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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!
Has Zwift lifted you up?
We’d like to know how. 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, Endurance.biz, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!