Home News A Brutal Crash Derai...

A Brutal Crash Derailed Bryan Larsen’s Cycling Career, Then A New Door Opened In Para-Cycling

By Joanne C. Gerstner | Nov. 08, 2020, 1 p.m. (ET)

Bryan Larsen competes at the Hellyer Velodrome in San Jose in 2019, prior to his accident. 

Bryan Larsen’s life has pretty much always involved a bike, with many of the past 18 years spent competing domestically and internationally as a road and track cyclist.

Then, in July 2019, his bike almost took everything away from him. Larsen was taking part in a road race, the San Rafael (Calif.) Twilight Criterium, when he took a very hard fall while rounding a turn in a pack. He was going about 40 mph when the force flipped him over the handlebars and smashed his head, face, right shoulder and neck at an awkward angle into the pavement.

He was in the ICU for weeks, with doctors wondering about the recovery to heal his spinal cord and right arm. The accident pulled the nerves out of the shoulder’s connection to the spinal cord and left him impaired.

It’s now nearly a year-and-a-half later and Larsen, 30, is still in recovery. He’s regained some mobility in parts of his arm, but more importantly, he’s back on his bike. Larsen, thanks to encouragement from U.S. Paralympian Chris Murphy, is hoping to qualify for the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2021. He’s got some work to do, but Larsen is feeling strong and hopeful for his burgeoning riding career in Para-cycling.

“I am not going to lie, I have had some really dark moments the past 14-15-16 months,” Larsen said. “I’ve gone from being in the ICU, in pain, to then docs telling me I’d get better in a week, then a month, then a year — to now I’m probably going to be this way. Each doc and surgeon gave me worse news than the first. But overall, I am starting to trend better. I’m training, I have big goals again.”

Larsen’s injury is termed as damage to the brachial plexus, meaning he does not have function of the whole arm and hand. He’s had surgeries, which brought back some bicep function. He can do things like lift his cell phone, but not his hand. Anything he does with his right hand has to be supported by his left hand.

He’s adjusted to the challenges of going from being a righty to now a lefty.

“There is so much, like try texting with your left hand, or drinking coffee — those moments feel foreign if you haven’t done them before,” he said. “But I am learning. There are times where I forget that I am impaired and this really all happened. But then I am reminded that I am impaired. It’s a weird space to be in.”

But I am learning. There are times where I forget that I am impaired and this really all happened.

And that’s where his budding friendship, mentorship — and soon to be competitive relationship — with Murphy comes in. Murphy, a 2016 Rio Paralympian who is aiming for Tokyo, has the same impairment as Larsen. He also races the same track events.

They met a week before Larsen’s injury, as he was coaching a rider who was racing against Murphy in an able-bodied track pursuit event. Larsen remembers the moment clearly; Murphy believes it happened, but he doesn’t remember because he was in race focus mode.

“I’ll be completely honest, I had no idea or appreciation for what and who was involved in Para-cycling, like the levels, spectrums, classifications,” Larsen said. “I see Murphy, look this guy up, he’s on the national team, he doesn’t look impaired. I see him racing, he looks great on a bike — what’s his story? I reached out to him on Insta to say hi. Little did I know that his story and life would become so important to mine so soon.”

Murphy heard about what happened to Larsen, and the two started talking more. About the injury, recovery and Murphy raising the possibility of Para-cycling. Murphy’s life changed nearly 10 years ago when others mentored him into Para-cycling, and he felt it was time to pay it forward.

“I’ve had this all my life, since I was born, so my perspective on this is a little different that Bryan’s right now,” said Murphy, who took silver and bronze medals on the track at the 2020 world championships. “I know what life is like, and I know how to race and train, so I am happy to help him in any way that I can. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody who is coming to the Para team with as much experience as he has.

“A lot take up cycling as a way to be athletic after they get hurt or something happens to impair them. Bryan is the opposite — he was totally accomplished as a cyclist before he got hurt, so now it is a matter of just getting back in form. I’m looking forward to him pushing me and me pushing him to be even better riders.”

Larsen has not raced yet as Para-cyclist, and he doesn’t have an official UCI class certification yet. COVID-19 has canceled many races, and he has no results to present to the UCI panel. However, he was invited to national camp in November to ride with other members of Team USA and see how he fits in. 

Larsen is keeping his hopes high and expectations managed for his first look at his skills against the U.S.’ best.

“It’s kind of funny, because I know usually what to expect when I race because I have been doing it for so long. But this time, I’m kind of nervous and excited,” Larsen said. “I want to see how I match up; I want to see where my times are versus what I am doing in training by myself.”

Joanne C. Gerstner

Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for The New York Times and other outlets about sports. She is a freelance contributor to USParaCycling.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

Related Athletes

head shot

Chris Murphy