From the Mag: Back On Track

Back in Issue 58 we covered the beginning of Laurence Mote's road to recovery after suffering two induced comas, the result of a bee sting that caused his blood pressure to drop so much that he went into cardiac arrest. His recovery and rehab was a long process but Laurence's determination and fitness has put him back on the bike and on the start line for next month's Pioneer stage race. Take another look at Laura Williamson's fantastic story...

Brain injury must be one of a cyclist's worst fears. Even a minor knock to the head - and we've all had them – can cause trauma resulting in symptoms from memory loss to mobility problems to changes in personality. Laurence Mote had been riding and racing mountain bikes for more than 20 years when it happened to him, but it wasn’t a crash that did it. It was a bee sting.

That something so small could do so much damage to someone who loomed so large in our sport was startling to those of us who know him. Laurence is a bit of a legend of New Zealand mountain biking, a familiar face who over the years competed at National and World Cup levels, showed up constantly in the Kennett Brothers’ books and Ground Effect catalogues, won races like the Queenstown Super D with partner-in-crime Kashi Leuchs, and got stuck into track building at Craigieburn. He’s also a really nice guy and a bloody good cyclist who loves, infectiously, to ride.

It was a cloudy day in March last year when Laurence was helping with some beehives at his parents’ house in Sumner. Bees tend to stay in the hive more when there are clouds around, and, apparently, they get grumpy. 

Laurence had been stung in the past and had twice reacted badly to stings, so he kept EpiPens on hand just in case, but recent stings had caused no reaction at all.

This time, a couple of bees managed to get into his boot, and the effect was severe. “It’s not necessarily swelling. With me, the blood vessels relax, my blood pressure drops and I get light-headed,” Laurence explains. He fell unconscious, and while his family were able to treat him with two EpiPens, he developed ‘empty heart syndrome’––extremely low blood pressure had left nothing in his heart to pump. He went into cardiac arrest in the ambulance and spent 48 hours in an induced coma.

Traumatic, but at first it didn’t seem so bad. Out of the coma, Laurence was coherent, speaking and answering emails, getting ready to go home for the weekend. Suddenly, though, his vision and speech went and he started convulsing, symptoms that saw him back in a coma for another 24 hours. All this he knows only because he’s been told what happened. There is a gap in his memory of 21 days—the seven days leading up to the bee sting and the 14 days following it. “I’ve lost three weeks,” he says. 

Laurence began riding when he was in high school. “At that stage it was just board shorts and T-shirts, roaming around the hills with a mate,” he laughs.There was no trail network for cycling back then, so he did most of his riding on the walking tracks of the Port Hills. Mountain biking was so new there were no rules against it.

He started out on a steel Avanti borrowed from his dad, and credits these early forays with giving him a strong technical base that helped him in later riding: “The walking tracks are pretty gnarly in Christchurch. We picked up some good skills riding fully rigid bikes with cantilever brakes.” This willingness to persist at something that no one else was really doing stayed with him, and would serve him well later, when it really mattered. 

Laurence took up racing while still in Christchurch, an alternative to the team sports he didn’t really enjoy, and a move to Wellington for university—he studied Architecture before switching to Geology—saw him take up competitive cycling seriously. His first strong result came at the PowerNet Duathlon Series (apparently the event where Jamie Nicoll also got his start), and he had a sponsor by the age of 19, in the iconic bike shop Cycle Services. Soon a couple of National Series top 10 finishes secured him a sponsorship with Giant.

His strength on a bike came both from talent and a good grasp of sports science. Racing cross-country, he realised he could translate his technical ability, honed on the walking tracks of the Port Hills, into efficiency, using it to lower his heart rate on descents, leaving him well recovered for the flats and climbs—important in the epically-long XC races of yore. He remembers that at the World Champs at Chateau- d’Oex, Switzerland, the winning time was two and three quarter hours.

When Laurence came round following the second coma, he woke up to a different self. “I had enough brain function to realise I was in deep shit. I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t hold a spoon or a cup. It was about as low as you can be.”

He focused immediately on the task of getting better, drawing in part on his background as an athlete. He started to ask for juices straight away. “I knew my recovery was going to have a lot to do about being healthy, having the best nutrition available,” he explains. He also began getting around with a walker and having a go at yoga and Pilates. “It was pretty bad, but at least I was doing something,” he remembers, adding that movement, especially switching movement that goes back and forth between left and right (like walking), is important with his type of injury. He pushed hard, heading outside where the nurses weren’t watching and where indoor rules didn’t apply, leaving his walker behind for awkward circumnavigations of the grounds. “None of the other patients did that, they were all inside watchingTV. But I couldn’t see and couldn’t watch TV or read a book, so I went on stumbling missions instead.” 

Home after six weeks in hospital, Laurence faced other challenges beyond the physical. His wife, Viv, quit her job to help at home (“she’s really held the family together,” he says with obvious fondness), and it was hard both for friends and, especially, their two children. “Normally, it’s not until your teenage years you realise your parents are fallible. They’ve had to grow up a lot.”

When Laurence got home he was still in a bad way, barely able to walk or talk. But one thing still worked fine: “My legs still knew how to go round and round. I’d probably ridden 200,000 kilometres in my life. How many pedal strokes is that?” He started on a recumbent tandem bike, bought for him by his dad. He could sit up front and pedal while an upright rider steered from the back; a stream of friends turned up wanting to pilot it. He had been really fit before the accident, and the fitness returned quickly. “It was great, I was coming back to life,” he says now, and by July, only four months after waking up from the second coma, Laurence rode on his own for the first time, following family members along the Upper Clutha River Track in Wanaka. “I still couldn’t see very well and couldn’t do much on the bike. But it felt fantastic. It’s freedom.” 

A year on, he views it like this: “I’m in the position of a really unfit cyclist who has taken up mountain biking as an adult, and gone into a full-on training programme. The first ninety percent of fitness is relatively straightforward, while where I am now is probably at the last ten percent. Now I’m having to work really hard to get on that podium; I understand this from being a competitive cyclist. But I do have glimpses of a ‘podium finish’.”

That he’s gotten to that last ten percent is extraordinary. “I can’t modulate my movements. My coordination is terrible and I keep braking too hard,” he explains, adding that he stills falls over a bit when he’s walking. And his eyesight is still limited, a scotoma in both eyes creating a blind spot in the middle of his vision. He can see most things in peripheral, but the moment he focuses on something—a rock, the edge of the trail—it disappears. “It’s pretty exciting riding... 

...when you can’t see everything, you just have to let it flow.” Exciting? That sounds like an understatement. Recent cycling excursions have included trail riding in Wanaka, Christchurch and Nelson, the latter including the narrow drop-offish R and R Rush and the rooty/rocky switchbacks of Supplejack, an advanced-riders-only track, even for mountain bikers who can actually see. It was, he says, a “really on day. They’re not all like that.” But talking to him, one thing is clear––many more ‘on days’ are to come.

In the meantime, he now rides to and from work again, braving the traffic on the Sumner container run like he’s always done. This, despite being entitled to free taxis through ACC. “I can’t stand waiting and I need the fresh air,” he says. 

There are a lot of lessons to be taken from Laurence’s experience. You don’t know what’s around the corner. Life happens. With hard work, and the support of friends and family, it can and does get better. But maybe the coolest one is that for him, both before and after the bee sting, cycling has continued to represent the same things: independence, challenge, freedom and fun. And isn’t that why, young or old, fast or slow, sick or healthy, anyone does it?