Women’s sport trailblazer Julie Speight knows success at the elite level relies as much on mental fortitude as it does on physical strength.
- Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is thought to be caused by repetitive concussions and blows to the head
- Julie Speight, Australia’s first female Olympic cyclist, suffers long-term effect from her head injuries
- Doctor Reider Lystad says cycling helmets offer limited protection from the repetitive concussions that cause CTE
Yet the woman who became Australia’s first female Olympic cyclist in 1988 now worries too little attention is paid to the toll cycling takes on the brains of athletes like her.
The former Olympian has promised to donate her brain to medical research, knowing it could one day lead to a diagnosis of the degenerative condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is regarded as a growing epidemic among athletes.
It is a condition often linked to heavy-contact sports like rugby, rugby league and Australian Rules football.
But experts warn cycling is one of the most dangerous activities when it comes to the sort of long-term brain damage now being found to afflict so many former athletes as they get older.
“I raced a whole season in America with double vision — really serious concussion — and that was a normal thing to do,” Speight told the ABC’s PM program.
“I might have been tough when I was 21 and in my 30s, but once you turn 50 your brain has just said, ‘Remember all those head knocks you had? Now we’re going to come back and bite you with them.'”
Now aged 54, the champion cyclist said she suffered from a range of symptoms typical for athletes suffering the long-term effects of brain injuries during their sporting careers.
“[I have trouble] finding words when put on the spot,” she said.
“I’ve lost my hearing. We don’t know why.
“[I have] lots of balance issues, which is annoying for a cyclist. A lot of unexplainable issues with memory, constant headaches.”
But CTE can affect enthusiasts as well as world-class professionals like Speight.
Helmets not enough to protect against CTE, warns expert
Reider Lystad, an injury epidemiologist at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation at Sydney Macquarie University, said cycling was among the highest-risk sporting activities for concussion and potentially for CTE.
“Cycling and brain injury go hand in hand,” he said.
“It [brain injury] is a massive issue across the contact in collision sports, but in cycling in particular.”
He said the risk was not due to cyclists failing to wear helmets.
“I think part of the reason for that is the bike helmets are not actually designed to prevent concussions and minor brain injuries in the first place,” Dr Lystad said.
“They’re more designed to prevent skull fractures and the massive head injuries.”
CTE is thought to be caused by repetitive, sometimes minor, concussions and blows to the head.
Last week there was controversy in the world of competitive cycling when, during the second stage of the Paris Nice road race, New Zealander George Bennett fell at a dangerous choke point in the race, striking the back of his head.
Despite a glassy stare and a helmet that was cracked into two pieces, he resumed racing, leaving commentators incredulous.
Race rules dictate fallen riders need a doctor’s all-clear before resuming, but in a later interview the rider himself insisted he had felt fine.
But Dr Lystad believes athletes simply do not realise how much damage a heavy knock to the head can do.
“We don’t need patients to be experiencing this massive head trauma with intracranial bleeding and all that kind of stuff,” he said.
“It seems to be sufficient to have so-called minor head injuries, concussions and the like, which doesn’t necessarily result in any sort of brain bleeds or anything like that, but just a more microscopic kind of injury within the brain tissue itself.”
Commuter still struggling after collision
Three years ago, Canberra public servant Sean Ladlow jumped on his bike to ride the five-minute journey to his local gym.
“I remember reaching the sidewalk outside our home and then the next thing I remember is waking up in Canberra Hospital, probably the next day, I believe,” he said.
The recreational cyclist had come a cropper just a short distance from his home and sustained serious head injuries.
“I fractured my skull on the left side and I believe the fracture went through the ear canal and I had to breaks — two injuries to my brain, one on the front left area and one on the left area sort of above my ear.
“I think it was a severe concussion.”
After the crash, Mr Ladlow experienced symptoms from the concussion. But there’s no suggestion he suffers from CTE.
“If I can sum them up in symptoms, it was a mixture of migraine, dizziness, nausea, short-term memory loss issues, communicating with people, issues with noise and bright lights and particularly issues with making decisions,” he said.
“And along with all of that went, I guess you could call it confusion and emotional issues overall.”
Mr Ladlow regrets not wearing a helmet that day.
While his experience is not an example of CTE, it does show how everyday commuters, as well as racing professionals, need to be cautious about blows to the head.
Speight said awareness about the risks concussions posed was only beginning to spread among cyclists.
“We’re just scratching the surface of looking at how many cyclists, especially from my era, have traumatic brain injury and post-concussion issues from the helmets we wore, the helmets we didn’t wear, when we were training and how quickly we just got back on the bike and kept training and kept racing,” she said.
“Medical people say, ‘How long have you had a headache?’ And I say, ‘Well, since my last crash in ’96.”