Words: Andy McGrath Photos: David Blanks
September 16 2012. Stage eight of the Tour of Britain, Barhatch Lane, Surrey.
Wouter Sybrandy was on an adrenaline high, charging after the breakaway. Time to end a good Tour of Britain by bridging this gap on the fast descent, he thought.
“I remember going into the corner a little bit fast. But I’d done it lots of times, I thought I could make it,” Wouter recalls.
Spoiler alert: Wouter didn’t.
His first recollections are IG-Sigma Sport manager Becky Frewing and doctor Andrew Meilak standing over him.
Sybrandy made sure he could move all his limbs. Yes, no problem. “Then I was actually pretty chilled. I had a bit of morphine, I wasn’t feeling too much pain.
“But from the expression on their faces, I realised I might be in a bad way.”
There was a lot of blood. His face was a mess and he had broken three vertebrae and several ribs. Race doctor Andrew Meilak recalls being frightened by the severity of his injuries.
Wouter spent the following week in St George’s Hospital in Tooting, forbidden from moving and waiting for serious spinal surgery.
Time flew by in a morphine-muddled haze as he moved from hospital room to room, surgery to surgery. His forehead and cheekbones were plated.
As for pain, it sounds like he’ll never complain about an interval again. “After the back surgery, they put me asleep on my wound. I woke up and I’ve never been in so much pain. It was so bad, I was unable to talk, just mouthing ‘help’ to the nurses.”
A fixture of the British racing scene, 29-year-old Wouter is a refreshing throwback to the days when top roadmen took both the Premier Calendar and time trials seriously. He’s a tough, attack-minded guy on the bike, a thoroughly nice chap off it.
But the Dutchman didn’t realise the high regard in which he was held by peers til he got internet coverage in hospital, a week after the crash, and received the many messages of support.
“It’s a good way of seeing who your real friends are. I was really surprised by some of the people visiting,” he says.
Step by step, Wouter got better. One day, he walked to the bathroom. The next, outside. Then to the next floor. And so on and so on, setting small targets.
Wouter’s sunny attitude in the face of adversity shines through as he recounts events. He even calls the whole thing “a very positive experience”: on a high in the race, then from the morphine, even the hospital experience.
He must be one of life’s optimists. That’s the right tonic when plunged into such a pendulous situation.
Only able to ride an hour at a time before his back got painful, he did his exercises, went swimming and rebuilt the lost back strength. His progess was staggering.
“The doctors said it would take me six months to get back on the bike. I did it in two. They were amazed. Actually, they emailed me the other day, they want to write an article about it.”
By the time February rolled around, he was back at training camps, making his team-mates suffer again.
That said, Wouter is not fully recovered. He still gets double vision in the time-trial position because his eyes aren’t quite aligned – which is why he nearly ended up in the barriers on the final corner of the stage three test around Knowsley Safari Park this week.
“You can see in my left eye socket, it’s arched a bit more than the other. I need to get that fixed… People that haven’t seen me in a while are surprised, it looks a bit like a black eye.”
The crash that could have ended his career doesn’t prey on his mind. On September 17 – a day late – Wouter realised his bad fall had been a year ago.
It’s been good for publicity too, but every time he signs on at this year’s Tour of Britain, he’s heard “Wouter Sybrandy, the rider who recovered from a bad crash,” booming from the announcer.
Time to put that one to bed. Wouter Sybrandy, Tour of Britain stage winner would be a more pleasing replacement.
So how would he like to ring in his return to his adopted local Surrey roads on today’s seventh stage between Epsom and Guildford, a year after that horror crash?
“The only way is to be in the break, that’s how to do it properly,” he says.