Michael Barry believes things happen for a reason. But it took some time to see the silver lining after breaking his femur, arm, elbow and ribs in February in a nasty crash at the Tour of Qatar.
The 36-year-old cyclist from Toronto spent a month in a wheelchair, unable to put any weight on his left leg. Crutches were out because, with a broken arm, he couldn’t handle them.
“I’ve dealt with similar injuries throughout my career so I do know how to get through them,” Barry told The Canadian Press. “And I think the one thing I’ve learned over the years, the biggest thing is just to set goals and remain positive. . . . And one thing I’ve learned as well is in every injury I’ve had, a good thing always comes out of it in the end.”
Amazingly, Barry returned to competition three months later, helping Sky teammate Edvald Boasson Hagen win the Tour of Norway.
Ten days later, he did the Tour of Luxembourg, then the Tour of Switzerland and flew back to Canada for the national championships.
He credits Team Sky, first for its help in getting him the right medical attention in England and then not pressuring him to get back until he was ready.
Today, he feels renewed. “I actually feel fantastic, I feel really good.”
The enforced layoff allowed his body to rest and recover. And the time spent at home with his family in Girona, Spain, was most welcome — even in a wheelchair.
Given his age and the demands of world-class road racing, Barry knows the end of his cycling career is near. Time with his family is a big part of his decision whether to keep going after this season.
“I didn’t really want to make any decision until I really recovered from the injury and I was in a good place and ready to make a decision. I’m getting close to that now,” he said.
“If you had asked me would I keep going when I was in the ambulance or when I was recovering would I keep going for another season, I would have said no. At first I didn’t even want to get back on a bike and then slowly I started having the desire again to get back on and get going.”
“I love riding my bike but … my boys are getting older and I’m gone 250 days a year,” he added. “Another thing that I really saw when I was at home for that chunk of time was just kind of how much I had missed out on their growth. That chunk of their childhood as well.
“For me it was a real treat to have those four months at home. It’s a tough decision to make but I look back on my career as well and I have had some great experiences.”
Barry is not your ordinary athlete. He has already written three books on his sport and has contributed to media outlets from the New York Times to The Canadian Press.
Many athletes have something to say. But Barry thinks long and hard first before he offers his opinion.
He has several theories why elite races like the Tour de France have been hit hard by crashes in recent years.
“Maybe it’s because I’ve been involved in a few of the crashes but it’s hit me in the last couple of years that there has been an increase. There are few riders on our teams that haven’t broken bones. And even talking to the riders who raced in the ’90s, they’ve noticed just a huge increase in the number of crashes in the races.”
Barry points to the change in urban infrastructure in Europe and the increase in traffic-calming devices in the towns — such as roundabouts — that become obstacles for the peloton.
The peloton itself is bigger and Barry suggests the difference between best and worst rider in a race has narrowed in the last 15-20 years. Riders also draw on better training and equipment.
“So the peloton doesn’t break up quite as easily,” he notes.
He also sees more on the line in today’s racing. With the Internet and TV, not to mention short-term contracts, “pretty much every kilometre we race has more value.”
“Ten years ago now it really didn’t make a difference if you were 40th or 50th in a race because no one knew. And now those results are posted immediately after the race and you have riders racing for 30th place. Whereas before really only the top 10 mattered most of the time.
“Unless you’ve been right in the peloton, it’s hard to explain. But when riders are sprinting or racing for those last positions, it does create more danger as well in the peloton. And there’s less respect as a result.”
Finally Barry points to a change in athlete attitude.
“I think overall when you look at sports now, there’s just more of an acceptance of risk. It’s a trend you see in the Olympics and most pro sports. Sports is becoming made for television and because of that maybe some of the younger generations are slightly numb to the risks that they take.”
No stranger to injuries, Barry went down hard in Qatar.
A rider in front of him hit a cat’s eye reflector on the road as the peloton, broken into several chunks because of a crosswind, was doing around 65 kilometres an hour.
“Just a moment of inattention and he hit the cat’s eye and his hands came off the handlebars and as soon as that happened, he lost control of his bike. I was within a foot of his back wheel.”
Doctors in Qatar missed the broken femur, although Barry knew something was up. He had broken his leg before and was in a lot of pain, unable to put weight on the leg.
His Sky roommate told him later he looked so bad he thought he’d never race a bike again.
Sky flew him back to England business class and he was soon seeing specialists, who detected a small fracture near the greater trochanter on the outside of the bone, right by the hip where tendons join and the blood flows through.
“The concern was if I put any pressure or any weight on it, that the fracture would grow. And if it got bigger then they would have to do surgery, basically the surgery would have ended my career more or less. And probably affected me for the rest of my life, because they have to basically drive a pin right thorough the bone.”
With Barry off his feet, the bone healed by itself and six weeks later he returned to training.
“And when I did go back to the races again, I was in a great place mentally and physically again. And so I was having a lot of fun racing and I was enjoying it.”
After cheering on Bradley Wiggins and the rest of Team Sky for their victorious ride at the Tour de France, Barry is headed to the Tour of Region Wallonne.
The Eneco Tour and GP Plouay are next before he returns to Canada for races in Montreal and Quebec City. Then, hopefully, the world championships and the Tour of Beijing.
Along the way, hopefully, more time with his wife and two sons, who are turning five and seven.
“The older one’s not too keen on cycling because he’s seen all the injuries,” Barry said with a laugh.