The road to recovery was never going to be smooth for Keagan Girdlestone and choosing to ride the Gravel and Tar Classic UCI 1.2 race this Saturday is just another step forward for the young rider.

The South African-born Christchurch rider was going from strength to strength in his cycling career when, in mid-2016 while racing in Italy, he crashed into the back window of his support car when it braked suddenly, severing his carotid artery and jugular vein.  The fact he is alive is nothing short of a miracle but it’s not the accident that defines this 20-year-old, it’s the motivation that gets him up every morning in a bid to exceed where his career left off.

In 2014, at aged 16, Girdlestone was the youngest ever winner of Le Race. The following year he had ten top 10 finishes and four wins, and in 2016 was picked up by the Dimension Data for Qhubeka Continental Team to ride the international circuit in Europe. 

Following his accident, he moved back to New Zealand where he continues to rehabilitate. But giving up cycling was never an option and within the year he was cycling again in a pro-race.  “I’ve always envisaged myself doing this in France and travelling the world, getting paid to do what I love. I don’t see any other avenue that sparks my interest like cycling does,” Keagan said.

The day after last week’s NZ Cycle Classic had ended, Girdlestone said he is feeling better than ever.  “I feel the best I’ve felt. I haven’t really raced since the end of September and haven’t done consecutive tours in two years.”

Working his way up the elite ladder through entering tough events was the key to future success and he knows he must push harder than most riders as he works with the injuries he still carries.  “I have paralysis in my arm and diaphragm. It affects my breathing and is tricky to work on. It’s not something you normally exercise but I can tell its improving based on my performances,” he said.

Riding for the Cyclista team in his first Gravel and Tar Classic, Girdlestone is using it as a benchmark to ascertain his progress.  “I need to bite the bullet and do the hard racing. Even if I can’t win, I need to do those races to improve”, he said.

Opportunities were opening for him in the upcoming season, but he was cautious about setting himself up for failure, knowing that riding in Europe would be too big a step.

“My confidence has taken a kick I guess. I consider myself a winner and right now I’m not able to win, not at that level.

“I don’t want to teach myself to just finish.  I want to do my best and keep getting better” he said.

After this weekend, Girdlestone will head back to Christchurch for more rehabilitation and training. He aims to be racing at a high level in the next six months and will join a Malaysian team and ride the Asian tour.  The bumpy ride hasn’t finished for Girdlestone, but his grit and determination are exactly what the Gravel and Tar Classic is all about.

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