This article has been produced in association with Zwift
Richard Ferguson’s cycling story is like many others born in the 1970s. Enthralled by Stephen Roche’s Triple Crown exploits in 1987, he convinced himself to start competing as a junior and continued to indulge his competitive desires well into his adult life. “Third and fourth cat of the week. the races are just spectacular parties,” he says. “They’re a lot of fun, a lot of fun.” He also ran 10- and 25-mile time trials. “I’ve got all the stuff: the fancy bike, the disc wheels. All.” He flirted with triathlon for five years – “I embraced it for my sins,” he laughs – and is now “building my own gravel bike. Cycling has been a constant part of my life.”
On Christmas Day, just two days after returning from a Christmas skiing holiday with his family, Ferguson, a 51-year-old lecturer in exercise physiology at Loughborough University, went out with the his bike in the morning. His goal was to get back into the rhythm of pedaling after a week on the slopes. “It wasn’t particularly cold, not one of those winter mornings where you can see the frost on the pavement”, he remembers. “I was going to go out for an hour, pool at 15-16 mph.”
Everything was going well, until he slipped on some black ice he hadn’t seen. “Within a nanosecond I hit the deck,” he says. “My wheels slipped under me, and my fall was so fast that I hadn’t even had a chance to take my hands off the handlebars. The right side of my head hit the floor first.”
He did not lose consciousness, but a driver, who happened to be a dentist, stopped to help and noticed that Ferguson was bleeding from his ear. It indicated a fractured skull. He was rushed to the hospital and the diagnosis confirmed the fear. He also suffered a fractured cheekbone and a large amount of bruising to his right eye.
The worst was to come. “The end result of the fall was that I lost sight in my right eye, probably due to the sheer amount of trauma and bruising. It was instantaneous. They did scans and there was no physical damage to the optic nerve and the retina was still attached. I was put on steroids and anti-inflammatories and told to see how it goes for a month.”
Eight weeks later, he still hadn’t regained his sight. He went back to the consultant and received devastating news. “He confirmed that the vision loss was permanent and irreversible.” how did it feel “It was a bloody shock, because I thought that without structural damage to the eye, I would eventually get my sight back. There was a lot of emotion, a lot of upset between my wife and my children.” Within a day, however, Ferguson’s perception was altered. “It changed my life, there have been adjustments to make, but I can still function. It could have been a lot worse.”
Most pressing for Ferguson, the cyclist, was how he would return to his favorite sport. Zwift was mentioned by a friend. “I was a staunch anti-Zwifter,” he laughs. “It was a joke between friends, but I always said I’d never make it. I’m old school: I’ll ride in any weather, in the dark, whatever the conditions throw at me. I’d see mates posting 80km rides on Zwift and think, ” Just get out, for God’s sake!”
His accident, however, made him reassess. “I bought an indoor trainer to try it out and in no time I had fully embraced it. Road cycling is risky for reasons we all know and I have to be even more careful with one eye as the accident risk has increased for me.”
Previously, Ferguson would take a long drive on Sundays with mates and take between two and four hours during the week. “Now all those midweek sessions are on Zwift,” he says. “I do the training, working on the training plans and different sessions. I love the structure they provide.” Has your cycling improved? “Absolutely, 100 percent. I’m an exercise physiologist, so I know the benefit of interval training, but before my hour-long road trips it would be hard sessions, a few efforts here and there, but mostly just walking. There’s a purpose to my riding in Zwift and I’ve felt the benefit massively.”
Thursday nights are usually chaingang sessions with local clubs, but since his injury, “although I can ride in a group without too much trouble, the carnage of chaingangs is such that it’s a bit unsettling and I felt quite vulnerable . Zwift allows me to do these regular, structured hard sessions.”
Ferguson hasn’t gone into pain cave mode yet, but his inner coach sits in his garage with a wall-mounted TV that broadcasts cycling races as he pedals. “I rarely use group travel and I have not accepted the races. However. I’ll see.” Although Ferguson still goes out with friends on long weekend rides, Zwift has allowed him to continue riding six to eight hours a week, sometimes even more; without the platform, the his loss of vision in his right eye would have drastically reduced his driving time.
He says his competition days are over, but there is a smile when he acknowledges that his performances are better than ever. “My greatest racing achievement is that I held my own as the fourth cat runner,” he laughs. “This is how it was on average. If I had been doing these Zwift interval sessions 25 years ago, I might have been able to promote myself to a third cat!”