Cyclist who showed real pedal power

Posted: June 09, 2007

For the first eight years of his impressive pro cycling career, Henk Vogels traversed an average of about 20,000 miles and never suffered a broken bone.

In the summer of 2003, though, there wasn't much left to the sturdy body of the Australian that didn't need mending after he went careening headfirst into a guardrail while steaming down Wachusett Mountain and colliding with another cyclist at the Fitchburg Longsjo Classic in Massachusetts.

"It's hard going from being a professional cyclist to a wheelchair," Vogels, 34, said the other day. "But I never really thought I wouldn't ride again."

But that thought didn't crystallize until after Vogels was assured his left foot would be saved despite his badly shattered ankle. And that the broken vertebra in his neck would heal. And that nature and time would repair the eight-inch gash in his head and the skin on his back, much of which had been sheared off.

Vogels, who won the Commerce Bank Philadelphia International Championship in 2000, when it was called the USPRO Championship, will ride for talented Toyota-United tomorrow when the 156-mile race will be held for the 23d year.

By all accounts, Vogels' tumble during the third stage at Fitchburg was among the most frightening ever witnessed by a cycling crowd. Police estimated that Vogels was descending the mountain at 64 m.p.h. Ten spokes were ripped from the front wheel of his bike and, as he lay unconscious, many spectators thought he was dead.

"I think I actually only half died, I guess," Vogels said in typical Aussie dry humor. "I know I was a shadow of the man I was before."

He spent eight days in intensive care and had surgery on his ankle that lasted 81/2 hours. Vogels said there are six 9-centimeter screws holding together his ankle, which he said is always sore. "For a while, they thought they might have to fuse the ankle, and it would be like a clubfoot," he said. "I have the ankle of a 90-year-old man. But I just get on with it."

After 18 months, including three spent in a wheelchair, Vogels returned to cycling. He said he was not the rider he was, but his accomplishments since his comeback are remarkable nonetheless.

In March, Vogels won his first race in almost four years when he captured the third and final stage of the Central Valley Classic Stage Race in Fresno, Calif. Since his return in 2004, he has finished third and fourth in a pair of stages at the Tour de France; nearly won a stage at Giro d'Italia in 2005; and spent two years as Robbie McEwen's lead-out man at Giro D'Italia, when he rode for Davitamon-Lotto before signing with Toyota-United last August.

It's likely that Vogels, known for his versatility and savvy, will serve as lead-out man for Toyota-United teammates Chris Wherrey, an American who won in Philly in 2005, or Ivan Stevic, the Serbian national champ who acknowledged he would have won in Lancaster last Sunday if he'd listened to Vogels' advice.

A lead-out rider is one who sets up the lead sprinter on his team and puts him in proper position for the final burst. It requires speed and know-how. Vogels possesses both, which is why he has been lead-out man for some of the world's top sprinters.

Along with a creaky ankle, Vogels is also riding with a heavy heart. In late March, one of his best friends, Damian McDonald, was among three people who died in a multi-car crash in Melbourne's Burnley Tunnel. McDonald, 34, was a retired cyclist who represented Australia in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. In '94, he and Vogels were members of Australia's gold-medal-winning team at the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada. McDonald was a groomsman at Vogels' wedding, and the two were roommates for five years.

"He's sorely missed," Vogels said. "I try not to think about him when I'm riding. When you're riding, you try not to think about death."


Contact staff writer Ray Parrillo

at 215-854-2743 or rparrillo@phillynews.com.

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