John Lee Augustyn on his road back to the peloton: ‘At the moment I just feel really, really strong’
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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

John Lee Augustyn on his road back to the peloton: ‘At the moment I just feel really, really strong’

by Shane Stokes at 8:35 AM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Interviews
South African talks about his hip injury, tough times and getting back into shape

John Lee AugustynConfirmed as heading back to the pro ranks after a year and a half on the sidelines, John Lee Augustyn has said that he is optimistic that he can be in good racing form in 2014.

The South African rider returned to Europe earlier this year to work hard and to try to convince a team to take him on; having got back to good physical shape, he underwent medial tests and physiological assessment with the MTN Qhubeka team and yesterday was confirmed as having a one year deal.

It’s a big relief for someone who went from racing as a pro and riding the Tour de France to a bad hip problem, a forced break from racing plus the potential end of his career.

“At the moment I just feel really, really strong. I definitely feel that I can improve with a lot of racing to come,” Augustyn told VeloNation, reflecting on where he is at this point in time. “I can probably do way more but at the moment for the end of the season I actually don’t feel bad. I feel pretty confident.”

Long been regarded as one of the best African talents, Augustyn’s career trajectory was disrupted by a bad crash in the 2007 Volta a Portugal. He had previously won the South African national under 23 title in 2006 and also placed second overall in the Tour of Japan the same year.

When he took third overall in the Vuelta a Asturias in 2007, it looked like he was well on track for a big career.

However his crash stuttered his progress; he suffered a fractured hip and while it healed and he returned to competition in 2008, riding the Tour de France and finishing fifth in the mountains competition, all was not right.

While with Team Sky in 2010, he and doctors discovered that his hip injury had led to osteonecrosis, a condition which causes the bone to deteriorate. He had a hip resurfacing operation in 2011 but was forced to walk away from a contract with the Utensilnord Named team in 2012 due to difficulties with his recovery.

Augustyn put his career on indefinite hold but with his hip settling down, he did some racing this year in South Africa. Encouraged by how he was feeling, he moved to Italy to continue his build-up and made contact with MTN Qhubeka this summer about a possible return.

“I have been through difficult times,” he admits, talking about the strain of what he experienced. “I am not really big on complaining and telling everybody I had a tough time. Basically most people don’t know what I’ve been through and a lot of people don’t know that I’ve had a hip resurfacing.

“It’s been on tough on my body and my mind. When your body isn’t one hundred percent then it’s normal for your mind not to be one hundred percent and you struggle. It’s been tough but when you get beaten down you just get back up stronger.”

This time last year he was running a bike shop and thinking about what his life used to be like. In some ways, he enjoyed the release, the downtime after years of pushing himself hard, although he grew restless over time. “I ate pastries every day and picked up a little bit of weight,” he explained. “In some ways it was probably good for the mind, so I wasn’t really worrying about it.”

The bug bit again, though, and he knuckled down once more. “In the last few months I have lost five kilogrammes of fat. I have changed a lot of things, I have got my diet back on track. At the moment I feel really strong and it’s all thanks to my family and family and fans. Everyone helps keep you on track, and now I’m back.”

Becoming part of the African project:

John Lee AugustynMTN Qhubeka is an African team and knew his story and his potential, but was also cautious about his situation. While hip injuries often occur in crashes, few riders have returned from hip resurfacing operations. Floyd Landis had one but never raced at the same level afterwards, although that was likely more to do with the other complications that occurred.

Medical tests helped to settle the team’s concerns, and so too did physiological examinations which showed that Augustyn was in very good shape. The potential was there, his health seemed to be stable again and he clearly had buckets of desire to get back to the peloton.

Still, he had to weigh up the situation in terms of getting back into what can be a dangerous sport. “We’ve sat down with the doctor and it’s obviously a risk if I fall on the hip because the metal wouldn’t break, the bone would break,” he said, acknowledging the complication. “But there’s so many athletes riding with plates and pins in their body and it’s a risk for everyone.

“I’ll obviously try to not fall on my hip,” he adds with a laugh. “I just need to look after myself and it will be fine.”

Augustyn showed his form recently with a fine fourth in the MTN Crater Cruise MTB race. He is currently riding the Cape Pioneer Trek mountain bike race at the moment, after which he states that he might do the 94.7 as a charity ride.

He’ll then go back to Europe, taking a chance to rest a little before going on the team training camp, knuckling down and then planning his training and programme for next season.

Team spokesman Xylon van Eyck has said that one big aim for Augustyn is to return to another three week event, six years after riding the Tour de France.

“His goal is to get to a Grand Tour,” he said, acknowledging that in itself would be a sign that he has battled back. MTN Qhubeka is trying to gain a wildcard to the Giro d’Italia or another Grand Tour, and Augustyn very much wants to be part of those plans.

In some ways his story also adds an additional element to MTN Qhubeka’s argument to the organisers to get an invite.

It’s part of globalisation, it represents the African continent plus the potential for the growth of cycling there, it works with the Qhubeka charity and now, in its ranks, it has a rider who is seeking to return after complications which have ended other careers.

All factors which the top organisers will consider when deliberating about team choices.

Van Eyck knows that Augustyn wants to get back to a high level of form and to chase wins. He also sees him as having another role to play. “The team has signed him for his experience,” he explained. “He also wants to prove to everyone that he is strong and really motivated…he's looking forward to working with the younger talented riders on the team.”

Augustyn is proud to be back, but also to be part of the first setup of its sort from his home continent. “Obviously it is an African team, which is the big thing,” he said, acknowledging MTN Qhubeka’s role as a trailblazer to others who might, in time, also follow suit.

“There’s the whole backup behind it…they have got a good coaching system, some very efficient guys. The whole logistics is properly looked after. I can see the team will definitely grow and has a good future.

“It is exciting to be part of it and work with the guys. It is not only just another team, there is something really new happening. It is very nice to be a part of it.”

The good sensations he is feeling are also something that raises his morale. “I am really, really excited and relieved, it just boosts my motivation as well,” he explains.

“With the hard work that I’ve put in the last few months, I’m glad it’s gone this way. I’ve got a contract, it is a big relief. Now I can put my mind totally on the training.”


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