Loud noises, dizziness and headaches: Matt Walls on the six week concussion that ended his season
The Bora-Hansgrohe rider suffered post-concussion syndrome, with symptoms lasting six times longer than usual.
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It’s like a storyboard for a disaster movie, each slide revealing more horror on the faces of spectators as Matt Walls flies over the velodrome barriers at the Commonwealth Games, catapulting himself into watching fans and crashing hard.
The images are as terrifying as they are infamous, bound to be shown at various points in the coming years, a reminder of the speed and dangers of track racing.
Remarkably, Walls was discharged from hospital that very night with just minor bruises and bumps, but that’s where the good news ends.
For the crash during the 15km men’s scratch race at Birmingham 2022 brought Walls’ season to a shuddering halt, the Olympic omnium champion unable to compete again due to suffering from post-concussion syndrome; most concussion cases resolve within two weeks, yet Walls suffered symptoms for six weeks after his crash.
“It was a really long time to be concussed,” Walls tells Cycling Weekly. “And it was really strange because for the first few days after the crash I was actually OK and I had no issues. But then when I got home it hit me - and hit me pretty badly. It just dragged on for ages and it was a long time, around six weeks, before I was OK and didn’t have any concussion symptoms.”
The head trauma had a significant impact on Walls’ day-to-day living. “Loud noises were a pretty bad trigger for me,” the 24-year-old says. “When I went for my daily 20 minute walk, I’d go outside and hearing cars coming past didn’t feel good. I’d want to get back inside.
“I’d just get dizzy really easily. I’d watch TV for 10 minutes and I'd become dizzy or have a headache and have to switch it off. Slowly, as the weeks went on, I could watch a bit more and life became more normal, but it took time. It was the same on my phone: too much time on it and I’d get a headache.
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“A few weeks in I started to recover and I went on the turbo for a little spin, just to keep the legs ticking over. I’d get my heart rate up to a certain point and get dizzy again, having to back off.”
It was the Bora-Hansgrohe rider’s first ever concussion and he felt helpless. “There was nothing I could do and it got to the point where I realised I wasn’t going to race again this season,” he says.
“The doctors were saying I have to just take it how it comes. I was slowly improving over time but it was slow. I ended up having a long time off the bike.”
When Walls was cleared of concussion and permitted to ride outside, his reintroduction was initially challenging. “Jesus, I was rough,” he laughs when discussing his first ride back. “I was riding but I felt really uncomfortable. Trying to ride in a straight line for the first few hours was tough - I just felt so wobbly and not used to it.”
At home, he has the photos that shocked the cycling world. “I’ve got the frame-by-frame pictures of what happened,” he reveals. “It’s just nuts, to be honest. It feels so weird. I try not to think about it anymore.”
Neither is he trying to reflect too much on a season that brought with it more disappointment than success, the sprinter counting just two top-10 finishes on the road and no noteworthy result on the track.
“The whole year has been a write off,” he sighs. “I crashed five times and it was a case of crashing, getting back to fitness, then crashing again and losing all my fitness and momentum. It was that on repeat all year. It was a bit of a bummer.”
Walls is now in winter training preparing for the 2023 campaign that also doubles up as a contract year - and he’s intent on making up for a lost period. “After such a bad season this year, I want to get wins on the road again,” he says, referencing his two wins in 2021, at the Tour of Norway and Gran Piemonte.
“I don’t put out the biggest numbers compared to other riders, but I can normally put myself in a good position and do well off it. I’m more of a tactical sprinter and I want to show myself again.”
Before he gets to do that, though, he will travel to London to receive his MBE, awarded in the Queen's final New Year's honours list for his services to sport, in recognition of his gold medal in the Olympics.
He doesn't yet know if King Charles will be presenting him with his MBE, but that doesn't matter to Walls because he got to meet him just a few weeks ago. He explains: "I went to Buckingham Palace for an event with all the other Olympic medalists. There was loads of us there. It was a fun day and I got to meet the King and a few of the royals."
How was the King? "Yeah, he was pretty sound," he laughs. "It wasn't a big conversation, but more like, 'hi, yeah, I'm with cycling' and he just said, 'ok, nice'.
"We were all stood in a big ballroom with sparkling wine and they wandered through, chatting to different people. It was pretty cool.
"It's nuts inside there as it's massive. You walk in and there's this massive reception, a coat room and then you walk into the ballrooms. It's just a huge place. It was a cool experience."
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Chris first started writing for Cycling Weekly in 2013 on work experience and has since become a regular name in the magazine and on the website. Reporting from races, long interviews with riders from the peloton and riding features drive his love of writing about all things two wheels.
Probably a bit too obsessed with mountains, he was previously found playing and guiding in the Canadian Rockies, and now mostly lives in the Val d’Aran in the Spanish Pyrenees where he’s a ski instructor in the winter and cycling guide in the summer. He almost certainly holds the record for the most number of interviews conducted from snowy mountains.
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