The Secret Pro: Blood-soaked kit and the God-forsaken brush
The Secret Pro has made a name for himself by pulling back the curtain on professional cycling, sharing stories that wouldn’t otherwise make it beyond the confines of the peloton. But our anonymous insider is capable of much more than sharing the latest rumours or offering his unfiltered take on the latest developments within the sport. He can also take us inside the mind of the professional cyclist, showing what it takes to race a bike at the highest level.
So why keep this piece anonymous? As you’ll read, the team directors mentioned by The Secret Pro share some rather questionable advice — advice that’s better for TSP to recount anonymously, without fear of consequences.
It’s often said that cycling is the world’s toughest sport. I don’t know, honestly. It’s the only sport I’ve ever done. What I do know is we have a culture of pain.
Early this year, I went down at about 60 kilometres per hour. Banged myself up pretty good, I’d say. I stood up on the side of the road, my bike in pieces across from me, in a world of hurt. The only thing that seemed to make sense was shouting “FUCK” at the top of my lungs repeatedly, so that’s what I did.
Countless hours of sacrifice had gone into that race. I’d worked all winter. And here I was, bloodied and broken on the side of the road, shouting obscenities at the trees. The race doctor arrived, quite quickly. He checked me over. My bike was shattered and my body felt the same.
I thought of stopping. But I knew that jumping in an ambulance wouldn’t kill the pain.
The race doctor was quick to tell my director and me that I shouldn’t continue. My wounds were too deep and there was a high chance I’d broken something. My director said go. So did something inside me.
When a doctor tells you one thing, your body agrees, yet your mind and the sports directors tell you to continue, what is that? Am I just crazy? Are we all crazy?
And this is where the toughness of cycling comes in. We don’t flop on the field, there are no timeouts. If you are physically able to get back on your bike and ride, you do.
A lot was made of Lawson Craddock and his fight to finish the Tour de France with a broken scapula. Yet few people actually know the day-to-day pain that a rider goes through after a fall like that. The racing is just part of it, while the daily bandaging and unbandaging and moving and sleeping are a whole other side of the process. They offer all sorts of opportunities for new and interesting types of pain.
Lawson kept going. Remember when Johnny Hoogerland went through the barbed wire fence? He kept going. We just keep going. In this crazy world we call cycling, you push on even when everything inside you is telling you to stop.
Maybe it’s for the team, maybe it’s for the fans, or the race, but at the end of the day, I think we do it for ourselves. Cycling is a team sport. But at its core, it’s a very personal trial of self-determination and grit.
Against the doctor’s orders, I got back on my spare bike and hobbled to the finish. It felt like an accomplishment, but it was quickly overshadowed by the pain that began to sink in. That FUCK feeling once again.
Returning to the team bus doesn’t stop the pain, just like getting in an ambulance doesn’t stop the pain. In the bus, you peel your blood-soaked kit from your wounds, which if you crashed hours ago have now hardened with clotted blood and are ripped open once again. You evaluate the damage. Kit, glasses, bike, helmet, and even my shoes were all spent. Then you get in the shower. This is the worst. All you want to do is sit down and unwind, but someone has to wash out the wounds.
It’s a tiny shower in the back of the bus, so small you can barely turn around, and the first drops of water burn like hell. I put a little washcloth in my mouth to bite before this next part because I don’t want to scream in pain with my teammates just the other side of the thin plastic door. Then out comes The Brush.
It’s this spiked plastic brush soaked in iodine or some other evil liquid and has got to be as painful as the crash itself. By now the adrenaline has worn off and it’s just you and this damn brush in a tiny shower with only one thing to do. I scrubbed, and scrubbed hard. It hurts like hell but you may as well do it yourself and control the pain because if you don’t, the team doctor will say its not clean enough and do it for you.
Following the scrub I went off to the designated race hospital for X-rays and scans. They pushed me around in a wheelchair for five hours (I didn’t need it but the nurses insisted), scanning things. Nothing was broken.
I hadn’t eaten a thing since finishing the race and was starting to get a little lightheaded while in the mind-numbing atmosphere of the hospital. I tried to get the team doctor to push the medical staff to hurry the process up so I could get back to the hotel and get some food. Since nothing was broken I could race the next day right? The hospital staff were wondering why we were in such a rush. We explained that I had to race the next day. “No, no no! He can not race, look at him,” they said. But this isn’t football, it’s cycling, and the race goes on.
Back to the hotel, a stiff dinner at midnight and it was off to bed. Sleep is never easy after a crash but you get what you can. I woke up the next morning and there was only one thing to do. I gave it a try.
I did this against the team doctor’s request. He wasn’t going to stop me from racing, because nothing was broken, but he strongly advised against it. I kitted up anyway and went to the start. From kilometre zero I was at the back feeling sorry for myself, drifting back into the cars every time the pace picked up. Thoughts flooded my head: What am I still doing here? Is it even smart, or safe, to still be racing? The doctor said I could stop, should I?
Thinking about quitting is easy. Actually stopping, getting off your bike and ending your race, that’s hard.
There’s a stark contrast between the opinion of the directors, who are often times former riders who seem to forget what it was like to be a rider, and that of the doctors. The doctors say stop. The directors say, “Come on you can make it, the bunch will slow up soon. You are a fighter, keep going, if you make it through today tomorrow will be easier”. So I did. I kept fighting. I made it through to the finish, then started, once again, the daily process of that painful shower, that God-forsaken brush, and the application of all sorts of bandages and tapes.
The next several days were much of the same. I spent a lot of time off the back by myself or in the cars. The alone time allowed me plenty of time to ponder the crazy culture of this sport. Everything inside my body was telling me to stop. I wanted to stop so much, yet something unexplainable inside me wouldn’t let me stop.
I honestly can’t explain it. I wouldn’t consider myself a tough rider, or person. But in this situation, I guess I can say some toughness came out. The culture of the pain lives inside me. Inside all of us, I think.
There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of stories like the one above from the pro peloton every year.