With One Hand Tied Behind His Back
By any measure, newly crowned AFT Twins presented by Vance & Hines champion Briar Bauman enjoyed an epic 2019 season.
Bauman took maximum advantage of his opportunity with the all-conquering works Indian Motorcycle team and elevated his game into an entirely new stratosphere. He doubled up his career victory tally with five wins on the year while racking up 15 podiums in 18 races, including a pair of seven-race podium streaks.
More impressively, he accomplished all this despite being pit up against a historically great champion at the peak of his powers in Jared Mees, and on identical equipment no less.
Bauman capped it all off with a borderline miraculous performance at the Minnesota Mile, in which he beat the odds by returning to the fray following a dramatic high-speed crash and subsequent frantic mechanical improvisation on the part of his crew just to get his FTR750 back out on track. That night Briar not only got himself back into the fight, he finished on the podium to clinch his first American Flat Track title a round early.
Of course, you already knew all of that.
However, the most-heroic aspect of Bauman’s title campaign was kept so closely under wraps that he believes even now a number of his key rivals remain unaware of exactly what he overcame to earn the crown.
But with the season done and dusted and the #1 plate his, Briar is finally willing to open up and discuss in-depth a midseason injury that threatened his title hopes (and, if treated improperly, his career), the resultant surgery, and a subsequent prolonged recovery that was previously known only to his inner circle.
His story inside a story began in late May, at which point he was riding high, leading the AFT Twins title race on the strength of a perfect five-race podium streak. Exceeding expectations on flat tracks, he came up short -- literally -- on a motocross track during training.
Bauman hyperextended his left wrist on impact and suffered what he assumed to be a badly sprained wrist. At the time, he even joked about what he considered to be an extremely remote possibility of a break with his girlfriend, (AFT Singles superstar) Shayna Texter.
“I said, ‘Shay -- we're going to go to the Red Mile and then I'll fly out to California afterward for surgery and have it fixed.’ She just laughed at me and told me I was a dork.”
At the Red Mile, Briar upped his podium streak to six after tracking Mees down late in the race and falling just 0.056 seconds short of scoring his maiden Mile victory.
“We got home from the Red Mile on Sunday and on Monday I had a workout. I could tell something still wasn't right, so we went in Tuesday for x-rays. Basically, I went in for reassurance that it wasn't broken.”
He did not get the reassurance he was seeking.
Bauman had broken his left scaphoid (navicular) -- one of the small carpal bones in his wrist -- a relatively common injury among athletes. But it seems athletes weren’t quite so common to the doctor at hand.
“The doctor I went to... I went in and he didn't quite understand my explanation about what my championship was. He thought it was like a slow-pitch softball level deal I do with my buddies or something. He wasn't a sports doctor or anything -- I just went in to get x-rays.
“I was like, 'Hey, can I wait (to get this fixed)?' ‘Well, how long do you need to wait?’ ‘Like five months...’
“And he lost it on me a little bit. He said we could cast it up to my shoulder for 12 weeks. I told him that wasn’t an option, so then he suggested we do surgery and I could start to use it again in eight or nine weeks. I told him that wasn’t an option either.
“By the end of the visit, the doctor actually advised me to see other people. And I was like, ‘Yeah, you're probably right.’
“So yeah, there was a little panic at that point.”
Bauman immediately sought second and third opinions from specialists more familiar with the global motorsports community. His first call went out to the California-based team of Dr. Tuan Nguyen and Dr. Maury Harwood.
“Dr. Tuan is known for getting guys back and going pretty quickly, so I figured I'd call him and he'd tell me I was good to ride if I could deal with the pain. So I called him and he said, 'No -- absolutely not -- you need to have surgery now to have this fixed.'
“That's not what I wanted to hear.
“Then I called Dr. Henry Small in Texas. He was Colin Edwards’ doctor and worked on a lot of MotoGP racers. He is as straightforward as they come; he's going to tell you how it is every time. He confirmed that it needed to be fixed.
“He explained that the blood flow in your hands is so poor that the bone will actually die and then you either try to get a bone graft to stick or remove it and basically fuse your whole hand together because the other bones will start to collapse around it.
“I went from being kind of optimistic and thinking they’d tell me what I wanted to hear, to, by the end of it, thinking this was about as bad as it could possibly get.
“So yeah, there was definitely some shock. I took second place two days earlier, and now they're telling me I have to fly out and have surgery on this thing. ‘This is not good at all.’”
Bauman flew out to California and had surgery late on the Thursday following the Red Mile and then had just over a week before he was scheduled to put his championship advantage on the line at the Laconia Short Track.
“They put me in a soft cast and told me to take it off three days after -- so that was Monday. I peeled it off and was like, 'Holy cow -- I don't see how this is supposed to work at all.'
“The thing was basically an open wound just stitched up. It's a small incision because it's in my hand, but it was enough… It was all swelled up. It basically looked like I just had surgery, and then I had to go race in five days.”
“Even though I was going to be racing, I wasn't allowed to let me hand move at all from my wrist down. It was kind of sketchy.
“Fortunately, I had talked to a few brace places to have a special hand brace made up and had a few different options to try. I spent like four hours on the Wednesday before Laconia with Shayna trying to fit up my leathers with these braces and just get everything set. It was pretty hectic, but we were able to chip away at it and figure out a workable solution.”
The rigorous season schedule did Bauman no favors either. Besides being thrown right back into the fire in Laconia, Briar was facing down seven rounds over the following month-and-a-half. Laconia turned out to be somewhere between the ultimate test and an absolute soul crusher.
Briar said, “I knew it was going to a cushion short track so it was going to be a little bit rough, and I move around on the bike so much and I push and pull with my hands on the bars…but I only had like 10% grip strength in my left hand.”
If Bauman thought matters couldn’t get worse -- well, he was wrong. His first time out on track, he crashed.
“I slid out and was like, ‘What am I even doing? This is the last thing I need to be doing.’”
And yet, at the end of the night he somehow brought it all together and pushed his podium streak up to seven with yet another runner-up finish.
“Fortunately, I run strictly on adrenaline no matter the scenario -- good, bad, or otherwise. I don't know why. Once I got riding, I was good. The only thing I noticed was mid-corner, I like to push and I like to pull on the handlebars, and I just didn't have it that day. So that was kinda tough, but everything else was good.”
Briar not only survived the nightmare scenario -- he widened his championship lead and discovered a template for a modified riding style that would have to work for the remainder of the season -- the bulk of which he saw very little in terms of physical improvement.
“Honestly, it was like a plateau for what seemed like 12 weeks. I was going in every two to three weeks for x-rays. On top of it being one of the slowest healing bones in the body, I was racing at the same time. It took so long to see any progress. I think we went nine weeks before we saw any bone growth at all. Really, I just had to do the same deal every weekend.”
Eventually, Bauman was given Forteo injections in his stomach on a daily basis for a month straight in order to kickstart the bone growth. The first of those injections was actually given in the parking lot at the Peoria TT by Brad Baker’s girlfriend (and nurse), Kelcy Stauffer, during which time she also showed Texter how to do it so she could aid in delivering the remainder of the shots.
Despite it all, Briar continued to perform at a championship-winning level.
“I still felt really good on the bike. The worst part was with the bracing. I wasn't supposed to move my hand up and down, so I had to wear this piece of plastic that was shaped like the palm of my hand and had to get a glove that was two sizes too big to fit over it. I just had this ball of plastic in my hand riding on the bar. It was pretty obnoxious.
“That was difficult, but it really only affected me at the TTs or the tracks I had to push or pull really hard. The smoother tracks like Weedsport, it wasn't an issue. But the rougher tracks were definitely the bugaboo of the situation.”
Bauman managed to claim four of his five victories on the season post-surgery, including one at the physically demanding Peoria TT.
“It was crazy -- a few of the wins came at spots I really didn't think we'd be able to do it at, like Peoria. Peoria was rough this year, with all that rain and then throwing a twin around and pushing and pulling was kind of an issue.
“It was almost like we got through Laconia and it was so rough that I figured if I could make it through that, I could make it through anything. I started to not even think about it other than just wearing the stuff up to staging. It's not like the team or I went about anything any differently... Maybe we were a little softer on the front end to give me a little bit of give so it wasn't such a rough ride on my hand. But I kept everything so much on the down-low that I almost didn't know it myself. It’s like if (my rivals) didn't know, I could pretend I didn't know either, and we could just do it how we'd do it.
“It was kind of like mind over matter... I didn't really mind, so I guess it didn't really matter to anyone else. And if I'm able to ride, I don't want to have an excuse, so that is a big part of it. I'm just going to do my job -- it doesn't matter if I have a broken bone or everything is perfect.”
Even now, nearly five months and a Grand National Championship later, Briar is still on the mend.
“I went in on Monday and it's about 90% healed. That's insane to think because it's one of the smallest bones in the body, but it's like, ‘How have I been dealing with this for like half a year?’
“I'm on a bone stim like every day just trying to get blood to flow to the hand. But I'm finally at a point where I'm back to working on mobility and getting things going. But it's still just taking a little while longer than I wanted it to.”
Ultimately, Bauman was handsomely rewarded for all the pain, courage and determination required with the achievement of his lifelong goal. What was already the greatest accomplishment of his career has taken on an extra layer of emotional resonance.
“I'm an emotional guy no matter what, but there was a time during that whole ordeal where behind closed doors where I didn't even know if I was going to get to race. It was just a hand injury, but I really didn't know just how serious it was until I started talking to doctors. I found out just how many guys have dealt with this who had it indirectly end their careers because they didn't have it fixed correctly right away and the bone died.
“Fortunately, all the doctors gave me the worst case scenarios, and that made me appropriately cautious. But yeah, there was a lot of emotion behind everything. It was a long year and dealing with that wasn't exactly how I planned on chasing a championship on top of everything.
“But if you make it through that, you kind of feel like you can make it through anything.”