October 30/07 4:26 am - The Hansen Interview: Darko Ficko
Posted by Editor on 10/30/07
The Hansen Interview - Darko Ficko
These days, Darko Ficko is a mainstay in the Ontario racing scene, the captain of the infamous "Donut Ride", and a true cycling personality. He's a former national champion and national team rider - and, still to this day, an occasional medalist on the national scene. Recently, the 41-year-old rider had an awful accident in The Tour of Tobago, which has left him with a broken femur head that leaves his cycling career in mysteryland. I caught up with my old friend to see where he's at...
Matt Hansen: So The Tour of Tobago - how was it before you crashed?
Darko Ficko: Oh man - remember when you and I raced it in 2000? We thought it was hard then - do you remember the hilly last stage? That was like a crit compared to what they have now. There's about 5 mountain passes after the killer climb that we ended on.
MH: So that's when the crash happened, on the last stage - after the last climb?
DF: Yes. I was coming down the descent, and I had exhausted every expletive I had on the final climbs. I was finally going down to the home straight - all downhill to the finish. I was going down with Chris Atkins. We'd been riding together for the better part of the last 30km and I'd just follow his wheel around each curve. So we are going down a descent about 1000 degrees steep, and I'm behind him, watching him. I'd just watch through each corner and replicate his line. Well, he goes through this corner and he takes a really weird line - which I couldn't understand - until the last second when I saw why he was. There was a film of sand in the corner and the bike just popped from beneath me. I didn't even slide, the bike just popped from under me and I dropped.
I wasn't even going fast. But when I tried to get up I could feel my hip was sore and I couldn't put any weight on my leg. The broom wagon came and I said I thought I needed to see a paramedic - I said I thought I broke my hip - also because I didn't want to be treated like a piece of luggage which is normally what happens when you drop out of any race. But I was, at least for a while.
MH: So what happened after the crash? When did you get operated on?
DF: 24 hours. And it wasn't in Tobago - I had to go to Trinidad. They airlifted me over. At first I wanted to wait to see if I could go home for the operation, but when I called one of my clients (Ficko is a personal trainer) who is a doctor he said not to wait, and to get the surgery right away. This is the hardest part here - due to the nature of the accident, the most important aspect is the blood supply to the bone - sometimes the bone is dead on impact, sometimes not. So until I spoke to my client I was refusing all surgeries. Then he said I had to ASAP and away we went.
At this point, I need to wait to see if the bone survives. If it doesn't, I'd need a hip replacement.
MH: So how are you feeling these days?
DF: I'm taking everything one day at a time, so we will see. Bike racing is the furthest thing from my mind - I'm 40 years old - I want to start my own business, a fitness training business. Right now they still don't want weight on it for 2-3 weeks.
MH: How are you dealing with the frustration of it all? You've had some pretty nasty crashes and injuries in your day - but this is obviously the most serious.
DF: It's weird, you know? If I flew off the descent, into the Atlantic Ocean and landed on an Ocean Liner and this happened, I'd be less frustrated. I mean, if that happened and I broke my hip I'd be happy that's all it was. People are saying, "It could be worse." But what's frustrating it I was going a reasonable speed - you and me both have crashed going 60km/h around corners or over curbs with just a few scrapes and bruises. At that point in the race too, there was only 22 guys riding on the course as everyone had quit - it was a killer stage. I don't think there were more than 2 guys together riding on the course at the time.
MH: And you were riding with Chris. He must have been devastated to see you go down.
DF: Chris was unbelievable. Lots of people have been great - the locals, the organizers - and I've received a ton of support from friends and cyclists, but I'm going to highlight Chris. He was a true teammate. Being a teammate isn't about leading you out, or getting bottles - how he was with me was incredible. I can't even begin to say how much he helped - he was there with me the whole time, on the helicopter to the hospital, in the hospital. There was also a local couple that was extraordinary.
MH: But from the sounds of it, you aren't throwing in the towel on racing again. How are you coping with that and planning for the future?
DF: When I come back I'm coming back with an anger. Watch out! But seriously, I've gotta be positive. The amount of people that have called me, helped me out, it's just fantastic. But also in the meantime I can give back more, get on with more coaching. Either way it's positive.
What I do know is the more I rest my body, the stronger I can be. After my injury in '93, I came back and was stronger than ever. I didn't ride for 3 months and I was super strong in the provincials, I lost Quebec-Montreal by an inch, I was top-10 in the Nationals RR and TT, won the crit and won the TTT. So maybe with 6 months rest I'll feel great.
MH: A lot of people may wonder why you never "took it to the next level" after some of your rides in the early nineties. You were sort of an upstart.
DF: Oh, I played with the National team but I was a little too old back then - there were guys that were younger and better.
If you have two athletes that can provide the same and one is 7 years older, you go for the younger one.
MH: You've remained competitive for so long - what keeps you racing?
DF: I just like to suffer.
MH: Have you changed your training over the years as you've got older? Have you had to do more to stay just as fit? Is it true you train in running shoes during the week?
DF: I've done a lot less hours and more intensity. And yes, up until very recently Merrill Collins (Darko's teammate, co-worker and fellow cyclist) and I wore running shoes on the Monark exercise bikes. So each day we'd have a few clients, then around lunch we'd jump on the bikes for an hour hard training session. And on top of that we'd ride the Midweeks or time trials. I did just recently get a bike that I can thread on pedals but to be perfectly honest - and people laugh when I say this - there's some merit in using the running shoes on the bike.
In fact, just before I left for Tobago I actually went back to my running shoes for the training during the week. See, when you use clipless pedals you pull up on the pedals - but with running shoes you can't - so it makes you way smoother. Using the running shoes at high intensity taught me how to put an even amount of force on the pedals. Also, if your feet aren't attached to the pedals you lift your foot - so in some weird, warped way it actually betters your mechanics.
You know, when it comes to this stuff - my attitude is that guys are anal about set-ups. Your body doesn't know about all these nuances when you train - it knows when your heart is going 185bpm. On these Monarks I'm using 165 cranks! And I've never been fitter - so don't tell me you have to be in the perfect position to get your heart up.
MH: So when do you think you'll be hittin' the Monarks again? And how long do you think it will take you to get back to shape?
DF: I'm curious about it, definitely, how long it will take. I'm going to be off a while, but if I can get my hip back and if I can race again - how many weeks/months will it take to get fast again?
And the thing that spooks me the most is that "if". If I had a busted knee or ankle, I know it's going to take X amount of time and then it heals and I'll be fine. But with the hip, I just don't know.
I don't have any specific goals again - I mean, I don't need to win another provincial title (Ficko has 3 road titles, 9 TT titles, 4 O-Cups, 4 Hillclimb titles, on top of his National Crit, National TTT and recent ITT Bronze) or anything like that. I just like to show people that I can still be fast. People are always fascinated by the fact that I am just as competitive at 41 as some of the young guys - so that is what will motivate me the most.
MH: Changing gears for a second, I've heard that when you first started racing you used to hide it from your mother because she worried too much? Is that true?
DF: Oh yeah. She was devastated when I would go out racing. When I first started, I headed to Saguenay with a bunch of the Scarborough guys and we got into a brutal car accident on the way there. We packed our bags, drove out there and in the middle of the night got hit by a transport trailer and totalled the car. So she was obviously a wreck after that. So yeah, I didn't lie to her but from that point on when I went to races, I would just tell her I was going away for the weekend with some buddies so she wouldn't worry about car accidents or bike crashes. What's the point in causing her stress when I'm away, you know? Obviously, now I had to tell her what's happened as it's different - I need people to come wipe my a$$ so I can't really hide it.
MH: And what are you up to these days? You aren't exactly mobile with those crutches.
DF: I'm on the computer, I'm staying in touch with clients, writing programs, thinking about starting a business.
And I'm still training. My personal best to the corner store with crutches is 14 minutes. I'm hoping to shave that down to 12. I do intervals in the hallway - up and down with crutches, hopping. It's effin' hard!
MH: So back to your hip - what's the concern about recovery? What are people saying in terms of the bone surviving or not?
DF: It takes a huge amount of force to break a hip. For an older person it's much easier. There's no concerns about bone density issues with me - I'm not riding enough to have osteoporosis like some elite cyclists have. I spoke to a client and he said there's no cause for concern there with me - I ride 5 hours a week, I am a trainer, I walk up and down stairs, I'm tall with long levers.
But I will say that nobody has blown smoke up my ass. This is a serious injury and nothing is guaranteed for my recuperation. Essentially they've told me I have to sit and wait, and (we) cross our fingers.
Things happen for a reason, too. I know that's sort of a bullshit thing people say sometimes when life throws them curveballs, but it's also how I got into cycling. When I played basketball (Darko was a superb collegiate player who had hoped to make it to the bigs) and I pulled my groin I wondered how I'd walk away from the sport. And I was 100 times more into basketball than cycling.
Who knows? Maybe I'll get into body building, ultimate wrestling. Maybe I can give back more to women and juniors. When I started I went full time, I wintered down south, then I got very mathematical about my training and I had some good results. So maybe it's time to help others.
Then again - worst case scenario I get a titanium hip replacement. Then maybe I can push a 59-tooth chainring.