Comm Games comeback: Steele von Hoff’s 7-week recovery from a broken back

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A little over seven weeks ago, Steele von Hoff was announced in the Australian road race team for the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. That afternoon, while racing in his local club criterium, von Hoff crashed, fracturing four vertebrae. His Commonwealth Games debut seemed in jeopardy; at the very least he had a tough road ahead of him to get to the startline.

This Saturday afternoon, von Hoff will take part in the Comm Games road race as planned, representing his country after what has been an impressive recovery. CyclingTips caught up with von Hoff on Thursday evening to learn more about that recovery, what he’s expecting from Saturday’s race, and how he rates his and his team’s chances of taking gold. The following interview has been lightly edited for fluency.

CyclingTips: When did you get to the Gold Coast?

Von Hoff: We got in on Tuesday so we’ve had a few days to suss things out in the village and everything.

What’s it like being in the athletes’ village and being part of the Aussie crew there?

Yeah it’s awesome. The atmosphere is like nothing else up here. From the moment we came in, the village is just absolutely spectacular. And then when we get in our rooms we’ve just got massive bags full of all the team gear and everything — you fit right in. Everyone up here is super fit, as to be expected. It’s a pretty amazing environment.

I guess you would have connected with the rest of the road race team and been for few rides in the last couple days?

Yeah of course. We’ve sussed out the course and cut a few laps and now we’re sort of winding it down to put the feet up tomorrow for recovery and then race day on Saturday.

Now that you’ve ridden it, what do you make of the course?

I like it. It’s a good course. It has quite a few little pinch hills in it and they’re sort of spaced out in really tricky areas. The first hill sort of doubles into the second hill — it’s only probably a few minutes in between each of them. So that’ll really soften the legs after nine laps.

And then on the run-in to the finish, at around 2km to go, there’s another nice little kicker that goes up over a freeway hill. So that’ll make things interesting.

How do you think the race will play out? Do you think it’ll be a reduced bunch sprint?

I really don’t know. It depends on how everyone’s feeling I guess. A lot of the guys have come over from Europe and they’ve just been racing races like Roubaix and stuff like that. If they really want to put the hammer down I guess it can do a lot of damage.

It just depends on what everyone’s ambitions are on the day and I’m sure Brad McGee, our master tactician, will come up with a good plan. Hopefully we can execute and try and win gold.

Where are you at personally? How are you feeling after your recovery over the last few weeks?

Yeah I’m good. I’m right back up there now. I’m happy with how my form’s been going. It’s the best it can be I guess. So I’m ready to head into Saturday with a good headspace with a good opportunity to try and get a good result.

Are you in any pain at all?

Nah, I’m riding completely free now. If I do something stupid of course I get a few little niggles — it is only the seven-week mark at the moment. But I know my limitations at the moment and I’ve just got to manage them and look after myself.

Do you feel like your fitness and form are at the same place they were before you had the crash? Do you feel like you’ve lost anything in those seven weeks?

It’s hard to gauge without the racing but just in training and everything I’m feeling good now and I’m able to push good numbers. As soon as I pin a number on my back it’s a different story again and I’ll get my racing legs and have a good shot at it.

Can you talk about how your recovery went? I know you were in a brace for a while and that you were training on a recumbent stationary trainer?

Luckily I’d pre-manufactured a recumbent bike trainer many years ago — this is like 10 years ago. Back when I first started off in cycling I used to race recumbent bikes. So I made this recumbent trainer to test out feet positions and stuff like that back in the day and I still had this thing floating around. So I tracked it down and got that delivered to home and after six days I started my rehab on that.

Image: Steele von Hoff

That was really good because that allowed me to spin the legs over in a very controlled environment when I’m just laying down and not using any of my muscles that I shouldn’t have been. I’d done quite a few transverse process fractures which are connected to your ribs and everything like that. So just being able to lie down and let that all settle and not use those muscles was really good.

I was in the brace for two and a half weeks. I actually snuck out on the road just before the two-week mark because I’d already sort of somewhat … I felt like I’d done enough with the stationary trainers because I was doing double days at home on Zwift. I did the stationary trainer for the first week and then I got into Zwift on the upright bike for the next week and really upped it with the double days and everything like that.

In one session things were … they just weren’t going too well for me and I had a bit of a mental moment. But to tell you the honest truth I’ve never been good on a stationary trainer. I’d rather go out riding in the snow.

As soon as I could, I set off out the driveway on my mountain bike and actually got busted on that first ride by my dad who was returning home from work unexpectedly early! So yeah Mum wasn’t happy when I got home. But geez it felt amazing to be free and out on the roads again.

You look very happy to be riding in the Instagram video you posted at the time …

Yeah, that was the next day. I’d already been out once before but no one was meant to know that! That was my second ride out and Emma [ed. his partner] was in control of that day so she let me go. And that was all good — it was an amazing feeling to be out with the wind in your hair again.

I started on the mountain bike because if I was to hit a bump or something I didn’t get that shock through my spine. I ran my tyres a little bit flat and proceeded with things. I managed to do a few big days on the mountain bike — I was getting up over the 100k mark quite a few times. It was good fun.

I was on the coffee shop rides and stuff like that with my old crew…

On the mountain bike?

Yeah, on a mountain bike and still gunning for the town signs sprints at the end of the ride and stuff like that. I just had to do it in the seat of course at first.

I was just getting stronger throughout the time that I was doing that of course. I hadn’t sat upright for the two weeks and I had lost a lot of muscle in that time, so I had to build that back up. I had to do that slowly, working closely with my team that was around me.

I had Paul Field looking after me with all the massage therapy and then one of the coffee-shop-ride girls, Marg Churcher, is a gun physio, so she was helping me in regards to that. My coach Mark Fenner was taking it easy on me for once, which was great. He slowly got me back up to try and get to the main goal which is get here in good form.

That was the big step in my mind — I had no doubt that I was going to be able to race but I wanted to be here and in good form. I’m really hoping that I’m going to be good on Saturday.

You’ve done at least one race at Sandown since the crash haven’t you?

Yeah, I’ve done a few races.

How did they go?

Good. I got around and no dramas. I didn’t even think about the crash site for at least the first five laps or so. You know, you’ve got your race number on and you think about racing. It was only after awhile that I’d been notified that I might be scared of the site and I was like ‘Yeah nah, I’m just racing past this thing.’ As soon as you get numbers on you get on with the job. I didn’t have any concerns in that regard.

Will it be the same on Saturday? Will you be worried about crashing again?

No definitely not. It wouldn’t be ideal if I was to crash but it never is, is it? Saturday is such a good opportunity to be racing with the Aussie team, and at your home games as well where everyone’s just so supportive of you. It’s just going to be a fantastic day and I can’t wait to get on with it.

Cam Meyer is obviously in good form, Alex Edmondson is probably well-suited to the course, and you’re a great option in a bunch sprint. You guys have got some pretty good options for Saturday …

Of course. We’ve got a ripper team. We’re able to play many cards at this race but there are other contenders that have very similar riders.

Say, New Zealand: they have a very strong team going as well. Sam Gaze, one of their riders just won the mountain bike today. They’ve got their national champion [Jason Christie] here and a few of my old teammates Hayden McCormick and James Oram who … you can’t let them get too far up the road otherwise they’ll be hard to pull back. Also they’ve got Shane Archbold — he’ll be fast in the finishes as well.

So that’s probably, in my mind, one of the strongest teams that is here to contend. Also the race favourite in Adam Blythe from England. If it does come down to a bunchie [ed. bunch sprint] he’s going to be the one to watch.

Do you reckon you could win it if it comes to one sprint?

Of course — it’s a race. Anything can happen in a race and I’ve done everything I can to be as fast as I can. If it does come to a bunchie then I’m hoping that I can be there to represent.

What would that mean to you to be able to win after such a tough period?

I haven’t even thought about that yet. It would just be such an amazing feeling, just as it always would have been if I had’ve won it without a crash. It’s the Games — it only happens every four years so to be able to potentially medal at a Games is a pretty exciting prospect. If it was to happen I don’t know what I would be feeling at the time. I guess it would take quite a while to soak in.

But we’ve got six riders in our team that are capable of doing that at the moment so I’m hoping that one of us can do it.

The men’s road race at the 2018 Commonwealth Games starts at 12:30pm AEST on Saturday April 14. Channel 7 has live coverage on TV, on its mobile app and via its website. The women’s road race is held the same day, from 7:45am, and can be watched the same way.

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