It was on Boxing Day 2012, during the Zolder World Cup, that Nikki Harris hit a hole, causing her to lose grip and bang her knee on the drops.
As the season progressed, the injury worsened, and despite consistent top results she had to withdraw from the World Championships.
We caught up with Harris as she began her assault on the international cross scene for 2013 to talk about how she’s managed to bounce back from this season-ending injury.
“It was a silly knock that didn’t seem much at the time. It wasn’t until after the race that I realised something was wrong,” explains Harris. “I did the old RICE [rest, ice, compression, elevation] technique and, despite some pain, I decided to risk it and push through. I wasn’t about to stop riding and throw everything away.”
It may seem like an odd decision to keep on racing with an injury, but during a busy period of the cross season, with major championships, UCI points, sponsor pressure and of course income at stake, it’s understandable she ploughed on.
(l-r) Kathrine Compton, Marianne Vos and Nikki Harris
A second opinion
“Strangely, it got worse when I backed off from racing. I took it really easy the week before the penultimate World Cup, in Rome, hoping things would settle down. I was third overall, so not starting wasn’t an option,” says Harris.
After riding through excruciating pain in Rome, and still finishing 12th, Harris went straight to hospital. The specialist she saw told her she had fluid around the patella and possibly a small tendon tear that would need surgery. The National Championships were now only a week away.
The doctor had told her to rest, so reluctantly she did. There was a chance she would have to miss the event.
“I rode my bike for the first time on the Saturday before the race, and had a deep, dull ache, so was in two minds [about whether] to start or not. My racing head ruled, though, and I decided to start.”
Harris came away with the win, but it came at a price – she was in immense pain. She had to do something. She said: “It was very bittersweet. So happy to win, but at the same time I knew I had to think about the rest of my season.”
The doctors in Belgium warned Harris that she would need surgery, but she wanted a second opinion.
After MRI scans and a full examination, specialists found no evidence of any tendon tears, concluding that Harris had a deep bone bruise and possibly a small hairline fracture. Alongside this, they found an area of damaged tissue, which was causing the pain. Despite an amazing season, Harris followed advice to begin her recovery and pulled out of the World Championships, and decided to hang up the bike for the rest of the season.
With injuries like these, the only way to recover is to rest fully.
“There was no quick-fix treatment to make it better, which for me was really frustrating,” says Harris. “I took five weeks totally off the bike. I had never really suffered an injury like this before and I just imagined I would get back on my bike, build up as usual and everything would be OK.”
Realising this wasn’t the case, Harris struggled.
“It’s hard to not do anything and just switch off, but my knee wasn’t right. I had to take things day by day and swap a lot of training sessions around.” Much of her early rehabilitation was done swimming, enabling her to build up her fitness while not putting pressure on the knee.
“It was cool to know I could push myself without risking injury, I’d never done any specific swimming before. I then began going to the gym, strengthening the muscles around the knee.”
Harris was strengthening her body quickly, but cycling took time.
“I started on the spin bike, in the gym, then rollers, then out on the road mixed with some mountain biking. It was a good few months before I forgot about the pain. My first race was a mountain bike World Cup, in May, which was a hilly, technical course. I was worried about putting myself in a race situation as my last race felt so terrible.”
Thankfully, Harris got round respectably and her knee showed no signs of problems.
Her next goal was to get a solid summer of training in her legs in preparation for the upcoming cross season. In August, she began running again, a necessity for cross riders, and is now fully recovered and looking to build on the successes of 2012.
Chasing her dream
Harris has shown her versatility and talent for cycling, representing GB in most disciplines. Now focused on chasing her dream of becoming world cyclo-cross champion, Harris showed her capabilities last season by finishing third overall in the World Cup and winning the National Championships.
She started this season where she left off, winning the first Bpost Bank Trofee series race with a tribute to her late team-mate Amy Dombroski and podiuming at the first World Cup of the season.
It worked for me
“Getting a second opinion is really important, especially if a doctor’s diagnosis doesn’t add up with your experience or how the injury occurred.
“Motivation to get through an injury is vital. Looking back at what you’ve achieved is a good way to help move on. There’s always time to get fit again and change things for the better ready for a new season.
“Getting frustrated and annoyed at your injury is normal. Just remember you need time to heal fully. Having friends and family who understand always helps, so they can support you and ensure you don’t push too hard too soon.”
This article was first published in the October 31 issue of Cycling Weekly. Read Cycling Weekly magazine on the day of release where ever you are in the world International digital edition, UK digital edition. And if you like us, rate us!