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The Bas Vaessen story has not been told quite as well as it should have been, which is a huge injustice. Vaessen even being on the start line is just as impressive as when Ken Roczen returned from his horrific arm injury, for instance, yet most seem to have forgotten about the trials and tribulations that he went through a year ago. Vaessen lost all feeling from the neck down at the Grand Prix of Asia and just eight months on from that challenged for his first podium finish at the Grand Prix of The Netherlands. Now is a great time to reflect on all that he has accomplished.
MX Vice: We will get this break out of the way, first of all. What have you been up to? What have you been doing to keep yourself busy?
Bas Vaessen: Since we realised that there wasn’t going to be racing or stuff anymore, I stayed at my girlfriend’s place for like a week or two. I got really bored just cycling, running and doing my training. It was hard not having something to look forward to. Now when I am at home I am working as well, so I have got a little job. I am working in the morning, training in the evenings and that is basically my life.
I am studying as well, so I am trying to do like an hour of that every day. I want to become an ambulance driver after racing. I did a high level of school when I was there, but because of racing I never finished it. I am now trying to get all of the permits to enter the academy to actually become an ambulance driver. I am just catching up with that now.
Every other rider is bored and losing their mind, but you are actually quite busy. You have got a lot going on!
Yeah, I am just trying to keep as busy as possible. I speak to a few other guys and they are like, “I’m bored at home! I’m training for two hours a day, then for the rest of the day I am doing nothing. I am going mental!” I’m like, “Jeez! You are only doing two hours a day? I am going for like 15 hours a day. I am busier than ever!”
One thing that we have not actually spoken about is the injury you had last year. I feel like no one is really giving you the credit you deserve for coming back from it. Talk about recovering from that, how hard it was and whether you even considered stopping at one point. It was that bad, huh?
Oh, it was terrible. When I initially had the crash, and I was on the ground with the bike laying on me, Gautier Paulin pulled the bike off of me. I was screaming and shouting. I had no feeling at all from the neck down though, so I couldn’t even make proper words with my voice. I was basically compressing my lungs and shouting like a pig. I was laying on the ground and I thought my arm was laying on my stomach, but actually it was at a weird 90-degree angle and my legs were twisted.
I had no feeling from the neck down. When they put my legs and feet on the stretcher, it was like dead wood. That was like properly scary for me. It was pretty traumatising. They pulled me off of the track after like seven or eight minutes – I think it was about three laps as far as I could see – and then with electric shocks my legs started to come back. Those seven or eight minutes were like a nightmare. I was basically paralysed from the neck down in that time. Indonesia is not the greatest country to be in as well!
That was really scary. I could start walking pretty quickly, like after 15 minutes, but my arms basically would not work. Everyone was telling me to lay down and that they wanted me to be on a stretcher. I was like, “Fuck no! I have just been on the ground for eight minutes with no feeling. I can walk, so I am going back.” I basically walked back to where everyone is, and then Foxy helped me so much. Foxy organises the riders on the start line normally. He was like an angel to me!
He has got a girlfriend over there in Indonesia, and Foxy was telling her to tell the Indonesians to get ice and help me around. Foxy basically left all of his duties to help me with everything. That was really great. The English doctor came back to me and said, “Everything is working fine now. Okay, your arms are not working but it seems like everything is coming back. Don’t go to the hospital here. Just get on your flight and go home.” I was like, “Fuck. Okay.” We didn’t know what was there yet.
Most of the people who have damage with their nerves get kind of numb, but for me it was the exact opposite. I had like hypersensitivity. If you put a feather on my shoulders or something, it felt like cutting a knife through my skin. My girlfriend packed all of my shit and we went to the hotel. My neck was like dangling around and I couldn’t really hold still. I had no power at all in my neck or my arms. I couldn’t really use my fingers, phone or anything.
My girlfriend pulled me in bed once we got to the hotel, then tried to wash me a little bit and feed me some food. We got a shit ton of medicine to try and keep me a little bit sedated. It was a terrible, terrible night. She was scared to fall asleep in case I fell over or something. I could only sit up, but then I didn’t sleep because of the pain. The next day we flew from Semarang to Jakarta, Jakarta to Kuala Lumpur and then to Amsterdam. We arrived on either Tuesday or Wednesday morning in Amsterdam.
I was in contact with my doctors and normally I would have gone to Eindhoven to get everything checked out, but they got kind of scared. I still had no feeling in my arms and couldn’t use them. Everything was still so hypersensitive as well. It was two days later and I still had no sleep, plus I had barely eaten any food. I arrived at like eight in the morning. They made it so I could go to the Amsterdam hospital. I was in a lot of pain, so they put me in a little room and it took a whole day.
They wanted to check everything out to see what I could do, then like two hours later they took some pictures and then they did an MRI and stuff. They were like, “Shit. This is not good.” They had to put me on morphine at one point, because I was just screaming. My neck hurt so bad. I had such bad headaches and, because of the hypersensitivity, anything that touched me was agonising. They found out that I broke the C6 front and back. It was compressed between the C3 and C4 so much that all of the muscles and everything were pulled so tight that they ruptured.
That is where all of the pain was coming from instead of the C6 that I broke. There was so much pressure between the C3 and C4, but then even on the MRI they couldn’t see how much was damaged and how much was just bruised. He gave me a lot of painkillers and put me in a neck brace. They didn’t want to operate or anything, because there was a big chance that they would make it worse and a small chance that they would make it better. I just went home and basically stayed in bed for two months.
I am guessing that once you got back to your normal doctors, they told you that flying across the world was like the riskiest thing you could possibly do?
They said it was deadly! They said what was that doctor thinking. You know how on an airplane you get more fluid and stuff in your body? They said, “That could have killed you!” We were like, “Oh, fuck. Okay.”
How was it riding again in the off-season then? Did it take a long time for you to get back to feeling like yourself? It must have…
What was scary initially for me was that after a month… You probably saw me walking around at Lommel. I was just there to support the team and talk with them. I had a conversation with Roger Magee there, and I basically said that I did not know if I want to ride. I was not even sure that I would be able to ride! I could not even pick up my phone or bring food to my mouth. That was like a month and a half later too. My girlfriend still had to feed me with a spoon, because I couldn’t bring my arms up.
My girlfriend Bente was amazing. She basically washed me, fed me and everything. The only thing that I could do was get out of bed and walk to the bathroom. I couldn’t even put on a t-shirt, because it was still so hypersensitive that even after a month and a half when I went to Lommel I had to get a shit ton of ibuprofen to put on a t-shirt. The skin was so sensitive.
Do you still have bad days with it now then? You can obviously race and, jeez, you almost had a podium at Valkenswaard. Are there some days where some of that stuff comes back?
Yeah, basically 24-7 I have like a small… Not really a headache, but something that’s bothering me. I have pretty much learnt to live with it. Sometimes taking a plate out of a high cabinet bothers me. My left arm is completely fine now, but my right arm is not 100%. I don’t think it will ever be 100%. I don’t have any issues when riding or anything, but when I have a long couple of days then it is pretty bad. I have big headaches and do not feel great. I am pretty fine other than that though.
The reason I brought this up is because I was thinking about it at Matterley. It was the first round, so everyone has those jitters. Getting through that weekend must have been huge for you though.
Yeah. I was saying to Roger in the beginning that I did not know whether I even wanted to ride. It was such a bad experience. Roger was amazing though. He said, “I’m not looking for another rider until you say you are done.” Roger was very, very patient with me. I think that most other teams would have been like, “Okay. You are done!” You know how it happens in this industry – everyone forgets about you very quick. I started riding again in America, and Stephen Sword came over and stuff. Riding was going very, very well. On Christmas Day – the last day that I was going to ride – I broke my collarbone.
Yeah, I broke my collarbone at Christmas! I did not crash for like five weeks, then I had a small tiny flip over and I broke my collarbone. I didn’t do anything for the whole of January, and then I started riding again at the start of February. Riding was going pretty okay. Not great but not bad, just okay. I didn’t do any pre-season races or anything, and then I got to Matterley and I can honestly say I was scared. I was like, “I know I’m not 100% fit, I haven’t done any races and I have just come off this big injury.”
Matterley Basin was not great. My riding was not bad, but I wasn’t fighting or aggressive enough. That’s just how it is. My team were still very patient. They said, “Oh, we know. Don’t worry. You will get back to it.” I am very thankful for them. I was riding the week before Valkenswaard, and my riding was just terrible. I was so scared to even ride. The track was terrible. I was there with Stephen Sword and my mechanic, Alexander Brown, and I said to them, “Jeez guys. I don’t know if I can do this.” We just had the first race that was terrible, and then I was still riding just terribly.
I don’t know if I have ever ridden worse than that Wednesday before Valkenswaard. I was thinking about quitting more on that day than the whole time before with my neck. I was just… I can honestly say I was scared. Micha-Boy De Waal had broken his leg when we arrived that day and that put a bit of a mark in my head as well. I spoke to the team and they told me to just go and do Valkenswaard to see how it goes. There was no pressure or anything, and then Valkenswaard went amazing.
I guess you were surprised at how well Valkenswaard went then, right? You definitely were not expecting to almost have a podium.
Even Saturday evening after I got third in the qualifying race – that was my best qualifying ever – I was like, “What the fuck!” I don’t think I have ever had such a good Saturday. I am always good on Sunday, but not Saturday. I had the fastest time in free practice on Sunday morning. Okay, it was free practice. It still gives you confidence though. The first moto went well. I had a very good start, but I just had to pull in for goggles. That was a shame – I still got eighth though.
I got a great start in the second moto as well, but my bike basically stopped working two laps in. Not stopped working, but it was losing power. Coming onto the start straight on the second lap I felt like a click and I was like, “Oh no. This isn’t good.” You know the hill underneath the bridge? I was basically running with the bike to pull it up the hill. Tom Vialle pulled away by like 15 seconds in those three or four laps, but I was running on half a bike and still 15 seconds ahead of third. I was just like, “Okay. I’m going to ride it until it blows.”
Two laps later it blew. That was a shame, because I think that if the bike didn’t lose power then I could have stayed with Vialle quite easily. I know I’m one of the fittest guys in the class, so maybe I could have had the moto win. You never know. It is a shame, because we have never had a problem with the engine. In the year and a half that I have spent with the team I have only had two engine problems, so why would it just happen there and then? It isn’t like we have an unreliable bike. We were just really unlucky.
I have said this about you for a while. I wouldn’t have been surprised if you had got on the box, because I think you are better than most people realise. Do you sometimes feel like you do not get the credit that you deserve?
Yeah, I feel the same. I have been in podium contention four or fives with either Suzuki, Honda or KTM. I have either had a bike break or a chain get stuck. I had a stone between my chain twice last year. How can you even imagine that happening? I have had the podium in my reach a few times, but then something has happened like a red flag or bike problem. Stupid stuff like that. The second GP that I did was at Assen in 2016, I think, and I was running second that whole moto and Jeffrey Herlings passed me three to four times.
He would pass me, crash, pass me again and then crash again. I was in second that whole time though and then on the penultimate lap I crashed. It wasn’t a big crash or anything, but I couldn’t start my bike! I was on a Suzuki and we did not have the electric start, so it just wouldn’t start! It is just stuff like that. It’s a bit frustrating, but we just have to keep going on. I know I am one of the better guys. I am not saying I am on the same talent level as Jorge Prado and Jeffrey Herlings or something. I should be one of the guys though.
Moving onto the rest of the year. I feel like once you get one podium, whenever that ends up being, that will be the catalyst to you getting more. I feel like getting that monkey off of your back will be big.
I think the same. The year before I did the European championship with Suzuki I always had the speed, but there were crashes too because I was just a young buck. When I got third in the championship in 2016, I got one podium and then after that I got six or seven one after another. I think that if I get one podium then I could go on a roll, but you are only as good as your last race in motocross.
Last thing. Is this break going to help you at all? Will having three months off help you get even healthier and in an even better position?
Not really. I was so pumped to go to the next race after Valkenswaard. If the lockdown had happened before Valkenswaard then I would have said that I am happy, but not now. I am just bummed. This will help guys like Roan Van De Moosdijk who are dealing with injuries, because they can get healthy now. Thomas Olsen too. It is great for them! I think it is better for them than for us guys who are healthy already.
Interview: Lewis Phillips | Lead Image: Ray Archer