Back from the brink: riding again after a traumatic brain injury

After a crash that nearly killed him, veteran racer Graham Charlton amazed medics by getting back to near full fitness within a year

In March 2015 when Graham Charlton, 63, set off on his training ride, his head was
filled with thoughts about the Masters National Track Championships.

“I was coming to the end of my winter build; I had raced track league all winter and been weight training. I had decided to have a real go at the Nationals.”

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He set off for a 20-mile hilly ride from Holme in Cumbria. “I decided I would stay out and do 30 miles. I was really keen to get into shape for Salt Ayre summer racing.”

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A collision with a car brought the ride, and thoughts of that year’s track champs to an end. He can’t remember the accident at all, so has only the driver’s and police report to rely on.

“The last thing I remember is seeing a group of riders ahead; the next thing I know is waking up a couple of weeks later in Preston hospital.”

It’s unclear what happened in the accident, but the results were horrific.

“I was injured head to toe. I broke my left tibia and fibula, I ruptured two cruciate ligaments in my right knee, broke my back and neck, suffered a laceration to my neck and a traumatic brain injury.”

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Despite sustaining such a long and daunting list of injuries, within a year Charlton was not only back on his bike but on a training camp in Majorca, a seemingly miraculous comeback that none of the medical staff could have predicted in the early stages of his recovery.

“It would have been a very different story if I hadn’t been so fit. That was said to me again and again.”


Graham Charlton 2_Chris Catchpole

Determination was key to Charlton’s recovery. Photo: Chris Catchpole

As a competitive cyclist, Charlton applied great determination to the process of his recovery.

“When I was first in a wheelchair, I looked down at my legs and they’d gone! My body had been living off my thigh muscles. I pounced on the physiotherapists, [insisting on] using a Zimmer frame and then crutches. I wanted to move around on my own.”

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The next challenge was climbing the stairs. “They wouldn’t let me home until they had seen me safely on the stairs. I did one step, then two. I was then asked if I could do a whole flight of stairs. I said, ‘Is this what I need to do to go home?’ and when they said yes, I did it.”

Once home, Charlton walked every day and did some rowing to keep active but with his neck still in a brace he was unable to cycle.

“The whole bike thing was out of the question for a very long time.” Once out of the neck brace, he got a Wattbike set up in his living room.

“The first time was just about seeing if I could still clip in and out, as my broken tibia and fibula affected my ankle movement.”

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It wasn’t until October that he took his first ride outside. “I went to the closed circuit at Salt Ayre with my wife Avril. Because of the head injury, I was losing my balance a lot and I was terrified I might fall off.

“Salt Ayre is flat, with grass either side — a blessing if anything went wrong. Within two laps, my feeling of being unsteady had gone.”

Very fit people often surprise hospital staff who are more used to patients being content to get back to just limited mobility.

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“I kept telling the physiotherapists, ‘I want more’ and they loved that.” Having worked with both hospital and then local physiotherapists, Charlton has reached a point where he no longer needs their support.

“Once I was back on my bike and doing general stretching, it felt more than enough for me to keep progressing.”

“How I did it”

  • Having someone to ride with at any time; the support of my wife and training partner Avril has been an immense help
  • You can’t wait till you get better to start pushing yourself. It’s far too easy to say, “When I can do this, I will”. Don’t wait; get up as soon as you can and start moving
  • As an athlete, I have learnt the difference between good pain, when you are pushing your limit, and bad pain, when you are doing damage. I learnt to work with the good pain without setting back my progress
  • If you’ve had an accident, you have to be patient. It sucks energy out of you and I was very tired. You have to allow your body to recover
  • I bought Evernote for my iPad and phone and made notes on how I was feeling and ideas. There is so much going on that you can’t remember all of it. Jot stuff down or you will forget

Positive mental attitude

Charlton is modest about going from life support to riding again in less than a year — but his post-accident goals remain ambitious.

“I’m not sure if I am quick enough for the Masters National Champs this year but my goal is to be on the start line and finish on the same lap. I’m back in the velodrome and riding with a local cycling club.”

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Though very high levels of fitness before his accident account for much of his rapid recovery, support from his family and his mental approach to treating recovery as an athletic challenge have played a huge role too.

“Track league starts in October, and of course I am going to be on the start line. It feels a bit daunting saying that, but you’ve got to scare yourself a little sometimes.”

Find the right turbo for you

Recovering on a Wattbike

Graham Charlton procured a Wattbike five months after his accident, once he was out of his neck brace.

Wattbike has a unique way of analysing pedal stroke and showing it to you in real-time graphic form so you can see where in your stroke you are losing power, as well as the balance between your left and right leg.

“I had a different injury in each leg. I thought the broken leg would be the problem but it was the other side with the knee injury that was worse. I was producing 10-20 per cent less power with my right leg, and from the graphic you could see parts of the pedal stroke where I was producing no power at all.”

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Having a visual feedback aid helps you to assess how small changes in technique affect your pedal stroke.

“I looked at each part of my pedal stroke in turn: what is my ankle doing, am I scraping back, where are my toes pointing?

“I focused on how pedalling felt then went back to looking at the graphics to see improvements. I wasn’t interested in power, just the duration I could spend on the bike and improving my pedal stroke.”

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By having the Wattbike in his living room, Charlton was able to complete multiple short sessions each day without tiring himself.

“Having it permanently set up meant I could climb on and off as often as I wanted to and stop if it got too much.”