In October last year, ultra cyclist and 2016 TransAtlanticWay winner Bernd Paul suffered a potentially devastating accident while competing in the US. Now eight months on, we talk to Bernd about his remarkable recovery, and his expectations ahead of the 2017 TransAtlanticWay, which he returns to for the race’s start on 8th June.
Photography: James Robertson
‘It was October 3rd, 2016 – a Monday – around 5:20 am, somewhere on a lonely country road between Lebanon and Springfield in the US state of Missouri. I had just enjoyed an extended two-hour nap on the front seat of an old abandoned truck – the kind of luxury that comes as standard for bikepackers. Then Bang!
All I heard was a loud noise, which scared me out of the rut of perpetual pedalling that had started my day. I lay on the edge of the road and took some time to put together what had just happened: Somebody must have hit me.
What happened exactly I can no longer remember – it all happened too fast. Only an endless silence and the black night around me, with the nightmare completed by the fear of another vehicle hitting me as I lay there.
Then a voice: “Are you ok?”
“Not really,” I said – my first words. As usual for a cyclist I wanted to check my bike for damage, but I could not get up.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” said the voice.
“I need an ambulance,” I replied.’
These words, taken from a Facebook post written by crash victim and esteemed ultra cyclist Bernd Paul, describe the kind of horrific road accident that road users – cyclists, motorists, or otherwise – hope they are never exposed to. But with an ever-increasing number of adventure cyclists on the roads, partaking in everything from long-distance leisure rides to competitive endurance events staged on public highways, the unfortunate reality is that these incidents are something that we as cyclists simply build into our risk assessment of daily life.
Indeed, the recent death of Mike Hall, a bastion of the adventure cycling and racing movement, at the Indian-Pacific Wheel Race in March, served as a tragic reminder of just how fragile we can be while out on the roads. But while we are able to mourn Mike, and rue the fatal incidents that have befallen he and countless others, there is also space to celebrate the recovery of victims such as Bernd, who despite receiving such a blow, have been able to rebuild, get back on the bike, and move on, proving that neither injury – nor the roads on which we ride – should be feared to the point where it stops us from riding.
Bernd in fact suffered a fractured pelvis on that morning in Missouri, when he was just 880km into the 4,000km Route 66 ultra race, and it proved to be an injury that would necessitate both mental stamina and physical dedication to recover from. But now, eight months on, the 47-year-old German will be lining up to defend his 2016 victory of the TransAtlanticWay, a 2,500km race tracing Ireland’s Atlantic coastline beginning on 8th June, and that’s something worth celebrating.
‘The diagnosis of the pelvic fracture was crushing, as it meant a long, painful pause [from riding],’ says Bernd. ‘The shock soon gave way to pain, which wasn’t helped by the fact that the medication I had been receiving in America actually falls under the Narcotics Act in Germany,’ he adds drily. ‘I was resigned to conservative therapy, rest, and pain management – or in other words, waiting and drinking tea.’
‘Waiting and drinking tea’. This is exactly the kind of light-hearted, modest approach that typifies Bernd and his character when faced with such adversity, taking the stoicism of a hardened, experienced ultra-racer and putting it into practice across all walks of life. The injury setback was simply another obstacle to overcome; another problem to fix; another few thousand kilometres to tick off.
Bernd was bed-ridden for two months, but was nonetheless able to remain positive, saying that he had an idea of how long the recovery process would take, and that ‘it was something I accepted.’
In time he was able to begin tentatively moving on his feet with the aid of crutches, before embarking on a gym routine that led him into the throne of a static recumbent bike.
‘At first it was only ten minutes, it hurt, and I had to sit awkwardly on it to avoid pressure on my pelvis,’ Bernd says – before adding with a laugh: ‘I must confess I took a painkiller.’
‘I recognised that I could increase the activity on this type of bike in quite a short space of time, and within a week I was riding for half an hour on the thing. A normal person wouldn’t do that – most are too lazy, or too cautious about their body.’
Eventually Bernd was able to remount a regular two-wheeled bicycle again, fitting a tailor made saddle to support his still-fragile pelvis. ‘I started with a kind of regular base saddle – a really big thing,’ he explains, ‘and then I added additional supports to it. I think in the end it weighed over a kilogram, but it worked.’
Photography: James Robertson
The months moved on, and Bernd continued to regain power and fitness; no doubt a result of an approach that – similarly to any of his riding adventures – was part matter-of-fact and methodical, part eccentric and wild.
‘You shouldn’t normally make too many movements or exercises,’ Bernd had told us while retelling anecdotes of his supposedly cautious recumbent bike experiments, belying what was probably a measured rebuttal of doctor’s orders. ‘I had this situation where I could barely walk – in fact I still have problems walking – but I could cycle.’
‘We are the kind of people who try everything possible,’ he continues, presumably in a hat tip the wider adventure cycling community. ‘First you take your crutches, then you take your bicycle, and then…’ he trails off, as if realising that he perhaps doesn’t know what comes next; that his road to recovery is yet to be completed
‘It’s now so many months later and I’m still not happy, and for me that’s a problem,’ he explains. ‘At the beginning you make a lot of progress very quickly, but then you have this kind of plateau where you don’t see any improvement, and it’s then that you get frustrated.
‘I still have problems over long distances, so I’m honestly not sure if I will be able to do the complete TransAtlanticWay. I will try everything, but there’s only so much time I can take away from home [on holiday] to do it.’
Last year Bernd took 6 days, 11 hours and 33 minutes to win the event, and despite all that has beset him in the twelve months since then, the characterful German remains both optimistic and realistic about his chances of success.
‘I hope that I can prepare well, but I can’t predict anything exactly,’ he says. ‘I’ll try to do my best, like I always do, and if it works out well then I could finish somewhere in the top three. If it doesn’t work out well then I’ll have to scratch.’
So how do you return from a serious injury – whether its breaking your pelvis or otherwise – to the start line of an ultra-endurance bike race, in the space of seven months? By following the basics of a strict rehab routine, keeping perspective, and maintaining a degree of patience for starters. But if Bernd Paul’s is any example to go by, then it would appear that bolder steps are also a necessary part of that journey too; dropping painkillers in order to squeeze out ten minutes of riding on a static recumbent bike; riding a normal bike even when you can’t yet walk properly, and signing up to a 2,500km self-supported bike race with the expectation of either finishing on the podium or being listed as ‘Did not finish‘.
With Bernd Paul, there are no half measures. Keep the small rules, and break the big ones.