The force reawakens: Milan Vader's incredible comeback from near-fatal crash that broke his back in 11 places

After a horrific crash over a guard rail at Itzulia Basque Country in April, the Jumbo-Visma rider was left fighting for his life. Here, he tells CW about his incredible comeback

Milan Vader close-up, smiling
(Image credit: Mario Stiehl)

This article was originally published in Cycling Weekly's print edition as part of the long-running MY FITNESS CHALLENGE series.

As Milan Vader lay in a hospital bed in Bilbao, hours after crashing over a guard rail at April’s Itzulia Basque Country, little did he know he was fighting for his life. The Jumbo-Visma rider had been placed in an induced coma after a trapped air bubble in his brain had paralysed his entire right side. Surgeons were working flat-out to keep him alive. 

The massive impact had left Vader with a perforated lung and stents were required to plug his ruptured carotid artery; his spine was broken in 11 places, eight of his ribs had cracked, and a shoulder, a collarbone, an eye socket and a cheekbone were also all broken; his weight was plummeting from 62kg to 53kg. 

Twelve days after his horror crash, however, doctors woke the Dutchman from his artificial coma, having brought him back from death and paralysis. The prognosis remained bleak. Unable to stand up for more than 30 seconds, the 26-year-old would have to relearn to walk, feed himself and even how to swipe on his phone. Astoundingly, though, over the following six months, Vader embarked on one of the sport’s unlikeliest comebacks. “When I woke up in the hospital,” he tells CW by phone, “I was super-focused to come back as soon as possible. I’m so happy I have.” 

Vader joined Jumbo-Visma last winter on a three-year deal, with the dual aim of helping the former mountain biker win XC MTB gold at the Paris 2024 Olympics and developing him into a GC star on the road. The crash appeared to scupper both of those ambitions, but Vader was determined to overcome the many complications and difficulties. The road back would be as tough mentally as it was physically. 

After being transferred to a hospital in Eindhoven, to be closer to home, Vader’s first rides on a stationary bike consisted of 15 minutes pedalling at 30 watts. It’s all he could manage. There were even days when eating breakfast tired him out so much that he’d have to go straight back to bed. The early days of his recovery primarily focused on strength training, only very slowly increasing the distance and time on the bike. Within two months of the crash he had completed a 100km ride with his father, prompting his coach Tim Heemskerk to suggest that Vader could be back to his previous condition before the summer’s end. 

An accelerated training programme ensued with a clear objective: if Vader could ride 20 hours a week consistently from July, and then follow that up with a return to structured training, he would make his return to the peloton at the Cro Race in Croatia in late September. “I really started from zero, absolute zero,” he says, “but I was so motivated. In the beginning it was nearly impossible to plan anything, as I was still getting too tired, but as soon as I went back to putting quality structure into my training, everything went almost perfectly.” 

In August Vader decamped with his girlfriend to his favourite spot of Alicante, Spain, and did some threshold testing with the team. The results, four months after his near-fatal crash, were miraculous. “For the shorter thresholds of around five minutes, my watts per kilo numbers were the same as at last December’s training camp,” he says. “My coach said I was ready for Croatia.” 

Milan Vader astride his bike, smiling to camera, in Croatia

(Image credit: Mario Stiehl)

As ecstatic as he was about his recuperation, Vader realised his perspective had changed. “When I came back from Spain, I was super-tired. Before my crash, I wouldn’t have stopped training, but this time I said to my coach that I needed some complete rest. Before, I’d have been super-stressed about taking a day off, but I’ve learned that taking time off doesn’t matter.”

Vader is thankful that he has no recollection of the crash, since it means he has no residual fears. He does admit, though, that as he sat in his hotel room the night before the Cro Race, he was overcome with a mixture of emotions. “On one hand, it was scary how normal it all felt,” he explains. “I was cleaning my shoes and my glasses and I was excited to race. I had no expectations and the team said I should only do some work if I can, but I was thinking that I was going to be scared to race for position in the bunch. I’d also kept on hearing how crazy and dangerous this race was.”

As soon as racing got under way, those nerves dissipated and Vader’s remarkable recovery continued apace. “I actually quite liked being at the front and fighting for positions,” he says. “I was just so super happy to be racing.” There was plenty more to celebrate come the final stage: team-mate Jonas Vingegaard won the race overall, owing much to Vader’s support – the Dutchman finished in the front group on two of the five stages, an indication of a seamless reintegration back into racing. Making it extra special, his family were there alongside him: “Before the crash I didn’t understand why they wanted to be at the races, as we can only see each other for a few minutes,” he says, “but now I realise it’s special for them. You only live once and it was nice to share my return with them.”

Vader’s career goals remain unchanged, but he has been emboldened. “I look at Fabio Jakobsen and other riders as examples for those that have had a big crash and have come back stronger,” he reflects. “As long as you are motivated, the body is capable of doing lots of crazy things. Everything’s possible.”

Coach's view: 'He worked his ass off!'

Having coached Vader since he was 15, Tim Heemskerk felt compelled to fly to Bilbao to be by his rider’s bedside in the immediate aftermath of the crash. 

“He was so bad,” says Heemskerk. “All I wanted was for him to be a normal person again, never mind being an athlete, and to be able to go for a walk, for a coffee.” 

As soon as Vader was awakened from his coma, he called Heemskerk. “He sounded fatigued, but I got the sense he was OK. When he flew to Rotterdam, progression happened really fast. My plan for him was to take small steps and reintegrate him into group riding in the winter – I assumed he would have fear in a group.” 

Even the coach was surprised at the rate of progress. “When he decided to go to Alicante for two months, his improvement in fitness was enormous. We monitored everything including his fatigue, but everything went well. The fact he’s now racing is just incredible and hopefully next year he will be even better than he was.” 

What is the secret behind Vader’s rapid recovery? “He’s so committed – he worked his ass off in physiotherapy, and having a dot on the horizon to work towards has helped him too.”

The full version of this article was published in the 3 November 2022 print edition of Cycling Weekly magazine. Subscribe online and get the magazine delivered to your door every week.

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