Home > MTB

Escaping ‘the wrist prison:’ ALN on Injury, EWS and finding freedom on the bike

Rocky Mountain / Race Face’s Andréane Lanthier Nadeau talks broken bones and comebacks

ALN Andréane Lanthier Nadeau
ALN Andréane Lanthier Nadeau
Image: Kike Abelleira / @kikeabelleira

Andréane Lanthier Nadeau finished 2017 ranked 11th overall in the Enduro World Series, despite missing four of the eight rounds sidelined by injury. It’s a snapshot of a theme that’s been common for the promising young enduro racer: podium highs chased by the lows of lingering injury.

One year later, Lanthier Nadeau is in the early stages of a return from her longest stretch off the bike yet. Complications from her latest injury have made this return slower than expected. She took the time from her busy travel schedule to talk about the mental side of dealing with multiple injuries and that moment of knowing there’s nothing else she’d rather be doing than racing bikes.

ALN Andréane Lanthier Nadeau
Round #4 of 2018 Enduro World Series in Petzen-Jamnica, two days of racing in Austria and Slovenia. Image: Kike Abelleira / @kikeabelleira

The time an athlete spends injured is a side of the sport that those of us watching from home don’t see much of. Fans may see a post on social media about a new injury, but what happens between the break and the return to racing is rarely broadcast online.

Injury is also a side of the sport that racers themselves avoid talking about, preferring to focus on the process of returning to good health. With several injuries in succession, Lanthier Nadeau, or ALN as she’s often known, has spent a solid stretch of time in this less-publicized side of the sport. In fact, she’s spent a full year in a cast since March 2016.

This cumulative injury time sometimes leaves friends and fans wondering what’s happening with her since they don’t see her name at races or, ALN says, incorrectly assuming that she’s been injured this whole time.

ALN Andréane Lanthier Nadeau
Steep, fresh tracks welcome ALN back to the EWS in Petzen-Jamnica. Image: Kike Abelleira / @kikeabelleira

The truth is more complicated. In two years, ALN has produced some incredible results, including two EWS podiums, mixed in with a broken hand and two broken wrists. Two of the broken bones were poorly timed, interrupting race season. The latest turned into a long, lingering ordeal that sidelined the Rocky Mountain rider for nine months. Wrist injuries can be fickle and, in a physical sport where injury is part of the game, Lanthier Nadeau has had the misfortune of breaking the same bone, scaphoid, in her wrist twice.

ALN broke her right metacarpal while practising for the first EWS round in Chile in 2016. That healed quickly. Lanthier Nadeau returned to place third at the La Thuile, Italy EWS round behind Cecile Ravanel and Isabeau Courdurier, two of the most dominant women in enduro. It was a huge result for someone new to the discipline.

Returning to Canada, that same year, ALN crashed cruising down Whistler’s A-Line to meet friends for practice on the Crankworx EWS tracks, breaking her left scaphoid. This break was more serious. “Scaphoids can go either way,” ALN say, “it can be totally fine, or it can be very complicated.” For Lanthier Nadeau, it ended up being the latter.

ALN Andréane Lanthier Nadeau
2018 EWS, Petzen-Jamnica. Image: Kike Abelleira / @kikeabelleira

On top of constant pain, there was the uncertainty of not knowing if the bone was healing. Four weeks post-break, she found out it wasn’t on the mend. She needed surgery to repair the damage. That started another four week wait for the operation. The depression and frustration of that period made for “the hardest stretch of this whole injury journey,” recalls ALN. “I didn’t know if I wanted to be riding bikes anymore. Everything was so complicated and uncertain. I felt like maybe that was it.”

Scaphoid surgery has a roughly 50/50 chance of healing. That ALN was allowed to return to riding that winter was a success in itself. She celebrated with an 11-day bikepacking trip from northern California down to the Mexican border. Covering 1,100 km in 11 days was a quick way to boost fitness. More important, ALN says, “the trip helped build the stoke” after her first long stretch off the bike.

On her return from California, ALN was told Rocky Mountain was scaling back its team and, on a team crowded with talent, the budget wasn’t there to fund fund her EWS season fully. The news was made harder by the timing, but, determined not to back down from her goals, ALN used her savings buying flights to Europe. Teaming up with Antoine Caron to cut costs, the duo made their to Ireland for the Wicklow EWS round.

ALN Andréane Lanthier Nadeau
Dropping in to a rocky alpine stage in La Thuile, Italy. Image: Kike Abelleira / @kikeabelleira

In her first race back after a full recovery, ALN again surprised the field. She raced the treacherous, rain-soaked course to land on the podium in third. It was a moment of redemption, both professionally as a racer, and personally, quieting her own self-doubt surrounding racing. “After the doubt of the fall, I felt so free, so happy,” she says. “It was that reaffirming moment that biking is what I want to do. I kept thinking this is what my body is engineered to do and laughing inside.”

“It was the realization,” she continues, “that nothing can make up for not having biking in my life.”

ALN calls the time that followed “one of the best summers of my life.” The close-knit EWS women’s field stepped up to help when, after Rocky Mountain decided to support her at the next EWS round in France, she cancelled her flights home. Tracey Mosley invited her to the invitational Tweedlove Festival, where Katy Winton hosed ALN during the race. From there, it was off to Switzerland where the Gehrig twins, Anita and Caro, not only provided housing, but hired her as a paid coach at their Twins Women’s Bike Camp and brought her along in their van to race Canazei Superenduro in Italy.

ALN Andréane Lanthier Nadeau
The close-knit EWS Women’s field finds shelter from the cold while waiting to start the next stage in La Thuile. Image: Kike Abelleira / @kikeabelleira

In France, the Milau EWS round presented racers with more wild and muddy conditions. “The first day, I was all over the place. It was bloody hard,” ALN says. “I had three massive crashes. I woke up the second day thinking I was too battered to race.”

Instead of letting negative thoughts creep back in, ALN re-focused. “I got back in a good mindset, where I just go out and enjoy being on my bike,” she said. This perspective carried Lanthier Nadeau to her first stage win, edging out Cecile Ravanel by a little more than a second. “I had so much fun that day,” ALN says. “I will look back at those memories forever.”

After two days of racing in Milau, ALN finished fourth overall. With her results came options, and interest from other teams. In the end, says ALN, “I’m grateful I’ve stuck by the people I’ve been with since my first XC junior worlds at Mont-Sainte-Anne in 2010.”

ALN Andréane Lanthier Nadeau
EWS Round #5 in La Thuile drops ALN out of the alpine and into the woods. Image: Kike Abelleira / @kikeabelleira

From her quick results you might assume Lanthier Nadeau is a natural at the sport, but she honed her skills for years on the XC circuit before making the switch to enduro.

The racing bug started while watching Marie-Hélène Prémont win Olympic silver in Athens in 2004. “I remember watching that and thinking wow, that’s what I want to do,” ALN recalls. As her own career progressed, ALN had her own chances to race the historic World Cup venue. “I would be there every year at the Vélirium, watching and moving up from local to provincial, national and eventually international level racing.” One of her favourite memories of racing is still from her first world championships in 2010, sprinting for 10th and 11th position with Lauren Rosser on the same Mont-Sainte-Anne course she had watched Prémont race on.

ALN Andréane Lanthier Nadeau
2018 Enduro World Series Round #5 – La Thuile, Italy. Image: Kike Abelleira / @kikeabelleira

The switch to enduro wasn’t planned, but the timing was excellent. As a number of young cross country racers do, ALN was finding herself more and more burnt out on racing. “For me, it was especially with the weight concerns and always feeling self-conscious about my weight and my body,” she says about what pushed her away from XC, “and the constant level of competitiveness – whether I’m not cut out for it, or don’t want to be cut out for it, I don’t know. But I do know that I started not liking riding by bike.”

“Dabbling with enduro at some races here and there, and scoring good results made the switch happen very naturally,” says ALN, “both for me and my sponsor, Rocky Mountain.”

I asked ALN if she missed XC, and how she deals with the doubts that come with a serious injury so soon after switching. “It was hard to leave XC behind, for sure,” she says. “Mourning leaving XC,” ALN continues, “makes these early injuries hard and feeds into the questioning of is this right, is this not right.”

Some clarity and support for her decision came out of a discussion with multiple time Canadian Olympian Geoff Kabush. While acknowledging the draw of the “Olympic dream,” Kabush said, “If you can be the best in the world at something, you should give it an honest go.” In the end, she says, it came down to the choice between the idea of the Olympics, and enduro, where there wasn’t that one end goal, but the opportunity of “living for my passion.”

ALN Andréane Lanthier Nadeau
Image: Kike Abelleira / @kikeabelleira

Racing in Europe for that summer cemented the idea that racing enduro was what ALN wanted to do. “The good times and happiness were the confirmation that deciding to pursue enduro was a good decision,” she says.

The summer high ended on Sept. 2 in Whistler. ALN was in the bike park sessioning a rock gap on Heavy Flow when, after coming up a bit short the first time, she over shot the landing on her second attempt. “Unlike the first two injuries,” she says, “this was a bad crash. I was actually in shock. I was lucky to come away with just a broken wrist and to be in the company of my really good buddy Jean-Fred.”

“I was in the mindset,” ALN reflects, “of wanting it a bit too much.” She learned from the experience, and says, “Part of moving forward and maturing is recognizing that mentality.” It would be an expensive learning experience. The same left scaphoid—which her doctor had told her, “You can’t break this thing again”—she had broken a second time.

Unlike the first two injuries, this time there was no period of doubt that she was on the right track. Even on the ground ALN says, “Right away, I was thinking, OK, what do I do to heal?” After going through that incredible summer, ALN knew she wanted to be back shredding ASAP. “There is a certainty that even though injuries happen, and they’re not great, this is what I want to do.”

“Besides,” she tells me she thought to herself, “at least you’re pretty good at comebacks.”

ALN Andréane Lanthier Nadeau
La Thuile, Italy. Image: Kike Abelleira / @kikeabelleira

Working with her doctors, the decision was made not to operate right away: try to let it heal.
But the scaphoid wasn’t healing, so she went under the knife again on this past February, putting her back on the road forward. The break sidelined the Rocky Mountain racer for a nine-month stretch in what she has taken to calling “the wrist prison.”

For the winter, to ready herself for a return to racing, ALN had set up a trainer in the shed (and laundry room) in her student home in Victoria. Rather than hammer endless intervals, she said, “The focus was on balance, on making sure I’m happy and not digging myself down emotionally just for training.” While she has the training background from XC, the extended time off the bike was hard mentally. “The only thing that made me get through this is the people who believed in me,” says ALN, who has written those names out on the wall of her training room. To keep it light, and funny, but also measure progress, “every time I go down there, I make a mark on the 2×4 that sits in front of my trainer. Every training session has a mark, like days in a prison.”

ALN Andréane Lanthier Nadeau
La Thuile provides a rather scenic welcome back to racing. Image: Kike Abelleira / @kikeabelleira

ALN graduated from University of Victoria in April with a bachelor of science in psychology. It’s something she’s interested in continuing. But for now, she says, “I’m chasing the bike dream.”

After a full year off the bike, ALN made her return to racing June 17 at Canadian enduro championships in Panorama, B.C. “After racing seven stages in one day, I felt like maybe it was time to try and get back to the EWS.” The fourth round of EWS in Petzen-Jamnica gave her four riding days, two training and two racing, which were a big step up from her schedule of alternating road and MTB days. “Although I was healed, the pain level in my wrist is still very high, so I had no idea if I could manage,” ALN says. “With the help of Tara [Lazarski], our team physiotherapist and manager, I was able to recover enough after each day to be ready to ride the next.”

The Petzen-Jamnica race wasn’t exactly easing back into EWS. “I’m still baffled that I had enough upper body strength to get through the 17-minute stages that ended both days of racing,” ALN says. Throughout the two days, she moved steadily up the leaderboard to finish an impressive ninth in her first race back. “My speed kept improving as the weekend went on, and I can’t wait to have less pain to deal with so I feel more free in my riding.”

ALN Andréane Lanthier Nadeau
Image: Kike Abelleira / @kikeabelleira

Two weeks later, the EWS returned to La Thuile, Italy, the same venue where Lanthier Nadeau had her first podium back in 2016. This year, the focus was progress, not placing. “I had a couple crashes, because I’m starting to ride faster,” which she says is a positive. “Fine-tuning the balance of speed versus crashes again is a good sign that I’m closer to my race speed and further away from my injury, which feels awesome.” That progress moved Lanthier Nadeau up to sixth in La Thuile.

Those are results most riders will spend years chasing, but for ALN it meant more just to be back out on the tracks. “It was so great to be back to normal, riding with my team, and being out with the girls on race day,” she says. “Everything I had been waiting for, even though racing an EWS is a difficult normal, it is blissful to finally be back out.”