Caleb Carl has fallen back on the support of his Zwitch community to go full-circle to find closure, and it has made him a better man to his fiance’, family, and friends.
It was April 10, 2021, and Caleb Carl went out to do some openers the day before his first race. He had hit his stride as a cyclist and was to begin the season as the GC rider for an up and coming virtual team of UK continental professionals—Skylab. He was also tapped to work for Greg Daniel on a USA elite team targeting nationals. In cycling terms, things were rolling for Caleb.
He began the moderate descent down a stretch of road he had been on countless times before when his bike began to shudder violently. Braking only made it worse, and he accelerated from a controlled 30 mph to a frightening 55. He knew he was going to be hurt.
The stretch of road where Caleb’s crash happened after making the difficult choice.
The Decision That Left A Mark on His Life Forever
The only option was a Sophie’s choice of sorts. Caleb’s split-second decision directed him straight off the road and toward the grassy shoulder. His front tire hit the trench lining the street with the momentum of a man hurling uncontrollably at over 60 mph.
Caleb’s bike bucked like a gun hammer and launched him into the air. The force tore his left hip from the socket and shattered it to pieces. He flipped upside down as he flew from his bike and came to an abrupt stop against a pole, back first.
“I could hear myself scream as I looked up at the pole, unable to breathe,” Caleb describes the traumatic experience that jarred his mind from his body. Eventually, he realized that it was him screaming when emergency personnel arrived.
Extensive Trauma and Clinging to Life
The ambulance took him to the hospital ICU, where x-rays revealed the trauma. Caleb destroyed the ribcage on his right side, collapsed his lung, and fractured several vertebrae in his spine.
He underwent emergency surgery to sure up his hip with eight screws. A few days later, surgeons installed three metal plates to reconstruct his ribs. Caleb spent two weeks in the hospital with a chest tube and more hoses sticking out of him than space allowed.
He lay terrified in a hospital bed far from home and nothing looked familiar. Pandemic restrictions meant no visitors and no one to ease his anxiety.
Inches From Never Walking Again, Or Worse
The army of doctors told Caleb that if he had hit the pole two inches to one side, the impact would have paralyzed him. A few inches to the other and his spine would collapse, and he would die.
He lay panicked that he would wake up without feeling in his legs. “I’d lie awake staring at the ceiling alone, reliving how I got there and how I was going to make it out,” he quivers in sheer horror.
Two weeks of constant pain and psychological battles of struggle and clarity passed before the chest tube came out, and he was released. Virtual cycling and Zwift began as a way for Caleb to connect with the cycling community during the pandemic and build the fitness he would need to compete as a GC rider. Now it was the first place he turned, other than his devoted girlfriend, that is.
Even The Patience of an Angel Can Be Tested
Caleb describes her as having the patience of an angel. The business of recovery from a severe injury is a dirty one, and it is often the caregiver who must cope with the stress of two.
“She set up a bed for me on the ground with urine jugs beside me so I wouldn’t have to crawl to the bathroom,” he isn’t ashamed to admit. Caleb’s girlfriend juggled a full-time job, racing her bike at the Pro-1-2 level, and her boyfriend’s pee bottles. Extreme circumstances even test the patience of an angel.
The Zwift Community Was There For Him
When the dark recesses of sleepless isolation messed with his mind, Caleb reached out to his Zwift teammates. “They were there every night helping to keep me focused,” he recalls with gratitude, “sharing stories of racers that had come back from similar crashes.”
He was home one day when there was a knock at the door. There stood a cycling buddy with a recumbent bike in one hand as he reached to hug Caleb with the other. They hooked it up to his trainer, and he began to move his body again. He reunited with his Zwift mates as he laid down and pedaled with one leg.
1- Caleb was only able to pedal with one leg at first.
2- Caleb’s first steps in the hospital.
3- The recumbent setup where Caleb initiated his one-legged rehab.
Caleb embraced the pain of recovery and graduated to his upright bike after two weeks. He moved from D to C category races, all with only one leg to push the pedals. Riding indoors was his only option, and he was happy to have it.
From Recumbent Bike to Racing With One Leg—Undeterred
It was an effective alternative, and Caleb progressed well. Seven weeks after the crash, he was back on his bike riding outside and using both legs. Caleb needed closure, and he went searching for it on his first outdoor ride.
Caleb’s first outdoor ride and only able to pedal with one leg.
He was determined to silence the demons in his head that the harrowing memory put there. After retracing the route and a cathartic descent past the pole where he lay near-paralyzed, he rolled to a stop. “Had I not hit that pole,” Caleb affirms, “I’d be dead.”
Caleb pressed forth on his recovery journey, but his therapeutic ride couldn’t provide the closure he needed. The pain in his ribs and hip was 24-7. He could not care for himself, and the agony of being a burden to his girlfriend was more visceral.
Fractured Ribs From a Zwift Race—
Rock Bottom and Time to Repair
Caleb continued to ride on Zwift. It was the only thing he could rely on to keep him centered and sane when he felt his girlfriend needed the mental break. The pain kept worsening, and he kept trying to ignore it. A Zwift race sprint caused him to refracture several ribs, further putting his relationship under tremendous strain.
Caleb fell off his bike and out of view of his Zwitch viewers and started crying hysterically. “I had no idea what I had just done but it felt like the crash all over again,” he feels the pain as if he was there.
During the two weeks he was forced off his bike Caleb tried to repair the bond with the one person he couldn’t do without. The pain worsened, and he was unable to do everyday things. It didn’t help their relationship, and Caleb retreated into his mind as he was conflicted to succumb to a new reality.
He forgot what it was like to walk normally or be normal without blaring pain. “I was dreaming with a limp and was in pain in my dreams,” he opens up about his low point. Caleb then chose to embrace the reality that he had hit rock bottom, and there was no way but up.
Caleb clung to the one constant in his life—Zwift. He became more active in the Zwitch streaming community and used it to share his struggle and feed off the support he received from those closest to him. He maintained his fitness the best he could.
The Engine was 85% but He Had a Broken Axle
“Even when I started putting out familiar numbers about two months after my release,” Caleb explains, the part still missing, “I felt like my engine was 85% there, but I had a broken axle.” Despite the circumstances, he managed to maintain his fitness until the day he finally said to himself, “I just can’t do this anymore.”
It was October 10, 2021. Six months from the fateful day that changed his life forever when he received the news. X-rays revealed that two of the damaged pieces in his hip had lost blood supply and died, a condition called avascular necrosis. He was walking on a hip that was crumbling beneath the weight of his heavy heart.
The crumbled hip bone was unable to bear Caleb’s burden.
Caleb’s nurturing cycling network fanned out, and 2-weeks later, he was on a plane for a pre-op visit with the surgeon of the US Paralympic team. The procedure was on November 1. Caleb never lost consciousness during the crash and was determined to remain lucid during the procedure.
Closer to Closure With Every Second
He spent the next 90-minutes feeling, hearing, and seeing every drill, saw, and hammer strike and, “and I felt nearer to closure during every second.” An anxious hour in recovery passed, and he was on his feet and walking.
“For the first time since my crash, I felt no pain at all,” he cried and fell to the floor in relief. He picked himself up and began six weeks of healing.
Caleb had one chance for this to heal right, and he was determined to do it right. “I define what I do,” he declares, “not the other way around.” With this in mind taking time off was easy. “I ride because I love riding, and I race my bike because it is an excuse to ride my bike hard,” he affirms.
What I Do is Defined By Me—I Ride Because I Love It
When the day finally came, it felt like the first day he ever rode a bike. “The memories and excitement that fueled my passion came flooding back,” Caleb expresses, “and I was riding around again on some adventure I didn’t know I was on.”
Caleb’s girlfriend, also an elite cyclist, stuck by his side. After two weeks, he had regained enough strength to climb a small hill near their home, and he invited her to join him. “When we got to the top, I was able to get down on one knee for the first time since my crash,” he notes proudly, “and I proposed to her.” They had found closure.
Conclusion—A Blessing in Disguise
The ten months after the devastating accident changed Caleb, but he calls it a blessing. He was going too fast in life. “The experience taught me humility, compassion, and empathy in ways I never knew before,” he shares, “and taught me how to feel others’ pain.”
You can only learn some things through experience when vulnerability makes you contemplate the why of what you do. “If I could learn the same things without crashing, I would,” Caleb admits, “but knowing what I know now, if I had a chance to go back, I would change nothing.”
Caleb is a better man to his family and friends. He keeps his eye on the big picture with no goals longer than a day or shorter than a year. Caleb has slowed down to cherish every moment and appreciate why the day he almost died was the best day of his life.
Have you had a life-changing experience that will forever influence the way you view the world?Comment below. Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!