Out of the darkness

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You are about to sit down and eat, I suggest that you skip this page and come back to it later. Twenty years ago this month Mick Doohan embarked on what would become the greatest comeback from injury in bike racing history. The Australian went from being within hours of having a leg amputated to winning five consecutive premier-class world titles.

Doohan was running off with the 1992 500 World Championship when he crashed at Assen, breaking his right tibia and fibula. A local surgeon botched the operation to fix the damage, triggering compartment syndrome which cut off the leg’s blood supply.

“From there on it got very messy,” he recalls. “They cut open the leg (in an attempt to restore circulation) from the back of my knee to the ankle and from the top of the foot to the toes. The wound at the back of the leg swelled to about 10cm wide. I knew this wasn’t the best scenario for getting back on a bike.”

A day later “the leg was starting to smell like bad meat” and the surgeons considered amputation. Doohan might well have lost the leg if it hadn’t been for renowned GP medic Dr Claudio Costa, who kidnapped him in an air ambulance.

At Costa’s clinic in Bologna, Doohan was a very ill man. The Dutch had thinned his blood so much that his vital organs were close to shutting down. “It was a dark time. I couldn’t understand Italian, Costa couldn’t speak English and the other doctors weren’t saying anything. But I was just looking forward. I also knew that motorcycle racing has its downsides, so it wasn’t really a surprise to be in that position.”

Daily visits to a hyperbaric chamber to induce oxygen into his bloodstream made lift le difference. “After a week I noticed a lot of very black skin. The doctors started removing it until they got down to the tendons and bones and the metal plates and screws. That’s when reality set in, that this was going to be a long road to recovery.”

Time for drastic measures. Costa sewed the legs together, using the healthy left limb to save the dying right. Doohan stayed like that for 14 days, then had just a few weeks to prepare to head off title rival Wayne Rainey at the penultimate race at Interlagos. “Brazil was a rough weekend. It was tricky because I didn’t have any feeling from the knee down, so my foot would come off the footpeg and I wouldn’t know.” Not only that, but the leg was infected and bleeding.

Rainey stole the title by the slenderest of margins. During the off-season Doohan trained hard to get back to full strength, but the infection was preventing the fractures from knitting. “I pushed too hard in training and the bone started to collapse. Also, I had a big crash during testing and smacked the leg pretty hard.”

During 1993 the limb bent like a banana and he also ground away half the little toe while riding through corners, because he still had no feeling down there. Neither could he move the ankle, so he couldn’t use the rear brake. Only after his crew had created a thumb-operated brake did he get back on the pace.

But he wasn’t there yet. At Laguna Seca he took another nasty tumble (above), caused by the still weak limb. “I was basically hanging onto the bike with my thighs, and my arms were doing all the work. It was a challenge to ride that way.” Doohan has always been a master of understatement.

Surgeons then fitted an external fixator to straighten the wonky leg. During this treatment most people take a lot of painkillers, but not Mighty Mick. “He took so little pain medication, it was almost superhuman,” said his surgeon.

The fixator did the trick and Doohan went on to dominate the next five seasons of 500 GPs. Even now, he insists what he did was nothing special. “I just think it’s easier to put in the effort to finish as high as you can than it is to be happy with second or third.”

Easier said than done for most of us.

Mat Oxley

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