by Mary Topping
In August 2011 Craig Lewis rode the USA Pro Challenge (UPC) with a left leg that had been broken three months earlier in the Giro d’Italia, still hadn’t healed, and would require a bone graft in December to properly mend.
Lewis, a professional cyclist who now rides for the Champion System Pro Cycling Team, effectively finished the UPC on the strength of one leg. Only a week before the start of the event he touched his jersey pocket with his right hand for the first time since May.
The Giro accident had severely limited vertical movement in his right arm. Doctors had told him there wasn’t anything they could do it if full movement didn’t return. Like any obstacle thrown in Lewis’ path, their pessimistic prognosis didn’t stop him. Lewis knows how to transform a broken body and potentially career-destroying incident into a new winning direction.
His ride in the UPC wasn’t the first time Lewis returned to pro-cycling from a horrific accident. In 2004, the year Lewis began his career with the TIAA-CREF team, a vehicle wrongly entered the Tour de Georgia time trial course while he raced. He smashed into it at 40 mph.
According to an essay written by Jonathan Vaughters, Lewis’ team director at the time, the 19 year-old Lewis sustained massive internal bleeding and over 40 broken bones. As he lay in the intensive care unit the day of the accident, Lewis handed Vaughters a note shortly after regaining consciousness. The note read, “When can I ride again?”
In 2006 Lewis won two U.S. national championship road races. He started to race for Team High Road (which later became HTC-Highroad) with the 2008 season; his performance delivered teammates like Mark Cavendish to multiple victories. Lewis, who has represented the U.S. on the national team, was part of a winning team time trial in the 2009 Tour de Romandie. He’s raced twice in the Giro where he earned third on a stage in 2010. The crash that broke his femur in the 2011 Giro in May occurred not long after celebrating a first place in the team time trial there.
Just before the UPC started in August 2011 Lewis wrote in an essay for NBCSports.com, “you’d be surprised with how much confidence in your athletic ability you’d lose if you were just recently teaching yourself how to move an arm or walk again. At the start of every racing season, after a long winter’s break, there is always the worry about not cutting it in a race. Multiply that worry by ten, and that is where I am heading into next week.”
He had only expected to make it through the prologue and maybe half the following day. But Lewis completed the entire seven day race. Finishing, he said, “was pretty shocking.”
Lewis described his left leg as “still broken in multiple pieces” during the race. He couldn’t get out of the saddle or sprint or fight for position at the front of the field, so he needed a race in good weather over wider, straighter roads where a consistent effort would enable him to hang on to the pack. The UPC fit his needs perfectly.
Sitting at the back and surviving, which is how Lewis portrayed his 2011 UPC experience, isn’t a cakewalk. It takes a lot of effort to adjust to changes in pace; if the field slows then suddenly surges forward riders at the back must accelerate quickly to keep up. Add to that an injured left femur held together by a rod from pelvis to knee and that means pain.
“There is always some movement around the fracture, and muscle rubbing up against sharp pieces of bone,” Lewis said, “and then I had a lot of hip issues with a screw that was in there that was too long, so I couldn’t really walk normally and to put pressure on it felt like it was a piece of metal scraping up against my pelvis or something like that.”
Lewis wasn’t disappointed to cling to the back of the field when he had competed with fine form in May. “It was still so early in the recovery that I was just happy to be there at all.”
Champion System received an invitation to the 2012 UPC and Lewis looks forward to trying to make a difference in the race this time.
He believes scaling Independence Pass from the Aspen side in Stage 4 will add interest to the race. “When you have it at the end of a 200 kilometer stage, everybody’s been racing at 10,000 plus feet so you really can’t make big selections. But if you put it at the start of the stage it’s naturally going to split up everybody.
“If you have an hour and a half climb from the start there’s going to be a lot of damage done. And for a group to come back [to the leaders on the road] they have to be fairly close. They can’t lose five, ten minutes and expect to come back, so I think it could really change the race a lot.”
Lewis thinks the Boulder stage should be interesting too, and not only because he now lives there. When the riders drop down from the Peak to Peak Highway to tackle the shorter climbs in the Boulder foothills, they’ll gain strength because of the decrease in elevation. Last year’s final stage from Golden to Denver was perhaps the most exciting day in the event, Lewis said, “because once you came down from racing all week at 10,000 feet – you’re still at altitude at five to six [thousand feet], but you have a lot more power and more oxygen, so things got a little more aggressive.”
Back in August 2011, more than anything Lewis wanted to return to racing. He participated in the UPC because he did not want to wait until 2012 to race again, “and have the doubts running through my head for six more months,” he said earlier this year.
“You always want to get that first race done when you are coming back from any setback, injury or illness. It helps you move on, and focus on improving.”
For Lewis, getting on top of the recovery process immediately after an injury is critical. It starts with choosing a recovery goal and focusing on improvement every day to achieve it.
After the Giro accident, he couldn’t move his right arm for six weeks. “They didn’t know if the nerve would recover or not,” he said, “but I just kept trying to focus on trying to move fingers, hands, or lift it at a certain angle and eventually it came back.”
Accepting and starting from the post-injury state is critical to healing as well. “It’s kind of just forgetting what you think it feels like and resetting your mind and your body to dealing with how it is then,” Lewis said. He acknowledged it’s easy for someone who is injured to get stuck in mourning whatever the accident stole away. He added, “They don’t think about starting from scratch and building up from nothing.”
It’s also easy to contemplate giving up after a serious injury. When asked if he’s ever thought about quitting professional cycling, Lewis said, “It’s always kind of present. I don’t want to go through any of the things I’ve been through or put my family through that anymore, and I’m going to try my best not to do that.”
Despite the risks, the freedom inherent in the life of a professional cyclist is too good for Lewis to pass up while the door remains open. “The other jobs aren’t going anywhere,” Lewis said, “but life as a professional cyclist is pretty much over when you stop. You can’t get it back.” His wife supports his decision to continue in the sport.
He likes working at the Boulder Wine Merchant part-time. Raised in South Carolina, Lewis has enjoyed cooking since childhood. The chef at Boulder’s Frasca Food and Wine and he discuss the culinary arts over bike rides and Lewis sometimes observes him at work in the Frasca kitchen.
Lewis called himself an “inventive” chef when he described how he cooks at home; it’s another aspect of his life where he starts from scratch, using whatever ingredients he has on hand to create a satisfying result.
The persistence and discipline that Lewis emulated by twice learning to walk again after two terrible accidents are traits required to succeed in professional cycling. Day after day riders unquestioningly follow their team directors’ orders to destroy themselves physically to help teammates win. This work environment can transform them into machines; daily brushes with danger make them impervious to fear.
So it’s refreshing to encounter the very human vulnerability Lewis reveals when he reflects on the sport.
Now 27 years-old, Lewis became a leader on the ambitious Asian-based Champion System team after HTC-Highroad folded in 2011. In a blog he wrote for Cyclingnews in May of this year, he admitted he’s feeling his way through a leader’s role on the team, a responsibility he’s grateful to experience this early in his career.
Champion System is a great fit for Lewis. The team’s pro-continental status is a UCI classification down from HTC-Highroad’s level, but it’s an easy trade-off. His position on the team provides him with more flexibility. He’s happy.
“Not that HTC didn’t give me any options but I knew my role was to work for the others and to always give everything I had for that aspect alone and there was a good deal of pressure that went into just that. Now I have freedom to ride for myself or freedom to help the other guys out as well. It’s up to me to decide what that is. It’s kind of cool to be able sit down and choose program, choose your goals.”
Lewis’ outlook on the sport has changed. “You can’t really go through a traumatic experience like that and not have it change you in one way or another,” he said. “I feel that it’s been for the better.”
He now trains with a lot less of what he described as “structure.” With just a bike and a computer and no power meter at the time of this interview, he’s having fun on the bike, an approach he said he plans to take for the remainder of his career.
In mid-June his approach yielded a victory. Lewis won Stage 2 of the Tour de Beauce in Canada, his first win since the 2011 May accident. First win, that is, if only racing results count.