When the editor Simon Richardson called to tell me that Simon Richardson was making another comeback, I have to admit I was slightly baffled. It wasn’t the names – I realised that CW’s Simon was talking about the MBE-suffixed Welsh Paralympian – but I found it hard to credit that a man who has been through so much was pondering a return to racing.
It is hard to know where to start in telling 54-year-old Richardson’s story, so here is a potted history. In 2001, he was hit by a car while training, breaking his leg and his back, leaving him with permanent weakness on his left side. Having been classified as disabled, he went to the 2008 Beijing Paralympics and won gold in the LC3 kilo and 3km, setting world records in both. In 2011, he was hit by a drunk driver and left for dead with multiple injuries including fractures to the spine and a broken pelvis – he has not raced since. In 2017 he had a minor stroke, and in 2019 the metal rods holding together his spine snapped, leaving him in agony. And now, after all that, he is making a comeback.
“A few months after the accident [in 2011] they took the body brace off and my spine collapsed,” Richardson tells me via video call from his home in Llantwit Major, south Wales. “Then it was nine years of operations, on and off.” He returned to riding in 2018 but persistent pain in his torso led to the discovery that the titanium rods in his back had broken and were pressing on his internal organs. “I was on high doses of morphine but it wasn’t doing anything,” he says plainly as if suffering long since lost the capacity to surprise him.
The rods were repaired in December 2019, bringing the pain under control, but with the elimination of one problem came two more. “They found a problem with my blood,” says Richardson. “It was too thick and needed to be drained three times, and at the same time they discovered that I’ve got prostate cancer.” Thankfully the cancer had not spread and, for now, does not require treatment. Even so, hardly the classic ingredients for a comeback.
“It’s been a long haul for me,” Richardson acknowledges, “but in August last year I was given the all-clear by my consultant to start training and racing again.” He is acutely aware that this may be his last opportunity. “We know that in the future my spine will just collapse, and then I will be even worse off.” The Welshman explains that the 2011 crash damaged his pituitary gland, meaning his body no longer produces the hormones necessary to maintain the structural integrity of his spine.
As soon as he got the green light, Richardson resumed riding and did over 600km a week over winter, all on Zwift. “I haven’t got the confidence yet to go on the open road by myself,” he says. “My family won’t let me this year because my first accident was in 2001, the second in 2011, and now it’s 2021...” As this one-crossed year ticks past, he is awaiting re-classification of his race licence to take account of his altered physical condition, which will open up more racing opportunities. In the meantime, he has signed with Spirit Racing Team and plans to do some local able-bodied TTs and fourth-cat racing “to climb back up the groups”.
“I need to work back up and see how fit I actually am,” Richardson explains. Has he done any fitness testing yet? “No, I chickened out,” he laughs. “I’ve done too much of that in the past.” Initial signs are promising: he can already hold 250 watts for 20 minutes. How much he can improve will depend on how well his body holds up; there is no such question over his mental resilience. “What I’ve got is the memory of how to fight, how to ride through the pain.”
I put it to Richardson that many people would wonder, given everything he has been through, why he isn’t content to stay on the trainer and play it safe. “I think it’s just enjoyment,” he says cheerfully. ”I took up cycling to get my confidence back after being crashed into on my motorbike. I just got hooked, and now I’m still hooked.” He is fully aware that another heavy crash would likely leave him paralysed, but it’s a risk he is willing to take.
What is he hoping for from this high-stakes comeback? “I’ve always said I want to go out on a high,” says Richardson, “because the accident [in 2011] took me out when I was fit. I want to get back to that sort of form, win a couple of races, then I can retire.” The memory of winning still vivid in his mind, he longs to feel that buzz one more time. “I just want a couple of wins – anything would do... an able-bodied cat-four race, that would do me fine.”
'He's a tough cookie'
Six-time Paralympic gold medallist Darren Kenny on his former team-mate
"I’ve known Simon for many years and we’ve had some great times together, from fighting for wins on the road to learning to walk backwards in Buckingham Palace!
"To me, he’s always been a totally reliable and dedicated team-mate – you know he’s going to give it everything he has. It’s the same now in his comeback from the near-fatal crash that put his career on hold. I certainly wouldn’t bet against him. He’s a tough cookie."
Simon is a very committed, highly- focused individual, and he has super support from his wife Amanda who’s always by his side; they make a great team. There’s still a long way to go, but if anyone can make it back, Simon can.
This feature originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25.
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