Darren Berrecloth: Getting Back To The Bike
For Darren “Bearclaw” Berrecloth, riding a bike has long been part of his life. The Canadian native first began riding at the age of 12, mixing BMX racing with mountain biking on both the pavement and dirt – and at 20, he decided to take up freeride mountain biking full-time. That was 14 years ago.
Since then, Berrecloth has become perhaps the biggest name in his sport, pushing it to the extreme with the help of big jumps, bumpy trails and a wide assortment of tricks. But over that time, the thrills of mountain biking have taken a severe toll on his body. The 33-year-old is basically a riding medical textbook. He’s broken ribs, ankles, hands and more. He’s torn ligaments, sprained ankles and separated shoulders. But nothing has given Berrecloth as many problems as his back.
Through the nature of his sport, the spine suffers perhaps more wear-and-tear than the rest of the body, taking on substantial pressure and constant force from riding and falling. That might be why Berrecloth has had as many issues with his back as any other body part. Three times he has broken his back, all three of which were non-compression fractures – but the most recent spine injury proved to be the most difficult injury of his career.
“It’s one of those ones that kind of creeps up,” Berrecloth told us in a recent interview. “You kind of take it easy and lay off it, so it’s usually not until it’s too late when you’re like, ‘oh wow, I need to completely lay off and get an MRI and get this checked out’.”
Thanks to his partnership with Red Bull, Berrecloth visited one of the west coast’s top authorities on spine and back care, DISC Sports and Spine Center. The results of the MRI showed that his L5 disc was not inflamed enough for surgery, though it did shut him down from activities. For three months Berrecloth planted himself on the couch, hoping the aggravation would minimize itself, but as he recalls that wasn’t the case – in fact, it led to one of the darkest points of the mountain biker’s career.
“Well, originally in early October, I got an MRI and it was big enough to completely shut me down from all activity, but wasn’t big enough yet to actually get surgery,” he remembers. “When I kept getting worse and worse, it was horrible and like two and a half months into it I self diagnosed myself – I was actually depressed. I couldn’t yank myself out of bed. It ended up, three months later, getting worse and just after Christmas I got the MRI and they told me that we had to do surgery.”
At that point, with the pain becoming much worse, Berrecloth knew it was time for surgery and met with Dr. Hooman M. Melamed, an Orthopedic Spine Surgeon at DISC. Dr. Melamed assessed the injury, which was diagnosed as a herniated L5 spinal disc, pressing on a nerve and causing damage. Like any surgery there were risks, such as permanent nerve damage, but he knew the injury was pretty straight forward and having performed the procedure, or those similar, over 1,000 times, Berrecloth was in good hands. Not to mention what the potential risks were if left untreated.
“He was developing a weakness and because of this weakness, he wasn’t firing on all cylinders,” Dr. Melamed explained. “If left untreated, he would have been a permanent injury and not just cut [down] his career, but [Berrecloth] wouldn’t be good at most sports anymore. It can’t give you 100 percent.”
After months of waiting, it took Dr. Melamed and his crew just 45 minutes to perform the procedure – and so began Berrecloth’s road to recovery. The mountain biker was told to spend the first six weeks doing nothing, so it was back on the couch for the Red Bull star. With little soreness in his back, he was eager to get back. From there, the first week was spent with light exercise, but for Berrecloth, it wasn’t about getting on the bike, it was about the basics that he’d taken for granted for most of his life.
“I’m learning how to walk properly again, I’m learning how to bend over and pick stuff up again – it’s really tough, because you go along how many years doing things a certain way,” Berrecloth added. A lot of that is what caused the initial back injury because I was doing things improperly putting strain on my back. The only way to guarantee that this doesn’t happen again is to change the way I do things.”
Just two weeks into his rehabilitation, Berrecloth is right on schedule – though he still has a few weeks before he can get back on his bike for even the simplest of activities. There is still plenty ahead before he can get back to competing on his sport’s biggest stages. So what exactly is next in the process?
The discs must continue to heal itself, while the ligaments on the outside heal and this process takes a couple of months. According to Dr. Melamed, to fully recover from the surgery can take five months or, for some people, upwards of a year before feeling really good. But in order for that to happen, Berrecloth is going to need to continue on his recovery path.
"After a couple months, you can slowly start with Pilates and yoga and the hope is, by the fifth month, to go back to everything,” Dr. Melamed said. “I’m hoping I can get him ready for [Red Bull] Rampage coming up in June.”
It’s been only a couple of months since Berrecloth was at the lowest of lows, yet now his pain has completely subsided and he’s well on his way back to riding and preparing for one of the biggest events of the calendar year. Months of rehab still remain but he’s confident that he’ll be back doing what he loves – and he has Dr. Melamed, the group at DISC and Red Bull to thank.
“[Red Bull] take care of all their athletes, making sure they have the right medical staff handling the situation and DISC is a perfect example,” said Berrecloth. “They have it set up where the top athletes roll in and get the top care. It’s amazing. [Disc] went over and above my expectations and it was a breeze!”
Photos courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool and DISC Sports and Spine Center