Shane Archbold’s agonising year: ‘I definitely could have stopped at any time’

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Shane Archbold helped teammate Sam Bennett to five victories in recent weeks, yet spent much of this season wondering if he’d ever get back to top form again. Bedridden on more than one occasion and suffering horrendous pain due to a bad injury, the Kiwi has been through a harrowing time. Here’s what went wrong, how he turned things around and what comes next.

There is a story Sam Bennett recounts, one which illustrates Shane Archbold’s dedication to him and devotion to the cause.

“It was a Belgian race,” Bennett told CyclingTips this week. “There was a pile up as the motorbike was passing the side of the bunch. To help me stay upright, Shane pushed me through a gap and put himself into a pile of bikes.

“He landed on the side of the motorbike and burnt his arm off the exhaust, just to keep me safe.”

Archbold has been Bennett’s right-hand man for several years. He rode alongside him in 2013 with the An Post Chainreaction team. He then reunited with him a year later at Bora-Argon18, now Bora-hansgrohe. He was there for many of Bennett’s big wins, and was also there when Bennett crashed hard on stage 1 of the 2016 Tour de France and was badly hurt.

Archbold helped him across the finish line on that occasion and nursed him through the Tour, only to crash out himself with a fractured pelvis on stage 17.

Complications from that injury sidelined Archbold for much this year, but the two reunited recently at the Sparkassen Münsterland Giro. Archbold helped Bennett to victory there, and also played a key role in the Irishman’s four stage wins in the Presidential Tour of Turkey.

Archbold is both a good friend and also a very effective teammate. He’s got a superb ability as a pilot fish for Bennett, guiding him through the dangerous currents of the peloton and then leading him out with a powerful turn of speed.

“Shane has come back from his 2016 Tour de France crash stronger than ever before,” said Bennett, talking about their reunion. “He is a phenomenal lead-out man with a feel for the race that is so rare.

“His professionalism and work ethic makes me respect him a hell of a lot and the loyalty he shows me and the entire team is next to none. I’ve always known what a talent he is but we’re also great friends. He’s an asset to any team and showed that again in Turkey. I’m gutted to lose him next year.”

Bennett wanted Archbold to stay, and Archbold also wanted to continue their partnership. But injury plus a long period of time away from competition raised questions about Archbold’s future. While he was able to prove his worth after his return, it was too late to secure a ride with Bora-hansgrohe for 2018.

What was left of Shane ‘The Flying Mullet’ Archbold’s bike after a high-speed crash on stage 17 of the 2016 Tour de France. The damage was partly caused by another rider hitting his fallen machine.

Still, given the purgatory he went through this season, he takes consolation in where he is and what comes next.

But just how bad did things get?

Bedridden for days, and more than once

Sometime between Christmas and New Year Archbold realised just how much trouble he was in. He’d been having twinges in his leg lasting five minutes or so, flares of pain that would soon subside once more. Some days were worse than others, but generally it was no big deal.

Until, suddenly, it was. “One day I woke up and I just couldn’t walk,” he says. “I was bedridden for five or six days. And obviously with hospitals, being Christmas and New Year, things were complicated. I put myself in hospital after four days, and they sent me home with paracetamol, telling me it was just muscle soreness.

“Obviously, after nearly completing the Tour, I knew what the muscle soreness was. I knew it was something more serious than that. So I went to another hospital to get an MRI and they confirmed that I had a disc extrusion in my back. They said the nerve pain was radiating from that.”

The issue, he believes, was a long-term consequence of imbalances caused by his crash in the Tour. He fell heavily on stage 17, hitting the deck at 67 km/h when his front wheel skated on a patch of melted tarmac on the descent off the Col de la Forclaz.

Team Bora-Argon 18 mechanic Risto Usin attended to him quickly, and said that Archbold was determined to continue. “When I got there he was still down [on the ground],” he told CyclingTips at the time. “He was just reaching (out) his hand to me. ‘Pull me up! Pull me up and give me the f**king bike!’”

Incredibly, despite his fractured pelvis, Archbold finished the stage. He was determined to start the following day but woke up unable to walk. He was out of his first Tour de France.

Archbold is a tough rider and was soon back in action. He got back on his bike approximately 20 days after his crash, returned to racing a little over three weeks later, and continued until the end of the season. The idea was to give him a good base for 2017. Once he started building up for the new year, things seemed to be going to plan.

However after six or seven weeks of training, the nerve pain issue began to show itself.

Fast forward to January and Archbold was severely debilitated, being forced to spend long periods of time in bed. He was given medication to control the pain and treat the problem. Doctors gave him an injection which they said would settle things down, telling he would be back to normal after approximately a week.

Instead, 10 days later, he was still unable to get out of bed.

Archbold was hugely frustrated with how things were. “I’d missed nationals and missed Tour Down Under and then didn’t really know what to do next,” he explains. “My dad had to drive me everywhere in the van so I could lie down in the back; it was impossible to sit.”

He was in agony, but felt he couldn’t get the problem solved at home.

“I decided that when I could walk for more than five or 10 minutes, I would fly back to Europe to do rehab here. I got a business class flight; I still couldn’t sit for five minutes, all I could do was lie down. It was a very painful experience, but I made it to Europe.”

Once in Germany, he went to a clinic arranged by the Bora-hansgrohe team and did two weeks of rehabilitation. Those exercises and the medication he was under were enough to get him back on the bike, giving him optimism that he was putting things behind him.

That was, unfortunately, not the case. Back at his European base of Girona in mid-February, he tried to knuckle down to training. He had a very mixed time. He was forced to take several days off, could then do a block of training but would be sidelined again for several days when the symptoms flared up again.

Once again there were periods when he was bedridden, yet he remained positive and believed the solution was around the corner.

“I started to get quite fit in April,” he explains. “I booked in to go to altitude camp for the team to try to get back in the rhythm of things. And then literally three days before I was going to go I couldn’t get out of bed again. I was just as bad as what I was in December. I was just completely out of action.

“I waited about three or four more days and then put myself in hospital here in Spain. They did an MRI after a couple of days, and they just said the same thing as before. ‘You are going to do the injection. See if it clears. Rah de rah.’ So I did the injection.

“I checked myself out of the hospital after about nine days and then came back to my apartment. After three days I was back in exactly the same situation. I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t train, I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t do the exercises.”

Exasperated, he returned to the hospital in Girona and they finally gave a green light for him to get a spinal operation. He and the team opted to have that done in Germany, and he went under the knife on May 31. Having the extrusion removed took the pressure off the nerve; he was then told to start rehab after several days.

After 10 days of that, he headed back to Girona and began training again. Yet it took time to get his confidence back that he was indeed on the right road.

“I didn’t know at the time that when you get the operation, the nerve has a memory. So it doesn’t just instantly go away. You don’t just walk free again. Still to this day I can’t sit for more than two hours. I can’t sit in the car, and when I’m flying I have to get up and walk around.

“But it is a lot better now. The nerve is starting to settle down. Maybe once a week I have a little bit of pain, but it’s pretty non-existent. And that’ll go away over time.”

Light at the end of the tunnel. Archbold in his European hometown of Girona.

The mental toll of a career-threatening injury

It’s difficult for words to convey how frustrating the time was for Archbold. Studies have shown that when athletes are sidelined by injury, depression is often a typical response. Their work depends on a healthy body and when things break down, when they are unable to race and train – or even move around like regular people – there is a cascade of responses.

Loss of self-identity, frustration, doubts about the future and uncertainty if they will be able to get back to where they were before are just some of the issues people like Archbold have had to deal with.

There is also a chemical response: suddenly not being able to exercise cuts off the usual swirl of endorphins generated by physical exertion.

This hormone is a big part of the feel-good factor exercise creates. Without it, athletes can flounder. Endorphins are addictive, and a sudden break in their production can bring mood lows, withdrawal symptoms, and further complicate the frustration and uncertainty already being felt.

“It was a struggle,” Archbold says with a laugh. “Originally I was told, ‘okay, take the injection, 10 days and you will be back on the bike.’

“I did that, then the problem came back. It’s been like mind games the whole way. Any cyclist’s career is the same, with ups and downs, but this was just more extreme this year. I definitely could have stopped at any time. That’s for sure. There have been some really difficult days.

“Probably the toughest time was in March when it would get good, get bad, get good, get bad. I was meant to be doing some Classics, meant to be doing WorldTour races. The team’s obviously stepped up again this year and it was disappointing to not be at the Giro with Sam. Stuff like that.

Archbold missed supporting friend and teammate Sam Bennett.

“Mentally … there were periods there when I didn’t watch any cycling, that’s for sure. I wanted to be there so much that it was too difficult to watch what was actually happening.”

Archbold says that normally he likes to achieve things away from cycling. He wanted to learn Spanish and when his training was disrupted, had the time to do that. However he said that mentally he wasn’t able to focus. Learning a language proved impossible; even finishing books was a challenge. “When you can’t cycle, it seems that everything just stops. I can honestly say that in those eight months, I learned nothing.”

Seeking mental distraction when he was unable to train, he watched TV series and movies. Dexter was one; he laughs about the irony of finding relief from his frustration by watching a programme about a serial killer. Another was Narcos. He’d finish one box set, one TV series, then go watch another.

He had time, and anxious thoughts, to kill. “There were times … I think there were weeks where I probably got 10 hours sleep in the whole week,” he says, looking back. “I don’t know if it was the medication or just the mentality or what was wrong, but I just couldn’t sleep. I was in a dark room the whole time, but I just couldn’t do it.

“It was very difficult.”

Finally turning things around

Hearing Archbold speak about that time, it’s possible to imagine how wound up he was. He notes that he doesn’t have academic studies done; cycling is his life. He’s passionate about the sport, but also aware that it’s his best chance of making a living.

Fortunately, once the operation was done, the clouds started clearing. Over time he was able to knuckle down again. The nerve would flare up occasionally, but those periods proved less and less frequent. His body healed from the operation and the intensive core stability work he was doing helped to keep things stable.

He accepts he will likely have to keep these up for the rest of his career, but is fine with that.

With a sufficient block of training done, he returned to racing by riding non UCI-ranked critieriums and kermesses in Belgium. He’d done plenty of those in the past while with the An Post Chainreaction team, and enjoyed being back in the bunch.

After four day’s racing there, he returned to Girona and then made his return to the Bora-hansgrohe squad in Italy. Speaking to CyclingTips beforehand, he said that he believed he was in good shape; his hope was to show well and to remind his and other teams of his worth.

He had no contract for 2018 and if Bora-hansgrohe was unable to keep him on, he wanted to make sure someone else would snap him up.

Taking seventh in his second race back, the Coppa Bernocchi, was a very good start. Helping Bennett to success in the Sparkassen Münsterland Giro was important, and so too some impressive leadouts in the Presidential Tour of Turkey. Bennett took four stages there, and was keen to emphasise how important Archbold’s contribution was.

Since then he has continued to ride well; he was 13th on the Guilin stage of the Tour of Guangxi, and rode solidly throughout.

He ended the year knowing that he is back to where he needs to be, and is in a good place to keep that momentum going into 2018.

Next season Archbold will be changing jerseys. Although Bennett profited greatly from his help, and was vocal in his thanks, it proved to be too late for Bora-hansgrohe to keep him on. Instead he is heading to the Aqua Blue Sport team, joining up with others who used to be part of the An Post Chainreaction squad.

Having made its debut in 2017, the team has already landed important success: Stefan Denifl won a mountain stage in the Vuelta a España plus the Tour of Austria, while Larry Warbasse took an uphill stage in the Tour de Suisse and also won the US Pro road championships.

Adam Blythe and others went close to other big results, and the team hopes that bringing Archbold on board will make a big difference in translating near-misses to successes.

“Shane is a very talented rider and has shown great resilience and, indeed, form since he came back from injury,” general manager Stephen Moore told CyclingTips. “But that wasn’t our only consideration. He also has a strong pedigree, especially with his past on the track.

“Adam Blythe, our sprinter, has had multiple podiums, four second places, in 2017. Shane has a proven track record of delivering sprinters into position. The priority for him with Aqua Blue Sport is to form a strong partnership with Adam to help him in those last few hundred metres before he launches the sprint.

“We will also give Shane his own opportunities to sprint for the win.”

Next season will bring a new jersey and fresh opportunities.

Archbold has been through a lot; a rider with less mental strength may well have walked away. He battled through it, aided by his girlfriend, his team and others. Now that he is out the other side of that difficult period, he feels gratitude.

“I’m really thankful for my girlfriend being there in my darkest days,” he says, “cooking, cleaning and being by my side. And staying there while I was fighting on the inside. It’s great to have her with me now I have made it through the worst.”

Having feared he might not find a squad for 2018, he’s also grateful to those who have given him a chance.

“I’m so thankful to Rick [Delaney, team owner] and those at Aqua Blue. It was a big risk for any team to look at signing me after such a large amount of time away from the sport. I’ll be keeping the motivation together this winter to make it worthwhile for a team which has such great potential and rapid rate of growth.

“The Irish have always looked after me, first with An Post, and Sam, and now Aqua Blue. I’ll repay them when I can.”

Looking at what positives might have come from his battle with injury, he’s clear that there are gains. He cites a much better awareness of his body as one of the pluses.

“Obviously I have been cycling a few years,” he says. “But I have learned a lot from this injury that I didn’t know before. Maybe more of a reminder of how well you do have to look after yourself as a professional athlete.”

Besides that, he’s got an increased motivation to make his mark in the sport. Long periods of time being bedridden or unable to train have fuelled his determination.

“I am definitely hungrier than before. Last year was a dream year, riding the Classics, riding the Tour. It is what every bike rider wants to do,” he says. “Obviously crashing at the end of the Tour, I was disappointed not to finish. So there’s unfinished business there. And now with this injury there is unfinished business.

“It doesn’t matter which race I go to, I’m motivated …”

Video interview with Archbold and Sam Bennett after the former’s Tour de France crash.

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