They say you never forget how to ride a bicycle. South Africa’s Keagan Girdlestone is living proof.
At 19 years of age in 2016, the Pretoria native was rising fast in the world of cycling, already the youngest ever champion in the history of New Zealand’s Le Race, and a former under-16 national champion in South Africa. Competing against cyclists from around the world at Italy’s Coppa della Pace, and racing to catch up to the pack after an earlier collision, he crashed head first into his team car, slicing open his jugular vein and carotid artery.
“I didn’t even comprehend what had happened by the time it had happened. The next thing I know, I woke up three days later in the hospital,” says Girdlestone, now 20. “I knew when it had happened, I’d cut my throat. I could feel this warm liquid running down my neck. The last thing I remember was a spectator going, ‘Piano, Piano, Piano,’ telling me to take it easy.”
The first reports from the scene pronounced Keagan dead. Blood covered the road, staining the pavement for over a month. The rest of the race was cancelled in the aftermath.
“I lost pretty much my entire blood supply. I don’t know the exact number, but I think it was something like eight pints of blood. My chance to live was pretty much zero,” says Girdlestone.
“The first reporters that were [on the scene] and saw the aftermath of what had happened, they were just like, ‘nah, this guy’s dead. That’s so much blood.’ My blood stained the roads for a few months. They couldn’t actually clean it off.” – Keagan Girdlestone
The teen was rushed to hospital, where doctors predicted he wouldn’t survive the next 24 hours. His parents — thousands of miles away in New Zealand — scrambled to catch a plane to Italy, where they were told that if Keagan survived, he would likely be braindead for the rest of his life.
On day three, Girdlestone awoke from his coma. So began a months-long process of recovery. First feeding through a nose tube and barely able to sit up, the young cyclist worked on sitting, then standing, before eventually taking his first steps nearly a month after the incident. Five months later, he was back on a bicycle in his adopted home of Christchurch, New Zealand.
This year, Girdlestone competed at Le Race for the first time again, the same event he won as a 16-year-old in 2014. More ambitious plans lie ahead in the future.
“I doubt myself a lot, but at the same time, I believe 100 percent that I can make it back as a professional,” he says. “It’s a very complicated sort of self-process, where you believe in yourself, but you’re also like, ‘what if?’”
“It’s definitely made me a stronger person,” Girdlestone adds. “I want to achieve the top level of the sport again, because I want to be a role model to people. Things always go wrong… it doesn’t matter who you are. Whatever happens, it’s not going to define whether you live your dreams or not. It’s how you react to it, how you respond.”