Adriano Malori’s remarkable path back from brain injury
Lining out in the pro bunch again is a major step forward for the Movistar rider Adriano Malori, but he’s got broader goals than his own racing career. Almost a year after he took second in the world time trial championships, the three-time Italian champion and 2014 Vuelta stage winner feels he is now a role model for others who have suffered traumatic injury.
Returning from a serious brain injury suffered in January of this year, a crash which left him in a medically-induced coma, Adriano Malori has reached a significant stage in what has been a remarkable recovery.
The 28-year-old rider announced on Tuesday that he plans to return to competition in the GP Québec on September 9 and will also ride the GP Montréal two days later.
The turnaround is considerable for a rider who was gravely ill after falling on stage five of the Tour de San Luis, and who faced what could have been the end of his career.
Unsurprisingly, Malori is emotional about pinning on a number again.
“I’m afraid I’ll start crying as I roll to the start and see all the riders there, the finish banner…all the atmosphere around a race, where I wanted so badly to be,” he states.
Malori is keen to underline just how far he has come. He speaks about the day of the crash and states that he can remember nothing after speaking to Vincenzo Nibali and suggesting to him that they attack together towards the end of the stage.
He said he was told months later by Movistar teammate Fran Ventoso that he hit a pothole and fell heavily at about 65 kilometres per hour.
That fall was catastrophic.
“I crashed directly with my face against the ground, and due to the big blow, my brain moved from its normal position,” he said. “It slid and rubbed against my skull. That caused a huge hematoma in the left side of the brain, which governs all actions from the right-hand side of the body.
“As a result of the accident, almost half my face is made out of titanium. There are pieces covering my cheekbone and parts of my jaw. They will be there for the rest of my life, but hopefully, with time, that will be the only trace of the accident.”
That’s grim, but things could have been much worse.
Malori said that he was semi-conscious for two to three weeks after the crash, and only woke up properly on Valentines Day. His girlfriend Elisa, who had paid for a one way ticket to Argentina immediately after his crash in order to be with him, brought him a cake to celebrate the day. He sees that as a turning point.
However there was big disappointment soon afterwards. Two days later he travelled from Argentina to Pamplona in Spain and saw specialists there. He was still at the point where he expected to be back on his bike soon; instead, he learned then about how serious things were.
“After a couple of days in the clinic, I asked a doctor to come to my room,” he explained. “Over in Argentina, I hadn’t been really briefed correctly about the situation of my injuries, and I wasn’t expecting them to be so serious. I underwent checkups and magnetic resonance… and later on, I asked the doctors: ‘when are you planning to have surgery on my shoulder, so I can move it again?’
“I took for granted that I would have that shoulder operated and would be back for racing in Tirreno-Adriatico. After all, my leg was slowly getting back to move… I wasn’t thinking that anything was going wrong.
“Then, that doctor opened my eyes about the reality: ‘Adriano, we’re not operating you. We don’t have to. The problem with your shoulder is that your brain has been disconnected from the right-hand side of your body.’ Disconnected. I just couldn’t bear those words. I spent a whole hour crying, to exhaustion, completely hopeless.”
From despair to determination
Professional athletes have many attributes, but one of the strongest is a resolve to battle on and to improve. Whether it is reaching peak form or returning from setbacks, everyone in the pro peloton has drawn on these qualities.
Malori tapped into these when reacting to his rock-bottom moment.
His first response was to set his sights on becoming what he now terms “a normal, self-sufficient person as soon as possible.”
On February 25 he went to the Centro Neurológico de Atención Integral (CNAI; Integral Neurological Care Center) in Imárcoain, ten kilometres outside Pamplona. He said that he arrived “half-paralysed,” and set about working with the head doctor Manuel Murie, his team and in particular two physiotherapists, Rebeca Fernández and Tania Iriarte.
“It would take a whole day to explain all of the different exercises I went through,” he explains. “Every day, I had to work three hours on physiotherapy, two on mobility therapy – planned exclusively for my situation – plus another hour of speech therapy. To all of that, from 20 March, I added an hour riding on the trainer.
“I spent a whole working day, every single day, for many months, trying to heal up and get back to where I was. I came into the centre half-paralyzed, on a wheelchair, and I left on 28 April on my own, having even gone on bike rides few days before being released.”
Encouraged by that progress, he flew back to his hometown near Parma, Italy, in May. However he then reached a plateau. Working in another rehabilitation centre in Italy, he said that the strength in his limbs recovered quite a lot during that month, but that he didn’t regain any extra mobility in his right hand, arm and leg.
“The problem was that the centre where I started further rehab in in Italy wasn’t bad, but just didn’t fit my situation. There, they were working with people suffering even more extreme injuries. Those people couldn’t hope for a full recovery, and ‘just’ pursued a level of restoration that allowed them to do normal life.
“I had already gone through that phase. The only thing I wanted was to be a professional athlete again.”
Malori decided that in order to achieve that goal, he needed to head back to the CNAI clinic in Spain once again. He went there in late June and remained there until August 5, also spending time in the Mutua Navarra clinic. He worked in two-week blocks, taking short breaks at home before returning once again.
“At the Mutua, I took exercises to recover strength in my shoulder and the muscles around my arm and scapula; at CNAI, I improved my precision on different moves of my hand. I keep doing those exercises at home, yet it’ll take still some time to recover 100% strength on my hand.”
Things have paid off after all the hard work. “For bike racing, I’m completely fine. I take turns at higher and higher speeds, I’m able to sprint and stop with ease,” he states.
“I keep the same speed I was able to hold on serious efforts. I’m able to brake smoothly, feeling my bike as I did before the accident. I don’t have any fears nor doubts. I’m more than ready.”
However while he is physically much improved, he admits that mentally he struggled in relation to cycling.
“I didn’t watch a single stage of either the Giro or the Tour,” he reveals. “I switched the TV on, I started to watch a bike race, I saw them riding so fast and it looked like a different sport to me, like MotoGP.
“It hurt me so much, not being able to keep the pace they held, not being there, not feeling those speeds.”
However spending time with his Movistar team has helped things. Going to races such as the GP Miguel Indurain maintained an umbilical cord to the sport and so too did training with some teammates when they were close to where he was staying in Pamplona.
That helped to bring back his confidence and his affection for the sport, and to help him get to where he is now. Unsurprisingly, he’s grateful to the team and to all those who helped in his recovery.
“It’s a miracle…I felt like I had to tell my story”
As the days tick down to his return to competition, Malori is philosophical about what he has been through and how it has affected him.
He believes that he has been irreversibly changed, and sees positives to what he has gone through.
He is also very clear about what he can do to motivate others.
“When such a thing happens to you, you start seeing life in a very different way,” he explains. “When you’re feeling so damaged, seriously injured, in Pamplona, sitting in a wheelchair, and you see people moving around, your only aspiration is doing all those things you see them do, feeling normal, getting to be just someone else.
“Yet, when you’re admitted to the CNAI and soon improve a lot, till the point that you get up from the wheelchair in just ten days, regaining strength in all parts of your body – then, you look in the eyes of people around you, who are taking the same efforts but don’t improve, and you, who were feeling worse than them, you’re ‘overtaking’ them at full speed – they look at you with eyes that you never forget.”
Prior to his accident, Malori was perhaps a role model to those who love cycling and who perhaps want a career in the sport.
Now his example is wider than that. “They don’t admire you because of being a Movistar Team rider, wearing that expensive watch or having an amazing sports car,” he states, referring to the other patients in the clinic.
“They just admire you because you’re able to move. That really changes your views on everything. That brings a tear to our eye. And you start giving things their real value.
“These eight months have completely changed my life. For the better. You’re always complaining when you’re young and everything has come easily for you; you keep on saying your life is f-ed up even when you just didn’t get the parking spot you were looking for, or when you aren’t able to find the apartment you had rented for your holidays. When things like my injuries happen to you, you realize all those complaints are nonsense. You really value what it’s like to feel fine and healthy. You give all things the real value they have.”
Looking towards the future, he wants to use his example to inspire other people who also find themselves in rehabilitation. The thoughts of this helping others to improve is a big motivation for him.
He’s been through a very difficult time but proves that it is possible to emerge out the other side. To be hurt but to recover. To be broken but to heal.
“Seeing where I was eight months ago, and being able to get back to racing – not training, racing – at the same level I was before the accident – it’s an extraordinary thing,” he states. “It’s a miracle. And I felt like I had to tell my story, in order to bring hope to those suffering.
“Their brain works okay, yet they can’t move a finger, or even their own eyes. Do people know which levels of frustration can this bring to? The only thing I want now is having people in my same situation know my story or hearing voices telling them about it, and think: ‘see, there’s a young boy of my same age, or older, or younger, who has been able to move his hand, his arm, his whole body again, with a strong will and lots of hard work. And he’s actually a man who has got back to the top of his sport, competing wherever he was doing before his accident.
“‘He had the balls to do it, he could, and you can, too.’”