Rejuvenated and recharged: Tayler Wiles eyeing return to the pro peloton after surgery

American rider building form again after operation to correct iliac artery endofibrosis.

Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

There were two important turning points for Tayler Wiles this season.

Things hadn’t felt quite right for a couple of years, with a growing number of bad days on the bike mystifying herself and her Trek-Segafredo team. She had a burning sensation in her legs, a loss of power, and a drop in form.

Combined, the symptoms smothered what is a strong cycling talent.

“The last time I can remember feeling completely 100 percent myself was the races in January of 2020,” the American rider explained to VeloNews this month. “Since then, it’s been periods of good and bad that have just turned more bad than good.”

It was very confusing for Wiles, with factors as diverse as the weather and pre-ride warmups affecting her early symptoms.

“I first started to feel it about two years ago, on and off, but the good days kind of outweighed the bad days,” she said.

“Then slowly that flip-flopped to where earlier this season I could tell around training camps that I didn’t feel like myself. I knew I hadn’t overtrained because I took a huge off-season, and my nutrition had been good.”

Also read:

As we often do when something is wrong, we analyze, dissect, weigh up and adjust. Wiles and the team did everything to try to get to the bottom of the issue. She tweaked her diet, did physio and strength training, and had tests done. And then things came to a head.

“I felt bad at team camp. And then as soon as we started racing, I just couldn’t push power without extreme amounts of pain,” she said. “It had kind of gotten to a place where I couldn’t push through it anymore at all.”

Wiles’ first race was the Setmana Valenciana in mid-February. She normally enjoys stage races and went into it thinking she had a good level of fitness, but things didn’t work out.

“I would start a stage and I would just be going out the back from the beginning, which is completely out of character,” she said. “I somehow limped to the finish and made it through that stage race. But my team director, she’s been my director for four years now, we raced together when she competed and she knows me very well. She knew something was wrong.

“She’s like, ‘this is not you. I know you trained really hard. This has nothing to do with fitness, so something’s definitely wrong.’

“I would have periods of rest and then it just would be the same. We kept trying to race, me thinking maybe it will get better. But once the one-day spring classes came I couldn’t make it further than 40k in a race.

“I would do all the extremely early work and then I would just get in the car with the soigneur because I couldn’t do anymore. It was totally demoralizing.”

This year’s classics were a trudge for Wiles. (Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

A breakthrough conversation

The second turning point came soon afterward. The team had sent her for blood tests while Wiles was looking into iliac artery endofibrosis. However, what she had heard about the symptoms before didn’t seem to match up.

“I’d heard about people talking about the feeling happening in one leg, that one leg that was going dead, or your foot falls asleep, whatever. I had asked my coach could that be it? And he was like, ‘well, usually you don’t feel the thing in both legs.’

“Then I was talking to Sarah Roy and Amanda Spratt, and I just asked them. ‘I know you guys have gone through this recently. What did it feel like?’ And they both described their sensations. Immediately, I was like, ‘oh my God, this is what I have. Because that’s exactly what I feel.’

“I had never had it described as like a burning sensation in your legs. Both of them could feel it in both legs. They also sent me all this documentation that the Cyclists’ Alliance has put together, which is really good. They have a whole spreadsheet on the issue and a bunch of athletes who have given their whole experience through the whole issue and their sensations.”

Understanding iliac artery endofibrosis

Iliac artery endofibrosis is an uncommon condition that was first identified in a pro cyclist back in the 1980s. Also referred to as ‘cyclist’s iliac syndrome,’ it typically affects the external iliac arteries, which act as the main blood supply to the leg muscles.

It is a blockage that reduces the blood supply and can be caused by a thickening of the inner layer of the vessel wall or by a kinking of the artery. It is thought that the bent-over position of cyclists may make them more vulnerable to the problem than other athletes.

Also read:

The Australian Stuart O’Grady and the Irishman Ciaran Power were two of the earliest riders affected by the issue. As knowledge has grown, the number of those diagnosed with the condition has increased over time.

IN the women’s peloton, others who had surgery to correct it include Annemiek van Vleuten, Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, Amanda Spratt, and Sarah Roy.

“Getting it diagnosed is incredibly difficult, because there are only a few doctors in the world that can actually do the test and diagnose it the right way,” Wiles explained. “I went to the hospital in Girona just to get an ultrasound of the artery, but they don’t know that if you were to ultrasound the artery at rest, it will show absolutely nothing.

“It will seem like you’re completely healthy, everything is normal. But the testing you have to do is very specific to show the artery. Mine specifically was even more detailed, because I needed the ultrasound to happen after I had done squats, and then also in a flexed position with my psoas engaged. That’s something no ultrasound tech in a hospital anywhere in the world would know to do.”

Having had that confirmation of symptoms from Spratt and Roy, Wiles went to the same doctor in the Netherlands that they had worked with. She faced a long wait to be seen and another wait to schedule the surgery, but things went well.

Wiles went under the knife on June 8. Surgeons sometimes have to remove fibrotic tissue from the artery and sew in a patch, ideally harvested from the saphenous vein in the calf or groin of the patient. Fortunately for Wiles, this wasn’t necessary.

“Thankfully, when they went in mine was mostly really bad tethering to my psoas and some other muscle groups around that area. So anytime I engaged my psoas, like pulling up on your pedal stroke, it would pull my artery into like a complete S kink,” she explains.

“So they just untethered it, and they cleared it out.”

Wiles was instructed to take things extremely easy for a month and a half. She was told not to sit in a crouched position for the first fortnight, needing to stand or lie down completely flat to allow the artery to heal straight. For the first six weeks, she was instructed not to allow her heart rate to go above 100.

“Once that started to feel better, I could go for easy walks and stuff. I did a lot of slow, slow walks. And then after six weeks, I was able to jump on the bike again and just ride really easy. The first week or two I just listened to my body and just did short rides.

“But I was shocked at how good I actually felt already. I felt so bad for so long that I got used to what that feels like on the bike. Of course, I feel really slow because I’m not fit. But it’s a different kind of discomfort now, which is nice.”

‘I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished everything that I have in me yet’

Wiles has had the distraction of impending motherhood. Her long-term partner Olivia Dillon is pregnant and they will become parents in the coming weeks. It’s a nervous and exciting time, and one where they have both found themselves exercising away from the bike for the first time in a very long time. They’ve had a lot of long walks, Wiles as part of her recovery and Dillon as part of her pregnancy.

“There’s been a lot of tears and like a lot of sad days. Especially before I knew what was wrong,” she says. “I was ready to give up.

“I was just gonna stop cycling and try to start the next chapter of life. Even though that was heartbreaking because I just don’t feel like I’ve accomplished everything that I have in me yet.”

Dillon kept supporting her and encouraging her and, finally, there is light at the end of the tunnel. They will both be parents soon, and Wiles is looking forward to resuming her professional career.

She’s encouraged by how much better she should be performing. Talking to others who had the problem helped her understand that surgery was the right path, and to believe she will get back to her best.

“Sarah [Roy] was a really good resource for me,” she said. “Because she had gone through it, she is a few years out from it and she told me she’s hitting power record numbers in her training all the time. And that was the best thing that she ever did.”

Spratt had the surgery last year and was also encouraging to her. She was able to talk to Wiles about her experience and how to gradually return to training and ramp things up.

“It’s going to be a while. Because they say it’s about six months before you feel kind of like yourself again. So it’s a long journey,” she said.

“Talking to them has been, it has been really helpful. And then also my teammate Tony Gallopin came up at Flèche Wallonne. We always stay in the same hotels and we all eat together and stuff. He said, ‘I heard you have this issue.’ And he told me ‘I had it years ago and the surgery is the best thing I could have ever done.’ I won so many races after I had it corrected.’

“So hearing from people like that really, really helped make the decision.”

Wiles is ready to hit the front again (Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

Eying a comeback

Wiles is riding on feel at the moment, building up her mileage gradually through long, slow spins. She lost a lot of her core strength because of the surgery and is doing work off the bike to try to regain it. She’s also running twice a week.

She knows it will be some time before she can race again, but Trek-Segafredo has been fully supportive.

“They’ve been incredible,” she said. “I’ve been really lucky. I missed basically a whole year of racing. The last race I did was Liège-Bastogne-Liège. I did the Ardennes, just because we were short, we had a lot of illnesses on the team with COVID and then also injuries.

“I was racing, but they knew that I could only do the first 50k. So at Flèche Wallonne, I just led them into the bottom of the [Côte de] Cherave and that was all I could do. I would just do one big turn and then pull out. So I did miss the entire season.

“So many teams would just write you off and not support you, but they’ve been incredible. And I’ve re-signed for next year. So it’s all good.”

She’s got a one-year deal for now but is determined to prove her worth and secure a longer contract.

“My goal is to perform well in the January races in Australia. To start there, and to do them well.”

Talking to Wiles, the sense of relief is clear. She has taken big results in the past, including winning the Tour of the Gila and taking second in the Tour of California. Then she went into a dark hole, being unable to perform with no idea why.

“It’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve gone through mentally,” she said. “Not even just the physical aspect, but to not know what’s wrong with you. Riding my bike, something I loved and have loved forever, just became awful, because every day I would have like a little bit of hope that I would feel good. And then I would get on the bike and within 10 minutes, you know you’re just going to have to slog through every ride. Losing the joy of riding was terrible.

“So I was really happy the first two weeks that I got back on the bike. That joy came back. You remember why you love riding a bike. You feel like a little kid, and it’s just fun. And you feel fast.”

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.