Johann van Zyl: The Recovery Road

Johann van Zyl Giro Stage 21

I haven’t written a blog in such a long time and I feel that now is the perfect time to get back to it and tell you what’s been going on at the van Zyl household.

These past 5 weeks have been tough and different to all our previous summers. I’ve spent this past month while the sun is shining and people heading to the beach, on the indoor trainer trying to minimise performance loss while dealing with my injury. Trying to stay motivated and positive to make a strong comeback and enjoy the rest of the season.

During the period of 6-29 May I had the time of my life on the bike. I raced my first Giro d’Italia and fell in love with the race. From stage 1 with the start in Apeldoorn the race just felt different to any other. Different to the Vuelta last year. The crowds were amazing and I’ll never forget the buzzing atmosphere that followed us. What helped the fact probably was that I came pretty close to winning a Grand Tour stage from a breakaway on stage 3. I was caught 1,8km from the finish after spending 190km in the break and later on going solo. Even though I was caught so close to the finish and got no result it felt like that move opened up a world of opportunities to me. I felt like anything is possible come the right time and day. Having my wife there cheering me on every lap as we came by shouting at me to go harder and faster and seeing her after the finish with tears of joy. Nothing makes me happier as seeing her so proud of me like that.

That was just the first few stages in The Netherlands. What followed was weeks of suffering and self-discovery. Learning how to race a grand tour. Where to spend and where to save. Realising how hard you can push your body day in day out. The Giro took us to some pretty spectacular places and even though I saw it through the eye of suffering, I’ll never forget that.

Stage 21. I made it to Torino! The finish city of the Giro. I even had a laugh during the stage with team mate Jay Thomson as he came down in a crash. We suffer for 3-4 weeks on the road going up twisting mountains roads, to risking our lives in sprints to make it to day 21 only to then crash. I remember thinking ‘damn I’m glad I didn’t crash as that would just suck finishing the Giro like that.’ So a few laps later who’s sitting on the ground? Me… A usual crash in front of me had me slam brakes. I thought I pulled the hand brake up hard enough, but felt a push from behind and next thing I’m tumbling on the ground. As usual I get up and get my bike. I call the mechanic to bring my spare bike and as he pushes me away and I put my left arm on the handlebar I felt the most excruciating pain in my elbow and immediately knew I broke it. I’ve never broken a bone before. I’ve ridden my bike for 17 years and raced as a professional for 4, but I knew it was serious.

I immediately felt nauseas and light headed. Here I was in Torino with 20 odd kilometres to go from finishing the Giro and I had to get into the ambulance. Great. X-Rays confirmed an Olecranon fracture which will require surgery. I quick call to my wife to let her know I’m fine and everything will be okay just to calm her nerves as I knew she was watching and saw me crash.

The medical team of Dimension Data were just incredible. Within an hour I had surgery booked for the following day in Cologne, Germany. Chus, our amazing team travel logistics manager, booked new flights to Cologne with hotel bookings as well as arranging a driver to get me from the airport to the hospital. All within minutes. All I had to do was pitch up. That night before my flight to Cologne I slept close to Malpensa Airport. I remember being so scared and unsure of what’s about to happen that I slept with the light on as the dark freaked me out.

JvZ 1The following day I checked in at Orthopac in Cologne where I was about to have my surgery done by Dr. Tenner. While we were driving from Torino to Milan the previous night my wife booked her flights, train tickets and hotel to make it in time to see me before surgery. I was terrified of going under for surgery, but as soon as she arrived and seeing her for the first time in weeks, I felt secure.  Dr. Tenner did an amazing job of putting my elbow back in place so we were quickly at the next step, recovery.

Obviously for the couple of hours leading up to surgery I wasn’t allowed to eat. Having just finished a grand tour I was starving and craving junk food. I never had my pizza and beer finishing food the previous day so my wife went and got us pizzas for dinner. I still have an embarrassing photo of me a few hours post op eating the best pizza of my life.

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I had to spend 3 nights at the hospital to make sure everything was okay and in place. The care at Orthopac is just incredible. I felt like I was at a hotel, not a hospital. Good tasting German food. Physio treatments every morning plus Dr Tenner even cut my bread for me and opened the mini jam jars. Still owe you for that, Dirk, as apparently my eye doesn’t work well as a jam jar opener…

I’m a real positive person. I always find something positive out of any situation. I was sure that in no time I would be back racing and that this little hiccup wouldn’t last long. I was (and still am) going to make this a ‘Happy Accident’ and find something positive out of this setback so that I come back as a better athlete and stronger man. The day post-surgery I sat for 20 mins on an indoor training bike to ‘complete’ my Giro. I secretly did squats in my room to make sure I keep going and not loose fitness. I was sure that within a few days everything would be back to normal. Days however are currently weeks.

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I’m fortunate to have the best possible support system in my life. From my wife, Melissa, to my family, friends and team. Everyone was there to help and support me when needed. Gentlemen… unless you want an old German nurse to help you shower… my tip is to find your soulmate that’s there for you when times are tough!

I soon settled into my new routine at home. One week after surgery I was back on the indoor trainer with my arm in a back slab cast. I twisted my handlebar around and taped some foam rollers to it to elevate and rest my arms on them. The beginning was a struggle, but soon I got used to the new position and rode a couple of minutes every day just to keep going. Me being me, I always kept an eye on my Garmin to just ‘test’ what sort of watts I can ride at. After spending the whole previous week on my back laying around my HR was obviously sky high at 200W. However every day I found mini victories and improvements. The swelling was easing up and the pain was going away. I was more mobile and could enjoy lazy walks around town getting fresh air. Two weeks flew by and after some x-rays I could even remove the cast. I kept on riding and going to daily physio trying to get movement back in my arm. Extend and flex. Thinking about it now… I don’t think 5 minutes have gone by these past 5 weeks that I haven’t thought about my arm or done something to it. It’s a 24/7 recovering process and it takes so much mental energy, it drains you completely.

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Weeks dragged on. Slowly but surely I could feel I was getting frustrated and worked up inside. Things that I found funny before and joked around about made me angry. Like the fact that I couldn’t pick my nose with my left hand. Funny before, now annoying. Squeezing the toilet paper roll underneath my chin to my chest so that I could pull a piece off with my right hand. Funny before, now frustrating. Now writing about it and thinking back its pretty hilarious again. Slowly letting the struggle of basically doing anything involving movement get to me.

But, like I said before, I’m going to make this a ‘Happy Accident’. This past weekend I rode on the road for the first time in 5 weeks. I finally got my freedom back. That feeling that everyone that loves cycling, whether it’s a profession or just a passion, understands and shares. Wind blowing in your hair and seeing beautiful places. The first few pedal strokes on the road felt strange. As if I had to learn how to ride a bike again. Incredibly nervous and aware of my still fragile arm. Soon though, muscle memory comes back, and I’m out there living my dream, riding my bike. On my second ride out I even rode up Rocacorba, my favourite climb around Girona. It felt like such an achievement reaching the top after weeks of suffering indoors. I sat at the top enjoying the view and soaking up the moment for half an hour before creeping back down.

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I’m not quite at the happy ending yet. Movement is still limited in my arm so I need to stay alert and careful. I still require treatments and need to work hard to make sure I recover as best as possible. I have to give thanks to my team for not rushing my comeback and giving me time to do this properly before sending me to my next race. And of course, a very special thank you to my wife for supporting me through this time of grumpiness and keeping me sane and positive.

A tough climb is still laying ahead getting back to fitness and racing, but I’m looking forward to the view from the top. Hopefully, a bigger more beautiful view that I haven’t seen before.

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