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When Jan Butaye Lost His Arm in a Cycling Accident, Zwift Helped Him Up

When a tragic bike accident took his arm and his will, one-armed Cyclist Jan Butaye credits Zwift for rebuilding him and the community's support for lifting him up.

One-Armed Cyclist Jan Butaye hold bike over his head

Imagine your worst cycling nightmare. Envision yourself enjoying the freedom of the beautiful sport we love, with the sun shining and the wind at your back when your life changes forever. Picture fate plunging you from the height of self-bliss to the depths of darkness in the blink of an eye. Imagine your worst cycling nightmare come true. Then multiply it by infinity—the story of Jan Butaye. 


“I’m afraid I must disagree with the quote, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It is not true. The man I was on that bike in September 2018 is dead. Death has become a part of me—an enemy at first, a motivator after time, and a companion,” Jan reveals the honesty of the soul that only a near-death experience can elucidate.


Jan Butaye lives with his family in Halle, Belgium, where he works as a Close Protection Officer for an international organization. There’s a very high physical standard when you’re a 24/7 bodyguard domestically and internationally, and his job requires that he pass stringent yearly performance tests.


“Our VIP likes to bike,” Jan explains, “and biking is part of our training.” That’s where the story begins.

The Fateful Day

On September 4, 2018, he was finishing a training ride on a gently rolling bike path, taking in the serenity of the open green fields, when tragedy struck a few kilometers from home. A tractor suddenly emerged from behind a hedge and blocked the path. 


He couldn’t go left because cars were coming head-on, so he tried to squeeze past the nose of the machine. “I manage to avoid the first corner of the tractor,” he recalls, “but on my way back towards the bicycle track, my right forearm hooked a piece of metal.”


The limb between his elbow and wrist exploded, ripping the arteries, and he began to bleed out. “While lying on the ground, I squeezed my biceps to stop the bleeding and told a bystander to call my wife,” he shares. His years as a medic have him on autopilot.

One-Armed Cyclist Jan Butaye x-ray

Awakened From a Nightmare

On September 8, Jan awakened from a dream that he was choking, but in reality, “they were extubating me after five days in an artificial coma.”


While unconscious, surgeons removed pieces of his leg arteries to replace the severed vessels in his arm. The sutures failed, and he had a massive hemorrhage. Doctors stabilized the arteries only to have a thrombosis detected days later. He lost five liters of blood in five days. They did their best, but it didn’t help. 


“My arm started to get rotten, producing toxins that were leading to multiple organ failure,” he struggles to relive the trauma as his wife told him, and “my kidneys and liver stopped working.” The only option was amputation.


Jan’s wife had to make the impossible choice that destiny had already decided. It was that or death. They had three children that needed a father.

One-Armed Cyclist Jan Butaye riding bike in the hospital

Jan doesn’t recall anything about the accident. It erased September 4 from his consciousness. “Waking up with one arm less was so surreal, as it is today. At times I still don’t believe it,” he shares the anguish of his first memory after the life-changing event.


Two days later, Jan was pedaling a bike again in the hospital. Following multiple surgeries to clean up the damaged residual limb, doctors discharged him after five weeks. It started his long road back and ten months of rehab.

man uses a Pringles box as a prosthetic arm

The Zwift Origin Story

In February 2019, a colleague suggested that he try his Tacx Genius 2.0 smart trainer and this thing called Zwift. He was initially resistant because, in his eyes, it wasn’t real cycling. “I quickly attached to it, and it was the ideal step up to bike again” and to test the sports prosthesis he urged for. “At the beginning of my rehabilitation, I had no sports prosthesis, so I had to come up with a plan. An empty Pringles box and a funnel did the job,” he says. He was fitted and equipped with a carbon limb.


Jan’s arm prosthesis connects to the handlebars with a TRS bike adapter—a clip attached to the handlebars that won’t release when pulled straight—and a free lock that mimics wrist movement. It has a Safe system that releases at a certain angle, like during a fall or when dismounting. The carbon prosthesis fits over a liner that adheres to his residual limb through a suction seal, with two flaps that can be tightened around his elbow with a BOA system (like on cycling shoes) and a pin that inserts into the artificial limb. 

One-Armed Cyclist Jan Butaye prosthetic arm
clip to attach prosthetic limb to handlebars of bike

He began free riding on Zwift and then discovered group rides, racing, and chatting during endurance rides, stating, “It is a community for sure. There is respect and humor amongst the riders. I can sometimes share my story, and I think it helps me but also others to bring their A-game, even on a bad day.”


Now that he could ride safely again, Jan’s strength returned, and physically he was making significant improvements. He underestimated the mental toll.

One-Armed Cyclist Jan Butaye Zwift profile

The first two and a half years after the fateful day, he went to sleep, hoping not to wake up, explaining, “How could I be a one-armed father, a one-armed husband, a one-armed bodyguard?”


Darkness fell over him, shrouding his view of all he had to live for, and took a grip. “The Grim Reaper tried to take me that day. I proved stronger, but the cost was high. Depression and mood swings. Tears out of the blue. Why get out of bed?” he asks. 

One-Armed Cyclist Jan Butaye wearing bike clothes

Fighting Through the Darkness

He found motivation in of all places, a quote by Sylvester Stallone in one of the Rocky movies. “Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are. It will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya’ hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”


He fought back, determined to defeat his demons. So he started weight training, swimming, running, and biking, especially on Zwift. He let nothing stop him and continued to work toward loftier goals, setting new benchmarks, and seeking challenges to “keep the motivation train steaming down the tracks.”

One-Armed Cyclist Jan Butaye standing proudly with prosthetic arm

Zwift Was A Game Changer

“It took me sweat, tears, blood, and hardship to get there, and it still gets dark at times,” he admits. Jan credits Zwift for his fitness and the community’s support for helping him see the light. It took his mind off what was missing, saying, “It helped me not to have to think about the amputation because my focus was on getting faster, going 1 second faster on the next lap, and so on.”


“Zwifting is for sure a mental game changer. It brings people together all over, and I can share my story. It allows you to get to the next level, the next, and the next,” he says. 


In 2021 he did 505km in one go on the trainer with World Bicycle Relief (WBR). In 2022 it became 510km. And so on. In 2022 Jan climbed Mont Ventoux—on and off-road.

mountain bike with prosthetic limb attached

Looking Upward and Onward

“It will never be good enough. It always needs to be harder, faster, and better. But that is what saved me, physically and mentally,” he shares.

What doesn’t kill you may make you stronger, but Jan prefers to look at it this way, “When you lay down, and you can look up, you can get up!

Keep looking up, Jan!

One-Armed Cyclist Jan Butaye climbs big mountain in Europe

Has Zwift lifted you up?

We’d like to know how. Comment below! Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.

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Tony Messina
Tony Messina
4 months ago

A Pringles box, and a funnel and you’re back to riding. Wow it doesn’t get better than that if that doesn’t inspire someone. Don’t know if everybody has what it takes to bounce back from something like that.

Jan Butaye
Jan Butaye
4 months ago
Reply to  Tony Messina

Bob Marley had this quote which is so true. It goes like this “You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice”. What I mean is that I never imagined I would get out of this nightmare which had become my life since 2018. But there was no alternative. I have three children for whom I need to be a dad. So I had to bounce back and I can tell you it has been and still is a long journey. Dark days and even darker thoughts but every little step forward is a victory. Going from a cardboard prosthesis on the smart trainer to a carbon prosthesis on the MTB in the woods is a war won.
This article with credits for Christopher Schwenker lifts me up in the way that I am truly surprised and humbled about the positive reactions like “respect, inspirational, motivational, strength,…” and so on. This article reflects the efforts and pain behind the bouncing back part.
Thank you for your nice comment.

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