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Six months ago, a cycling trip in Toronto went badly wrong for one of Bay Street’s leading investors. Now, after fighting for his survival and adapting to life in a wheelchair, he’s about to launch a new private equity firm

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John Ruffolo sits in his wheelchair near the downtown Toronto offices of Maverix Private Equity, a firm he's spent two years trying to build.Photography by Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail • Family photos courtesy of Ruffolo family

John Ruffolo had every reason to be in high spirits late last summer – pandemic aside. After a couple of false starts, he was on the cusp of launching his own private-equity fund.

As head of OMERS’s venture fund, he’d financed some of the biggest names in Canadian tech – think Shopify, Hootsuite and Wattpad – and was itching to start investing again, this time in later-stage companies using technology to upend traditional industries. As plans ramped up, he’d taken to treating himself each Wednesday to a long bike ride out of the city.

The nasal-voiced, barrel-chested 54-year-old cyclist didn’t care for riding among Toronto’s distracted drivers, so he’d head east from his home in the city’s east end to Rouge Park, then up past the Toronto Zoo. From there, he’d ride north, toward Stouffville, enjoying the safety and calm of country roads.

It was hot and overcast when he set out late on the morning of Sept. 2, but he felt strong, and he was ready to ride a full 100 kilometres. As he pedalled, he thought through the list of calls he needed to make. Things were looking up. Investors who had backed off at the onset of the pandemic were ready to sign on again.

About 40 kilometres into the ride, he passed Major Mackenzie Dr. East, heading north along the road dividing York and Durham regions. It was just before 1 p.m. As the sweat-soaked financier biked over a small creek, he heard the piercing sound of an air brake in his left ear.

Who’s the asshole riding right off my back tire?, he thought. The answer would be written into an accident report later that day: It was a white 2010 Mack truck, and it had swerved over the yellow line to avoid Mr. Ruffolo. By the time he heard the brake, the truck’s inertia had sealed his fate. Its trailer jackknifed, swinging counter-clockwise. It swept across both lanes and the eastern ditch, knocking back brush, clipping two road signs and striking his bike from behind, sending him flying.

He landed face down on the asphalt about 20 feet away, knocked unconscious by the impact. At least one of his lungs collapsed. His chest cavity began to fill with blood and air, surrounded by fractured ribs, as the blood supply to his right kidney was cut off. His pelvis was cracked open, and his lower spine shattered – both a vertebra and a disc where the rib cage meets the lower back and the spinal cord gives way to the nerves that control the legs.

When Mr. Ruffolo awoke moments later, pain radiated through his body. He tried lifting himself up with his left arm, to no avail. As paramedics hoisted him onto a stretcher, his broken bones and internal injuries shifted with searing pain. He laid there in agony as an ambulance shuttled him to Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. “I am going to swear,” he told the paramedics. “Every word.”

Each dip and bump in the road prompted a new curse as the ambulance roared back into Toronto. The last thing Mr. Ruffolo remembers is a gas mask descending toward his face as the emergency-room sign came into view.

It wasn’t clear if he would ever wake up again.

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Julie Vaughan-Graham, a neuro-rehabilitation specialist, helps Mr. Ruffolo train at home.

But after three life-changing surgeries and months transferring between hospital beds and a rehab centre, John Ruffolo has cheated death. He’s up and moving – zipping around his new home in a wheelchair while fighting constant nerve, bone and muscle pain to undergo hours of gruelling daily physiotherapy. He’s regained some motion and feeling above his knees, and hopes he may someday walk again.

He’s as garrulous and no-holds-barred as ever. “Really? A fucking truck is going to derail my dreams?” Mr. Ruffolo told The Globe and Mail during one of five interviews over the past month, both at his home and via video chat. “I am going to show you that my life will be the same it was before and that I just had a little hiccup.”

His friends and family credit his fight – not just for survival, but for squeezing all he can from his renewed chance at life – to the physical strength he accumulated from cycling, and the attitude and drive that made him a key architect of this country’s innovation ecosystem.

Six months after his accident, his career has come roaring back, too. Mr. Ruffolo spent most of the past two years out of the spotlight, yet he remained as influential as ever, as suitors lined up to buy into his next project. So when he was faced with his life’s greatest challenge, many of the top names on Bay Street rallied to ensure his recovery and see his vision through.

After more than two years of plotting, his growth-equity firm, Maverix Private Equity, expects to close the first segment of its debut US$500-million fund in the coming weeks, backed by two major Canadian pension funds, CIBC, Bank of Montreal and Mattamy Asset Management. Joining them as investors are a who’s who of Canadian entrepreneurs, including Jim Balsillie, John Bitove, Arlene Dickinson, Peter Gilgan and Dani Reiss.

It’s the climax of two years of effort that became more dramatic than John could have ever imagined.

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Mr. Ruffolo takes part in a video meeting at his home office. When he moved from hospital to rehab after the crash, he began working the phones to see how his private equity fund could be launched after all.

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Mr. Ruffolo's current state is a stark contrast with the active life he led before. Here, he leads fellow businessman T.J. Donnelly on a cycling trip in Ronda, Spain, in April of 2018, an annual tradition for a group of Bay Street bike enthusiasts called Les Domestiques.

It was pouring rain in Ronda, Spain, in April, 2018, when many of Mr. Ruffolo’s friends decided to cut short their 125-kilometre ride through the mountains. They were on an annual cycling trip with about 25 members of Les Domestiques – a clique of Bay Street leaders formed in 2009 to blend their love of cycling with philanthropy, raising tens of millions of dollars through their rides.

Mr. Ruffolo and the entrepreneur T.J. Donnelly had nearly 30 kilometres to go, but most of the crew had either sped ahead or tapped out. “I was mixing cocktails by then,” recalls Mattamy housing magnate Mr. Gilgan. Mr. Donnelly remembers Mr. Ruffolo offering to shield him from the cold wind and rain on the rest of the ride. “We’ve come this far,” Mr. Ruffolo said. “We can do this.”

Mr. Donnelly followed, begrudgingly, a few inches behind Mr. Ruffolo. More than an hour later, they dismounted and hugged. “He made my life so much easier because he took all that abuse,” Mr. Donnelly says. “I remember thinking, ‘This guy is unbelievable.’ ”

Driving ahead of his peers has been a trademark of Mr. Ruffolo’s career. The son of working-class Italian immigrants, he became the part-time manager of his local BMO branch before he reached legal drinking age. He joined Arthur Andersen as an accountant after earning a business degree at York University because it offered quicker advancement opportunities than investment banking.

In 1992, at the age of 25, he jumped at the chance to lead Andersen’s fledgling high-tech practice. Nine years later, and just a month after he’d bought into the partnership, Andersen was rocked by the Enron scandal, and its Canadian arm merged with Deloitte. Mr. Ruffolo kept his job, and became a go-to adviser and advocate for Canada’s tech sector. He also oversaw Deloitte’s Fast 50 program, tracking top domestic startups, and pushed governments and institutional investors to support them.

Former Andersen colleague Michael Nobrega took note. He became the CEO of OMERS in 2007 and was keen to commit the pension fund’s resources to promising Canadian tech companies – but nobody internally wanted to oversee investments that had delivered poor returns for years. So he called Mr. Ruffolo. “I gave him the power of the pension fund,” Mr. Nobrega says. “He fused that network, his competence and visibility, with the power of money.”

It was 2011, and smartphones, social networks and software delivery over the internet were gaining traction. American venture capitalists were on the hunt in Canada, but Mr. Ruffolo was determined to muscle in on the hottest deals, backing such Canadian upstarts as social-media manager Hootsuite and online-learning software provider D2L Corp.

In 2013, he won the lead on Shopify’s US$100-million VC financing 18 months before it went public. His desire to see Canadian companies keep building rather than sell out prompted him and Mr. Balsillie to create the Council of Canadian Innovators, a lobby group representing domestic tech companies, in 2015.

“He’s always had a voice in the ecosystem that has been measured and intelligent, and because of his position at OMERS, well listened to,” says Ms. Dickinson, a Maverix adviser. “I really don’t think [the innovation sector] would be where we are without John.” Adds Mr. Balsillie: “He wants to build national champions.”

By mid-decade, Mr. Ruffolo could see the market dynamics changing. The scene he’d helped nurture was flush with capital, and he began to believe the next generation of winners would focus on upending traditional industries, like the fintechs were doing with the banks.

He also saw a gap in Canada’s funding ecosystem between late-stage venture investments and buyout-focused private-equity funds. Buying large minority stakes in companies with proven business models and strong growth prospects would be less risky than venture investments, he thought, but still deliver high returns by disrupting incumbents. But there was only one Canadian fund doing it. That left the field open for U.S. growth funds to snap up almost every Canadian opportunity.

He pushed for OMERS to launch a growth equity fund, which it did in 2018. But that April, with Mr. Nobrega long gone as CEO, there was an internal shakeup, and observers say Mr. Ruffolo disagreed over strategy with fund leaders who were less enamoured of the innovation economy. Instead of holding onto OMERS Ventures’ Shopify stake, for instance, the capital markets group sold off the shares after the IPO, netting a fraction of the billions they would one day be worth. (Last month, after OMERS reported a 2.7-per-cent loss, CEO Blake Hutcheson declared it had suffered from being underweight in tech.)

Mr. Ruffolo began plotting his exit, which was announced in September, 2018. “I felt that my purpose there had been done,” he says when asked about his split with OMERS, “and I was getting more and more excited of the prospect of running my own fund.”

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Mr. Ruffolo, wife Carryn, daughter Rome and son Caymus stand outside Facebook's headquarters in California in 2019.

Over more than two decades, Mr. Ruffolo became a mentor and friend to upcoming entrepreneurs and Bay Street stalwarts alike. One of the latter was Mark Maybank, the dot-com analyst turned finance executive who met Mr. Ruffolo in the 2000s. The day Mr. Maybank resigned as president of Canaccord Genuity in 2011, Mr. Ruffolo was waiting for him when he walked out of the building.

Two weeks before Mr. Ruffolo left OMERS, the pair found themselves sharing a bottle of white Burgundy at the Bay Street haunt Ki. Mr. Ruffolo’s phone was already lighting up with offers to run a new fund. When Mr. Maybank brought up one of his new investments, they discovered a shared excitement about getting more Canadian growth capital into the market.

They also realized they’d make good partners: Mr. Ruffolo would be the networker, Mr. Maybank the details guy. “We’re almost more like brothers than anything else,” Mr. Maybank says. “We know we have each other’s backs rain or shine.”

One big opportunity, Mr. Ruffolo says, was to join forces with Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. In a single afternoon in January, 2019, a week after leaving OMERS, he wrote a 1,600-word white paper outlining the growth fund he wanted to run: a US$500-million pool of capital that would invest in up to 10 companies, each generating at least $20-million a year and bringing new technologies to stubbornly old-fashioned sectors. Within weeks of sharing his paper with Teachers, he says it was willing to put up half the money.

The plan, called Project Maverick, came together almost too smoothly. Exactly one year after the Ronda trip, Mr. Ruffolo was again riding with Les Domestiques when he got the news that Teachers was pulling out. (Later that month, Teachers announced it was starting a late-stage venture and growth-equity division of its own. The pension plan confirmed to The Globe it had talked with Mr. Ruffolo in 2019 as a normal course of business.)

Mr. Ruffolo and Mr. Maybank spent the following months rebuilding the investor base, with a few lead anchors. By early 2020, Mr. Ruffolo says, they were nearly ready to close the first US$300-million segment of the fund. But as COVID-19 went global and markets crashed, “everybody’s pens went down,” he says.

The fund was supposed to launch last April, but – like his annual trip with Les Domestiques – it was postponed indefinitely. Instead, John focused on building his strength as a cyclist, and turned some of his mental energy to advising governments on stimulus plans to blunt the pandemic’s economic impact.

By summer, as interest in tech companies increased, investors began lining back up. Mr. Ruffolo spent his long Wednesday rides plotting his next moves and hoped to announce the fund in the fall.

But then a Mack truck got in the way.

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Carryn Ruffolo helps her husband prepare for a photo shoot for the Maverix website. She remembers the September afternoon when she got the call about her husband's injury.

Carryn Ruffolo’s phone has two ringtones. Most people send Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir floating through the room. But early on the afternoon of Sept. 2, the sing-songy voice of a custom ringtone rang through the family’s Collingwood chalet: “It’s your husbaaaannnd.”

She ran across the house to grab her phone, expecting to hear John.

“Is this Carryn?” asked a woman’s voice. The paramedic explained John had been hit by a truck. He had some broken bones, she said, and they were heading to Sunnybrook. In the background, Carryn could hear him screaming, “Come and get me – I’m in really bad shape.”

She called a friend to pick up their daughter and two-year-old Morkie, Cujo. She shoved a bag together and raced back to the city.

Although she took solace in the fact that her husband was well enough to give his passcode and her name to the paramedic, Carryn felt numb on the two-hour drive. He was screaming, so that’s good, she thought. But her mind began to wander: Does he have a mangled face? Does he have mangled limbs?

She was greeted at Sunnybrook by a doctor and police officers, who briefed her on John’s injuries. No one told her he had so much internal damage that he was at risk of bleeding to death. She cried when she saw him. Tubes emanated from his body. He was unconscious and barely alive. “I’m here,” she told him. “You’re going to be okay. I just want you to get strong. You’re going to be okay. I just want you to get strong.” She kept on repeating it.

By the next day, John began communicating through blinks. But Carryn couldn’t tell if he’d have permanent brain damage – or if he’d even survive.

His body was a skeletal catch-22: His spine needed to be stabilized, but his pelvis was broken open like a book. The shock to his body from repairing one might jeopardize the other – or kill him. Specialists whisked in and out of his room, trailed by Carryn, with soap and disinfectant in hand, wiping down any surface that could be contaminated with COVID-19.

Early on Sept. 4, doctors decided to operate. The combined surgeries took two-thirds of a day. Up first was the pelvis, which doctors carefully bolted back together. Then they had to clean around the spinal cord, removing whatever pieces they could of his shattered T12 vertebra, then strengthening the structure with a rod and screws.

In the following days, John came to. With his throat intubated, he began writing notes to Carryn on slips of paper he couldn’t see because of the angle of his bed. They were mostly initials – like C and R, for Caymus and Rome, their son and daughter. “They’re fine,” Carryn reassured him. “They know what’s going on.”

Carryn told him that Mr. Maybank and his colleagues were steering Maverix. At the time, Mr. Maybank says, the plan was to put Maverix “in a state of suspended animation.” A family man himself, he became so consumed with helping look after his friend’s family that he injured his foot running off the stress.

As Carryn and the Maverix team plotted how to break the news of John’s accident to the public, John remembers beginning to feel lucid. With his bed at an angle, he couldn’t see his legs. He couldn’t feel them, either. Holy shit, he thought. They cut off my legs.

Then a nurse walked in. He vocalized a cutting sound before finding the words to ask about his lower limbs. “Yes,” the nurse told him, “you have legs.” She clicked a remote to move his bed, bringing them into view. But with Carryn next to him, he soon learned his spinal injury was “complete” – the sense and movement in his legs were gone, and technically impossible to fix. Both of them began to weep.

“That’s when I said, and Carryn said, ‘Fuck you. You’re not telling me I’m not going to walk.’ ”

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Cujo the Morkie looks on as the Ruffolos navigate their home. Carryn remembers much uncertainty about John's prognosis in the time between the crash and his surgeries.

COVID-19 protocols meant Sunnybrook was locked down to most visitors, but a couple of weeks after the accident, Carryn found a loophole. She offered to take John for a walk in his wheelchair, telling an overworked nurse she could handle it herself. She wheeled him outside, where Mr. Maybank and Mr. Donnelly were waiting with pizza and Italian sodas.

It was an emotional moment that also managed to feel surprisingly normal. John retained his jovial matter-of-factness. “He said, ‘Yeah, I lost the use of my legs, yeah, yeah, it’s fine, I’m good. How are you doing?’ ” Mr. Maybank recalls. “His positivity, his rate of acceptance, was mind-boggling.”

“If he wasn’t sitting in a wheelchair, you would not have known there was an accident,” Mr. Donnelly says.

It was John’s many influential friends who gave him hope he wouldn’t have dreamed of – and a chance at recovery that few Canadians would get access to.

When Mr. Maybank heard about the accident, he called a Sunnybrook surgeon and a member of the board, who both started making calls of their own. Within 45 minutes, Sunnybrook’s CEO told Mr. Maybank he’d heard from a dozen people about John’s predicament. “Everybody went through their network of anybody connected to the health care system to try to help,” says Sid Paquette, one of John’s former deputies at OMERS who now leads tech and innovation banking at Royal Bank of Canada. “Because for the most part, most of us were helpless.”

As John recovered, members of Les Domestiques and other friends helped Carryn with tasks like replacing her husband’s new car with a wheelchair-accessible van. Mr. Gilgan, former Ontario health minister Eric Hoskins and Samantha Nutt, the founder of War Child Canada, started looking for ways to get John walking again.

“Everybody dropped everything,” says Dr. Hoskins, who will also be a partner at Maverix. “The network self-activated to support him.” He and Dr. Nutt, his wife, spent weeks contacting rehab centres, neurosurgeons and regenerative stem-cell specialists across the United States and Canada, looking for experts who could bring John’s legs back to life.

Most of those roads took them to one place: Toronto Western Hospital.

Fehlings, a senior scientist at the hospital’s Krembil Brain Institute, had laid the groundwork that redefined just how complete a “complete” spinal injury could be. He’d perfected techniques to relieve spinal cord injuries through “decompression” – relieving pressure by delicately removing objects like shattered bone pushing up against the cord, giving it and its nerve connections a greater chance to heal.

John’s spinal injury was one of the more serious Dr. Fehlings had seen in three-plus decades. Reopening the spinal column came with plenty of risks, and better mobility wasn’t guaranteed. But John was game. He told Dr. Fehlings if he had a 1-per-cent chance to get his legs back, he’d take it.

“What if I offered you a 50-50 chance of having a significant recovery?” the doctor replied confidently.

On Oct. 16, Dr. Fehlings’s team strapped John to a customized table at Toronto Western, then flipped him over rotisserie-style, exposing his back. With the help of a high-powered microscope, CT scan, high-resolution ultrasound imaging and a technique called stealth navigation, Dr. Fehlings began to pry open his shattered T12 vertebra.

There were four objects still wedged into John’s spinal cord after his initial surgery: three large bone fragments and material from the disc that had shattered between his T12 and T11 vertebrae. If John wanted a better chance to walk, his spinal cord needed to be rid of them.

The doctor delicately removed the titanium screws, rods and rod connectors, exposing the spine. But the pieces were the other side, facing John’s belly button. So Dr. Fehlings first removed the rear portion of the bone, shaving away shattered fragments with a diamond drill. Then he drilled out bone from the sides of the vertebra, called the pedicles.

Although this finally gave Dr. Fehlings access to the pieces pressing against the spine, he couldn’t remove them yet – doing so risked severing the spinal cord. With the other pieces of the T12 removed, he drilled into the front side of the vertebra, creating a space for the shattered fragments to move into. Once that was done, he was able to excise the fragments.

After an ultrasound confirmed the compression was diminished, the doctor took the bone he’d shaved away and reconstructed the shattered vertebra, before returning the rods and screws. The whole process took six hours.

“The verdict is still out in John Ruffolo’s case,” Dr. Fehlings says. “I don’t want to minimize his injury. But he has been given the chance for further recovery. … For many of these people, it’s a game changer.”

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The Ruffolos' network of influential friends organized quickly after the crash to find him medical experts, upgrade his car to a wheelchair-accessible van and do other things to make his recovery smoother.

For the first few months after the accident, Mr. Ruffolo’s injuries found increasingly creative ways to inconvenience him, hinder his recovery and occasionally bring him back to death’s door.

He left Sunnybrook near the end of September and headed to the University Health Network’s Lyndhurst Centre for rehabilitation.

It was, at first, a relief. Without the hospital’s incessant din, he finally slept for more than a few hours at a time. But it also meant he was left without the same round-the-clock care.

Complications ensued: bedsores, fluid-filled lungs, backed-up bowels, a dangerous blood clot in his knee – and a seven-hour nosebleed caused by the blood thinners he needed to dissolve the clot.

A natural-born storyteller, Mr. Ruffolo recounts his many of the grisly details with the zest of a comic telling a long joke.

“That’s John,” says CIBC CEO Victor Dodig, a friend of Mr. Ruffolo’s. “He’s not feeling sorry for himself.”

“The reason he’s been able to overcome what is literally an infinite number of physical hurdles is his mindset,” Mr. Maybank says. “It’s hugely positive, matter-of-fact. … A lot of the attributes that make him a fantastic investor have allowed him to be a fantastic recoverer.”

But as he sat in Lyndhurst last fall, Mr. Ruffolo’s thoughts returned to Maverix. Mr. Maybank and the team had been keeping investors up-to-date on his condition. By late October, though, he began working the phones to reach out to investors while lying on his back.

“They saw my name pop up on the cellphone and just panicked,” Mr. Ruffolo recalls. “Their reaction was, ‘John? You sound normal.’ ” Some were overcome when they heard his voice. “At times it made me cry, too,” he says.

He explained that he hoped to be home by Christmas, spend January convalescing, then launch Maverix in the first half of 2021. It turned out investors weren’t dissuaded by his ordeal. The opposite, actually. He says at least one of them offered to double their commitment.

Now, after two years, two setbacks and one near-death experience, Maverix is expected to close imminently.

“The average person would be completely crushed by what’s happened, but he’s looking at the upside,” says Chitra Anand, a former Microsoft executive overseeing Maverix’s brand as a partner. “He’s unpacked this nugget of gold to say, ‘It could have been worse. I’m here for my children.’ He takes the same approach to business and to life.”

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Personal trainer Chris Campbell helps Mr. Ruffolo work out at his home. One of their goals is to increase his upper body strength and make him more self-sufficient in a wheelchair.

Six months and a day after the accident, with charges still pending against the truck driver, John Ruffolo sits in his home gym, learning how to move again.

It’s his seventh week of training in the house his wife bought while he was at Lyndhurst – a new build with an elevator, just down the street from their old one. Posters of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali cover the wall – symbols of strength as Mr. Ruffolo tries to make his body his own.

He’s still in constant pain and has no feeling below his knees. But after his last surgery, nerve pain began shooting through his quads – an uncomfortable but reassuring sign – and he gained more movement in the muscles. Then his glutes and hamstrings fired to life.

And so he’s applied his investment philosophy to his own legs. He’s harnessing momentum.

That means six days a week of training and therapy with 10 specialists. On this day, he’s joined by his longtime trainer, Chris Campbell, and Julie Vaughan-Graham, a neuro-rehabilitation specialist who has spent much of her career rehabbing incomplete spinal injuries.

The process is full of fresh complications. Mr. Ruffolo has to get used to positioning his legs and feet to stabilize his motion, and his nervous system is still acting up. His quads sometimes misfire, while other muscles tensed up from the nerves’ irregular messaging, making it difficult to move his legs apart.

Mr. Ruffolo winces and gasps as Mr. Campbell and Dr. Vaughan-Graham help him onto a weight machine. He’s wearing a black T-shirt featuring a stormtrooper stoically holding a double-necked guitar – an almost comical counterbalance to the pain he’s in. “It’s no longer my body,” he says, beginning some fly-motion reps. “It looks like my body, but it’s not my body.”

But he’s improving rapidly. Mr. Campbell says Mr. Ruffolo has nearly tripled the weight he could lift with his upper body since the start of 2021, getting him closer to being self-sufficient in a wheelchair.

The pair help him off of the weight machine and onto an incline bench for core and reverse-fly exercises. “We’re not just training what we’ve got left here,” Dr. Vaughan-Graham says behind a face-shield and mask. “We are looking for potential recovery, so we can take his motor behaviour beyond where he is right now.”

His quads, glutes and hamstrings were the first to give him hope. Perhaps not coincidentally, they’re the muscles he built up cycling. He still can’t walk, but his body is rebuilding itself in ways he couldn’t have imagined last September.

“What almost killed me was my legs,” he says. “I would bike all the time – that made me have my accident.” But cycling also gave him the strength to start recovering. “The muscles that started to reawaken first were all the muscles related to my cycling.”

How does he feel about that?

He turns his head from the incline bench, and his cheeks rise to signal a smile behind his mask.

“I can’t wait to go cycling again.”

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