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Walking the line: Crutchlow feels his way back to podium “dream”

Mar 112019

Last October Cal Crutchlow’s 2018 season and health were shattered. A high-speed crash at the frighteningly fast Phillip Island circuit in Australia resulted in a crushed right lower leg and ankle with no less than 19 fractures and the need for two operations. “It was a bad, bad injury,” the 33 year old understated.

The Englishman’s continuing association with HRC and one of the top satellite crews in the MotoGP paddock, LCR Honda, was seriously blighted in terms of preparation for 2019. Crutchlow only just hobbled back onto the RCV machine at the first test of the new year: the rest of his peers enjoying valuable bike time in Spain as #35 lay prone with a bench-load of new metalwork in his limb.

If we’re honest we didn’t think we’d be on this grid three months ago,’ Crutchlow’s Chief Mechanic Christophe Bourguignon had reminded his racer as Britain’s sole MotoGP hope nevertheless hurriedly completed tests in Malaysia and Qatar and then entered the opening round of nineteen at Losail.

Although physically conditioned – and with thousands of kilometres on his bicycle logged during a slow winter of physio - Crutchlow’s toil through practice, qualification and the 22 laps of the first race was far from simplistic. In fact it was damn heroic, as he fought all the way with the leading group and defied the attentions of Alex Rins to again walk the box.


“What a great start to the season for everybody: the riders, fans and people watching at home. It seems every race in MotoGP is always a battle. It was nice to be in it. To be able to race and to get a podium is a dream to be honest because we didn’t know if I'd be coming back at all at one point let alone coming back and being competitive.”


“Honestly I wake up in the morning and when I first get out of bed I look like I've just done it!” he explained to journalists of the injury as the teams first gathered at Losail for what was the sixteenth visit to the flood-lit venue. “Then five minutes later I can sort of walk, without any pain or real drama.”


Crutchlow was understandably ring-rusty and the mobility of his foot to operate the rear brake was the biggest handicap. “I’ve been riding so bad I haven’t been fast enough to make any mistakes: I needed a sun dial to measure my lap time,” he joked after the first day of practice

“If I look back to the start of January I had 20% of the movement I used to have,” he explained after a brighter Saturday Qualification where he took a slot that was sixth on the grid and just half a second from Pole Position. “I’m probably at 70% now. It doesn't hurt. I just can’t bend it enough. Even on the straight to try and put it back on the peg is a massive effort for me. To come off the rear brake I have to physically lift my leg and put it back. With how I use the brake in the middle of the corner on the right hand side, get off the brake and then get the foot back on the peg is what I am struggling with at the moment.”


Crutchlow’s resistance is typical of the generally battered state of a MotoGP racer. Safety advancements in helmets, leathers and other protective garments mean that athletes are regularly sliding on asphalt and are tumbling into the gravel, and while they often stand unhurt then is still a multitude of bangs, abrasions, strains and other aches to deal with. Crutchlow, a man with eight years of MotoGP, knows this only too well.


“Everybody here does a great job to recover and ride the bike - and ride injured - but I don’t think anybody could have come back from this the way I have,” he said of the most serious problem of his career. “Maybe Marc [Marquez], with his shoulder as we know. But I don't think there are many people who would have put in what I've put in to be able to get back to being competitive.”


A potential answer to Crutchlow’s discomfort was the option of a thumb operated rear brake, mounted to the left side of the handlebar and a popular alternative for a number of Grand Prix racers over the years who have suffered similar mobility issues. Cal again revealed the difficulty of having to re-train the brain with hardly any margin before the Qatar lights were switched on.


“I’ve ridden for fifteen years using my right foot and if I try to use a thumb brake I’ll lose a second a lap because you are thinking about it and it’s not natural,” he explained. “I use the rear brake so much and I put so much pressure on it that if I do that with the thumb then I lock the bike and I’m out of control. I know we need to adapt and learn new things but considering – not the discomfort – but the severity at which I could not release the rear brake on my fast lap I lost probably 3-4 tenths because I never made the corners. I would need to use it over a period of time.”


Losail was the start of a new chapter for Crutchlow in his fifth term with Honda. He now carries some of the same sort of titanium that normally carries him (“I should get it out at the end of the year…I have to speak with the surgeon”) but showed some of the customary grit he is renowned for.


“It was not an easy road. At the start it was okay, to sit and watch the MotoGP races was fine, I accepted it,” he admitted of the period of being on the sidelines. “But when I couldn't walk it was difficult. I could ride my bicycle all week no problem, but I couldn't walk. Having no normality of life, I didn't know if I'd be able to walk again. They told me I would…but if you are in that much pain you don't know yourself. First of all I wanted a normal life and to be able to walk and I can. It's just a bonus that I can still race motorcycles.” A bonus for MotoGP fans as well.