Conn McDunphy back in the saddle and raring for mountain return

24-year-old Irish rider is fit again following a grisly crash in the French Alps last October

There is a steep descent on the road into Arbent in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes of eastern France where they've placed a speed bump on the apex of a hairpin turn, in order to slow down motorists and stop them from skidding out of control.

Conn McDunphy has absolutely no recollection of the second time he saw it, only the first time, which was a day earlier, when riding a recce on sections of the Arbent-Bourg-Arbent, a 166km race renowned as one of the most testing and challenging in that region of the Alps. The only thing he properly remembers about that second time is waking up two days later in the psychiatric ward of Lyon Hospital.

This was just over a week after McDunphy won the Elite Senior Time Trial, staged as part of the National Road Championships in Limerick on the first weekend of last October, where he beat seasoned professional Nicolas Roche by two seconds. He describes that as one of the best days of his young racing life, and it felt like he was having another one that day in Arbent, riding with his French continental team CC Nogent-sur-Oise, which are based just north of Paris.

The race featured five categorised climbs, and coming off the last one McDunphy was part of the lead group reduced to around 15 riders, including two of his team mates. A couple of riders take some chances off the front in an effort to split the group further, and McDunphy feels ready to go with them. The last thing he remembers is that it starts to rain and then . . .


What happened next he only heard about in the days afterwards. When the riders hit the now wet speed bump, five of them crashed violently onto the road, and all five ended up being airlifted to hospital, where McDunphy found himself the worst off.

A series of scans and x-rays revealed a fracture of his occipital bone, which houses the back part of the brain and you can easily feel by putting your hand behind your head. He'd cracked his skull, in other words, also sustaining severe whiplash and a concussion and considers himself extremely lucky. God knows where he'd be if he hadn't been wearing a helmet, which only became the rule in professional cycling in 2003, and when he was first seen by Nico Louis, his directeur sportif (DS) at Nogent-sur-Oise, the obvious fear was that he was dead.

He was out cold for a good 15 minutes, and between the painkillers and everything else was drifting in and out of consciousness for another two days, although he did, evidently, ring his mother and girlfriend to assure them he was okay. Because of Covid-19 the hospital was already near full capacity, which is why he was placed in the psychiatric ward.

“Probably where I belonged, to be fair.”

He was discharged a week later, returning home in Kilcock in Co Kildare not sure if or when he'd ever be back racing on his bike.


McDunphy, who turned 24 last week, is telling me this story on Friday morning, hours before he flies back to Paris to resume racing with CC Nogent-sur-Oise, beginning next weekend in the south of France. After what might be considered a speedy and certainly brave recovery, for now at least there is no lasting danger to the fact his occipital bone hasn’t yet fully fused, and perhaps just as importantly he also considers himself entirely free of any psychological scarring.

For two months afterwards he was required to live and sleep in a rigid neck brace, plus watch his heart rate to ensure he didn’t bring on post-concussion syndrome. Even in the early weeks when he was unsure of his recovery time frame he was never once unsure that he wanted to get back and race on his bike.

“I was certainly lucky to be back to full training in just over four months. I was in the neck brace up until just before Christmas, but back on the stationary bike the start of December, not doing anything crazy, kept everything really easy.

“Where it (the occipital bone) is fractured is actually protruding into the brain stem, which can be a bit problematic, but eight weeks after the crash it was stable, not fused, but with enough fibrous fusion, and could be like that for the rest of my life. I’d another scan in mid-January, and the bone isn’t moving, and will only get stronger. So the neurosurgeon is happy now that it is stable, and I’m under no more risk than I would be prior to the crash.

“There is still at least 20 minutes where I remember absolutely nothing around the crash. Which is good, in a way, because I don’t remember anything about what happened, so I’m not afraid about crashing in a bike race again. I hope not anyway. I’ll find out next week. I’ve never broken a bone before either, so maybe lucky in that way too.”


There is another reason we’re having this conversation: earlier this week, cycling’s international governing body, the UCI, announced several new rules aimed at improving race safety, including a ban on the supertuck position favoured by some riders on those descents, plus the placing of forearms on handlebars, considered by most to offer an aerodynamic advantage.

The only danger here is trying to contain the spectacle of fearsome acts which draws us into certain sports in the first place, including cycling, either as participants or observers. No sport can ever be considered safe when it features fast downhill descents wearing nothing more than the thin of the skin and that now mandatory helmet, and like the risk or otherwise around the number of concussions sustained by Johnny Sexton, there will always be some personal responsibility.

“Cycling is probably the only sport where the pitch changes the whole time, a different course, different roads, in different conditions,” says McDunphy. “Wherever you’re playing your match is always changing.

“There are always things that can be done, to make it safer, but you can’t change the sport either. It’s a difficult balance. No rider goes into a race wanting to crash. With things like the supertuck, it depends on where the danger is.

“If you’re on your own, it’s fine, but if you’re in a bunch, you really shouldn’t be doing it. Same with the time-trial leaning on the handlebars, I’d say eight out of 10 races I’ve won, I’ve done that. It’s back to the same thing, if riders are doing something in the middle of a bunch which they shouldn’t be doing it’s probably not safe.”

The new UCI rules don’t come into force until April 1st, which is no joke, and as well intentioned as they might be there will always be some danger in trying to make safe the cycling spectacle of fearsome acts beyond placing or else removing a speed bump on the apex of every hairpin turn.