself, I just had to find those little positives that would bring me pleasure and take my mind into a somewhat happier place. I sweated my misery out on the

gym spin-bike, did a spot of university study to feel somewhat productive and then the best part of all, took a lovely trip to the city on the #31 bus for a big bowl of porridge and a quality brew.

It goes without saying that after exactly five weeks, it was really great to get back to the familiarity of Girona and become reacquainted with my bike again. I will be honest though, that after 1.5 weeks of training, the ‘honey-moon’ period is over now and I already feel like I’m on a bit of a grind again. It’s hard not to dwell on the improvements I need to make and the form I have lost. I feel like I am at 3000m altitude when riding up climbs, my left-right power balance is 58-42%, descents and corners are a major cause for nervousness, and my right knee joint feels like it is filled with glass after a month of minimal usage. This is when I find it incredibly important to step back and to see just how far I have come in the space of six weeks – I can ride my bike again and that alone is a cause for celebration. I need to stop staring at my Garmin and the undesirable numbers, but rather focus on what I can do. I love riding my bike and am just trying to remind myself that I can’t take things too seriously too soon; if I just keep ticking away at all my rehabilitation exercises and trust the process I’m on, then I’ll be back to full strength before I know it. The key reasons I enjoy cycling are the freedom it provides, the chance to test myself and the opportunity to explore, and through reminding myself just why I ride, my overall mental approach becomes a lot more positive and careless.

My recovery has probably gone as well as it could have, and has been smooth sailing with zero setbacks or obstacles to overcome. I long for the day when I can ride my bike without any inkling in my body or mind of injury. The thought of being able to go out and be completely worry free is the big goal, and this is the positive outcome I am ultimately striving for currently.

On a lighthearted note, I thought I would quickly touch on a ‘joke’ that people think is hilarious to crack and is done to death, not quite realising just how unoriginal they are and how many times I have heard it. If you have metal work somewhere, I’m sure you’ve heard the classic “do you set off the security scanners at the airport ahahaha”, my response normally being a forced smile through gritted teeth with an ever-so slightly clenched fist. I have a confession to make to those who have played this card with me – I may or may not have been frisked at Hamburg Airport due to two large red highlight areas over my hip and collarbone region. I never realised they could actually be detected hence my particular disdain towards the quip, so there is the answer folks, I guess I will eat my humble pie.

Back to my opening sentence, if you do have to break something, try a collarbone. Speaking from personal experience in this area, it feels like a paper cut compared to this horrendous femur business. The broken collarbone club is an unfortunate but tolerable membership to have. Despite the illustrious company in the femur club eg. Mike Woods and Chris Froome, it is one exclusive group I certainly never want to renew my membership for.

If you haven’t got the idea yet, it really hurts.

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