After finishing 4th at La Bresse France, Fabien Barel stood on the podium on his home country for the last time and made his official retirement announcement from the world cup downhill racing. That was in August 2011. Barel is a racer through and through, it’s in his blood. As enduro racing crystallized into a regimented sport and the EWS took shape and molded it, Fabien made his return to racing. A very serious crash sidelined him at the Enduro World Series round in Chile a couple of months ago. We were fortunate enough to catch up with him and talk about his injury, recovery and even got to pick his brain on bikes and racing a bit.
MTB – MAG – So Fabien – In Chile you had a pretty gut wrenching accident resulting in a spinal injury. That must have been pretty scary. We want to hear about it recounted from the source. In your words, can you describe what happened?
Fabien – At the start of the stage there was a high speed section that was pretty sandy, drifty and really really fun to ride, and I must say the excitement of every corner had me going faster and faster because the more speed you had the more you’d stay above the sand. I arrived at this one compression at full speed as the track was getting flatter and let the brakes go too much, caught my front wheel into a patch of sand and went directly over the bar. I had time with the speed and height I was coming from to see where I was going to land, so I had time to set my arms to absorb the impact and get ready to roll, but unfortunately my hands went blowing through the sand and my head got caught directly into it and blocked my body. I went from like 60 kilometers/hour to 0k/hr in a split second and all the force transferred right into my spine. I saw the impact coming and kept my head really rigid. That sent the energy into my the lower part of my back and it broke two vertebrae and I went off the side of the track. I decided after 3 or 4 minutes to stand, get back up and ride the bike down to the finish and check in with the medics. The doctor was pretty clear that if I was still standing there was no main part of the vertebrae that was damaged and I’d be ok. I’d raced with broken ribs and the sides of my vertebrae broken in the past and been alright with it so I made the decision to take the bike and keep on going, finish the day and manage to do the second stage and third stage with OK times. The pain was intense but I’ve definitely had much worse injuries in terms of pain so after that I finished the day and got back into the top 100’s. I went back to the hotel and got a massage to make sure I could release the muscle but when I woke up in the morning I could really feel that something was wrong. Pressure on the bone itself was really painful – that’s when I made the decision to go into town. I felt pretty sore and the 2-3 nurses were panicking when they came in to talk to the doctor. They put me in a flat inflatable bed and that’s when I realized that for me it really was a close call.
Fabien – No, unfortunately this was not my first spinal injury. A few times I’ve broken the little wings on the side of my vertebrae after having some big impacts in downhill. Clearly I didn’t lose any feeling, but I had lost my breath for a couple of minutes. I had some weird feelings in my legs at the time but it quickly came back. At no moment did I worry about loss of feeling in my legs. I just felt like it was a really heavy crash with great impact on my body. I just didn’t really expect a full vertebrae to fracture in that manner.
MTB – MAG – What has your recovery process been like? Are you past the physical therapy and getting back into some training? We know in certain situations, people can be resilient and bounce right back from back injuries, but sometimes they can be nightmarish to work through. How are things shaping up for you? Can you give us a glint into your day to day life these days?
Fabien – At the moment, the main thing for me is to be mentally strong and thinking positive. Keeping your head up is what helps you go forward and into the right processes in recovery. For the first two months I mainly spent my time laying down. I was able to walk around the house a bit and that was a good release. I tried to do some contractions of my abs and legs to ensure I didn’t lose too much muscle. I’m at the point right now where the scans are pretty positive and the bones are healing well so I can be in bed for only two hours a day and I can be out and about talking to people and having more of a normal life. I’m still spending full days and nights with a cast from my collarbone down to my hips to block all back movement. It’s quite heavy to carry on full time but it’s the only way to let the bone heal properly after a spinal compression. Because of the nature of the fracture I’ve had to spend some time upside down to allow the spine to expand as much as it can and leave some space for the bone to grow back. The focus now is trying to get the posture right and have my back completely straight. The damage that has been done will not allow for a full recovery. My main goal is to have the vertebrae solid again and check to make sure my physical aptitude and movement will be correct. I do believe I will be able to do that. It’s been 2 and a half months. Hopefully in 2-3 months time I will be back to normal life and back on the bike. Mentally it’s not easy to handle, but I am definitely used to it and and I have a strong philosophy with injuries. I’m staying solid and determined as to where I need to go. I have no nightmares and I know it’s part of the game. I can’t wait to get back on the bike and have as much fun as I have in the past.
MTB – MAG – Do you plan to come back strong for 2015 season for EWS? We’re bummed your season was cut so short, but based off of the beginning, and off of 2013 what are you thoughts on EWS as a whole? Do you think it’s going in the right direction? It’s such a young sport but seems to be taking off and well organized, even from it’s infancy. Any constructive criticism?
Fabien – Generally enduro is really good fun and EWS is as well. I loved my years in downhill. Going on one side of the mountain and trying to be aggressive and optimize each race run was fantastic. Today in enduro we definitely have the opportunity to go on a larger itinerary type of track and deal with more anticipation. It’s a lot more physical in terms of riding, there’s a lot more pedaling and holding the bike up, so it’s certainly a new challenge. 2015 EWS definitely depends on my back. Not necessarily to win, but at least to be competitive. This season was obviously cut early but 2013 was fun and people are enjoying the rounds this year. The sport as a start up in 2013 was obviously very young and made some mistakes but they have a very solid, professional group of people working around it. They have the ability to be very constructive and build very professional events. On the rider and team point of view things got even better this year. I believe in 2015 it will be even better. The attitude that EWS has towards the sport has been built through racer’s points of view and needs. I believe the sport is attracting so much interest because the people are big on the fun that riders want to have on a bike. There are always things that need to be improved but event after event they are very capable of analyzing that and making sure they improve for the future.
MTB – MAG -Since your World Cup DH days, you were always been known for being both very discerning and experimental with your bikes and riding setups that push the envelope in terms of not only just geometry, but suspension as well. What are your latest thoughts on bike design as it applies towards enduro specific race bikes? Are there any major changes you’d like to see manufacturers work towards for geometry?
Fabien – I’ve always love to be able to push a product to it’s limit and try to analyze what we’d need to do to get more performance in the future. The mechanical side of the sport has always been interesting to me. We’ve seen lots of evolution over the years. We’ve seen bigger travel, better compression damping, geometry has gotten longer and more stable. Now we’ve seen the new wheel size. The all mountain bikes of today are riding like downhill bikes from ten years ago and climb like cross country bikes from the same era. In ten years time we will see the same thing again. This evolution has been going on for a few years now. The telescopic seatposts are the main revolution. The shapeshifter system from Canyon will be just as huge because we won’t have to compromise with settings between uphill and downhill. For the future we will have a bike that will adapt itself to every type of terrain, an intelligent bike that’s optimizes for your comfort and speed while riding.
MTB – MAG – We recently started using a set of the Michelin Wild Rock’r 2 and have been blown away. That was a project you worked on, correct? Without giving too much away, are there any other cool products that we should look out for which you’ve helped co-develop?
Fabien – Development is something I’ve always been passionate about. The work we’ve been doing with Michelin was exciting because there is so much knowledge coming from other sports like F1, Road racing, motocross, enduro moto, etc. So much experience and knowledge in other fields really helped develop the range of product we made in the last 3 years. At the moment as you’ve seen with Canyon I’d been working on that for the last year and a half. For sure it’s something I love to do and there will be more projects in the future, but I need to take a breath here before any new products come out that I help develop.
MTB – MAG – Regardless of the fact that you no longer race downhill, we wanted to pick your brain on DH bikes. They seem to be really coming into their own. They are a bit less stratified from brand to brand and team to team nowadays. Do you think that in general the manufacturers have finally found a sweet spot where racers are happy with geometry and suspension? If so, do you think this is a contributing factor in the racing getting tighter?
Fabien – For sure, DH was the Formula One of mountain bike racing for years now and a huge platform for development with suspension, geometry, damping, etc. It is true that for the moment everything is getting pretty much set and that there is no major evolution going on right now. For sure this contributes strongly to having tighter racing. With everyone having similar products as well as athletic capacities in terms of physical and technical skills. Everyone is at their optimum level which makes racing super interesting at the moment. On my side I believe there is still a lot that needs to be done in the evolution of MTB. As technology gets better in all aspects I think it’s good for things to continue to go ahead – it’s good for the market, the industry, and for sure the speed of the racers.
MTB – MAG -Last question – should you recover well before EWS starts up again for 2015, what plans do you have in between? Any cool events in the off season we might be able to catch up with you at?
Fabien – At the moment I am dedicated to recovering fully. My plans for racing, development and testing are very uncertain for the time being. There are all sorts of ideas in my head regarding what needs to be done, but most importantly I’m focused on what needs to be done to recover and to be able to have a strong back and get back on the bike and race, or at least ride and test products for fun. We live in a beautiful community and we’re part of a fantastic sport- the only thing I can say is that I can’t wait to get back in it.
MTB – MAG – Thank you for taking the time to chat with us Fabien. We’re all pulling for you and wishing you a full and speedy recovery. It will be great to see you on the the bike and look forward to you return!
Photos: Markus Greber