Greg Henderson - Getting Better With Age

By Aaron S. Lee

Lotto Soudal’s ageless Kiwi is ready to take flight again after setbacks and crashes have kept him grounded for the past two years.

Last year’s Tour de France was supposed to be a bit of unfinished business for New Zealand pro cyclist Greg Henderson (Lotto Soudal).

The South Island native from Dunedin was looking to erase the memory of the misfortunate knee injury suffered after a spill on stage 3 that required him to abandon the race in 2014.

However, the sound of his back hitting a pole on the side of the road after a catastrophic high-speed crash – again on stage 3 – the following year did anything but put the previous year behind him.
Credit: Graham Watson

The mass-pileup left Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) battered and bruised, and immediately sent rivals Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin), William Bonnet (FDJ), Dmitrii Kozonchuk (Katusha) and Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) home, as well as Henderson three days later with a pair of severely broken ribs.

“Crashes for me happen in slow motion and I could see everything happening,” recalls Henderson during a recent interview with NZ Bike.

“We were on this hill and it was one of those situations where to get to the front you had to go down the right-hand side and there was room, but you had to accelerate really fast because it’s down hill, so we were going 80km/h.

“André Greipel went on outside no problem,” he continues to recount.

“I was just getting out to go with him and all of the sudden John Degenkolb came past. I waited to go with him and then Bonnet from FDJ is trying to position his GC (general classification) man and he’s looking behind to see if he still has his GC behind him and I’m on his wheel instead.

“I’m just about to move out and I can see Bonnet looking back at me and just then Degenkolb had yet to clear the Frenchman’s front wheel as he was coming around to go past.” From that moment, the four-time national criterium champion hit the brakes.

“If you watch the replay, you can see I’m on the brakes before anyone else – well before Bonnet even hit the ground,” explains Henderson.

“When I locked on the anchors and I got nailed from behind and then it was a snowball effect. I found myself in the grass sliding and sliding until I hit that bloody light pole with my back and that’s what completely snapped my ribs in half.”
Credit: Gian Paolo Gros

The former track world champion and Vuelta a España stage winner had no idea at first just how much damage had been done, but there was no ignoring the carnage surrounding him.

“I didn’t know anything,” admits Henderson.

“I got back up and was like straight back on my bike. I was pretty winded to start with and was just trying to get my breath back and it was pretty sore.

“I saw that there were a lot of boys down, and that there would be a few not getting back up that’s for sure.”

Henderson quickly assessed the situation by checking his arms, legs and collarbone for any visible breaks.

When coming to the conclusion nothing was broken, he decided to continue on.

“I remember thinking ‘what have I done?’ because I was so sore,” he says.

“They had stopped the race which gave me a chance to get back on.”

After braving the unforgiving 1.3-kilometre Mur de Huy, which possesses an average gradient of 9 percent (19 percent max) less than two hundred metres from the summit, Henderson finished the 159.5km stage and was rushed to the hospital for treatment.
Credit: Gian Paolo Grossi

“I went in to surgery that night cause I had massive holes in my side filled with stones,” remembers Henderson.

“So they put me under and cleaned up the wounds, but the ribs were a complete break and just floating around, and there’s really nothing you can do about broken ribs but just give it time.”

Following the hospital visit in Belgium, the decision was made by both Henderson and the team to continue onward with the race.

The following day was a return to France, and to Henderson’s horror featured seven sectors of cobbles, four of which were among the 27 sectors used in Paris- Roubaix.

In total, stage 4 featured 13km of bone-jarring, teeth-rattling pavé – but again Henderson courageously pressed on.

“I always try to finish the stage,” claims Henderson.

“I had to climb the Mur de Huy, which is a climb they use in the Classics. I had to get up that to finish and I was in so much pain. The next day I had the cobbles and surprisingly I managed to survive not only that day but the next, but each day after the crash I got progressively worse and I just wasn’t going to heal if I kept going – so we made the decision to go home.”

Henderson returned a month later to finish out the season before turning his focus on 2016, where he was met again with another setback – a perineal injury that nearly required a season-ending surgery.

“No one knew what it was at first,” explains Henderson.

“It was a problem on the saddle that continued to get worse until finally at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, I could take no more.”

Henderson was again in need of medical attention; this time to alleviate what appeared to be a rare fluid-based cyst that was quickly transforming into scar tissue.

Upon talking to a number of physicians in the pro peloton, Henderson discovered only two other cases, one of which belonging to Belgian Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep) and another former rider.

“There was an option for surgery,” he says.

“Of the two cases uncovered, one opted for surgery, while Boonen didn’t. So, if Boonen had come back with no problems, then I decided against it, but it was a really, really slow process.”

Now back in the saddle – literally –  Henderson is fully mended and ready to return to his former glory.

In his first major return following his injury, Henderson finished in the top 10 (sixth) on GC at the Presidential Tour of Turkey (2.HC), and once again played his critical role in leading Greipel (GER) to yet another stage win.

While the soon-to-be 40-year-old (September 10) is currently in a contract year, the Olympian and 2002 Commonwealth Games gold medallist is confident of his place on the team.

“It’s not about me achieving a result, it’s about the team achieving the results,” claims Henderson.

“I get as much satisfaction from seeing my teammates win if I had something to do with it, as I would if I had won myself.

 “That fact is, I don’t get paid to win and I’m okay with that.” And he is paid to deliver Greipel to the finish line first.

“I’m really lucky to have found a niche,” says the Lotto lead-out man.

“I helped transform André Greipel into a 20-win-a-year sprinter, and when I joined the team he was getting six or seven wins a season.

“He has 100 percent trust in me,” Henderson continues. “At 200m to go, he just steps on it.”
Credit: Graham Watson

Although Greipel is one of the sport’s best sprinters, and fresh off three wins at the Giro d’Italia in May and one at Tour of Luxembourg (2.HC) in June, Henderson acknowledges that teams like Dimension Data, Etixx-QuickStep and Cofidis are all closing the gap on the famous Lotto sprint train.

“We are going to have a really hard job in front of us at the Tour de France,” he says.

“We have Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep), who seems to be on the flat just that little bit faster than everybody, so we’ve got to design a few plans to beat that somehow.

“That’s the thing that gets me going, but I can honestly tell you this ... we are taking the fastest 2k team in the world to the Tour this year, and I don’t see anyone faster than us in the final 2km.” As far as his future is concerned, the sports science graduate and cycling coach, who plans on racing longer than retired German cyclist Jens Voigt who left the sport at 42, is confident he will be around for many years to come.

“I’ll go longer than Jens,” claims Henderson.

“I turn 40 this year, and I am still motivated to get up and out the door every morning to train and race.

“I have a pretty cemented job at the moment.

“The last man is not really the key to Lotto’s train, it is the direction we place ourselves on the road, which is something I’ve been lucky to orchestrate,” concludes the eight- time World Cup track gold medallist and three-time track cyclist of the year, who has 17 national track and road titles on his palmarés.

“Perhaps it comes from my track background, but it’s simply not something you can always teach.

“At the end of the day, the team puts full faith in me to get the job done, and as long I am capable of doing that, then I shouldn’t have any worries about not having a contract.” Aaron S.

Lee is a pro cycling and triathlon columnist for Eurosport and contributor to NZ Bike.
Originally published in NZBike Issue 84, August 2016.
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