The weariness of spirit and body was evident in Ben Jacques-Maynes‘ lean face when we sat down to chat on a sunny and warm morning last week. The 33-year BISSELL Pro Cycling rider has been through the worst year of his life, with serious complications including a bone infection and setbacks hitting one after another following his broken collarbone at the 2011 Amgen Tour of California.
And it’s not over yet. He’s still recuperating and fighting stomach issues brought about by the massive and long antibiotics regimen.
“The worst year of my life, it has nothing to do with my career at this point.” Jacques-Maynes told podiuminsight.
“In June, I was gung-ho career path and thinking about getting back on my bike as soon as possible and that was my main worry. At this point, I want to have a normal life and then I’m also going to worry about bike riding. I’ve spent so much time having to back pedal off that need to push the envelope in a sporting level, and having that not pay off for me, in terms of healing this bone that I’m treating it now as a normal person not as a professional athlete which is kind of hard to think about that. Stepping out of a professional persona, that mentality of being a competitor, using your body, it’s your tool, it’s your job, it’s what you do, your every waking thought is honed to making that thing a fine tuned machine. And now I’m having that same discipline and focus but it’s to not have my shoulder hurt when I put a shirt on, being able to do some pushups would be great. It’s definitely different and I won’t deny that it’s been very hard.”
After over five years of talking with and watching him race, it was a different Jacques-Maynes that showed us around his new home which included a trampoline in the backyard. A trampoline that he still has not been able to enjoy with his two young children son Chase and daughter Chloe. Not being able to got mountain bike riding with his kids or simply playing catch is tough for the family man.
“Some of the hardest stuff that I’m still having to deal with.” he said quietly. “I haven’t been able to play catch with my son for nine months, I can’t do that. I still need to do more rehab on my shoulder and I’m still scared, he’s throwing a ball at me and he’s not accurate, he’s six so he throws the ball at me and hopefully I can put my glove in the way before it hits me in the shoulder, then I have this whole big adrenaline boost of, I almost die, obviously not but it’s like this irrational emotional response and you can only take that a couple of times.”
It all started off with a normal crash, if one can call a crash normal, at stage 5 of the Tour of California in May, 2011.
“It was one of those nothing crashes that happens at Cali. You’ve seen them before, like Oscar Freire, Christian Vande Velde have ended their springs, cruising through a town and all of a sudden, someone is going for a water bottle, loses their bars and a big pile-up, when no one is going hard, nothing is happening, you’re just cruising, waiting for the finale. It was just like that.”
It happened so fast that he still doesn’t know who crashed first. “Gustav Larsson as directly in front of me, he was in the middle of drinking a water bottle and he didn’t have time to hit the brakes, he went right over the top and I saw it happen. I was cutting off to the side, I had clear roads.” He thought he mind be able to avoid it. “Then all of a sudden Gustav’s bike went bam, right across my front wheel, and so I just didn’t have enough time to spring off and I landed in the dirt, I didn’t have a scratch on me, just straight into the shoulder, I left this huge gauge in the dirt.”
And he knew, it’s not his first collarbone break. I drove by in the caravan a few seconds later and he was holding his shoulder and walking to get medical assistance.
“I knew what to expect, okay I have about 45 to 60 seconds before the shock really starts setting in, that’s why I was pretty much on a mission, I left my bike, I left my helmet, I was walking, I was looking for the med car because they are directly behind the peloton.”
The crash and the aftermath were broadcast live for all to see, including his family. “I found out afterwards that this was all on television, the versus camera standing over me the entire time, I had no idea.” he chuckled. “That didn’t go over very well with my mom watching. I saw the replay of that and then I turned it off real quick, I didn’t want to watch.”
Being so close to home, he was in surgery less than 24 hours after the crash. “I was super motivated, the x-ray looked like it would be a good idea to get surgery, I wanted to come back as fast as possible. I didn’t think twice about having surgery, that’s what you do, if you want your shoulder to be solid and together, you have surgery and quality of life was exponentially higher than with two bones flopping around, you can at least move, sleep comfortably, put a shirt on, simple things that you take for granted.”
After his crash on Thursday, he was back on the trainer that Sunday and returned to racing at the Tour de Toona four and half weeks later. He admits to some discomfort with his shoulder but nothing unusual, or so he thought.
“I thought I was racing well, the legs felt good, I was able to perform, try to help Chris win the race, I felt like I was right back into it, I didn’t think twice about it. And then, every time I’d go back for another doctor’s check-up, another x-ray, it would be okay sometimes is a little funny this time, oh did you crash? Did you trip and fall, what’s happened? Because they could point to the way that the bone had shifted and moved on one side and not on the other side, one of the sides had actually slid in on the pin down the middle, kind of crushed in, they could really see that it was trying to heal itself but something was in the way of it, something was keeping it from that final last cohesion to really coalesce.”
His thought was “just keep it going”.
“It hurt as much as it does now. With really tight muscles, with nerve pain, tender to the touch but it’s a surgery site, I’d barely gotten the steri-strips off. I thought that the sensations I was feeling were perfectly normal, and so I was thinking twice about any kind of weird tightness or inability to move in a certain direction, I was thinking that it was just part of surgery.”
The doctors were of the same opinion but they told him that maybe he was too active.
“So I basically stop doing standing intervals, I did all my training and climbing intervals seated after that point. And that didn’t do anything, obviously it wasn’t me standing up. Looking back on it now, what an idiot, why didn’t I track it down at that point, why didn’t try to get a second opinion, why didn’t I look into it more because considering the seriousness of what I was up against and what I was truly fighting against, it wasn’t me being tired, it wasn’t my over-activity, it was something seriously wrong and festering internally.”
By mid-August, Jacques-Maynes was trying to prep for the USA Pro Crit Championships, a very important race for his team and title sponsor. Preparation which included being able to stand up out of corners and short intensity efforts.
“I had to actually start doing really hard work and my shoulder was not capable at all.” he recalled from that period. “Even then I was still thinking these muscles suck, I need to do more intensity, I need to work harder to sort this thing out, that’s been my solution to everything, hard work pays off no matter what. It’s worked for me for my entire career, just dedicate yourself more, do more work, make sure you’re recovering from it but just get out there and do it and don’t complain, everything is hard and painful. I was just following the same lines, mentally I was thinking I just had to persevere.”
After avoiding crashes at the USA Pro Crit Championships won by his teammate Eric Young, he went to the USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado.
His shoulder was hurting. “I didn’t know if it was that particular experience (of avoiding crashes) or just the standing up sprinting all day or just the stress of death griping in the rain, (thinking) ‘God I can’t hit the ground but I really want to race hard’.” he mused. “I was motivated and just fighting through all that. It was very physically and emotionally stressful. I came out of that, my shoulder was feeling terrible and then went straight to altitude and had zero recovery and zero ability to climb 10,000 foot passes, I was going on gumption and dwindling resources at that point.”
From bad to worse in Colorado. “I couldn’t go and get bottles, just taking the bottles and holding on with the other hand, I couldn’t pass it to this hand and put it behind, I can’t do that motion, I can’t reach back to my pocket with this arm, I’m seriously screwed up.”
It was simply the end of the road. Another doctor’s appointment and another x-ray which looked radically different.
“It was two pieces of bones, pulled far apart from each other and a bunch of light grey, ghosty stuff between, it was all dead bone in between. And, everyone freaked out, I was like I don’t know what I’m looking at but that looks terrible.”
Once more under the knife, for another plate, more screws and a biopsy. The culprit was found, a staph infection.
“At that point, I’m recovering from surgery, I’m in the middle of contract re-negotiation and now I’m being hospitalized. I still had to idea what that meant or what was still in store for me because that was just the beginning. I go check myself into the hospital and they say you’re going to need six weeks of IV antibiotics, and we’re going to put this PICC line in you. A PICC line is used for hardcore bacteriological infections, and chemotherapy.”
“It’s serious stuff, a PICC line goes in your arm, right here.” Jacques-Maynes explained while pointing at the inside of his upper right arm, “and it’s mainlined here, 30, 40 cm long, comes to your jugular and drips down centimeters from your heart valve. They pull this thing, its like this long, and what can I do? I’m just along for the ride at this point. I don’t have a choice, that looks like a terrible idea, do not put that in my arm but it’s not really up to me at that point.”
He called that period in October “one of the lower points possible.”
With a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) line and traveling nurse, Jacques-Maynes was able to stay at home while undergoing his treatment. “At least I could be at home, I could hug my kids at night, I could do things at least, deal with all the insurance billing which is a whole other hit to take.”
“PICC lines are not cool.” he commented. “The site was tremendously sore, they punch a pretty big sized hole in your arm, it’s a ten-gauge hole, the thing is not small. The thing does expand and retract, you put your arm up like this, it pulls it, you put it down, it pulls out. It’s walking around, it moves.”
His immediate worry at the beginning of the six weeks with the PICC line was just getting all the antibiotics he needed. “I’ve got a picture what my three times a day regimen, the amount of stuff that I had to put through my arm and I’ve got a picture of the amount of syringes I had to do in one day, it’s like 25 syringes because you had to flush the line, put heparin through it to make sure that it doesn’t coagulate and get blocked up.”
He also had to make sure to keep the PICC site completely sterile. “That’s fundamental. If the PIC line site goes bad, it’s asking for another more severe infection because I’m already on the antibiotics that they’d give me to fight that problem. So, I basically had a tegaderm and this whole area on the inside of my upper arm here got exposed to the air for five minutes once a week, and otherwise it was sterile under tegaderm.”
Which basically meant that Jacques-Maynes spent a lot of time on the couch. “Because of that need for sterility of my arm, I was under strict orders to not sweat so on a nice sunny day like this, I physically couldn’t be outside because those tiny beads of perspiration, you don’t even notice under normal circumstances, you could see it underneath the tegaderm and each of them would turn red a couple of days later. I had to sit still with my shirt off on the couch all day long and I would watch tv and read books, do paperwork. On beautiful sunny days, that was the most difficult, I was actually looking forwards to those foggy days when it was cold, I could put a jacket on and go walk on the beach or just be in the backyard, anywhere but inside my house.”
Stay tuned for part 2 of our interview where we chat about his recovery, and his decision to continue with racing.