by Simone Boilard, road cyclist and medallist at the World Junior Championships
For two years, it can be said that when someone spoke of me, it wasn’t because of my results as a cyclist. In fact, these last two years have been so difficult for me.
It all started at the beginning of 2019 when I wasn’t able to push on my bike. At first, it just felt like my legs were heavier. I wasn’t alarmed because I was performing well, and my results were still good. However in April 2019, I had a poor performance at a stage race in Arkansas; I had trouble following the rhythm of the race and my legs burned like never before. I came back home totally stumped. I saw a sports doctor, who prescribed me rest, because I was without a doubt just tired.
After two weeks off, I tried to return to training. I was feeling good and rested, but as soon as the activity got too intense, I had the same feeling as before. It was hard to explain this pain, it was neither concrete nor precise. All I felt was ‘heavy legs.’ I started to panic. All of my goals for the season were fast approaching. One day while returning from a training session where I couldn’t finish because of this strange feeling, I was distracted, ran a red light and got hit. I was relatively lucky, and I made it out with a minor concussion. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I told myself, ‘OK Simone, either you stop digging yourself into a hole or the next time it will be a bus that hits you.’
So, I made the decision to take a break to heal my concussion and try to figure out what was going on. In September 2019, after asking myself a few existential questions, I concluded that I had probably had heavy legs from fatigue, and that I was now ready to return to the world of cycling under better conditions. My boyfriend, Nickolas Zukowsky, told his trainer, Pierre Hutsebaut, of my desire to get back on top. Pierre contacted me shortly after to help me. I immediately wanted to work with him. He had a great game plan for me: relearn the basics, rediscover the fun aspects of cycling and find balance by going to school in-person for the fall semester. After a few weeks, I felt really excited about coming back. It was good to go back to structured training and focus on my schoolwork.
In January 2020, Pierre concluded that I was ready to start training more intensely at the professional level. I packed my bags and headed to Arizona to cycle in the heat and join my team to start the 2020 season. I couldn’t wait and was feeling up to it. Unfortunately, as soon as my physical exertion became more intense and sustained, I still felt blocked. This time, it was no longer a simple sensation, I had more concrete points on the thighs. With Pierre, we thought I was aching due to my weight training program. I continued to train and endure the pain until March 2020 when, during an endurance ride in Mount Lemmon, I was unable to climb at low intensity and had to take breaks at each mile. I called Pierre and it was decided that I needed to go home to investigate this problem with my sports doctor.
Back home, COVID-19 shook the world. Hospitals and healthcare professionals were overwhelmed, and I couldn’t see a doctor. I waited patiently; with everything going on in the world, my exertional leg problem was relatively minor. I continued to train, or rather “maintain” myself, without exerting too much effort as I waited for the doctor’s call. In May 2020, my symptoms were becoming more specific and intense, and all concentrated in the right leg. I did some research on the Internet and came across a typical, but little-known problem among cyclists: iliac artery endofibrosis, which is caused by a narrowing of the iliac artery at the psoas level. This causes poor circulation throughout the leg, creating a “dead leg” feeling. Something clicked and I was like, “This is what I have! “. While waiting to see a doctor, I adjusted my training with my trainer. Fortunately, there weren’t really any competitions due to the pandemic, so I took the opportunity to do longer and less intense rides.
In September 2020, I finally had an official diagnosis of right iliac artery endofibrosis. On one hand, I was infinitely relieved to finally understand what was going on in my body, but, on the other hand, I said to myself, ‘Where was I all this time that I didn’t realize this before?’ “. I was also wondering, “What about my left leg?” Because from the start I had pain in both legs. Another worry! I then contacted Julie Gardiner whom I consider as the best physiotherapist, to have her take a look at me. After a few sessions, she concluded that I had high tension in my thoracolumbar region, which could explain why I was also having symptoms on my left side. Finally, relieved and enlightened by all of my problems, we were able to create a game plan together, not only to cure my endofibrosis, but also to solve my back problem.
On December 2, I finally had an operation on the right iliac artery at Saint-François d’Assise Hospital in Quebec City. The vascular surgery team removed almost three inches of my artery.
At the time of writing this, it is January 2021, and I am a month and a half into my rehabilitation. I don’t know how long it will take me to sort out both my right artery and my back. On the other hand, I am determined to heal and get back on top quickly. I still have big plans for my cycling career and a huge flame still burning in me.
Until then, I wish everyone a great 2021 season. Hope to see you on your bike as soon as possible!