Anthony Valdez briefly dismounts his bike during a race before his injury. (Photo by Ryan Ho)

Three months off the road seems a lifetime for competitive bicyclist Valdez, restricted to full back brace

For two years senior Anthony Valdez walked around with a broken back.

In fact, he did more than walk around. He rode in five competitive bike races with a broken back.

For most of that time Valdez believed it to be no more than chronic pain that he would simply have to live with.

Then in January, he discovered that the root of the pain was two hairline fractures, one on either side of his L5 vertebra (a section of the spine).

The solution? A back brace for three months. No taking it off. No exceptions.

As an avid cyclist, the effect of Valdez’s back issues on his ability to ride was a definite concern.

“It has really bummed me out honestly,” he said.

“At first it was like ‘Okay, I can’t ride my bike,’ but then just looking at it in my room was hard.

“I tried taking it apart so I wouldn’t be tempted to try to ride it.”

Valdez got interested in bikes while working at City Bicycle Works (2419 K St.) the summer after his sophomore year. He started cycling seriously in the spring of 2012.

Since then he’s competed in five races and done a lot of training. Last summer he rode two to three hours a day, six days a week.

Along with his personal training, Valdez did group training rides with some of his more experienced co-workers from City Bicycle Works.

They often rode along the American River or Garden Highway, anywhere between 15-25 miles (in simulation of actual races). Valdez said he averages about 22 miles per hour on these rides.

Valdez is almost certain the most recent fracture is from a bike accident last summer, and the other fracture doctors estimate happened a year and a half to two years ago.

Most of the past two years the discomfort was minor enough that Valdez could keep it under control with pain medication, but last summer he had his first experience with extreme pain.

“Anything but laying down was painful and I couldn’t even sleep without Tylenol PM,” he said.

Valdez shows off the brace he has been wearing for nearly three months
Valdez shows off the brace he has been wearing for nearly three months

That was when he scheduled his first MRI scan.

The doctor told Valdez that he had a degenerative disc that looked like it was from an 80-year-old man’s back.

He suggested core strength exercises and plenty of stretching, but Valdez didn’t experience much relief from this and stopped.

For a while he was able to continue cycling, saying riding helped relieve some of the pain.

Eventually though, the pain came back—and worse than before.

So in February Valdez went to a different doctor and had an MRI scan of his entire back. This is when he learned about the fractures.

In some cases, severe breaks require surgery. However, Valdez’s new doctor, George Picetti, said this was not a serious enough break to warrant surgery.

However, the 24/7 back brace is necessary because of the delicate process in which bones heal. Picetti described it like a spider web—one bad move and the healing the bones had done would be destroyed.

According to Valdez, Picetti has dealt with nearly 600 cases like this and has found that wearing a brace for three months is most effective.

So at the beginning of March Valdez had his brace specially fitted and has been wearing it ever since.

Naturally, wearing the brace and having his back completely immobilized 24/7 has made actions such as bending over, driving, and bathing difficult.

The brace extends from just under his arms to his hips, and the only time he gets to undo it is when he lies on his stomach with just the back portion of the brace removed to wash his back with a sponge.

“The first few days I was just like ‘I can’t do this,’” he said. “It was itchy and uncomfortable and I felt like I couldn’t breathe.”

Since then he’s gotten used to it but it still causes irritation such as bruising and rashes around his hip. One time he tightened it too much and woke up with a bruise the size of his hand along his side, he said.

Valdez also says he’s lost weight because of a lack of appetite. However, this might come from his ultimate fear with the brace: throwing up.

“From how painful sneezing is I don’t think I could handle throwing up,” he said.

With a little over a week left in the brace (he’ll take it off on graduation day, June 6), the next step is going to be loosening up his back so he can get back on the bike as soon as possible.

Valdez says he will also likely need physical therapy .

However, as his doctor told him, the three months with the brace nearly guarantee his back will be  completely healed with very minimal pain afterwards.

Although it’s been hard being off the bike so long,Valdez thinks this injury will fuel his motivation.

“Next winter, when I don’t really want to ride, I can just be like ‘Remember when you couldn’t ride for three months?’”

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