Snap, crackle, POP.
That's not exactly what happened but darned close when Kailub Russell, riding for Team USA at the International Six Days Enduro in September, fell on his knee a day after twisting it. The damage was extensive, it ended his run and helped end Team USA's bid for their first ever World Team Trophy. It also nearly derailed a third straight Grand National Cross Country Championship and his first National Enduro Series Championship.
Luckily, his domination during the course of both series gave him a commanding lead and a more or less, "just finish" approach to securing the Championships. He took home the GNCC crown with three rounds remaining and a week later the Enduro title with one round left on the schedule. Thus, he became the first rider to clinch both Championships in the same season and he and his father Jeff Russell became the first father and son to win Championships in the same series (Enduro).
Then to top it all off, he was Cycle News' 2015 Rider of the Year.
So Russell is back, has a repaired knee and more determined than ever for a fourth straight GNCC Championship. He's not going to repeat as Enduro Champion since he'll stay out of that series in order not to push the knee too much. He got back on the bike for the first time since surgery on January 29 and has just about a month before Round 1 of the 2016 GNCC series that starts in Florida.
MotoSport caught up with Russell while he trained to ask him about the injury, the new season, his future and, of course, a new bundle of joy.
Celebrating a third Grand National Cross Country Championship
1. I'm sure you've answered this 100 times before but take us through the injury and what happened at the ISDE.
Yeah, it's became a popular question! It was towards the end of Day 2, I was exiting a fast right hand sweeper and started washing the front end so naturally you just jab your foot down real quick to save a crash. But when I put my foot down my toes caught the ground and twisted my knee really good. It was quite painful but I kept on going trying to brush it off.
I woke up the following morning and couldn't straighten my leg out completely and my right knee was swollen. I taped it up and went back out for day three. The opening test I rode really good and ended up winning by about five seconds, then I got to the second special test of the day and about halfway through I dropped into a ditch and my knee couldn't withstand the impact and it popped so loud I could hear it over my bike. At that point I could barely get my right leg back on the peg and couldn't believe what had just taken place. Emotions were running high the rest of the test as I limped back to the finish.
2. So you get the dire diagnosis when you're on the brink of not one but two Championships. Was there ever a discussion to let the field in the respective series try and catch you or were you in it to win it?
I flew straight home the next morning to get the MRI and the next day the doctor called me with the results and confirmed the diagnosis of an exploded ACL, and fractures to my tibia and fibula also bruising to the femur and meniscus and MCL.
The next question I asked was what are my odds of racing in a week and a half? He was quite displeased with the question and told me that you have a 70 percent chance of ruining the rest of your knee. It was a tough pill to swallow when those words came out of his mouth, but I decided to head straight into Physical Therapy and get it as strong as I could in a week's time and test the waters.
3. So, that 70 percent, was it a career ending 70 percent chance?
No not career ending. Just a more complicated surgery on other ligaments that were already damaged just not ruined yet! He didn't think they would have held up if I ended up racing. But they did!
Celebrating his first National Enduro Championship
4. Then you rode with a ruptured ACL among other injuries to capture the GNCC and Enduro Championships. What is that like?
It wasn't the funnest thing I've ever done I can say that. But I'm damn glad I did. It was really tough to get going at the beginning of those races and I was trying so hard not to even stick my leg out in corners for fear I would tear my knee up even more. And there were also certain things that were really painful to do such as just gripping the bike to try and keep the back-end straight and any sort of unexpected jolt.
5. You finally get on the bike on Jan. 29. That's three months post-surgery. Is that normal, ahead of schedule or were there bumps in your recovery?
October 15th was the surgery date, so about 3 1/2 months. It's definitely not normal, but I've put in a lot of hours to be able to do this. It's almost been a blessing in disguise because it has me more motivated than ever and with the competition rising in GNCC I'm feeling more fit than I ever have been coming into a season. Now it's all about getting as much seat time as I can before Round 1.
6. What does off-bike rehab for an injury like yours look like?
Well coming back from this was a lot harder than I was expecting it to be. The first three weeks after surgery was just baby steps trying to get as much swelling out and motion back in the knee as I could. Once I finally had enough motion to get my legs to turn the pedals on a spin bike I started riding the stationary bike quite a bit and also started swimming. I went to Physical Therapy for two months and then opted out on that when I realized everything was going really good and we had met all the goals and was above and beyond their expectations for eight weeks after an ACL reconstruction.
Russell has seen a lot of checkered flags over the years
7. So how did it feel finally getting back to riding?
It feels great to be back on the bike, it's one of those things where you don't know how much you actually love it until you can't do it.
8. So now you've got a month to get in to riding shape. Is that enough time or are you behind the curve a bit?
I've got plenty of time to be ready on the bike and I have got myself in great shape physically more importantly and that's the biggest issue I believe.
9. Is your knee 100 percent ready to go or do you still have to be extra cautious with it for right now?
It probably won't be at 100 percent for a long time. It's just one of those things where you have to instill a little trust in yourself that you have prepared the best you can and make smart decisions on the bike.
10. Is it the biggest injury of your career? How has it affected you?
It's definitely the biggest injury. It's knocked me down for sure, but life waits for no one. In the end it has made me a more motivated and stronger athlete.
11. Mentally, it's got to be in the back of your mind. Is that something you'll have to overcome mid-race when you've got to drop your leg to prevent a fall?
First day riding, that was in the back of my head for sure. I was thinking to myself just be careful it's day one. And then second day back I was more focused on what was in front of me than what was wrong. So there will probably be that thought before the race but once it starts I don't think I will have to overcome that thought.
Russell will ride the #1 Plate for the third straight year in GNCC
12. OK, on to the important stuff. You're attempting four straight GNCC titles. You're still the favorite to win again but now your back is somewhat against the wall. How do you approach the season?
In this sport it seems like you have to constantly prove yourself especially when you're at the top. I've dominated the last three years and going into all of those years it's felt like my back has been against the wall. It doesn't matter what you've done but rather what are you going to do now. I'm going to do the same thing I've always done - work hard and take it race by race.
13. Regardless, of whether you get the Championship, you've already got a pretty storied career though I have to assume catching Scott Summers for #1 on the Overall Bike Wins list might be on your radar. You're young. What's the future look like? Do you see racing GNCC for 10 more years or have you thought about trying something else?
(The record) is in the back of my head, can't say I have never thought about it. It's definitely obtainable before the end of my career. I don't see myself racing 10 more years. I'd like to race about seven maybe eight more years total. I don't want to be one of those guys that just hangs around for a paycheck that doesn't have the ability any longer to produce championships. As far as trying something else, only time will tell.
14. Finally, the super important stuff. How's fatherhood going?
It's been great so far. Crazy how quickly things can change and consume your life! I have been away from the little guy for about 2 1/2 weeks now since I've been in Florida but he's starting to make some noise and get a little personality going.
Check out our past profiles of Kailub: