22 November 2017I'm just glad my head's fine, says retiring BMX star Liam Phillips
Try as he might to remember them all, Liam Phillips has lost count of the number of injuries he has sustained during a remarkable career as the leading British BMX racer. The one that he will not forget in the years to come, though, is the injury to his right hand and wrist that today will force one of sport’s most resilient athletes to announce his retirement.
Nine months have passed since Phillips, hurtling down the vertiginous start ramp in Florida at 40mph, sensed his front tyre folding beneath him and felt himself being propelled over the handlebars at the bottom of the ramp. Instinctively, he thrust out his hands to break the fall, suffering two fractures in his hand and two in the wrist. But it was the damage to the cartilage in the wrist that has refused to heal, causing severe pain when he grips, even turning the keys in his front door. A recent visit to see his hand surgeon, Mike Hayton, confirmed the worst.
“I knew what Mike was going to say, I’d prepared myself for it,” Phillips, 28, says. “Then he told me. It still hit me like a tonne of bricks and I couldn’t really take it all in, the fact I was going to have to retire. I knew I’d done all I could, but the time had come to hang up my bike.”
It is a measure of the extraordinary physical courage Phillips has shown over the years that his primary emotion after emerging from that brutal crash in Florida was relief. Really? “Yes, I knew I’d got a broken hand and wrist, but I’ve had a few of those before. I’ve had brilliant medical support at British Cycling over the years and I knew I could get those fixed,” he says. “But I’d had a few bad concussions and I hit my head hard in that crash, so I was happy my head was fine. It turns out the wrist injury was career-ending, but at least my head’s OK.”
This is the sense of perspective that Phillips has gained from more than a decade at the forefront of BMX racing, in a sport in which riders must reconcile themselves not only with the physical dangers, but also the unpredictability of races. In each frantic 30-40 second sprint, eight tightly bunched, adrenaline-fuelled riders hurl themselves around tight bends, traversing bone-jarring bumps and jumps as they go.
“It’s such an unpredictable sport,” he said. “There have been times when I’ve been flying, felt untouchable, and something has happened to stop me winning. And there are other times when I’ve won and I wasn’t at my best. You learn to take the rough with the smooth.”
Phillips has experienced plenty of both along the way. Four times in a row, he won the World Cup race on his home track in Manchester. In 2013, he fulfilled a lifetime ambition by donning the rainbow jersey after winning the World Championships in New Zealand. Apart from the myriad injuries, his rougher times have tended to coincide with Olympic years. Ten weeks before London 2012, his preparations were hampered by a shattered collarbone.
Eight weeks before the Rio Olympics last year he suffered a crash that smashed his collarbone into five pieces and knocked him out. He recovered in time for the Games, only to crash out again. He finishes his career, though, feeling he has fulfilled his potential. “I achieved way more in my career than I thought I would,” he says. “Some people may find that a bit weird because I never won an Olympic medal, but my ultimate goal and dream was to wear the rainbow jersey. I’d have liked to do that again this year, but it wasn’t to be, so I’ve no regrets.”
All of which has contributed to a spectacularly turbulent 18 months in Phillips’ home in Altrincham, where he lives with his partner, Jess Varnish, the former Olympic track sprinter. It was in April last year that Varnish was controversially dropped from British Cycling’s Olympic programme, setting in motion a sequence of events that led to the resignation of Shane Sutton as technical director and a comprehensive overhaul of personnel and culture at the National Cycling Centre. Within a few months, Phillips would suffer the crash that would leave him, too, confronting the sporting afterlife rather sooner than anticipated.
The legal fallout from Varnish’s case continues, which prevents Phillips from commenting, but she has thrown herself into a diverse range of new pursuits, working as a fitness instructor, Pilates teacher and studying sports nutrition. Together with Phillips and Fran Halsall, the Olympic swimmer, Varnish also found time to open a smart coffee shop near Altrincham market, where Phillips is now sitting contemplating his own future projects.
“I don’t know how Jess did it; hers was a bit more sudden than mine,” he says. “One thing I’ve learnt from Jess and her situation is to try new things. She took the opportunities that came her way, maybe did things she didn’t initially have any desire to do, but then actually understood what she’d enjoy and stay passionate about.”
For his part, Phillips remains passionate about his sport and hopes to help nurture the next generation of riders, believing that BMX is the best way of bringing children into competitive cycling. Funding for the sport has been cut in recent months, resulting in the departure of his own coach, Grant White, but the £24 million BMX facility in Manchester remains a significant asset to the sport.
“Look at Chris Hoy and Mark Cavendish, two of the greatest cyclists ever,” Phillips says. “They both started out on a BMX bike. We’ve got the best facility in the world [in Manchester] where we can get these riders in off the street. BMX could be an amazing feeder for all cycling. I’d also really like to work with those younger riders who’ve just missed out on the [British Cycling] programme, to make sure they don’t drop out of the sport, to help them realise you can bounce back. I wasn’t the most technically gifted athlete, but I learnt how to put a plan together and work hard at it. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs and learnt a lot. Now it’s time to share that knowledge.”