Leon Matz saw his world turned upside down after a catastrophic accident nearly derailed his cycling career in January.
Matz, a 62-year-old Puyallup cyclist, qualified but didn’t attend the UCI Masters World Championships in South Africa in 2012. He was gearing up to qualify for this year’s event in Italy when he hit a patch of ice on Jan. 24 as he biked his way to work as a counselor at Orting High School. He shattered his right femur in 10 places.
Matz worried he would never be able to ride his bicycle again, let alone competitively.
Seven months later, he’s been granted a wildcard entry to the UCI Masters World Championships in Trento, Italy, on Sept. 22.
But the journey back to his bike has been one of the most difficult challenges of Matz’s life.
THE HEALING PROCESS
Matz had never suffered a serious injury on his bicycle in 25 years of riding until that cold January morning. The days and months that followed the accident were some of the darkest of his life.
“That was a pretty tough time,” Matz said. “I thought I was done with cycling. I talked to my surgeon (Dr. Ryan Will), and he told me he thought he could put my leg back together, and one day I would be able to get back on the bike. That gave me some hope and some confidence that I would do it. He performed the surgery on my femur and had to put in a metal plate with 10 screws to hold my leg together.”
Matz was not allowed to bear any weight on his right leg for the first two months after surgery.
“I had to pick up my leg and physically move it wherever I wanted it to go,” he said. “I remember telling my wife Fran that I just really looked forward to the day I can stand up without having to lean on to something or to grab something.
“I think there was a period of time where I was depressed,” Matz added. “I’m a very active person and was used to going places and being very independent, and now I was totally dependent on the people around me.”
THE LONG ROAD BACK
Two months after the accident, Matz began physical therapy sessions three times a day in order to strengthen his leg. Under the guidance of Michael Tollan, he began to see improvements. Matz did between 15 and 20 different exercises during the recovery process.
“The physical therapy got my blood flowing, and I started using some muscles that I hadn’t been using for two months,” Matz said. “I talked to Michael and asked him when I could get back on the bike. He said I needed to start slow and be safe.”
Finally, during the first week of April, Matz got back on his bike and hit the road.
“I took some precautions,” he said. “I wore lots of padding. Research has shown if you have a fall, and have protection, that will decrease the chances of having a break in that area.”
Matz rode for seven miles on his first trip — and he was disappointed.
“I was like a grandma riding to the store,” he said. “After a while, I got up to 15 miles, and then 20 miles. After that, it just kept progressing from there.”
By the end of May, Matz was going on 75-mile bike rides, but at a much slower pace than he was used to. By mid-summer, he felt close to about 90 percent of where he was physically before the accident.
EYEING THE PRIZE
The disappointment of not being able to attempt to qualify for the Masters World Championships was something that gnawed at him during the summer. He qualified last year but didn’t attend. He had vowed to compete this year until tragedy struck.
Matz appealed to Union Cycliste Internationale to see if he could gain a spot anyway.
“There are no guarantees in life,” Matz said of his appeal. “When it comes by, you have to go for it. I didn’t think my chances were very good. It’s not like the Boston Marathon where, if you get a qualifying time, you can attend for up to the next two years. You’ve got to qualify that year. The only exceptions allowed are wildcard entries.
“I appealed and said I qualified in 2012 and finished in seventh out of 78 riders in my division and explained my injury that I had suffered,” he said. “I thought I could be competitive by September and conveyed that. I did a lot of praying about it.”
Matz got word about his appeal via email on July 17. He got in as a wildcard.
“Tears started coming down my face,” he said. “It was something I had given a lot of hope to. It was really special.”
In a little more than a month, Matz will board a plane bound for Trento, Italy, to compete in his favorite event on the biggest stage he’s ever experienced. He said the course in Trento fits his racing style. The race is Sept. 22.
“It is a 69-mile race with almost 10,000 feet of an elevation gain,” he said. “It ends on the top of Monte Bondone after a 13.3-mile climb with a 6.8 percent grade.
“What I enjoy the most while riding is climbing. I’m looking forward to the mountaintop finish. It is the ideal race for me.”
Matz has been pushing his body to prepare for the opportunity.
“A lot of my friends from my racing group, the Puyallup Cyclopaths, have been doing a lot of riding with me,” he said. “We have been doing a lot of climbs. We even traveled down to California to find climbs with a 6 percent grade. The best grade we could find in Washington is a 5 percent grade. Those longer and steeper climbs are a great training method.
“I want to be competitive, have a good time and see where it goes.”