“I woke up and thought, ‘Shit, I’ve overslept’ – I could see the alarm was flashing but there was no sound coming from it.” Former Irish national road race champion Morgan Fox is reliving the moment in late 2008 when a bike crash came back to haunt him. “I picked it up, played around with the volume, then suddenly realised it was me, not the alarm.” Overnight his world had fallen silent.
There had been no warning – “no symptoms, no headaches, no sniffles” – but immediately Fox suspected a link to the crash from which he was still in recovery. Four months earlier, racing at the Tour of Qinghai Lake in China: “I’d had a flat and was chasing back on, doing about 60km/h. Just as I was getting to the back of the bunch, there was a huge crash in front of me.” He hit the brakes, narrowly avoided the melee and was thanking his lucky stars when “just as I put a foot on the ground, he hit me like a missile.”
American Fred Rodriguez had punctured at the same time as Fox, and arrived at the pile-up seconds behind him – carrying too much speed to stop. The impact left Fox with multiple internal injuries including nine broken ribs, a punctured lung, and head trauma. After a month in hospital in China, much of it in intensive care, he was flown home to Ireland.
Fox, who is now 46, had turned pro in 2000, the first Irishman to do so since Sean Kelly’s retirement, and enjoyed a stint in Belgium before signing for the Murphy and Gunn (subsequently An Post) Sean Kelly team in 2005. By the time of his accident, he was in his mid-30s and had been pondering retirement: “But then Pezula Racing came along and, despite running two businesses by that stage, I kept going one year too long – the inevitable bad crash happened.”
The months following the crash were an arduous recovery process for Fox as he relearned to walk and adapted to life in a body brace. He had noticed some mild hearing loss, but it seemed barely worth fretting about set against his mobility challenges – until that fateful night.
“I went from that very mild hearing loss, to going to bed on a Thursday night and waking up on Friday morning completely, profoundly deaf.”
After going straight to his GP, Fox was transferred to a specialist hospital in Dublin, where he was diagnosed with sudden sensory neural loss. By passing an iPad back and forth, doctors told him that his hearing was unlikely to come back.
Attempting to return to his day job in renewable energy tendering as a deaf man was more stressful than Fox imagined. “Going from being on the phone eight hours a day to doing everything by email, trying to keep things going…” he grapples for words to convey the distress. “I lost a lot, including a lot of faith in people. When all of a sudden you can’t communicate, the world doesn’t stop to wait for you.”
Mindful of his two young children, Fox felt under pressure to keep finances flowing, and admits that it was an “extremely difficult” few years. He learned to lip read and, with the help of high-powered hearing aids, gradually adapted to his new reality.
Eight years later, in 2016, a beam of hope: Fox was put on the list for a new medical technology, cochlear implant – essentially, man-made auditory reception implanted in the brain. The fact he’d had perfect hearing until eight years earlier meant his ‘hearing memory’ was intact, so he was fast-tracked for the operation. What was it like, hearing ‘artificially’ for the first time?
“A cross between Darth Vader and The Exorcist,” Fox laughs. “Nothing sounded like it used to – I had to re-learn how to make sense of sound.”
Despite this initial phase, he worked hard at rehab, and audiologists were amazed how far he progressed in just two months.
“That gave me a huge sense of hope,” recalls Fox. “I started to re-evaluate, dreaming about what I was going to do once I returned to the hearing world.”
Top of the list was a return to the cycling world, as DS of his own team. Gathering together former team-mates, trusted contacts and promising young riders from across Europe, EvoPro Racing was born in 2019, and is currently Ireland’s only pro team. What was it like returning to the cut and thrust of international racing?
“The staff and riders between us had to invent our own vocabulary – we couldn’t have guys shouting in four different languages expecting me to understand,” says Fox, proud that his team roster boasts 10 different nationalities. “Their patience was great – everyone made an effort to be very clear, very concise.”
EvoPro made a stunning start in 2019, winning its first two UCI races, followed by another six over the course of the season. The 2020 season has, of course, ground to a halt – but for Fox, it’s just one more battle he’s determined to overcome.
“We will all face tough times financially,” he says, “and it calls on us to be agile and dynamic. The world will recover and we hope to emerge from this and continue to inspire people to ride bikes.”
This feature originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25.