By the time Will Walker was 21 he’d already won the U23 men’s road race at the Australian nationals (ahead of the elite men, no less), he’d won silver in the U23 men’s world championship road race (at 19) and he’d ridden two Grand Tours with Rabobank. But the heavy workload had taken its toll.
At 21 Will had developed mononucleosis and Bell’s Palsy and had also been diagnosed with a cardiac arrhythmia known as tachycardia — a condition in which the heart beats far faster than it normally should, all while pumping less blood around the body.
The condition saw Will retire from the sport in early 2009 but in early 2012 he made a return, riding with the then-Continental Drapac squad back in Australia and winning a handful of races. He rode with Drapac in 2012 and 2013 and in 2014 he made the switch to the Azerbaijan-based Synergy Baku Cycling Project, alongside fellow Australian Pat Lane.
The Nationals road race was Will’s first in the Baku colours and, keen to make an early impression, he made his way into the early break of 17 riders that build a sizeable lead over the main field. It was in this breakaway that Will started to feel the tell-tale signs of tachycardia.
What happened on Sunday
“A lot was riding on me having a good ride – personal pride and getting a ride at the Tour Down Under [with the University of South Australia squad]. I was actually having good legs on the day and felt like I had a good chance at a podium.
“I pushed through a few five-second bursts of tachycardia and it was really starting to hurt me. I started to lose quite a bit of energy from it and eventually I got dropped. My plan was to keep riding easy, let the peloton catch me and then pull out.
“As the peloton came past me I wanted to find my teammate Pat Lane to see if he needed anything. At that point I went into tachycardia at a really really alarming rate.
“It felt like I lost all cardiac output. I turned right into the crowd and collapsed with my heart beating at 270bpm and I couldn’t come out of it.”
Will tells us that he had tried all of the regular techniques to come out of the episode — coughing, big deep breaths, cold water, re-hydrating — but the episode persisted for much longer than he was used to.
“Most of the time in my career I’ve had short episodes of about five seconds and you can manage it by stopping pedalling. You need to anyway because it’s almost like going to your VO2max straight away as soon as you get it. So you’ve got to stop pedaling and restart and hope you’re through it.
“A lot of people would have heard me coughing in the race. Those things usually help to reset the rhythm.
“I had a lot to prove in this race. It’s probably the worst I’ve ever been mentally in terms of how much I wanted to push through and that’s probably the best reason why I should stop cycling. I’ve got a brain that can push way too far.
“This time I wasn’t even going that hard up at the top of the hill – I would have been back to about 140bpm. I was just cruising up the hill and then the next moment I was doing 270bpm for an hour.
“When it goes for an hour … I’ve never had that before. I’ve never had longer than 30 seconds. It’s the scariest thing I could go through. It felt like I was going to die.
“By the stage that it [the tachycardia episode] was over 10 seconds I couldn’t push anymore — I had no output, and that’s when I veered out into the crowd and collapsed on to the ground.”
Unable to answer questions about who he was or what has happening, Will relied on nearby spectators who knew of his condition to speak with the ambulance officers.
“Luckily with everyone knowing that I have a heart condition people were able to help me, get the ambulance, tell the ambos what my name was, and my past condition. Most of the time I was just trying to hold on to not dying.
“I already knew I was retiring [from cycling] the second I knew I was going to live through this. It was the worst feeling ever. Numb arms, numb legs — I couldn’t even answer questions about myself.
“For sure I thought I was going to die.”
Will tells us that his heart has been good for two years but there were some subtle difference in how he approached this season.
“I think I didn’t completely recover from jetlag from coming over [from Italy] and because I wanted to do well in this race I made the decision that I had to push through jetlag, and the heat. More than ever I wanted to do well to get a spot at the TDU and do well for the team [Baku].
“I made this conscious decision to give it everything I had up until the Sun Tour and Tour of Taiwan and I guess all those extra things I used to do when I was 17 years old, my body just doesn’t do anymore.
“Even when I started [the race on Sunday] I knew things weren’t right and I should have pulled out on lap 1. But honestly, if I had just kept riding at 80% in the bunch, I wouldn’t have been happy with myself. I need to be a winner. Coming back [to the sport] and not being dominant has hurt me anyway, and I wanted to make amends for that.”
As Will tells us, the past year has been a real rollercoaster.
“I trained in June and July in Italy last year. I was going as well as I ever have. I listened to all the signs [of tachycardia] but my body was coping really well. I was 100% sure that I was going to go back [as a pro cyclist]. I was absolutely sure I was going to kill everybody at every stage race.
“Then on the plane home I got sick and had picked up European flu. I went from having a threshold of 360w to about 260w — just enough to do a junior race. I had to ride the next two months slowing building up from that.
“So, that was two months of hard work just to come out with nothing. I don’t really feel that in the two-year year comeback that I had, that I got to show what I was capable of, except for a couple days here and there.
“In the end, I prefer going out like I did, having tried to get back, rather than puttering along at 80% staying a cyclist but not that good. At least I know that I tried but couldn’t do it.
“I could have potentially ridden for another 10 years at 80% as a pro cyclist, just hanging in there doing nothing, but as soon as I start pushing that little bit extra and not listening to those signs, I think that threw me over the edge.”
Too hard, too early
We asked Will whether he thought his heart condition was brought on by racing so hard, so early in his career.
“Yeah, completely. I’d say it’s 100% the case. But that’s not me saying that I’m disappointed at the way I was thrown into the deep end early. That’s just a result of times and my situation. I didn’t say no and I was never going to. Ask me at 20 years old to ride the Vuelta and I’m always going to say yes.”
We spoke to Dr André La Gerche, a cardiologist at St. Vincent’s Hospital who did his post-doctoral research fellow in Belgium on the impact of extreme exercise on athletes’ hearts, to find out more about the links between endurance exercise and heart arrhythmias.
“There’s more and more of a consensus that there’s more arrhythmias in athletes but mostly of the atrial fibrillation – the benign type of arrhythmias if you like. Ventricular arrhythmias [what Will Walker has], those are the ones that really make us nervous. Because they’re rarer there’s no clear evidence that they occur more in cyclists – but there’s more people beginning to think that they are more common. It’s very very difficult to prove one way or the other.”
CyclingTips believes there are a number of athletes in the professional peloton that suffer from heart arrhythmias, but who are reluctant to reveal their condition to the teams (and to the wider public). We put this to Dr La Gerche.
“We’ve done some work with teams and speaking to the athletes themselves, they’re always justifiably concerned about how the team and team doctors will respond – it can sometimes be contract ending.
“Rumor is that there are some people just like Will in the pro peloton who just chose to continue to push it, which makes me nervous.
“It’s quite amazing in cyclists how they can somehow tolerate these fast rhythms. [With] a normal person, if their heart was going at 270bpm they’d lose consciousness. Often with these athletes hearts they’re still able to generate some sort of cardiac output.
“There’s some amazing reports of riders going through some very serious arrhythmias who stay riding in the pack. It’s extraordinary.”
We asked Will whether he knew of other cyclists in the pro peloton with a similar condition to his.
“For sure a lot of cyclists have got it. Not as bad as I have it, but I’m not one to try to hide this fact, but lots do. A lot of cyclists I’ve heard of have some sort of arrhythmia. I hope people can be a lot more aware of it and share their advice for managing it. Particularly promote it so there’s more research and funding.”
Retirement and the future
Will tells us that this latest episode left him with no doubt — it was time to quit the sport for good.
“As soon as I had my episode last weekend I told the team and that this was it for me and cycling. Instead of just pretending that I was just being cautious or something, I would prefer to do it this way.”
“I really wanted to continue riding with Baku, seeing cool countries, helping the riders on the team…it was really going to be a fantastic time – probably better than riding at the WorldTour level. There’s less stress, greater diversity and better chances of victory.
“But I’m not disappointed. There are always new things on the horizon and I’m really just glad to have my life. In hindsight if it had happened in a race in China or Thailand in the middle of nowhere things could have been a lot worse. I was pretty lucky that there were ambulances at the race [the National Championships] and people were around to help me. I was very lucky.”
Despite not riding for the team anymore, Will still hopes to be able to contribute to Baku in some way.
“We’ve discussed it but we’re still working out what my involvement will be. I want to stay involved and contribute towards the team. I was initially there to help mentor the younger riders so potentially that’s still doable.”
And thankfully his heart condition shouldn’t affect his day-to-day, going forward.
“It’s not even a relevant thing in everyday life. It’s only when I become this stubborn cyclist who wants to beat everyone – that’s the only time it comes out. I’ll keep riding, but I’m not going to tempt myself because my brain wants to push and push.
“My pain tolerance on the bike is really high, so I’m better off not having a racing license and training in extreme conditions and just riding for fun to the coffee shop and back.
“It’s good to be alive.”