On the Comeback Trail

Ellen van Dijk talks about the mental and physical challenges of overcoming serious injury.

Ellen van Dijk suffered a season-ending crash in September at the Boels Ladies Tour. 

The four-time European time trial champion suffered severe injuries, including a broken humerus and broken pelvis, the latter of which left her bed-bound and later confined to a wheelchair. 


In this Q&A, Ellen speaks about the difficulties she faced – and continues to face – from re-learning to walk to finally being able to ride again as she embarks on a long, arduous journey to return to racing in the 2020 season.


TFS: After your crash, you were bound to a wheelchair. How hard was this period for you, and how did you pass the time? 


EvD:  It’s a big shock to the body and mind to go from 100% fit to not being able to move at all. The first week I spent mostly in the hospital, and I was just so tired from pain (medication) that I didn’t mind so much that I couldn’t move. In the second week, I was home and got frustrated more and more. I got some of my energy back, but I couldn’t do anything other than lying in bed or sitting in a chair. Luckily a lot of friends and family came by and entertained me. It actually was a very nice time from a social perspective. The good thing about such a bad injury is that you can improve a lot. Being at a professional level for some years, it’s hard to notice real improvements after some time. Starting from zero again, I could improve day by day. After three weeks, I could walk with my crutch, and after four weeks, I could walk a bit without my crutch. Every small step feels like a little victory.


TFS: You were in great form leading up to the World Championships. How did you deal with the disappointment of missing a big target like that?


EvD: That was the hardest part of the injury. I knew with broken bones, normally everything would be fine again after about two months. But I was really focused on Worlds and was working towards this goal for several months. It took some time to fully realize I wasn’t going to compete. The day of the Time Trial, I didn’t watch the race; it was just too painful. We went to the cinema instead. 

TFS: What is the hardest part about coming back from a crash like yours?


EvD: Being patient! Now that I finally can ride, I thought I could really start training again. But everything takes so much time. For now, I can only ride 1,5h, and I can’t ride every day yet. I thought I would be completely fine by now, but every time my body tells me I need to slow down. Doctors keep telling me my recovery is going very fast. But for me, it can never go fast enough.

Ellen van Dijk on her way to victory at the 2019 Lotto Thüringen Ladies Tour Stage 5.

TFS: Could you explain a little about your progress in the recovery process? 


EvD: It’s been more than two months since the crash now. The first weeks were all about getting back to normal life. Being able to sit in a chair, go to the bathroom, get in a wheelchair, get up some stairs. In the beginning, I was so happy to get outside in a wheelchair. My boyfriend would take me out for a run while he would push the wheelchair. After a while, I could make small steps with a crutch, and slowly, I learned how to walk again. After about a month, I went to the gym to start basic exercises to strengthen my arm and leg. It’s incredible to see how much muscle you lose when you’re in bed for a while. Last week was my first ride back on the bike, but I still need to make my right leg a lot stronger. So, at the moment I can do short rides and a lot of strengthening exercises.

Doctors keep telling me my recovery is going very fast. But for me, it can never go fast enough.

TFS: Up until your crash, how satisfied are you with the 2019 season?


EvD: I had a great time with the team in 2019 and was happy with the level I reached. I struggled a bit with a back injury, but hopefully, this forced period of rest will help with that too. I just love the atmosphere in the team and am looking forward to performing in that next year.

TFS: What are your ambitions for 2020?

EvD: At the moment, my full focus is on my recovery: Getting back to 100% and being able to fully train and race. Hopefully, this will keep going to plan, and then I will target the spring classics, a selection for the Tokyo Olympics, and the European and World Championships at the end of the season.

TFS: What can you say about the first year of the team as a whole? Do you think next year will be different after a year of racing together?

EvD: Personally, I never felt as comfortable in a team as I do in Trek-Segafredo. I love the relaxed but professional atmosphere. Because we were a completely new team, there was not so much expectation yet. Next year that will be a bit different, but I’m sure we’re ready for it. We had to find the right way to work together at the beginning of the year, and because everything was so new, it took some time to figure some things out. This year, we all know each other, we know what to expect, and we will be ready to show that!