Afghanistan war veteran Stuart Croxford, and fellow ex-soldier Jaco van Gass, became the first amputee team to complete the gruelling Absa Cape Epic Challenge in South Africa this year. The pair both took up road cycling during their recovery from injury and had little experience of off-road riding before signing up to the eight-day, 624km race across some of the world’s toughest cycling terrain.
Training for and competing in such a prestigious, arduous race has allowed Stuart to rebuild his life by not letting his disability define him – it’s a far cry from lying in a hospital bed and watching his independence start to fall away…
RSNG Your story begins long before your cycling triumph, when you were serving in the British Army?
STUART CROXFORD, AMPUTEE CYCLIST ‘I joined the 1st Battalion, Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment in 2007. After returning from my first tour in Iraq, I deployed to Afghanistan on in 2010 and 2012. For my last deployment I was a Platoon Commander in the Brigade Reconnaissance Force with 4 Brigade. Our role was to find and disrupt Taliban supply lines, and areas of control while fixed ground units provided security for local population centres.’
‘We worked on time-sensitive intelligence where we were ready to deploy anywhere in Helmand Province by helicopter, or vehicle, with an hour’s notice to move. We’d mainly insert into Taliban safe havens via helicopter during darkness to maintain an element of surprise and conduct combat operations from 24hrs to 72hrs, depending on our mission.’
‘I clearly remember the orange of the sand being kicked up by the explosion and the immediate silence that followed.’
RSNG What do you recall of the day you got wounded?
SC ‘We were on a reconnaissance mission into the Arghandab River Valley, South of Lashkar Gah. My vehicle was establishing a safe route through the sand dunes when it hit an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) which detonated on the driver’s side of the vehicle.’
‘I can clearly remember the blast and impact. It was over extremely quickly, putting your mind into confusion with what had just happened. There was no immediate threat as we weren’t already in a fire fight, so your mind is trying to work out what just happened amongst the confusion and noise. I clearly remember the orange of the sand being kicked up by the explosion, and the immediate silence that followed.’
RSNG When were you finally aware of how serious your injuries were?
SC ‘I knew I had broken my feet due to the intense throbbing and pain, which hit me when trying to move and support my driver’s head, and open his airway. My radio had been damaged by the blast so I was unable to communicate with or direct the rest of my platoon.’
‘We had an Afghan interpreter in my vehicle who was the only one to not suffer any injuries. You’d usually expect an untrained soldier to freeze in these circumstances, due to fear. Not on this occasion – he had become an integral member of our team over the four months we’d been deployed and he put himself in harm’s way to help support the driver and his injuries before the medic could be brought forward, and we were safely evacuated from the vehicle.’
RSNG But the wounds you suffered in Afghanistan did not lead directly to you having your leg amputated?
SC ‘No, we were medically evacuated to Birmingham Hospital in less than 24 hours from the point of injury in Afghanistan. I spent two weeks in hospital and underwent reconstructive surgery to both of my feet. I received a secondary injury while sailing with a service charity during Cowes week on a racing yacht in August 2014.’
‘A freak accident broke my right leg below the knee and after initial treatment I developed compartment syndrome, which caused significant damage to the muscle and nerves in my lower right leg. I spent six weeks in hospital and went through nine operations before finally having my leg amputated in October 2014.’
RSNG How did cycling figure in your recovery and adaptation to life as an amputee?
SC ‘After learning to walk again, cycling became a huge part of my onward recovery and sanity to stay as active as possible while reducing the impact on my stump. It took a long time to build up the tolerance and ability to stay on the bike for longer distances.’
‘My active military career was clearly over and like many others who had suffered life changing injuries, I wanted to get back some sort of normality. Cycling was a way I could build up my endurance and mental resilience to achieve once again, and feel I could be on similar ground to the friends around me, and who I’d served with.’
RSNG When did you team-up with Jaco van Gass to ride the Cape Epic?
SC ‘We first started to get to know each other properly when both training for a wounded veterans Race Across America team (RAAM) in 2017. I unfortunately didn’t make the final selection but headed out to support the team as one of their support crew. I’m not sure what was worse, driving across America or cycling!’
‘Being in that tough environment when everyone is tired, you really get to see a person’s real qualities and know if you can work well together, and most importantly have a laugh when it gets tough.’
RSNG Why choose to take on something as epic as the Epic?
SC ‘Jaco’s strength on the bike is phenomenal considering his injuries, however knowing we could both sit enjoying each other’s company, have a laugh and trusted each other to pull you through when you were in a dark place was so important.’
‘He’d had an interest for some time in riding the Cape Epic being South African and knowing the level of challenge was something he wanted to attempt. The unknown and a new challenge were what appealed to me about doing the Cape Epic. The small carrot of being the first, ever all-amputee team to ever complete the Cape Epic was also a great draw.’
RSNG How did you prepare for such demanding off-road terrain?
SC ‘It wasn’t easy, especially as we only received the bikes we’d be riding a few months before the event. I’d never owned a mountain bike, let alone taken one out on a trail or technical single-track before. My first outing was a particularly slow and cold one at Swinley Park on our Scott Spark 910 FS bikes.’
‘The difference to the road bike was huge; weight, handling, width of the handlebars and confidence in what types of terrain the bike could cope with. Three weeks before the Epic we both headed out to the Serra Nevada Mountains in Spain – five days of technical single track and long climbs gave us a feeling for what was to come; 16,000m of climbing over the 8 days.’
RSNG So, going to train in Spain helped you combat the pain?
SC ‘Yep! Consecutive days climbing to condition the legs, riding on both technical downhill and uphill terrain, confidence in both of our prosthetic set ups and also the adaptions made to the bikes where needed (this was only on Jaco’s braking set up due to controlling the bikes speed through one hand), testing of both nutrition from One Pro Nutrition and our Presca team cycling clothing.’
RSNG What was it like riding in such a challenging race?
SC ‘We were very fortunate to get through most stages with no huge issues with the bikes or crashes. The time trial day felt like our worst when mentally we’d looked at it as our rest day with a shorter course and a lot less elevation gain but it was far from a rest.’
‘We had a number of mechanical issues which saw Jaco ride his bike with no front suspension due to a broken valve, and the climbs were short and brutal! A big challenge was staying on top of your routine after each stage to make sure you had everything ready for the next day and to maximise your recovery time and sleep. Unfortunately, after a long hot day in the saddle this was the last thing you wanted to do.’
‘We knew it would be tough – there were moments where your mind would try and convince you to stop’
RSNG It must be mentally as well as physically demanding?
SC ‘We knew it would be tough – there would be days or moments in the day where your mind would try and convince you to stop. The other teams competing alongside us were a fantastic motivation. Everyone’s race jerseys indicated how many Epics they’d completed – their experience was invaluable as was the help of the volunteers at each of the water/ feed stations along the route.’
‘For us, we had to not only fill water bottles, grab fresh food and nutrition but also check and maintain our stumps to minimise any risk of sores. Without their support and help we couldn’t have got through each station as slick as we did and having a huge laugh along the way.’
RSNG And now you’re heading off to take on a new challenge?
SC From the 26-29th June I’ll be taking on the Yukon River Quest with three other veterans that have left the Armed Forces. We’re taking on the challenge of stand up paddle boarding (SUP) a 715km stretch of the Yukon River in Canada where we’ll be paddling day and night to finish within the time limit.’
‘We will be raising money for Great Ormond Street Hospital to help support the next generation and their families in adapting and overcoming life changing injuries and conditions. We’re also looking at getting back out on the mountain bikes soon and aiming to be the first ever amputee team to complete the Epic Series with events in both New Zealand and Switzerland to complete after the Cape Epic.’
RSNG How do you feel these challenges help come to terms with injuries and rebuild your life after the army?
SC ‘I found the love of paddle boarding a few years ago when having a play around while on holiday to see if I could do it with the prosthetic leg and setting up a sports and fitness business with my wife called ThreeZero12.'
‘Challenge is able to give me the sense of release and drive to achieve more even with a life changing physical injury. The Army was a huge part of my life. I loved my job and definitely miss it however I couldn’t imagine being in a more fortunate position, where I can support others from my past and future life experiences.’
WHAT NEXT? Discover how Stuart and Jaco became the first amputee cycling team to conquer South Africa’s gruelling Cape Epic off-road bike race
Stuart and Jaco were supported by Presca Teamwear
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