Injury, self-doubt and rehab: Greg Henderson’s comeback
Injuries are a part of any professional sport and cycling is no different. But even though injuries are an unavoidable part of being a pro cyclist, it’s never easy to deal with being off the bike, particularly when nobody can diagnose what’s wrong with you.
Lotto-Belisol’s key lead-out man Greg Henderson writes about the challenges of dealing with a mystery knee injury which saw him undergo surgery last month.
I vividly remember the day. Ironically, it wasn’t even a super tough day — three hours easy moto work with Hayden Roulston. We chatted occasionally but both were focused on sitting nicely on the wheel.
We stopped in Angles and I rode home and he carried on for another hour of pacing. I had an easy 30 minutes home.
I took off in the opposite direction and yelled “up” to the moto and laughed. And then I thought “What’s that? Sore knee? Could it be serious? Naaahhh. I’m not old. I don’t get sore knees.”
I shifted around on the saddle of my TT bike and found a slightly more comfortable position and limped home. At this stage the pain was about a five out of 10. I wasn’t even really phased. “Niggly knee? No worries. I won’t even feel it in the morning.”
I woke up and had a dirty ergo set for the workout of the day. I was trying to strap a turbo on to my engine that had become slightly diesel-like after having finished 16 days of the Vuelta.
Not a chance today.
I was in so much lateral pain. Nine out of 10. “OK, no stress”, I thought. “Day off. Don’t mess around. Ibuprofen and ice. I’ll be right as rain tomorrow.”
Fast forward three months, to late December. I just completed my first two-hour painfree bike ride. How is this even possible?
When I arrived back in Australia a little while after the initial knee pain I set about finding a resource network to help me get on top of the knee. This was easier said than done. I’m a Kiwi and I haven’t been injured before in Australia. I had no idea where to turn.
My first port of call was my mate Dr Mitch Anderson who gave me a little roadside consultancy, literally. He said “Mate, have a holiday. Pull the pin on China [Tour of Beijing] and that knee will come good. To be sure let’s MRI it.”
MRI number one was clear — everything looked great. I spent four weeks off the bike with my knee sore even from walking. I could do gym work but I was tearing my hair out — even the cycling action lying on my back was inflaming my knee.
I have the best myotherapist in Melbourne, a guy called Trent, and he was seeing me near daily. But he was honest and said to me “Mate…I have no idea what’s wrong.”.
The first thoughts of retirement pop into my head.
I get a second opinion…. who says “Nah, don’t worry mate. I’ll get you in to see a doc. He’s a gun.”
I get another MRI and that too is clear. Everything looks great. Except it’s not.
Now I’m thinking “Right, I have to move back to New Zealand to get this treated. I need regular assessment. I need a rehab program. I need someone to tell me what’s wrong!”
By this point I’ve spent nearly six weeks off the bike. I usually have three at most. Normally my off-season is a food-fest — eat, drink, be merry and relax. Eat the stuff you avoid all season.
In my mind I knew this wasn’t something simple so I was trying to watch my weight the whole time. I couldn’t imagine returning to training and having a 10kg spare tyre to remove first. How rude: an offseason full of physio and dieting!
I’d been in regular contact with my team doctor throughout the whole process but I still didn’t have a support team to set a plan or to give me an explanation.
Right, I’m off to NZ to see my old mate Anthony Chapman or Mark Hollands. But that means leaving the family for another two weeks, minimum. I’m over this. For the second time I think about retiring.
Enter physio Paul Visentini and sports physician Dr Andrew Garnham. It’s all about rehab rehab rehab, crazy exercises, firing muscles I never knew existed. Does that help? Should it? I have no clue. All I know is I can’t even get 30 minutes into a easy spin without major knee pain.
“Don’t panic Hendo”, as the Aussies call me, “we have a support team. We have a plan written up. Surgery is miles away still.”
Fast forward 100 physio visits and a million exercises later and I have been put in touch with Professor Julian Feller. My initial thought? “I hope he is a f***ing clever Feller.”
After more contact with my team it’s time for MRI number three. And just like the first two, everything looks fine. But it still isn’t.
“Greg, I think its better you come to Belgium to get this operated on”, the team doctor tells me.
“You’re kidding me aren’t you? Belgium?!” I wanted to cry. I’m so f***ing over this. I’m already booked in tomorrow to go under the knife with Professor Feller. I can’t cancel now, can I? Should I?”
Oh man I give up. I’m going back to Belgium tomorrow, not hospital.
“Hey Greg…I wouldn’t stress too much mate”, Professor Feller tells me. “I’ve been chatting with your Belgian docs. Simple as mate. Relax.” I wouldn’t have to go to Belgium. Thank goodness.
I could have kissed the Prof right then. “Thank you so much Julian, you clever Feller.” Positive affirmations from somebody who doesn’t sugarcoat anything. My kind of guy.
Everyone is happy. Everyone has chatted. Off I trot for surgery.
I wake up. Julian mumbles something to me. I’m still groggy. I understand nothing. I ring him the next day and say “Mate, you could have said ‘You’ll never ride again’ and I wouldn’t have heard you. You didn’t say that did you?! What did you say?!”
Prepatellar bursectomy. He got rid of the ugly scarred-up tissue and did a minor lateral ligament release.
I asked whether it was worth doing. Like, honestly. Was it definitely worth going in for? Don’t sugarcoat it. “Definitely!”
And so the long road back to fitness has finally begun. I have such a long list of people to thank.
I really can’t thank Lotto Belisol enough. I’m a typical bloke and try to suffer in silence and my team has allowed me to rehab correctly. They know I have been doing everything I can to get back on my bike and they’ve allowed me to do it with my family around me in Australia.
My team really is amazing and they trust me 100%. My reputation as a dedicated trainer and competitive bugger preceded me here.
Thanks to all the docs and physios. Dr Mitch, Dr Andrew, Dr Peter, Dr Sam, Dr Julian, Dr Jan and Dr Toon. And my physio squadron of Paul, Mark, Anthony and Trent. Thanks so much. Mental and physical coaching helped me through. And I even made a few mates along the way.
In the end it was such a simple surgery that for an athlete can seem like the end of the world. I support a family and I can’t support them if I can’t ride. Follow-ups have been good and I’m now riding pain free.
I will miss the Tour Down Under but I’ll visit the guys and train for a few days with them. Lotto Belisol hasn’t rushed me back into racing; instead they’re telling me to come back slowly and correctly. I really do love my team.
I guess the long story short is that nothing is ever as bad as you make it out in your own head. If I knew somebody going through the same thing my advice would be to relax and enjoy time with your family — its a bloody long season. Of course, actually doing that is so hard mentally.
Two weeks after my surgery I’m now taking that next step in my comeback. I’ve landed in Adelaide to train and help prepare the boys for the Tour Down Under, but it’s too soon for me to start racing. But the good news is I’ve been on the bike for three weeks now: zero knee pain. Now it’s just a matter of rebuilding my strength and fitness.
Five days chasing the Lotto Belisol boys around the Adelaide hills will definitely give me an indication on how I’m progressing. Check out the GoPro footage above so you can experience what it’s like trying to hold The Big German’s wheel.
I’ve read lots of negative stuff in the media saying “Henderson is finished”. I’ll bloody show you.