The life of a professional road cyclist is not for the faint-hearted and Henk Vogels is testament to that! As an integral member in some of Europe’s leading teams the knockabout kid from Roleystone has gone wheel-to-wheel against some of the world’s best.
“I had a wonderful career that spanned more than a decade with so many good moments. Finishing in the top three on the charge into Paris in my first Tour de France was amazing. The Champs Elysees just has to be a sprinter’s boulevard of dreams!”
“Just to finish that race is such a good feeling. I had tears streaming down my face riding into Paris on the final day.”
But the memories aren’t all good ones, says Henk. Professional cycling is an intensely demanding sport and a ‘horror list’ of injuries is on the CV of most riders.
“I broke around 15 bones in my career and one of the worst moments was in 2003 when I crashed at around 110kph, damaging my C7 and totally destroying my left foot. I ended up in surgery where they put six large screws in my ankle that stayed there for the last five years of my career.”
“It was bone on bone for a long time and then I decided to have ankle fusion surgery in mid-2015. I struggled to recover from that, both mentally and physically. My weight blew out to 110kg and it was 18 months before I decided enough was enough.”
“I just wanted my life back.”
“I got myself back to 8kg above my old racing weight and now I’m riding around 250km a week, which is great.”
Henk first started racing in 1995 and in the early stages of his career they did it all without helmets.
“I was in a very fast ‘tuck’ position in a race in Pittsburgh in 2003, looked up and saw a policeman’s speed-gun clocking us at around 100kph and that’s the last thing I remember. I crashed, hit a guard-rail and woke up two weeks later in hospital. Luckily, helmets were compulsory by then and this one cracked in seven different places! It saved my life.”
Professional cycling is a highly specialised sport and the medical back-up has to be tailored to that, says Henk.
Docs vital team members
“We’ve got cutting edge medical support. The teams have at least two full-time doctors and they’re involved with the riders on a daily basis. They monitor our heart-rate, hook up saline drips if we need them and after a 200km day in the mountains we often do!”
“In the early days I was on a Dutch team with doctors on call 24/7 who watched our blood levels closely. If they dropped below a certain level they’d pull us out of competition so the support was always there. And it has to be, because a race such as the Tour is a bit like running a marathon 20 days in a row.”
“Team doctors become close friends, and that’s good when you’re going over the Alps one week and the Pyrenees the next.”
We’ve all seen the Peloton snaking its way through the French countryside but, as Henk points out, it’s not a place for the faint-hearted.
“There’s a lot of mutual respect among the riders but it’s dog-eat-dog in the peloton, particularly approaching the finish-line in a bunch sprint. It probably looks worse from the helicopter than it actually is!”
The rat pack
“You need to remember that these guys race each other about 150 times a year so if you keep stuffing up you’ll find yourself with a bit of a reputation. If you end up on the ‘outer’ the peloton just won’t let you in. Most riders learn that pretty quickly in their first year as a pro.”
“It’s not much fun if you get ostracised.”
There’s been plenty of discussion about mental health problems linked with athletes stepping away from their chosen sport. And professional cyclists are no exception.
“Any sportsperson stepping away from elite competition is highly susceptible to depression and, quite frankly, I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t had problems.”
“You become so used to having all those endorphins running around your brain, so when you pull the plug it seems as if nothing works properly any more. The crash I had in 2003 was lucky in some ways because they put me on Citalopram so I had an established antidepressant safety-net.”
The family tradition
Cycling runs in the blood for the Vogels family. Henk’s father competed at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and coached a number of national teams.
“There was no pressure from Dad to get into cycling, although we did spend a lot of time with other Roleystone kids running around the Velodrome. I actually played a lot of competitive soccer and didn’t really hop on a bike until I was 15 years-old.”
“And then I found myself at the Barcelona Olympics two years later!”
“The track program didn’t really grab me and I remembered Paris-Roubaix videos with my Dad so I thought I’d get into road racing as soon as I could.”
Henk may have stepped away from competitive cycling but his life is still all about the bike.
“I do some commentating for SBS, train young cyclists and work for Bikebug, a large online retail store that sells high-end bicycles. I’m also involved with Velo Tours that takes people around the big races in Europe.”
“I know that a lot of doctors love their road bikes. The only advice I’d give them, to quote Eddy Merckx, is to ‘get out there and ride!’ Cycling is such a social sport. It’s a great cardiovascular workout and a great way to have fun.”
“And road rage from 4WDs? Don’t react, keep to the left, smile and wave. It annoys them even more!”