Car crash comeback: 36 stitches, 190 days without racing, one impressive win
The scar on Marco Haller’s left leg tells you all you need to know about his 2018 season. It’s thick and dark and longer than any scar should be. It starts above his kneecap, winds its way dramatically around the inside of his knee, then finally comes to an end at the top of his shin.
When you first see it, it’s hard not to wince.
You can just make out the scar in the photo of Haller crossing the line at the Bay Crits on Tuesday, hands in the air, horrible season and the rest of the field behind him.
Haller (Katusha-Alpecin) is lucky he can ride a bike at all, let alone race. That he was able to win his first race of the 2019 season suggests the cycling gods have something a little more positive in store for the Austrian this year.
Haller’s 2018 season had been a torrid one even before his crash. Two viral infections before April led to extended stints off the bike and a slew of DNFs. It was, in the 27-year-old’s own words, the “most demanding start to a season ever”. And then, on April 19, he suddenly had an even bigger problem to deal with.
He was on his second training ride back after a bout of illness and all was right with the world — the sun was shining, the wind was at his back, and he was enjoying a good conversation with compatriot and training pal Bernie Eisel. It was, to quote Haller’s Instagram post at the time, “pure joy”.
Until a car ran through a stop sign in front of them.
“Bernie made it around,” Haller wrote on Instagram. “I went straight into the driver’s door.”
Haller’s bike was completely destroyed and his knee didn’t fare much better. He suffered an open fracture of his left kneecap, the impact causing the bone to split. He fractured his femur as well and cartilage around his knee was severely damaged.
By his own admission, Haller’s career was in the balance.
It took 36 stitches and two rounds of surgery to get everything back in order, at which point Haller could begin his rehab. He stayed positive and motivated as much as he possibly could, but as tends to happen in such cases, the injury took its toll mentally as well as physically.
“For the first two months, I was basically lying on my back, I couldn’t do anything,” Haller told Cyclingnews in October. “Then within two and a half weeks, I had to have a second surgery because the first one wasn’t 100%, so it was a traumatic time for me and my family. I had bacteria in the wound, so I was another month on antibiotics, which ruins your body totally.
“You really have many thoughts in your head in this part. You don’t know what’s going on and you get the weirdest horror scenarios, like what if they have to take your leg away?”
He kept his leg, thankfully, but he did miss a bunch of races he’d planned to start, not least the Tour de France where he would have been a key lead-out man for Marcel Kittel. A planned return to racing at the Tour of Turkey was then thwarted by a bout of appendicitis that required emergency surgery. It was Haller’s fourth time under the knife in 2018.
By the time Haller got back to racing, at the Tour of Guangxi in October, it had been 190 days since he last pinned on a number. Even then, in his own words, he was only racing in China as “part of the rehab”.
So on New Years Day 2019, when Haller lined up in Geelong for the opening stage of the Lexus Blackburn Bay Crits, he regarded it as his first “competitive race” post-injury. He didn’t know what to expect from his body and there was no real plan — he and his Katusha Sports teammates decided to simply “get out and race” and see what happened on the road.
What happened was that Haller was among those to show early aggression — aggression that netted the Austrian a spot in a strong five-rider breakaway. Thanks to a lack of cohesion in the peloton, and with pre-race favourite Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) out of contention due to a loose seatpost, the breakaway was able to hold off the chase. In the sprint, Haller got the better of his companions, starting his 2019 season in the best possible fashion.
Haller was understandably thrilled with the result and what it represents, but he’s not getting ahead of himself. While the Bay Crits deliver fast, aggressive racing — particularly given how early in the year they’re held — they’re a mere taste of what’s to come for the seasoned European pro.
“Don’t get me wrong, this is a tough race we are doing here but still the big goals are ahead in the season,” Haller said post-win, with a grin. “I’m very happy what I have done here obviously [but] let’s keep the feet on the ground, take it step-by-step.”
Haller has won a handful of races in his career, but his paycheck is mostly earned by riding in the service of others. After the horror year that was 2018, he’s looking forward to getting back to business.
“My role definitely will be again to be on the side of Marcel Kittel — I should be one of the key lead-out guys for him and I hope we can find a winning combination,” he said. “That’s the main goal for me personally.
“Overall I think that Katusha-Alpecin probably didn’t have the very best year last year so  will be better.”
It’s clear that Haller is more motivated than ever to help that cause. For starters, he’s keen to repay the faith the team showed in him last year by renewing his contract for another two years, all while the Austrian was in the midst of his lengthy rehab.
And for Haller himself, well, you could argue that 2019 has already delivered more joy on the bike than 2018. He’s certainly due some good fortune.