Maximiliano Blanco / Stringer
Pro road cyclist Petr Vakoc broke six vertebrae when he was hit by a truck on a January 2018 training ride in South Africa. It could have a been a cruel end to the career of the up-and-coming Deceuninck-Quick Step rider who’d claimed high-profile podiums—and a win at the Brabantse Pijl—over the previous two seasons.
“I knew that I wanted to do everything I could to come back from the first moment,” Vakoc told Bicycling. “I knew there was a big chance it would not be possible, but I had no questions from the start.” The Czech star faced a tough road, unable to even sit up for nearly four months while he recovered from reconstructive surgery to his lumbar spine.
His mission to start cycling began with a doctor’s suggestion while in Prague’s Motol Hospital where Vakoc underwent rehabilitation and two more surgeries after his original operation in South Africa. Motol was equipped with an assisted-pedal spinning machine that was taken from bed to bed and used with patients who could not move their legs. Even assisted, the gentle movement initiated blood flow and helped facilitate recovery.
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“You could also use it as a [stationary trainer],” Vakoc explained, though he noted that it wasn’t quite up to pro-cyclist standards: “The cranks were maybe eight centimeters long.” (Most bikes have about 17-centimeter cranks.)
When he was ready to be discharged, his physicians mentioned that it would be helpful if Vakoc could create a similar system at home.
So Vakoc enlisted his brother to hang one of the racer’s Specialized Tarmac SL5s from the ceiling, its tail end mounted on a Tacx NEO 2 smart trainer on the ground. If they could engineer a way for a supine Vakoc’s feet to reach the pedals, he would be able to ride again without waiting for clearance to bend at the waist.
The brothers’ first attempt wasn’t perfect. “There was this funny video from the Danish national track team, and one of the guys was on the massage table on his back and pedaling on his bike upside down and I thought this could work,” said Vakoc. “It didn’t work, it was too low, so my brother put it at 90 degrees and I laid down behind the bike, and then it worked.”
It was almost too successful for the taste of Vakoc’s doctors. “I put my power meter on and I could see the watts, and it was really cool, but they said I had to keep it easy, maximum one hour, ‘cause I am pushing it, but every day I wanted to do more,” he confessed.
Vakoc returned to competition on January 25 of this year, at the Vuelta a San Juan, one year and two days after his accident. He is a professional racer again—albeit one who now carries an extra 300 grams, thanks to the metal brace supporting his first lumbar vertebrae.
Vakoc’s road back to the peloton was far from over once he was allowed to ride a bike again. It took about five months for him to get clearance to ride outdoors, but then his progress was quick. Within a few more weeks, he was able to clock three-hour training rides. He thought he would be racing again by the end of the summer. Then, his progress inexplicably slowed.
“I could see that my left leg was more tired and I knew something was wrong.” He didn’t feel pain, “Just the muscles, they weren’t working.”
It turned out that Vakoc had nerve damage as a result of the crash. “At that moment, I think everybody thought it would be too big of a limitation to be a professional rider again. No one could really predict if it will recover or not.”
Vakoc continued working with physiotherapists, took some time off from his attempts at training, and spent more time hiking than riding, which he speculated may have helped stimulate his leg. He meditated and practiced the breathing techniques of Wim Hof—an extreme athlete who climbed Mt. Everest in shorts.
After a month, Vakoc began to ride more and feel better. In November, he returned to the doctor. Medically, his nerves appeared unimproved, but when he hopped on the bike it seemed not to matter: His power output had improved remarkably compared to his last test in August, and was close to his pre-crash values.
Now Vakoc is relishing every opportunity to race with his Quick-Step “wolfpack.” After the Vuelta a San Juan, he traveled north to the Tour Colombia. Ahead of the race, he talked to Bicycling about his goals for the year.
“I want to be a good teammate, I want to be as fast as possible to do work for the team. I hope that once I am back in Europe I will also be able to go for some results. I just want to progress step-by-step and get my spot for the Ardennes classics.”
Just a few days after speaking those words, Vakoc was on his first 2019 podium, as Deceuninck-Quick Step took second in the opening team time trial. His teammates took victories on three stages, including a stage three win by Bob Jungels, who was with Vakoc when he was hit.
Though he acknowledges that he may face future limitations due to damaged nerve, Vakoc is ready to compete. “Going through such an experience can make me mentally stronger, so I think I have a chance to become as good as I used to be and even better now.”
His competitors should take note. Petr Vakoc is podium-grade once again—and that’s after he had to take his training laying down.