When he’s not mountain biking, Adam Craig finds plenty of other extreme sports to keep him busy: backcountry skiing, whitewater kayaking, dirt biking and rally-car racing. America’s No. 1 mountain biker admits that he never fully commits to these elective adventure sports, knowing that it is his lower extremities that ultimately pay the bills.
Ironic, then, that during his nearly 10-year professional mountain biking career, his first — and so far, his only — sidelining injury was not the result of an accident involving his bike or his skis.
“It would be more interesting if it was,” said Craig last week during an interview at his west Bend home, adding with a laugh: “We were on our way home from skiing.”
On a snowy and slippery day early last month, Craig, 28, fell in a local grocery store parking lot. He knew immediately that he had seriously injured his left knee.
“I slipped and basically simulated an exact skiing ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) tear,” he recounted. “I was on my butt and sliding, and then my foot hooked up on this muddy pile thing.”
That the left knee felt terribly wrong, Craig said, “was obvious.”
“It just tucked back,” he remembered. “I felt something give way, and pretty obviously that was what that sensation would be like.”
A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exam the next day confirmed a tear to the ACL, and Craig underwent surgery to repair the ligament — which stabilizes the knee front to back — the following week.
Derailed were his plans to compete in the Pan American Continental Mountain Bike Championships in Guatemala in early April, along with a slate of springtime mountain bike World Cup races in Europe for which he was gearing up.
Instead, the 2008 Olympian has been catching up on household projects, reading, and attending twice-weekly physical therapy sessions.
Only in the last two weeks has Craig been able to ditch his crutches. He is seeing steady improvement in his knee’s range of motion. He is able to ride indoors and will soon move to road riding outside.
According to Timmy Evans, Craig’s physical therapist at Rebound Physical Therapy in Bend, patients recovering from ACL surgery are most vulnerable to re-injuring a repaired knee at about the two-month mark following the operation.
“Around two to three months (the knee) is at its weakest point in the healing process,” Evans explained. “This is right about the time it feels like you are back to 80 to 90 percent ability. This is the dangerous time.”
That said, “A cyclist can be back on the bike much quicker than, say, a skier,” Evans continued. “Our worry is not having (Adam) push himself mountain biking at a time when he could retear his knee in a technical section (of trail).”
The good news is that the entire 2010 mountain bike season is not lost for Craig. Both he and Evans expect that Craig can be back to racing by June, though likely not at full speed.
From a personal point of view, the 12-time national champion and America’s top-ranked men’s mountain biker on the world stage said he is not too concerned about missing a few spring races. In fact, he thinks a few months of rest from racing — something he has never had a chance to do during his professional career — could pay huge dividends later in the season.
What has Craig worried is that his absence from racing on the world scene, however brief, could have costly implications for American mountain bikers come selection time for the 2012 Olympic Summer Games in London.
He explained that the top five ranked nations earn the right to send three cross-country mountain bikers to London, while nations ranked sixth through 15th are limited to sending only two. Rankings are determined by the points a country’s top three riders accrue at UCI (International Cycling Union) events this year and next.
“We’re right on the bubble right now,” Craig said. “(The U.S.) is sixth in nation ranking, with Germany fifth and Canada seventh. But we’re all within 100 points of each other.
“Sam Schultz and Todd Wells (the second- and third-ranked U.S. riders), both pull their weight and go to races and do a good job,” Craig continued. “I hope one of us doesn’t get the flick at the Olympics because of my screw-up that cost us a bunch of points.”
Craig added that the debilitating knee injury has given him added motivation to perform at the top of his game later in the season. Specifically, he is targeting the World Cup finals, set for late August in New York, and the mountain bike world championships, set for early September in Quebec, to redeem himself from missing out on early-season points.
“All that stuff can be erased so easily by getting a medal at the world championships, which I can totally accomplish,” he insisted. “So missing the early part of the season is annoying and far from ideal, but it’s easy to make up for things if you just buckle down and do a good job.”
To add insult to injury, Craig — on the day of his surgery — was scheduled to be on a plane for Amsterdam, where he was to take part in a media launch of his new European mountain bike team: Rabobank-Giant Off-Road Team.
“I felt like a jerk,” he reflected. “The timing of it all was pretty ridiculous. If (the injury) had happened a few weeks earlier I could have gone over there and at least given high-fives. The European team, they are looking to me to be their star rider for the year ... they are trying to get good momentum behind this team, and you want to please those people because ultimately they’re trying to support what you’re doing.”
Craig noted that being part of the European-based Rabobank-Giant team will mean established logistical support when he competes overseas.
“It’ll give me the opportunity to race more in Europe if I need to or want to,” he said.
For now, Craig has resigned himself to kayaking and easy road cycling while his knee gradually heals.
“I’ve never been one to cry over spilled milk,” he contended. “It’s a crappy situation. I feel more bad about it for letting other people down who depend on me than for me personally.
“Whenever I stop and think about it,” he added, “it gets a little depressing. But I don’t stop and think about it very much.”