SANTA CRUZ, California (VN) — Ben Jacques-Maynes did not contest for the stage win at the Amgen Tour of California Monday, and he crossed the finish line nursing fresh wounds on his knee and elbow after a slow-motion uphill crash involving stage winner Peter Sagan.
But other than Sagan, the Bissell rider was perhaps the happiest man in the peloton.
Riding into his hometown of Santa Cruz, finishing with the lead group while wearing the most aggressive rider’s jersey, Jacques-Maynes took a few important steps towards appreciating his career as a bike racer again — a career that nearly came to a premature end.
It was a full 12 months ago, at the 2011 Amgen Tour, that Jacques-Maynes went down in a pileup on stage 5 and broke his collarbone. Rather than waiting for it to heal on its own he opted for surgery and quickly resumed racing, competing in stage races such as Cascade Classic and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. But unbeknownst to him, the bone was not healing.
“During training it always felt like something was getting in the way,” he said. “I was hitting my [power] numbers, but I would go full gas in a time trial and get 30th in a race where I’d been fifth in the past. I knew something was not firing right. My recovery was terrible. Things were not working out.”
A biopsy during a second surgical attempt in September revealed that a staph infection had localized inside deadened pieces of his still-broken collarbone. He spent all last fall in and out of hospitals and visiting with nurses, infusing antibiotics intravenously three times a day through a peripherally inserted central catheter.
From October through December Jacques-Maynes was unable to pedal a bicycle. Instead, he spent the fall months sitting on the couch, recovering, and contemplating his future. A pro since 2002 and a perennial contender for the individual National Racing Calendar crown, Jacques-Maynes was uncertain if he would ever race as a professional again.
His first training rides back on the bike felt more like his first-ever bike rides; instead of hammering the local Santa Cruz group, per usual, he would find himself struggling, and then dropped. He lost significant muscle mass, and his digestive tract was demolished from months of antibiotics. Even heading into March, Jacques-Maynes was unsure if he would be able to race during the 2012 season, waiting on word back from a laboratory whether his blood was clear of infection or if he would need to start driving to Stanford Medical Center to see a specialist.
“I have zero form,” Jacques-Maynes told VeloNews in February. “Even the stuff you take for granted, like having some decent baseline fitness, is gone. I’m still behind. I could probably ride through a bike race, but it would hurt if I tried to race. Any exuberance of coming back stronger than ever is gone. I just want to be physically whole, not even as bike racer, just as a person.”
Fast-forward three months, and Jacques-Maynes was crossing the finish line in Santa Cruz, just a few miles from his home in Corralitos, having raced on the roads where he has trained for years. After spending stage 1 in the breakaway and earning the most aggressive rider jersey, he crossed the finish line in Santa Cruz with a select front group, to the cheers of a loyal local following.
After the finish, Jacques-Maynes reflected on the rollercoaster of the past year.
“To be able to ride in this pack, in the select finish groups, I’m very happy with my ability to be able to put it back together at this level,” he said. “To finish with the front group the day after riding in the breakaway, it’s telling me that there’s something special going on.”
Asked how low he’d sunk during his ordeal, Jacques-Maynes said it had been deeper than he’d let on. “I was contemplating quitting cycling,” he said. “I wouldn’t call it severe, but I went through some pretty bad depression. I was having a hard time dealing with normal things in life, let alone wanting or striving to go and put myself out there.
“Even in my training throughout the spring I’ve been feeling really low, and just depending on my professionalism and my experience to get me through the training,” he said. “I’ve been lacking that personal drive and the things that I know make a champion. I know what it takes to do that, and I’ve been missing that. I think getting through this race, and feeling good about it, is a big step back. I’m gaining a lot of confidence.”
Jaques-Maynes said the experience of not knowing if he would be able to return to racing — or even when he could expect to be healthy again — changed him permanently.
“I feel like a different person,” he said. “I compare it to when we had our first child. It is just so life changing that after a while you can’t remember what it was like before that. I was just dealing with so much medical intervention, and checking myself back into the hospital over and over, another doctor visit, another nurse visit, it was a long road back, and a lot to deal with. I just had to try to persevere through it all, and know that there would be a light at the end of the tunnel, somewhere.”
As for whether the ordeal had made him appreciate bike racing more — or had strained his relationship with his profession — Jacques-Maynes said it was too soon to say.
“I’m not there yet, where I can make that call,” he said. “There have been so many corners to turn, so many that I already have turned, it’s hard to know if I’m done turning corners. Being on the podium in Santa Rosa was a big step. And today, even if I had been 20 minutes down, just riding into my hometown here, I probably would have had the same emotion, with the crowd cheering for me. To be able to put a performance on top of that, and feel good about my legs and my fitness, I feel like I am back to being a bike racer. That’s a good feeling.”