How did you spend New Year’s Eve? Watching Jools Holland’s Hootenanny round a warm fire? Down the pub having a few drinks with friends? Having a few more and dancing badly to brash nightclub music?
No bubbly or bad boogieing for Blanco rider Dennis Van Winden. The Dutchman was lying hazily in hospital after a third operation on his iliac artery, health and cycling career hanging in the balance. “The nurses woke me up a little bit before midnight and said ‘this will be your last minute in 2012’. I remember I said ‘2013, from now on, it will be a straight line to the top. Because I can’t get any worse now’.”
How did it come to this for the Tour de l'Avenir stage winner who had even never spent a night in hospital before last winter? It started when he felt a slight twinge in his right leg four years ago. Wanting to push on with his newborn professional career, Van Winden ignored it - till he could no longer. At times last season, it felt like he was pedalling with one leg.
“The right one was suffering long before the left started to a little. When you notice it, each time on the bike you’re thinking ‘am I feeling it right now?’ You’re not really enjoying riding.”
He had a problem with his iliac artery, which runs from the heart carrying blood to the leg, and can be put under pressure when cyclists bend forward to exercise. It’s a common cyclist ailment: Tony Gallopin, Travis Meyer, Stuart O’Grady and teammate Theo Bos are among those to have problems with it. In bad cases, the cyclist undergoes a winter operation and returns to former strength, sans souci. Usually.
Van Winden went under the knife in mid-November. But three weeks later, he developed a fever. The wound was infected and was bleeding internally. “From that moment, it’s really dangerous. If you don’t do anything, you’d probably bleed to death,” he says. After surgery at a specialist sports hospital in Veldhoven, he spent a fortnight there on antibiotics, mind addled.
“As a topsporter, you know your body... if you overdo it in training or don’t eat enough, you know how it reacts because you do everything to make it stronger. After this operation, I couldn’t believe how my body felt. It was horrible. I had pain everywhere, I couldn’t stand up. When I tried, I almost fainted.”
He was discharged from hospital on Christmas Eve but six days later, he awoke in agony. “I was home alone so I called my brother and said ‘you have to come and drive me to the hospital’,” he says. “In the car, I couldn’t get a normal position. Thirty minutes from the hospital, I touched my leg with my hand, just the upper leg, and couldn’t feel it. The top nerves were shut down. I thought ‘oh fuck, this is really bad’.
"When I arrived, I remember the doctors asked me ‘Dennis, you know the drill, number the pain from one to ten. One is no pain, from six to ten is unbearable’.
"I said ‘well doc, I’m not pushy, but if you give me a saw or a knife right now, I’d cut off the leg myself because I can’t live like this’.”
His doctors hadn't seen a case like this. Having had the original injury repaired twice, the same surgery wasn’t an option. After operation number three, they told him there was the possibility he might not be able to be a professional cyclist again. How did he react to that? “The thing is, my condition was so bad, I think I didn’t realise what was going on. My body was in survival state.”
Van Winden was weak, jaundiced and skinny from weight loss. “I had no energy, my blood values were really bad. My haematocrit was 17, my haemoglobin was 4.1 for a week. That’s really low," he says. “I didn’t look in the mirror for the first five days afterwards – friends told me not to. When they walked in, they looked scared. But I always said ‘it would be fine’ and I really believed it. I’ve never been scared.”
Van Winden reckons his optimism was a key part in his recovery process. “In the hospital, you get to know the doctors and nurses. They were saying ‘it’s incredible how your mind is working. From the moment you got here, you never had a bad day. Not even a bad minute. The day they brought you in, you were always fighting to get better in your mind'."
Once discharged from hospital in February after a six week stay, he had another operation on his hands: return to full fitness on the bike after four months off it. He didn’t wear his new Blanco kit till early March, even then only going for hour-long coffee rides. The enforced time off gave Van Winden a renewed appreciation of life. He went hiking in the hills around his Girona home and felt the bond of his Blanco brethren.
“Cycling is a beautiful sport. Like now, when I’m riding the bike with friends and colleagues, it makes me happy. A day hasn't passed without speaking with a team-mate, director, soigneur or mechanic. I think we’re a close team, the Dutch guys and the foreigners... they really want to know how I was doing."
The weight loss had him thinking he'd return as a climber. No chance. “They put a lot of sugar water in me. When I got back home, I gained ten kilos and I couldn’t even enjoy it, like if they’d given me a couple of chocolate bars every day. I was just lying around, doing nothing. You almost can't see the lost kilograms anymore.”
Now the wheel has turned fully. On Sunday, a little over two months after getting back on his bike, Van Winden is set to pin on a number and returns to racing at the Rund um Köln. Maybe this upped pain threshold will give him an edge. “Right now, I can do the training efforts real easy. No pain, no gain they say, but after this, pain is not difficult,” he says.
Blonde-maned Van Winden is your typical workaday professional, winless in his first three years in the ranks. For all the support and sympathy he received over the winter, the harsh reality is that he now has half as long as his peers to secure a contract extension - if Blanco finds a sponsor, that is. Still, he's ready for the fight. Van Winden had a last word to about his career-threatening ordeal too.
“Every surgery has its danger, even getting your ears pierced. This was an option to enjoy riding the bike as a professional cyclist again. I’d be lying if I said I was happy with the outcome, it’s been a very hard time, but I don’t regret having this surgery."