From broken kneecap to breakout star

by Matt de Neef


Over the past two weekends, 19-year-old British rider April Tacey (Drops) has taken the virtual racing world by storm. She’s gone from being a first-year professional that few beyond the British racing scene had even heard of, to one of the biggest success stories to emerge from this bizarre, pandemic-affected season.

And it’s not just that Tacey has beaten some of the sport’s biggest names to win two stages of the Virtual Tour de France. It’s what she had to overcome to do so.

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You can imagine Tacey’s excitement. In August 2019, aged 18, she’d just signed her first professional contract, paving the way for a big 2020 season with the Drops UCI Continental team. As the British winter rolled around Tacey was feeling great, training well, and preparing for her big step up to the pro ranks.

Then in December, keen to get “a bit of sunshine”, Tacey joined her friends on a trip to the popular coastal town of Calpe in south-eastern Spain. Of course, with the most important season of her young career just around the corner, the trip wasn’t just a holiday — she took her bike with her “to get some quality training miles in”. Life was going well.

But then on the second day of the trip, things took a turn for the worse.

“Whilst out training I slipped off the side of the road and crashed into a rock wall,” Tacey wrote in an article on the Drops website in April 2020. “My right knee took most of the impact and I instantly knew it was badly damaged in some way. I was in a lot of pain, it was swollen, and I was unable to straighten it.”

Her initial thought was that she’d dislocated her kneecap. But after a long wait in hospital in the nearby town of Dénia, Tacey was told she’d fractured her patella. Two days later she had surgery to wire her kneecap back together.

Post surgery, Tacey was fitted with a leg brace to keep her knee straight. “I was told I would have to wear it for around eight weeks,” she wrote later. “It was hard coming to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t be able to train and the impact it would have on my 2020 race programme.”

Thankfully, a few days later, she was given the all-clear to fly home to Leicester for Christmas with her family. The now-19-year-old was grateful to be back home, but it was hard to shake the feeling that her neo-pro season was ruined before it had even begun.

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In February 2020 the Drops team assembled in Cambrils, Spain for a training camp. Tacey still wasn’t back on her bike — she’d only taken her knee brace off on January 31 — but Drops team director Bob Varney was still keen for the young Briton to attend.

“I visited her at home a few days after Christmas and emphasised she could still come to our team camp in February if her surgeon allowed,” Varney told CyclingTips. “Thankfully she was able to join us and meet all the riders and staff working out in the gym most days and bonding with her new teammates.”

Tacey was delighted to attend, even if she couldn’t manage the daily training rides.

“Although I wasn’t able to ride with my new teammates, I was able to use the gym and the swimming pool and attend the meetings and presentations,” she wrote in her post on the team website a few months later. “It was so great meeting all of my lovely new teammates! This gave me such a boost and made me more determined to get back to where I was.”

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As the 10-day training camp wore on, Tacey’s recovery continued. Her new teammate Majo van’t Geloof, a physiotherapist back home in the Netherlands, took Tacey under her wing, and helped fast-track the Briton’s recovery.

“I could only bend my knee to just over 90º [when the training camp began] but with her help I was at 110º by the end of the camp,” Tacey wrote.

She’d improved so much that by the end of the first week, Tacey was able to join her teammates for a short rest-day cafe ride, pedalling along on Varney’s Brompton, much to her delight.

“I literally had the biggest smile on my face all day as this was the first time I had ridden a bike in two months,” Tacey wrote later. “You could definitely tell how much I missed it.”

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With the camp complete, Tacey returned home to England and continued her rehabilitation. It was tough going, and by her own admission she struggled “both physically and emotionally” with the process. But she continued to make good progress and by March she was back on her road bike.

“I started off on the rollers doing 30-minute sessions on my road bike and having slowly built up, I am now able to complete two-hour road rides,” she wrote in April. “The team have just partnered with Zwift and I’m hoping to be able to take part in some of the races soon.”

As we now know, she didn’t just take part in those races.

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In May, with her knee all but back to full strength, Tacey joined her Drops teammates in racing the Tour for All, a five-stage virtual race on the Zwift platform. Tacey described it as her first “proper race” on Zwift and in the two stages she raced, she finished ninth and eighth. A week later, in a virtual criterium she went even better, taking an impressive fourth place in a race won by American veteran Lauren Stephens (Tibco-SVB).

With the world in lockdown and all real-life races cancelled, Tacey continued her online racing program at the Skoda V-Women’s Tour (of Britain) in mid June, snagging a best finish of 11th on stage 1 of the three-stage race.

And then, in July, she hit the jackpot.

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On July 5, from lounge rooms, kitchens and garages around Europe and beyond, some of the best pros in the world assembled on Zwift for the first-ever Virtual Tour de France. For the women’s peloton it was an especially significant moment, with the event getting a women’s race that mirrored the men’s — a far cry from the reality of the real-world Tour de France. Tacey was there for Drops, racing from her home in Leicester with her laptop set up on the kitchen counter.

The opening stage saw the peloton cover 36.4 km in four laps around the fictional island of Watopia. After a series of attacks, the race came down to a select group of just eight with just a handful of kilometres to go. Among those remaining: reigning time trial world champion Chloe Dygert, former road race world champion Chantal Van den Broek-Blaak, and April Tacey.

“At the finish line with a lap to go I got an aero boost [power-up] and I thought I’d save it because there might be a chance of not getting one again,” Tacey said. “So with 300 metres to go my brother clicked the power-up for me. And I just gave it my all, like literally full gas.”

Tacey sailed clear of the reduced bunch to win the first-ever stage of the Virtual Tour de France. The yellow jersey that came with it was simply a bonus.

But Tacey wasn’t done yet. The following weekend, on stage 3 of the six-stage race, Tacey finished a commendable third behind WorldTour pro Tanja Erath (Canyon-SRAM) and Dygert. And then a day later, Tacey again reached the top step of the podium.

Stage 4 came down to another reduced bunch sprint which Leah Dixon (Tibco-SVB) looked to have won with a well-timed late power-up. But with mere metres to the line, Tacey again timed her aero power-up to perfection, sneaking through to the front to take her second stage win in four days of racing.

By any measure, Tacey’s had a stellar run at the Virtual Tour de France. For her British team, Tacey’s success couldn’t have come at a better time — Drops is currently on the hunt for sponsors to help make the jump from Continental level to the Women’s WorldTour. Tacey’s two stage wins, and the team’s current lead in the QOM classification — thanks largely to the efforts of Joss Lowden — certainly won’t hurt in that quest.

And as for Tacey herself, in the space of a couple weekends she’s gone from little-known neo-pro to making headlines around the cycling world.

Of course, winning stages of the Virtual Tour de France is no guarantee of success in real-life racing. In fact, Tacey is yet to compete in an elite, UCI-classified road race. But it’s clear she’s heading in a promising direction.

Power-ups or not, you don’t beat WorldTour pros on Zwift unless you’ve got an impressive engine. And judging by the way Tacey’s bounced back from her knee injury, it’s clear she’s got the mental toughness required to handle the ups and downs of professional cycling. Plus, at 19 years old, she’s got plenty of time on her side too.

Two stages still remain in the first-ever Virtual Tour de France, scheduled for this coming weekend. Based on Tacey’s performance so far, it wouldn’t be a shock to see her take a third stage win. Could she cap off the race with victory on the virtual Champs-Élysées?

Either way it seems the future is bright for April Tacey, especially when you consider how things were looking in December last year.

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