Steele von Hoff Q&A: On breaking his back, recovering for Comm Games and more

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On Tuesday afternoon Cycling Australia announced that Steele von Hoff would represent his country at the upcoming Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. By that evening, von Hoff’s Comm Games debut was in jeopardy, thanks to a crash at Melbourne’s Sandown Raceway.

The 30-year-old was involved in a pile-up in the early stages of a Carnegie Caulfield Cycling Club criterium and ended up in Melbourne’s Alfred Hospital as a result. The damage: four fractured vertebrae — T3 to T6 — and a bad concussion.

CyclingTips caught up with von Hoff over the phone on Thursday evening to talk about the crash, his chances of recovering in time for the Commonwealth Games in April, and his season more generally. The following is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.

CyclingTips: Where are you now? Are you still in hospital?

Von Hoff: I’m just walking down the road, walking the dog. I got discharged tonight so yeah, keeping moving. Keeping mobile. Move it or lose it, eh?

What do you remember of the crash?

Not much. I’ve basically got photographs of the incident in my mind. I have little snapshots and then I’m wondering which ones have been made up and which ones are real because I don’t know how some of them are possible. It was a pretty eventful evening that I’ve obviously deleted from my memory.

Did it happen at the end, in the sprint?

Nah it was at the start. Five laps, 20 minutes into the race. [We had] 40 minutes to go plus two laps. It was a really weird one. I go to Sandown because I know how safe it is. I’ve been racing there for all of my career, before it [his pro career] started. It’s the first place that I ever raced.

It’s just always so safe and the ride there is more dangerous than the actual race. So it’s just a really strange one to come down in such fashion.

What have people told you about the crash and how it happened?

It was crosswinds during the night, which I love. So it was game on. It was good — I was holding good position. One of the poor girls [in a different grade] had been dropped from her class and she was riding by herself. She’s only 15 so she’s not to know that that’s the race line, you know? Really she should have been on the other side but she doesn’t know that so it’s nothing that she’s done wrong really; it’s just education. But she was on that side.

End of story: A grade should have given her a lot of space and they didn’t. Whoever was attacking at the time just ducked right past her and then all of a sudden it just sort of compresses. Second wheel just misses her, third wheel just misses her, fourth wheel hardly sees her, fifth wheel doesn’t see her and has to do an evasive move. Apparently sixth wheel clipped her.

I heard a slight squeal and I don’t know if I was looking down at the time or whatnot but that got my attention. I might be looking at my Garmin or looking at my gears or whatever I was doing — just because it’s the last thing you expect at Sandown — and then all of a sudden I looked up and someone was right there. That’s the first image that I’ve got. And then the second image that I had was everyone piling over the top of me.

It could have been avoided in many ways but at the end of the day it’s a racing incident. These things happen — it’s just frustrating in the timing.

You spent a couple days in the Alfred Hospital. How was that experience?

They were really good and really supportive of me. I met a girl in the Alfred — [former National Road Series winner] Lisen Hockings, she was one of the [doctors] that was looking after me.

So that was really cool because I knew about her but I didn’t know her. And then when I found out that she was working there I just asked if we could have a quick chat. And then she started looking after me which is pretty cool and giving me hope that everything was going to be OK and that I was going to be back on the bike in no time. She was really good. She told me her story about when she broke her vertebrae too.

It was a really supportive environment. I’m thankful for all the doctors there and now I’m back on track.

What does the recovery look like from here?

The ideal rate is that I’ll be able to do some stationary bike riding. I’ve got a recumbent bike that … I used to race recumbent bikes so I’m getting one of my old ones back to do some stationary training on for the first little bit. And then when I can sit up pain-free and everything I’ll start trying to introduce some Wahoo Kickr in and maybe jump onto Zwift. And yeah, try and get that form going and try and pull a Matty Hayman!

Von Hoff inside a recumbent he made 100% by himself.

You’ve got seven weeks before the Comm Games. Do you think it’s possible you’ll recover in time?

It is possible. It is what it is — if the recovery rate doesn’t … it needs to be a speedy process. If it doesn’t happen I’ll make that call depending upon how [things are] at the time. So four weeks down the track [if] I’m not making any progress and I’m like “Hmm, I’m pretty unfit and I’ve got three weeks left and I’m still not back on the bike” then it’s not looking good. Really, I need to be back on the bike next week.

I did just do a training camp up in Bright so I kind of needed an easy week anyway. It’s not the worst timing. *laughs* I mean it’s always bad timing when something like this happens but in terms of needing a bit of recovery right now …

You’re in a brace right now aren’t you?

Yeah, I’m just in a back and chest and neck brace, just holding my posture. I’ve grown a few inches at the moment because I normally have pretty bad posture. Emma [ed. his partner] has seen me and said “You’ve grown!”

Just on the Commonwealth Games — what was that moment like finding out you’d been selected?

Yeah, pretty amazing. Absolutely stoked to be able to represent the country, but I did know that I still had [the Tour de] Langkawi to get through and that was going to be one thing that … I got really sick there last year so that was going to be a concerning factor.

So I’d already organised a book, from one of the local doctors that rides on my coffee shop group, that explains how to look after yourself in foreign countries and not get the bug, in terms of all the protocols to do and everything and give me the best chance of staying healthy over there as possible. Next minute, I race my safe local criterium and I’m not going to Langkawi anymore.

What do you make of the Comm Games road race course? It looks like it could be one that suits you pretty well?

Yeah, for sure. That’s why I’m so devastated with this preparation now. Everything’s going to have to go right to try and get me there in top form. Otherwise we do have a very strong squad and I’m sure that we’ll be able to do anything, whatever happens during the race. If I’m not there then I’m sure the boys will do us proud.

Was the original plan for the team to ride for you in a sprint?

I have no idea about the original plan. There’s of course some very strong riders going and riders in top form. The course does suit people like Alex Edmondson very well so I might have been doing a supportive role. It just depends on how everyone’s going because it’s still seven weeks away. So if someone was showing signs of really good form … Let’s say I went to Langkawi and got a few wins that would have dictated how the Comm Games team would have been ridden.

But the way that that race is going to pan out — and how the Comm Games normally does pan out — is you don’t just put all your eggs in the basket of rolling around for a bunchy [bunch sprint] because there’s three pretty big hills in each lap and there’s nine laps. So it will kind of dwindle down and it will be some sort of a reduced bunch kick to the line.

I believe one of the climbs … it’s roughly a minute long and is only a k-and-a-half from the finish. It’s going to be a tough day for all the athletes that are racing.

You come across as a very positive, upbeat kind of guy that just takes things in his stride. What are the emotions like at the moment, after the high of being selected for Comm Games, and the low of the crash?

I go through phases. Of course I’m devastated with being in a brace at the moment and not being able to do what my Today’s Plan is saying. I was meant to head out and do five hours today — it’s not ideal that I can’t do that. But I’m sure that with the fitness that I have from the last big block of racing that I’ve done I won’t lose too much form, if I can get back on the bike relatively quickly.

I’m sure I can still do a good role in whatever I do if I was to recover in time.

Speaking of that block of racing, how do you look back on the Aussie summer? You had some great results but just missed out on a win …

It started off really good and I was really happy with how it was going. But then as I just kept on knocking on the door and it never opened I was starting to get a bit disappointed. So that last second place at Herald Sun Tour I was slightly frustrated — just getting so close so many times and not being able to get the joy of throwing your hands up in the air for the team that’s supported you all summer.

But at the end of the day we managed to get Sam Crome across the line in first place for the Kinglake stage. That was great, but personally you always want a bit more.

Herald Sun Tour 2018 stage 2
Von Hoff had several near misses over the Australian summer, including on stage 2 of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour where he finished second behind Mads Pedersen.

From the outside looking in, being back at Bennelong-SwissWellness seems to have reinvigorated you this year. What’s it been like being back with the old team?

Yeah, it’s a great feeling. I’ve had a very different run-in this summer. I went back to work for a couple months and just seeing how many people support me around the world … I’m sure I spoke to you before about this — all the guys in the tea room [at work] had all my posters up on the wall and everything from the newspaper clippings and everything. I had no idea that I had that network that was following and supporting me.

So when I made the decision to jump back on the road with Bennelong and give it another crack, Andrew [Christie-Johnston, Bennelong-SwissWellness co-owner] has given me a chance to do a race at the top level. So I’m very thankful for the ride on Bennelong and I want to try and do everything I can to try and make things work again.

You mention work — you’re a boilermaker by trade, right?

Yeah, a welder. “Boilermaker” is like the slang name, like chippy [carpenter] or sparky [electrician]. “Engineer fabricator” is my trade name — I make stuff out of metal. I’ve never made a boiler in my life to tell you the truth.

You’ve talked about the joy of coming back to Bennelong — how hard was last year with One Pro Cycling, dropping back down to Continental level?

A rider rises to the occasion usually and being at the lower level I just wasn’t firing like I was wanting to. And there was not much that I could seem to do to try and get that spark back. In my mind I felt like … I don’t know — I didn’t have the desire to be smashing it like you would when you go to a WorldTour race like Tour Down Under and all of a sudden it can change everything if you can take a win.

The biggest win of von Hoff’s career came on stage 4 of the 2015 Santos Tour Down Under while racing for the UniSA-Australia national team. (Image: Con Chronis)

Of course I wanted to win races and everything, but the opportunities were a little bit harder to grasp because the racing was a little bit of a different style. I think I did … I don’t know how many race days — I don’t think it was a substantial amount. There was like 28 race days or something, whereas normally I’m used to in the 70s. I’m not a trainer, I’m a racer, so to be in top form I much prefer to just smash myself racing.

With the start that I’ve had this year in Oz I’m hoping for good things this year, if this recovery happens and I can keep on running.

You said at some point during the Aussie summer that Bennelong has a really good program lined up for you this year. You’ve mentioned Langkawi, and obviously the injury could change things, but what other races are you expecting to do this year?

I’ve got quite a hefty program over in Europe which will be fantastic — we just keep on getting more races as the year rolls on. So I’m not sure what the current schedule is but we’ve got quite a few races that I’ve done before over in Europe, a lot of tours as well in the north of France and Belgium. So we’ll be based somewhere up in North France for the first three months of the year, of the European season, and then I think there’s a second group that’s going over to the hills for the second three-month block.

Depending on how I’m going I might even stay over there and try and assist the boys in the hills — try and get a bit of climbing form in the legs.

What’s the ultimate goal? Are you trying to get back to the WorldTour, or would you be happy racing at ProContinental level again?

No one dreams second best. Everyone wants to race WorldTour.

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