WHEN Ben Hetherington won a silver medal in the para C3 category 3k pursuit at this month’s British Cycling National Track Championships, he wasn’t just proving himself as one of the most talented para-cyclists in the country. He was completing the first leg of a journey that started in life-changing circumstances in 2019, and that might yet end up with him competing as part of the GB team at the Paralympic Games. From unimaginable adversity, the 26-year-old Sedgefield-based rider has already achieved some truly remarkable things.

“To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Hetherington. “I’d only had two or three track sessions when I went to the Nationals, so just to finish the race would have been good enough for me. To come away with a silver medal was amazing.”

It was even more extraordinary when you take into account everything Hetherington has been through in the last two-and-a-half years.

In early 2019, the County Durham rider had the world at his feet. Recently signed by the Memil Pro Cycling team, and having won the opening stage of the Tour of Morocco, he was on course to be a World Tour rider, competing in races such as the Tour de France. Then, the course of his life changed.

Competing in a local time trial event close to his home, he was hit by a car and left fighting for his life. Having been transported to James Cook University Hospital by the air ambulance, he underwent a life-saving operation that allowed controlled bleeding around his brain. After two weeks in intensive care in an induced coma, he spent a further four weeks on the high-dependency neurological ward before he was transferred to the main neurological ward, where his speech and memory began to return. Straight away, he had one overriding ambition.

“As soon as I could start speaking, I was telling everyone I wanted to get back onto the bike,” said Hetherington. “I was meant to be competing in China, so I thought I could just leave the hospital, jump on a plane and get on the bike and start racing again. Even when it was explained to me that wasn’t going to happen, I was determined to ride again.”

And so started a painstaking period of mental and physical rehabilitation. Sessions of physio and speech therapy at James Cook enabled Hetherington to sit on a chair and push bicycle pedals around, and by the time he was transferred to Walkergate Park, a specialist neurological rehabilitation hospital in Newcastle, he was able to progress from seated pedals to a stationary gym bike, and eventually to a mountain bike which he was able to ride around a small track.

He left hospital in January 2020, eight months after his traumatic brain injury, but while he rapidly regained his physical fitness, he had to work hard on his cognition and memory due to the brain injury.

Having previously cycled independently for hours on roads in Britain and Europe, he found it hard to remember a ten-mile loop, but as he continued to improve, so his determination to return to competitive cycling strengthened.

He enlisted the help of a Manchester-based coach, Jonny Wale, but as he came to terms with his physical and mental capabilities, so he realised that the only way to achieve his dreams was to head into para-racing.

He was given a C3 classification, and while he was no longer able to cope with riding amongst a large group of riders in a peloton because there were too many stimuli for his brain to process, his coach suggested he focused on the individual pursuit events and entered the National Para Track Championships.

“It was a big change,” said Hetherington. “I had to get used to riding a bike with no brakes for a start. I did a few sessions at the outdoor track in Middlesbrough, then I went to Derby for a couple of sessions to get used to riding indoors in a velodrome.

“One of my friends in cycling from before the accident, Dan Bingham, lent me a bike, and then it was a case of heading off to the Nationals in Newport. To be honest, we didn’t really know what to expect.”

Hetherington need not have worried. In his first event as a para-cyclist, he finished second in the MC3 3k category in a time of three minutes and 49 seconds, enabling him to walk off with the silver medal.

“I was really pleased with the way I rode, but then when I looked across to the scoreboard, at first I thought I’d finished fourth and I was a bit disappointed,” he said. “I thought, ‘Oh no, you’ve just missed out on a medal’. But then I realised that wasn’t just my category and I’d actually finished second. I couldn’t believe it really.”

Hetherington intends to continue para-cycling, and has aspirations of returning to the kind of elite-levels environments he was experiencing before his accident.

“It was my first para-cycling event, and I was 21 seconds off the best in the world,” he said. “My coach says it could take 97 weeks for my old power to come back. When I was cycling with my old team, they used to say my power to weight ratio was world class.

“It would be great to get back to those levels, and I’ll be pushing myself as hard as I can to try. But even if I can’t, I still feel like I’ve achieved something by getting to the nationals and getting on the podium. I always said I would get back on a bike – and I did it.”