By Robbie Broughton
When Chris Froome had his ‘horror crash’ at the Criterium de Dauphine a few days ago, it wasn’t long before people began speculating about how long his recovery would take. And given the extent of his injuries some even questioned whether he’d ever be able to compete at his previously stratospheric level again.
We spoke to Tony Doyle, a former star of the 6-Day racing circuit in the 1980s and 1990s and a world champion in the 5km pursuit. In 1989 he suffered a horrendous crash at the Munich 6-Day which left him in a coma for 10 days during which time he was administered the last rites. One year later he was back racing at Munich, the scene of his own ‘horror crash.’ And he won it.
What does it take for a rider to overcome such serious injuries, get back on the bike and be a winner all over again?
Eating brunch in a trendy cafe on London’s South Bank, we’re a long way from the pumping music and charged atmosphere of the Munich Olympiahalle on a chilly November night nearly thirty years ago. Back then Munich was the Blue Riband event of the Six day circuit. “I loved racing there.” Says Tony, “and really rose to the occasion.”
It was certainly the place to be seen and the VIP inner track area would lay on sumptuous dining to actors, pop stars and important dignitaries. Cigarette smoke filled the air along with the whiff of fried food and hoppy fumes from the copious amounts of beer consumed. The crowds were huge and animated, the buzzy vibe producing some very fast racing.
By 1989 Tony was at the height of his career. Nicknamed “The Motorbike” because of his huge engine, he’d won Munich the year before and he was the ‘Patron’ of the Six Days, the rider that all the others looked up to and respected. Partnering the Swiss superstar Urs Frueller, they were lying in second place on the fourth night of racing, a Sunday night when the field of riders was utterly exhausted. For Tony, true champ that he is, this presented something of an opportunity: “Over the years I’d realised that Sunday nights were a chance to assert yourself and take advantage of the other riders’ fatigued legs with me, hopefully, being able to dish out some more pain.”
The last race of the night was the one-hour Madison – as the reigning European champion this event was one in which he excelled and he duly began to crank up the punishment to his rivals. 43 minutes in he’d got the sling shot into the track from the heavily-moustachioed Frueller and launched a solo attack off the front in an attempt to gain a lap. Charging down the home straight he flew past the Danish rider, Jens Veggerby. Then, as he drew alongside the leading rider, a Russian rookie pro called Mareet Ganneev, the newbie to the track suddenly decided to pull right up into the banking without looking over his shoulder or even a nudge of the elbow to indicate where he was going.
There was nowhere for Tony go and he collided into the Russian, causing a pile up of five other riders behind him. Crashes on the track happen all the time and, to the spectator, they always look horrendous as riders hit the deck sliding 10 meters or even more onto the inside of the track. More often than not the injuries are friction burns or splinters from the wooden boards embedding themselves into shoulders, buttocks and thighs. Cyclists, especially 6-Day track cyclists, are a tough breed however, and usually they’ll be quickly cleaned and patched up ready to enter the fray within minutes.
On this occasion however, the only place Tony was going to was hospital. The leather ‘hair net’ proved to be scant protection as he flew off his bike at 60 kmh, crashing his head into the concrete siding. As well as being knocked out cold his shoulder, elbow and right leg were smashed up and blood oozed out of his ripped shorts.
What followed was an absolute shambles of incompetence and bad planning. The doctor took an age to arrive at the scene after being pulled away from his dinner in the VIP area. He and some Bavarian Red Cross attendants who had also been taking advantage of the free beer supplied by the local brewery, bundled him into a stretcher without strapping him in, only for him to fall out onto concrete steps. They then pulled him up by his injured right side to put him back in!
He was carried out into the freezing night air still in his lycra shorts and jersey, uncovered, only for the stretcher bearers to discover that the ambulance was waiting at a completely separate entrance on the opposite side of the arena. Eventually he was taken to hospital where he was immediately transferred into intensive care. He was in a coma with severe bruising to the brain and on a life support machine, unable to breathe independently.
So shocked was his wife when she managed to get out to see him – on a ventilator, surrounded by monitors and intravenous drips and a face battered black and blue, and now also suffering from a lung infection – that she immediately sought out a priest to administer him the last rites (the last prayers given to Catholics when they are mortally injured).
It was eight days before his condition finally stabilised and he began to show a flicker of regaining consciousness, and ten days before they felt it safe to transport him by air ambulance back to the UK. He was admitted to the neurological ward of Charing Cross Hospital for six weeks before being transferred to a head injury unit at Unsted Park near Godalming.
Recovery was sporadic and unpredictable. Once he regained consciousness he began to piece together the events of that terrible evening through fragments of his own memories, accounts from those who’d been there and from newspaper reports. He had to re-learn how to do the simplest of tasks like eating with a knife and fork all over again. The brain injury was a front lobal one which effects spatial awareness and balance so walking again was also a struggle. But he threw himself into rehabilitating his body in the gym under the care of John Horner, an ex-RAF physiotherapist.
Building up from an initial 6 minutes at a time on an exercise bike, he was soon able to endure two hours a day spread over two or three sessions. Within a few weeks he was being watched by anxious staff as he rode a mountain bike across a lawn.
Tony says that it was his responsibilities as a family man that pulled him through as much as anything else. Thoughts of competing as a cyclist again were only at the back of his mind. “I just wanted to get healthy again,” and he describes his recovery as a minor miracle. Back then only 15% of victims with his kind of head injury would get back to a normal routine, and even then after about five years.
“I had an inner resolve to overcome the setback. And I dealt with it in an organised way getting the best advice, treatment, specialists…I was unusual for those days because I had good insurance – I had to do all that myself, but most people didn’t have it.”
He built himself up again gradually, going out training on a road bike with his wife following him in the family car. Unsurprisingly he was much more cautious on his training rides, wearing a full helmet and taking care over where and when he went, ever conscious of the dangers of traffic. Five months after the crash he was racing and six months after it he was competing in the Milk Race, despite being told that it was impossible.
“Back on the track it was like I’d never been away.” The caution he displayed on his training rides disappeared and ‘The Motorbike’ was back to his old self on the boards, dishing out punishment to his rivals and, of course, going on to win the Munich 6-Day, a year after his terrible crash.
As Chris Froome recovers from his extensive injuries, Tony’s advice is, “You’ve got to get healthy first. You’ve got a family, you’ve got children. You’ve had a great career, but get yourself healthy so you can do everyday things. Then you know what it takes to get back to full fitness on a bike. Let your friends and your family know that you’re here. First and foremost you’ve got to be healthy before you can get fit. Don’t do too much too soon. You’ve got to pace yourself.”
And, “Dealing with the psychological blow - that’s what makes a true champ. I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see him come back and winning another Grand Tour next year. Cyclists – we’re a special breed.”
Tony Doyle MBE, you certainly are a special breed indeed. Chapeau!