Jay Balabas is the owner of the Bicycle Cafe in Canmore, and most recently, the Event Director of the 4-day TransCR enduro stage race in Costa Rica. The motivation behind his newest endeavor may be a little different than most Event Directors. On April 26, 2015, Jay's life was changed when a mountain bike crash left him paralyzed, through hard work and determination Jay was able to regain his ability to walk, and even ride again – but he's nowhere near fully recovered. Once an avid racer, Jay along with his friend Paulo Valle, created the TransCR in part as a way for Jay to stay connected to the mountain bike race culture that he loves so much.
On the eve of the inaugural TransCR
, we talked to Jay about passion for mountain biking, about his crash, and about how it has changed his life.
How did you get into mountain biking?
Biking in one form or another has always been a part of my life. I started racing BMX bikes while I was still in the single digits. I grew up next to Italian neighbors who got me into road cycling. A Nishiki painter’s cap was my prized possession for a while. My proper introduction to mountain biking and mountain bike racing came while working as a grom in a ski and bike shop in Calgary called Precision Ski. Girls, cars, and other distractions got in the way in my late teens, but my love of mountain biking fired back up when I moved to the Rockies in the early 2000’s. You co-own Bicycle Cafe; tell me about how that came to be.
At the time I was living in Banff and learning the ropes of freeriding. I smashed a lot of derailleurs and rotors, so getting a part time job at the Bicycle Café and the accompanying staff discounts seemed like the best way to feed my habit and keep my bike running. I instantly fell in love with the concept of combining your passion and your work. I quit my well-paying job to manage the shop and get deeper into the industry. From there it continued and before I knew it I was an owner.
Some people mountain bike and leave it as a recreational endeavor, why race?
| I instantly fell in love with the concept of combining your passion and your work.|
Racing and competing is something I’ve always seemed to do – from BMX racing to ski racing and from playing hockey to mountain bike racing. I’m a pretty competitive person, competitive with other people but even more so with myself. I never just ride my bike; I’m always focused on improving and getting faster. I can get a little OCD at times. I’ll ride the same track over and over and Strava everything. I’ll keep trying new lines and ideas and see how it affects my times. There’s nothing more rewarding then nailing a corner that you’ve struggled to ride with flow. Racing is just a natural extension of this. What have some of your most memorable race experiences been?
I’ve competed in BC Bike Race twice. It’s always been amazing. Probably my most memorable summer on a bike was following the BC Enduro Series in 2014 before my crash. The racing itself takes a back seat to everything else when you’re following a series. You see the same group of riders at every race and you become a little family; camping or staying in hotels, riding new trails in new zones, having post ride beers, and jumping in the river after a hot day of racing. Sharing all this with a crew of people just as stoked on riding as you are is special. The racing just adds to all that magic. You've mountain biked in a few place around the world, where and why?
I’m fortunate to have a job that lets me travel with my bike a lot. The annual August pilgrimage on bike launches is great. Most bike brands fly dealers to rider friendly destinations like Whistler, Squamish, California, or Washington to check out and ride next year’s offerings. Put a bunch of riders, sick trails, and next year’s gear together and you can’t go wrong. I’ve been able to ride some of the best places in Europe like France and Switzerland and the Bicycle Café did a fundraising trip for an aid organization in Sierra Leone a few years back. We raised $25000 for Cause Canada then flew over to Sierra Leone and biked through the countryside to see first hand the impact that their work has had. It was a truly an eye-opening experience. Costa Rica is also a place I’ve ridden many times and have fallen in love with. Why keep going back to Costa Rica?
For me Costa Rica has it all. The mountains there are big and steep and the tracks are long. 1000-meter descents are pretty standard. A lot of the trails are quite remote and don’t see nearly the traffic our trails in North America do. They have a certain rugged, unpredictable, and natural feeling to them. The trails are just the beginning of my love with the country. It’s such an adventure getting into the jungle and riding in remote places. Both the vibe of the country and the people are great! Shuttling up to 10,000 feet in a farmers 1960’s land cruiser while trying your best to keep up with the Spanish conversations is hard to beat.
What has mountain biking brought to your life that you didn't have before?
| For me Costa Rica has it all. The mountains there are big and steep and the tracks are long. 1000-meter descents are pretty standard.|
At this point in my life, it’s hard to remember life without it. I work in a bike shop, ride on my time off, and go to bed thinking about riding and trails more than is probably healthy. I have a pretty all-in personality. When I’m into something, I’m really into it. On April 26, 2015, you had a substantial, life-changing crash, what happened?
That’s a date I won’t soon forget. I was away on a typical spring weekend of camping and riding with a crew. We were in Radium, BC enjoying good weather and hero dirt. It was getting close to the end of the day and I had slowly been checking off a bunch of jumps I hadn’t hit before. Nothing crazy as I’m always pretty calculated when it comes to airtime; it’s not my favorite thing. I went to hit the last jump on the trail; it’s tricky as you can’t hit it with trail speed or you’ll overshoot. My brake check wasn’t enough and I overshot the jump and went over the bars. I face planted and the chin bar of my full face got caught in the dirt. My body scorpioned with my head anchored and the force snapped my neck.
| I face planted and the chin bar of my full face got caught in the dirt. My body scorpioned with my head anchored and the force snapped my neck. | What was your original diagnosis and timeline? Were you conscious after the crash, what were your first thoughts? Do you remember how you felt?
Somehow I never got knocked out and was completely conscience the whole time. After I hit the deck I could tell it was going to hurt so I thought about rolling myself onto my back while I was still tumbling. My body was instantly paralyzed and rolling onto my back wasn’t an option. Before my roll stopped I knew it was bad. Luckily some of my friends had been trained in wilderness first aid and knew exactly what to do and what not to do. Waiting nearly 2 hours for emergency crews to show was probably the longest and scariest time in my life. From there I was transported to the hospital in Invermere by a bumpy and painful ambulance ride. Once at the hospital, I finally got some drugs for the pain and after some x-rays learned I had shattered my C4 vertebrae. From there a 300-kilometer air ambulance ride to Calgary put me in Foothills Hospital where I had two surgeries to remove the shattered vertebrae and then fuse in a manufactured one from a cadaver and reinforce it with 1 plate, 2 rods, and 10 screws.
A lot of the doctors I dealt with in the hospital were far from encouraging and without actually saying it gave me the impression I would not get better. I had a lot of literature left in my hospital room about learning to live in a wheelchair. I took that as a challenge and was determined to walk out of the hospital regardless of what they told me. Thankfully the nurses and therapists were a lot more encouraging and gave me the support and encouragement I needed. How long were you in the hospital?
I was told I’d be in the hospital for 5-6 months and at that point be able to leave to continue rehab at home. Typically with a spinal cord injury, the most amount of healing happens in the first 3-6 months so I was determined to spend as much of that time as possible out of the hospital moving and learning to deal with regular life again. I quickly weaned myself off of anything tying me to the hospital – narcotics, blood pressure aids, etc. – so I could check out as fast as possible. I got to walk out of the hospital on my own 2 feet on June 19th – my birthday, and a full three months earlier than expected.
What was it like for you when your friends and family came to visit? What it hard to see their concern for you?
| I quickly weaned myself off of anything tying me to the hospital – narcotics, blood pressure aids, etc. – so I could check out as fast as possible. |
If there’s one thing I can’t stress enough is that recovery from an injury like this is a team effort. I couldn’t imagine going through what I did without the huge support team I had behind me. All the therapists and nurses at the hospital were amazing. My mom came to the hospital every single day and made sure I had everything I needed. My friends, family, and the entire town of Canmore rallied behind me. Every day I had visitors coming by to keep me company, bring me smoothies and other food, and everything else I needed. It was hard at times to see the concern on their faces but it motivated me to work harder and recover. What was your biggest motivator to heal?
My motivation to heal came from just wanting to get back to the way things were before. It changes as your recovery progresses. At the start just being able to walk is all you want. As that starts to come back you start to dream about getting back on the bike and riding again. In Canmore, we have a trail I love called Highline. There’s a flat fairly nondescript corner on the trail that for some reason I just love. I spent a lot of time dreaming about getting sideways around that corner again. Where are you at now with your healing? Will you ever ride at the same level again?
Recovery is going great. I’m still a long way from 100% but I’m much farther away from lying in a hospital bed unable to move my body. Spinal cord injuries are tricky because you really don’t know if, or when, you’ll be 100% again. You learn to stop focusing on the end goal and look more at improvement. You never know if you’ll get back to where you were but as long as you’re improving, things are good. I have a feeling recovery will be a lifelong thing. It’s hard to say if I’ll ever fully recover, but 20 years from now I’ll still be trying and focusing on improvements. How has this injury impacted and changed life mentally and physically?
Life has changed quite a bit both physically and mentally. Physically, I’ve had to teach my body how to do everything again. I’ve had to learn how to walk and perform just about everything you generally take for granted on a day-to-day basis. Nerves are funny things, they don’t just stop and then start working one day. Different muscles begin to fire at different times and you learn to work with what you have physically. I had chronic pain for the first year and a half and I still spend quite a bit of time in general discomfort but overall the worst is definitely in the rear view. Mentally you take a step back after an injury like this and take stock of what really matters. It’s chilled me out a fair bit that’s for sure.
Why did you start the TransCR?
| I've had to learn how to walk and perform just about everything you generally take for granted on a day-to-day basis.|
The TransCR started over a beer on a patio this summer. Paulo Valle, who I’m always with when I’m down in Costa Rica, and I ended up on Dik Cox’s patio for one of his famous BBQ’s. All it took was Paulo saying, “hey, we should throw an enduro this winter”. The stars aligned and everything came together quite quickly. My time helping out Megan and Ted from BC Enduro has been a huge help and we have an all-star team in Costa Rica to pull this off. Do you think it will be hard for you to be at a race and not be racing it?
No, I’m really looking forward to it. Being at the Bicycle Café almost daily I’m used to being around bikes and riders despite my reduced ability to participate. If anything it’s an amazing opportunity to be a part of the race scene I love without actually racing. What do you hope to achieve with the event?
The first time I went to Costa Rica was 2008. It left a huge impression on me, and it will always be one of my best ever trips. To take a really special moment or time you’ve had and be able to recreate that for 100 other people is a unique opportunity.
Photos: Paris Gore