Twenty-five days ago, in a bike race in the north of France, Mitch Docker slammed his face into the famous cobbles of the Forest of Arenberg. He broke teeth and cut up his face. He sat in a pool of blood while medical officers from Paris-Roubaix’s race entourage treated him. And the peloton rushed by.
He is one of many crash victims. We see them often, there on the side of the road as the camera motorbike speeds past and, we get told, “they’ll get patched up”, “they’ll miss the next few weeks of racing”, “they’ll be back on the bike in no time”. It’s all part of the cycling vernacular.
Often we tend to forget about it and eventually we cheer again when we see them on our TV screens again, back on a bike doing what they do.
But some images can’t be unseen and the photo of Docker on the pavé with blood covering his face is difficult to forget.
“The surgeon was really surprised with the amount of damage,” Docker said about his injuries, “he was surprised that a lot more stuff on my face wasn’t broken.
“He said, ‘Jeez, you must have really strong bones because generally [with] this sort of impact in the face, you should break a lot more stuff, either your jaw or your cheekbone should be shattered.”
Since the elation of the day when Docker’s team-mate Mathew Hayman won the 110th edition of Paris-Roubaix, we’ve stayed in touch with Mitch to find out how his recovery is going.
Ever the optimist, Docker is happy to be riding again and, for the moment, there’s no hesitation about getting back in the peloton.
“If you can take anything out of it, nothing really happened actually.”
That’s his take on the matter but only after having had a bit of time to allow his body – and the doctors – to mend his wounds: “just a few broken teeth and a small break up above his right eye”, is his summary.
“They ended up putting some screws into it just to support it but the doctor said, ‘Look, if you were just a normal Joe Blow we’d just let that heal up but there is a chance that you could crash on there again so we want to make it strong as possible.’”
We are happy to report that it won’t be long before you see him again, at the front of a bike race doing his job: working for the Orica-GreenEdge team.
He took a few days this week to take his bike up to the climbs of Andorra and try and find his legs again. His face is healing up well and tomorrow he visits the dentist (again) to discuss how and when he can get some porcelain caps put on the missing bits of tooth.
His tongue has been stitched back together and he is starting to get his taste sense back.
All this because of a fraction of a second when something didn’t go right.
Accidents happen, we understand that. It’s part of cycling. They do get patched up, they do miss weeks of racing, they do get back on the bike… but it’s a process.
We caught up with Mitch Docker 25 days after his accident in Paris-Roubaix to ask how he’s coping with it all – and, of course, to wish him all the best for the rest of the season. He hopes to race again soon. For now, he’s just reminding himself of one of life’s simple pleasures, the joy of riding his bike.
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Click the Soundcloud file to listen to the interview with Mitch Docker and/or read the transcript below.
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Coming back after crashing
RIDE: I’m talking with Mitch Docker and it’s been not quite a month since an enormous crash in the Forest of Arenberg during Paris-Roubaix where he smashed a whole lot of teeth up and lay on the ground in a bloody mess and some photographers took some photos. What do you think about people having shared those images? Let’s start the interview that way…
Mitch Docker: “I guess it makes it a little bit more real. If people need to see that to believe it then so be it. But, like my brother said in the previous interview [about this accident], years ago I was a little bit like I didn’t want people to see me in that sort of state but it is what it is.
“Sometimes people need to see that to realise the extreme of the situation.
“It’s really amazing for me to just document it. As Kirk said, I was asking the surgeon on day one to take photos of it just because I wanted to see it myself and every day that went past I’d get a photo done just to see how quickly the face was healing.
“It was just so amazing for me to see how quickly you heal up, day by day it was just changing so much.
“It became more of a document thing for me and if [the original photos] was interesting to other people then so be it, good on ’em.”
So, just to summarise, you’ve had some bolts put in above your top, right eyebrow just to heal a break in your… skull, I guess. Is it?
“Yeah, that’s right. There was a small break in my, I guess you call it ‘the eye socket’ – that bone that holds your eye in. And initially, when I had my first operation they just stitched my face up there and left it, but then when I came back to Spain I had a facial specialist have a look at it. He thought it would be best if we open it up again and put a bolt in there just to make sure it healed quickly and correctly.
“Apart from that, nothing else has been done.
“[The doctor] cleaned the stitches up and re-did them. I’ve been seeing him about once a week and everything has been going super-quick…
“He had to stitch the tongue which he was said was quite rare.
“My top of my lip needed stitching and the bottom of my eye, but apart from that if I can say that I’m ‘lucky’ from the accident – when you crash face first into Arenberg Forest, or any cobblestones for that matter, or any piece of ground – you expect to have quite a lot of damage.
“If you see the crash, and I’ve had a look at it, there really should be a lot more damage or a lot more breakages at least.
“The fact that I’m back on the bike three weeks after the crash; that’s pretty incredible.
“I see guys who break their legs or their arms – and stuff like that – and they’re out of the game for a lot longer.
“I’m actually pretty lucky. I can still walk around and be like a normal guy.
“It’s just eating that’s probably the hardest thing, but that’s alright it’s good for my weight anyway.”
You keep your humour… I’m not surprised because that’s the type of guy you are but you really did ‘rag doll’ when you hit the ground. When you were sitting there and [ambulance staff] were rushing around and you were in the pool of blood, were you aware of what had happened? What memories do you have of that actual moment after the crash?
“The first thing I remember was that I couldn’t really see and there was a guy talking to me… I met him a couple of days after, he came to the hospital so it was great to meet him.
“I just remember that I had quite a lot of blood in my mouth which was worrying me. The first thing I sort of noticed was that my teeth were broken and I was asking at the time, probably within minutes of the crash: ‘Are my teeth okay?’ That was my first concern.
“I wasn’t in a whole lot of pain, I think just because of the shock and that sort of thing.
“I don’t remember crawling out of the way or anything like that. I just remember sitting on the side of the road.
“It was great to see that I never really lost consciousness because I don’t know if people remember but four years ago I had a pretty big accident where I crashed on my head and had a concussion which was quite serious.”
That was in training at Bright, is that right?
“Yeah, that was it. That’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone because it’s such a weird recovery from that. Even though it’s just cosmetic stuff now, you’re still quite a normal person: it’s just broken bones and things like that. But when you’ve got the head injury, it’s a long process.
“I’m really happy that nothing like that happened [in Paris-Roubaix]: there was no bleeding on the brain, I never lost consciousness so that was the first thing I was really rapt about. The rest of the stuff I found out along the way.”
So you visit the dentist tomorrow. Just before this interview you gave me a grin and you showed me your teeth: they are pretty jagged. Even when you chip a tiny little bit of tooth it feels really dramatic with your tongue. I can’t imagine you’re feeling when you consider the front row of your teeth…
“Yeah, they’re really jagged and just being back on the bike in the wind, they’re pretty sensitive still with just cold air, or cold water…
“Today could be the last day of jagged teeth and tomorrow starts the process of fixing them up.”
It’s kind of weird to think that you spent a couple of days this week up in Andorra and you’re training and you’re trying to get healthy. Obviously you want to ride your bike but a lot of people would be surprised that you’d still want to be in this caper after what you’ve been through. Was there any hesitation about being a pro rider after that enormous crash?
“There was actually, yeah. I haven’t ever really thought, ‘I don’t want to ride anymore’ but I think it was maybe in the ambulance going to the hospital that I had a thought of like, ‘Do I still really want to do this? This is what I’m putting myself through, is it worth it?’
“That thought ran through my head probably for about 24 hours.
“I’ve said it a few times this week that that week I had in hospital on my own, apart from my wife and my parents coming in, [gave] me a good chance to have a think about what I want to do. Do I really want to do it anymore?
“That time really allowed me to think, ‘yeah, I do want to do it.’
“I know now how I want to do it and how I want to attack it.
“It was a really good reflection period of a week to just think about how I want to do things, how I’ve done things in the past and how I want to attack it now in the future. And I’m excited about that.
“That’s maybe why I’m excited to get back into in a different way than I have before.
“There’s no rush now but I just want to do it right this time.
“I’m really enjoying the last five days just trying to get fit and healthy again – and that’s just been hiking and just moving around and, yeah sure, riding my bike. But it’s just purely riding, I’m not thinking about doing efforts or anything like that at the moment.
“I’m just enjoying it.
“If anything it really opened my eyes as to how I want to cycle for the next part of my career.”
It seems odd to talk about racing but you must be planning the next competition. What’s that going to be?
“I’m talking about trying to come back in June with a race called the Tour of Slovenia but we’ll see what happens.
“I really want to race throughout the end of the season, it’ll be my big goal coming back with like a Tour of Poland and smaller races like the Tour of Britain and Eneco Tour, races that really suit me and get back to racing the way I used to race in those sort of hard-man flat races where there’s sprinting and crosswinds and things like that.
“That’s what I’m really excited about doing again.”
So there’s no concern about being back in the bunch and being in that atmosphere which is potentially hazardous?
“Look, I haven’t really thought about that. If I thought about that every time I had a crash… I think once you start thinking like that, it’s time to maybe think about giving it away.
“Someone asked me that after my last crash, ‘What about when you’re descending and that sort of thing?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I haven’t really thought about it…’
“Once you start realising that and you fear going into those corners and you’re thinking before you do that, it’s time to really think, ‘Am I still going to do this sport…?’
“At the moment, I haven’t been back racing and I’ve just been riding on the road on my own so maybe when I get back into racing it’ll be another shock but at this moment I haven’t thought about that.
“Maybe it’s a blessing that I can’t remember any part of the crash and that’s the same sort of thing that happened a few years ago; I couldn’t remember anything about the crash – that’s probably a blessing.”
And it is so natural for you to be on the bike. You’ve been doing it over half your life. You know all about it – it’s the rhythm of the pedalling that probably has settled you these last few days.
“Yeah. And just again, why I love cycling is that it gives me that time to get out there and just be with my thoughts and on my own.
“Riding up in Andorra has been beautiful and I said to a mate of mine, ‘If I can’t love it up here, then how could I ever love it?’
“Just riding along in the mountains on a beautiful day… and it’s exactly what you said, this is the reason that I’m doing it – because I love it.
“I like just cruising along riding my bike thinking about things or not thinking about things.
“That’s what it’s been the last few days, just getting back into the groove of things and having that feeling when you come home from a ride just feeling good.”
It’s great to hear Mitch…
One of the things that does really throw a strong mental image at people is when you consider your tongue being stitched up. Was it a split down the centre and have you got your taste back? I think that’s an important question…
“It was. It was a split. And they said at the time – because I actually could feel any feeling in the top of my head, which is slightly coming back now, and also in my tongue I had no feeling – and I was a few days in and I said to the lady: ‘What’s going on with my tongue? I still can’t feel it. It’s a bit weird… I thought the anaesthetic would wear off by now.’
“And she said, ‘Oh no, no, no… that’ll take three months.’
“It was in France and I was like, ‘Oh, three months? She probably means three days or three weeks…’ and I found out later on that it was like, ‘No it’ll take three months before you get feeling back and taste.’
“But I would almost say it’s 95 percent back. The face is almost back to normal and it’s all just happening so quick and I can’t be more happy about that and tasting a few wines here and there – that’s an important thing.”
The body is an amazing thing. Thanks for sharing your story Mitch.
– Interview by Rob Arnold