Italian announces return to racing in Québec & Montréal (September 9 & 11), offers press conference to describe his recovery process: "I want to send a message of strength to those in need of courage to overcome serious neurological injuries; I could, and I hope you can, too"
When Adriano Malori pins a number back on his jersey on 9 September, at the GP Québec, 231 days after his horrible crash during stage five of the Tour de San Luis, only one worry will interfere in his thoughts: “I'm afraid I'll start crying as I roll to the start and see all the riders there, the finish banner – all the atmosphere around a race, where I wanted so badly to be.” The story of the Italian rider from the Movistar Team is a lesson full of emotions, a journey of overcoming and a recovery which nearly no one – from those very few who really knew about the extent of his injuries – could expect to be so fast and complete. A path which wasn't made entirely of joyous moments: discouragement and lack of motivation came through Malo's mind many times, till the point of losing all hopes to recover – before he ultimately made it back to the group.
“The only things I remember from 22 January were that I was feeling really strong during the stage, and that I came down to where (Vincenzo) Nibali was riding at the peloton, to suggest him we should attack together at some slopes in the finale. There's nothing I've regained conscience about from the crash. By what I was told months after by Fran -Ventoso, a team-mate riding by his side when a pothole came across Malori's way, Adriano coming out of balance and falling-, the crash happened at around 65kph. I crashed directly with my face against the floor, and due to the big blow, my brain moved from its normal position, it slid and rubbed my skull. That caused a huge hematoma in the left side of the brain, which governs all actions from the right-hand side of the body. As a result of the accident, almost half my face is made out of titanium!” Adriano jokes, trying to downplay the issue. “There are pieces covering my cheekbone and parts of my jaw. They will be there for the rest of my life, but hopefully, with time, that will be the only trace of the accident."
“From the first 15-20 days after the crash, I only keep frames, flashes of things that I saw or lived," a logical consequence of the heavy sedation Adriano was under after his accident, to allow his injuries healing up in a controlled, painless way. “My girlfriend Elisa always tells me that, on 27 January, I told her 'Auguri', as it was her birthday. I knew that I was with her as well as my mum during, maybe, the first week or 10 days… but I don't really remember anything from those days. I wasn't conscious about anything, yet I reacted to stimuli or dates like that. I didn't start to regain conscience until Valentine's Day, when Elisa brought me a big cake to celebrate together.” His girlfriend, family and close friends thus were his first and main support: “The day I crashed, it was already late in the night in Europe. However, Elisa was up at 8am, on a Saturday -the accident happened on a Friday-, waiting for the nearest travel agency to open to buy a one-way ticket for the first flight from Italy to Argentina. She came alone, without asking anyone for help. There are a million reasons why I can't fully express my gratitude and love to Elisa,” whom he married this very summer.
Repair the synapse
Aboard a medically-equipped flight, Adriano travelled from Argentina to Pamplona, Spain, on 16 February, to be admitted to the Clínica Universidad de Navarra. There came the biggest blow. Much harder to take than the crash itself. “After a couple of days in the clinic, I asked a doctor to come to my room. Over in Argentina, I hadn't been really briefed correctly about the situation of my injuries, and I wasn't expecting them to be so serious. I flew to Pamplona, underwent checkups and magnetic resonance… and later on, I asked the doctors: ‘When are you planning to have surgery on my shoulder, so I can move it again?’ I took for granted that I would have that shoulder operated and would be back for racing in Tirreno-Adriatico (March). After all, my leg was slowly getting back to move… I wasn't thinking that anything was going wrong. Then, that doctor opened my eyes about the reality: ‘Adriano, we're not operating you. We don't have to. The problem with your shoulder is that your brain has been disconnected from the right-hand side of your body.' Disconnected. I just couldn't bear those words. I spent a whole hour crying, to exhaustion, completely hopeless.”
Lacking a real motivation or reference to carry on, yet with a will to “become, let's say, a normal, self-sufficient person, as soon as possible”, Malori was headed on 25 February to the Centro Neurológico de Atención Integral (CNAI; Integral Neurological Care Center) in Imárcoain, 10km outside Pamplona. There, Adriano found “an exceptional group of people. The head doctor, D. Manuel Murie, and his whole team treated me fantastically well. All the people in there, especially the two physiotherapists – Rebeca Fernández and Tania Iriarte – I shared the most of my weeks with, working to recover, really solved my life. I came into the center half-paralyzed, on a wheelchair, and I left on 28 April on my own, having even gone on bike rides few days before being released.”
In fact, Adriano, carrying that fighting spirit which all big athletes keep inside even unknowingly, shifted all expectations, including his own. He recovered at full pelt, though not without sacrifice. “And it would take a whole day to explain all of the different exercises I went through. Every day, I had to work three hours on physiotherapy, two on mobility therapy – planned exclusively for my situation – plus another hour of speech therapy. To all of that, from 20 March, I added an hour riding on the trainer. I spent a whole working day, every single day, for many months, trying to heal up and get back to where I was.” In May, Malori flew back to his hometown near Parma, confident that his body would evolve quickly by its own means. “And it's true that the strength on my limbs improved quite a lot during that month… yet I didn't really regain any extra mobility on my right hand, arm and leg. The problem was that the center where I started further rehab in in Italy wasn't bad, but just didn't fit my situation. There, they were working with people suffering even more extreme injuries. Those people couldn't hope for a full recovery, and 'just' pursued a level of restoration that allowed them to do normal life. I had already gone through that phase. The only thing I wanted was to be a professional athlete again."
Wings to fly
Looking to clinch his return to the existence he always yearned to regain, Adriano was admitted again to the CNAI in late June. “I combined rehab there with some other exercises at Mutua Navarra, and the final tests to make sure that everything was right from the neurological side. I was there until 5 August, staying for periods of two weeks and going back home for a few days before getting back to work. At the Mutua, I took exercises to recover strength in my shoulder and the muscles around my arm and scapula; at CNAI, I improved my precision on different moves of my hand. I keep doing those exercises at home, yet it'll take still some time to recover 100% strength on my hand. But, for bike racing, I'm completely fine. I take turns at higher and higher speeds, I'm able to sprint and stop with ease, I keep the same speed I was able to hold on serious efforts, I'm able to brake smoothly, feeling my bike as I did before the accident. I don't have any fears nor doubts. I'm more than ready.”
During these months, Malori's relationship with pro cycling has been a mixture of hate and love. “I didn't watch a single stage of either the Giro or the Tour. I switched the TV on, I started to watch a bike race, I saw them riding so fast and it looked like a different sport to me, like MotoGP. It hurt me so much, not being able to keep the pace they held, not being there, not feeling those speeds.” On the other hand, spending time with his Movistar team-mates was an extra motivation: he joined them at the GP Miguel Indurain, shared a dinner with those present at the Giro as the race went past home, and spent training days with whomever came across his way near Pamplona. “The whole team has been my second family throughout this process, those most supportive about every single effort I took on. After Elisa and my closest friends, they've been the best thing about this year. All of them – CNAI, the CUN, Mutua Navarra, doctors, physiotherapists, friends and all the people from cycling – have helped me back into racing."
However, even after Adriano becomes another point into the bank of fish the peloton looks like from a helicopter camera, there's another person inside the Italian now. “When such a thing happens to you, you start seeing life in a very different way. When you're feeling so damaged, seriously injured, in Pamplona, sitting in a wheelchair, and you see people moving around, your only aspiration is doing all those things you see them do, feeling normal, getting to be just someone else. Yet, when you're admitted to the CNAI and soon improve a lot, till the point that you get up from the wheelchair in just 10 days, regaining strength in all parts of your body – then, you look in the eyes of people around you, who are taking the same efforts but don't improve, and you, who were feeling worse than them, you're 'overtaking' them at full speed – they look at you with eyes that you never forget. They don't admire you because of being a Movistar Team rider, wearing that expensive watch or having an amazing sports car. They just admire you because you're able to move. That really changes your views on everything. That brings a tear to our eye. And you start giving things their real value. These eight months have completely changed my life. For the better. You're always complaining when you're young and everything has come easily for you; you keep on saying your life is f-ed up even when you just didn't get the parking spot you were looking for, or when you aren't able to find the apartment you had rented for your holidays. When things like my injuries happen to you, you realize all those complaints are nonsense. You really value what it's like to feel fine and healthy. You give all things the real value they have.”
What Malori was looking for, telling his story on Tuesday at a hotel in Salsomaggiore Terme, was to pass on “some hope, bringing a smile to those suffering from the same injuries that I did. Seeing where I was eight months ago, and being able to get back to racing – not training, racing – at the same level I was before the accident – it's an extraordinary thing, it's a miracle. And I felt like I had to tell my story, in order to bring hope to those suffering. Their brain works OK, yet they can't move a finger, or even their own eyes. Do people know which levels of frustration can this bring to? The only thing I want now is having people in my same situation know my story or hearing voices telling them about it, and think: 'See, there's a young boy of my same age, or older, or younger, who has been able to move his hand, his arm, his whole body again, with a strong will and lots of hard work. And he's actually a man who has got back to the top of his sport, competing wherever he was doing before his accident. He had the balls to do it, he could, and you can, too.' Should I have had that point of reference, surely it'd have helped me a lot. I know I cannot solve all problems that exist in the world. I have got to know people with more serious injuries, or those with diseases science hasn't found a cure for yet. But, if I can bring them a smile which lasts, maybe, one hour, two hours, a whole day – I'm not a doctor, I'm not a neurologist, but I think this can bring help to them."