Recovering from MotoGP crashes

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The Aftermath - Pol Espargaro And Alex Rins On Injury, Pain, Recovery, And Long-Term Consequences

When MotoGP fans dream of the glamorous life of a MotoGP rider, there are a few details they gloss over. Yes, there's the thrill of riding the fastest, most specialized racing motorcycles on the fact of the planet, at the best racetracks in the world. But along with the thrills come the spills, and with the spills comes the pain.

Despite the incredible advances made in protective gear – helmets, leathers, airbags, protectors - once the MotoGP season starts, a rider is never free of pain. Usually just small niggles or injuries, bruises, cuts, scrapes, rashes, minor fractures, pulled muscles, arm pump, cramp, stretched ligaments or tendons. Sometimes bigger issues, as collarbones, wrists, ankles, and hips heal.

And then there are the really big injuries. Think of the two miserable years Marc Marquez went through after crashing at Jerez in 2020 and breaking his humerus. With infection, nerve pain, and bone that was healing rotated by 30°, Marquez was in pain pretty much all the time, on and off the bike.

Marquez is hardly unique in this. Valentino Rossi rode with shoulder pain for almost the entire 2010 season after a big crash while training after the first race of the year. Mick Doohan broke his leg in Assen, nearly lost it to gangrene, and came back too early at the end of the season. He had issues with his leg for the rest of his (extraordinarily successful) career. Alberto Puig carries the aftermath of his crash at Le Mans to this day, occasionally forced to miss races as Repsol Honda team manager due to ongoing complications with his leg.

2023 has been a particularly bad year for injuries, with Pol Espargaro, Miguel Oliveira, Alex Rins, Marc Marquez, and Joan Mir all having to miss multiple races due to injuries sustained in various crashes. But when they come back to the track, we soon forget about the consequences of those crashes.

For those who are injured, it is not so easy. Fans and journalists understand that riders break bones in crashes, but what they don't understand is the collateral damage that breaking bones can have. The bones have blood vessels running through them, are connected to muscles, have tendons and ligaments connecting them together. When you break a bone, you also tear muscles, blood veins, tendons, and damage joints.

The worst unseen damage is done when a broken bone damages the nerves around it. Nerve damage means weakened muscles, and nerve pain. You no longer have the strength you had in a particular muscle group, and have to compensate. And because of the way nerves grow and repair themselves, it can take a very long time to regain strength, if at all.

The debriefs of Pol Espargaro and Alex Rins brought that back into sharp focus. Espargaro had returned to action at Silverstone, but in his second race back, his expectations were higher. Rins came to Austria to visit the team and speak to the media, still recovering slowly from the leg he broke at Mugello.

Espargaro had a surprisingly good weekend, given the long recovery from his horrific injuries suffered in a crash at the opening weekend in Portimão. The GasGas Tech3 rider finished a very strong sixth in the sprint race, and sixteenth in the Sunday grand prix after a penalty for exceeding track limits.

He was surprised to have done so well on Saturday, but knew his injuries are still a physical limit. "I was trying to get ready yesterday [Friday] and today morning to do the best race possible on Saturday," Espargaro said after the sprint race. "I know that the best points are on Sunday, but for me, Sunday at the moment, I feel I am too weak to face a good race on Sunday, but on Saturday I think I can be competitive like today."

The problem is that he is lacking strength in his left shoulder. "In this stressful moment, I cannot put everything together, because my body is not reacting as fast as I wish. Especially in the left corners in the race, I was losing quite a lot of time to Miller, but then I was catching back on the brakes in the right corners," the GasGas rider explained.

Why was he having problems in left corners? "Because one of my injuries is about the nerves on the neck, and there is one nerve that goes from the head to the left scapula that is quite affected. The doctors don't know when it will recover 100%, because it looks like it recovers 1 mm every two days, something like that. And the way is long, and the muscle is weak."

He has feeling in the shoulder, Espargaro explained, but has lost strength. "I don't have the power in some muscles in my scapula, they are gone. So it needs time. But I'm still racing, so hopefully in the next races or the next month I will recover this and I will be myself."

He had been riding a 1000cc bike without issue, but a MotoGP machine was a whole different ball game. Controlling a 300-horsepower motorcycle covered in wings and using carbon brakes was a world away from riding a street bike prepared for the track. "I've been training at home on a 1000cc bike, and honestly, it's a joke," Espargaro explained. "I mean I can do 1 hour riding a 1000cc bike in a very good rhythm, and then you jump on these ones and you cannot do even 40 minutes. It's very difficult."

Sunday was even harder than the day before. "In the sprint race I could manage to compensate with the other parts of the body," Espargaro said after the grand prix on Sunday. But that had come at a price. "The problem was that I woke up this morning in really tough physical conditions. When I jumped on the bike for warm up I realized I was not very good."

The adrenaline of the race had helped, Espargaro admitted. "In the race you start, find yourself better. I was catching Miller and I motivated myself a little bit, but I did not feel good, I did not feel fast and I could not use my body to improve the drive or not waste so much tire." This was at least a start. "For sure you lose a lot of performance but, anyway, this was the first step and now we move to Barcelona and Misano and every weekend is going to be a little bit better."

Espargaro's physical limitations will not be going away any time soon, he explained. "The doctors don’t know how the nerves go and when it will all be OK," the GasGas rider explained. "Every two, three days one millimeter of nerve is growing from the neck to the muscle. So it is going to take a little longer, but even like that I was performing this weekend, in front of one GasGas and one KTM on Sunday in the race. In the Sprint when you just need to push aggressive I was close to Miller…so it was not bad at all."

Espargaro has hope his damaged nerves will recover slowly, and he will regain his strength, but at least he is not in a huge amount of pain off the bike. But the same cannot be said of Alex Rins. The LCR Honda rider gave us some gruesome details of his long and painful recovery from the leg injury he sustained in a big crash at Mugello in June.

The crash had not been caught very clearly by the cameras, so Austria was the first chance journalists got to ask Rins exactly what happened in the crash. "It was a highside," the LCR Honda rider said. "Especially in that corner, it was light rain for two or three laps. And before the crash, I was a bit off line, because in my head I was trying to carry a bit more speed, because I remember I had Aleix in front of me, and my feeling was that I was riding faster than him. So the idea was to exit quite close to overtake him in Turn 10, I think, after Arrabbiata 2. So I carried more speed, I opened the throttle more directly, and I fly."

The biggest problem for Rins was the way he landed. He was rolling backward, and so hadn't been able to try to soften the landing by rolling. "The unlucky thing is that I landed with my knees and I entered backwards on the gravel. So this was the problem. You cannot prepare your body for the impact."

He immediately knew that this had been a bad crash, and he was seriously injured. "I was in the gravel and when I tried to stand up I saw that the leg was wobbling. In that moment I felt my leg and I cried a little bit," Rins said.

That was just the start of a long and very painful process of recovery. Rins gave an honest and brutal account of the physical pain he has gone through since the crash. "The last months, honestly I suffered a lot," the LCR Honda rider said. Surgery had been fine, it was afterward that the pain started. "I felt a lot of pain in the foot from the nerves. But immediately after the surgery, they gave me an epidural, and the first hours it was perfect, but then 5 hours after the surgery, I started to have cramps in the foot after the surgery. So this was terrible."

Those cramps tormented him for weeks, even though they diminished in intensity. "Day by day or week after week, these cramps went down. But I had like every 20 seconds, electrical pain. Couldn't sleep."

The hardest part was the fact that to prevent the nerve pain in his leg, ankle, and foot, he was sleeping wearing something long to prevent contact with the sheets. And doing so in the middle of one of the worst heatwaves to ever hit northern Spain and Andorra. "In Andorra it was so hot, so warm, I was sleeping with a long pajamas because I couldn't go inside of the sheets. This was the worst part."

Though Rins is recovering slowly, he still has a long way to go before he will be able to ride. His right ankle is still too stiff and injured for him to ride a Honda RC213V. He is not able to get into a racing crouch properly. "The reality is that before I arrived here, I jumped on my MotoGP bike that I have at home, and still I'm not able to go into the position for the straight. So this is the reality," Rins explained.

Not only is he unable to bend his ankle enough to get it into the right position to sit on a race bike, he also has a lot of nerve pain. "To ride a MotoGP, you need to go with the feet like this," Rins explained, bending his left ankle. That isn't something he can do on the right, though. "First of all I have hyper sensitivity on the foot, so this also doesn't help to feel less pain. So this is the reality."

Rins was scheduled to have a check on the ankle to monitor progress in the week following Austria, he explained. "Next week I have an X-ray, so let's see if the consolidation is better. And I would like to jump on the private bike, to see how it feels, how is the riding, because I don't want to come back and make the Moto2 lap times."

The problem for Rins is the nerve damage, rather than the broken bones. "It's the nerves," he said.
"For sure I don't have 100% of mobility. This one comes from the injured bones. But the thing that I'm struggling more with is the nerves. The nerves on the feet, so half of the foot is hypersensitive, and now the rear part is like with no sensitivity, but if I touch it hard with the finger, I feel like electric pain."

Rins saw this as positive, despite the physical discomfort. "So this is good news. It means that it's alive and week after week, it's recovering." But not fast enough, the LCR Honda complained. "The problem is that I don't feel improvement day by day. It's more week by week than day by day."

The improvement was real, at least. "The feeling is nice, the doctor last week or two weeks ago said I can put 25kg on the feet, and doing 25, maybe a little bit more, 30, 35kg," Rins said. But he was still a long way off being able to put all of his weight on his right leg. "But it's true that when I try to walk or try to put my full weight on one leg, I don't have the stability on the ankle to support all my weight."

All of this means he has no fixed deadline for when he will return. And he is not delaying his return to save himself because he has already signed for Yamaha, Rins insisted. "Honestly, I'm not kind of rider that has his future done and thinks, OK, let's come back in Valencia," the Spaniard said.

That didn't mean, however, that he was willing to come back early and just ride around at the back of the field, risking aggravating the injury rather than letting it heal. "I will come back when I'm ready to come back. It's what I say, if I pass the exam, if I'm fit or not fit from the doctors, I can make an effort, and I can cry inside of me and do like this. But if I'm riding last, suffering, putting more inflammation on the leg, it makes no sense."

The examples of both Pol Espargaro and Alex Rins are yet more proof that MotoGP riders are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to race, and willing to accept extraordinary pain. But there are limits even to the superhuman endurance of these remarkable athletes. We are used to seeing the momentary pain of a rider crashing, and even the more serious suffering of a rider being taken to the medical center for further examination.

But we forget sometimes that the pain sustained from those injuries goes on beyond a race weekend, and continues when the cameras are turned off. There is a world of suffering riders go through at home, which they carry with them from the race track. And that can prey on their minds.

So as you admire the courage of the riders to push themselves to the limit, and accept the risks that go with it, think of them a week later, lying in their beds, unable to sleep from the pain. And knowing they have to do it all again next weekend.

Source: The Aftermath - Pol Espargaro And Alex Rins On Injury, Pain, Recovery, And Long-Term Consequences | MotoMatters.com | Kropotkin Thinks

Reading this makes me for good & happy after my crash last year.
How very lucky I was.

Another disturbing crash story on GTR