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Off to the Races

Mountain biker with mild hemophilia hopes to turn pro

By Melanie Padgett Powers | 12.28.2011
Originally Published December 2011

HemAware “Takes 5” with people in the bleeding disorders community and spotlights their efforts with just five questions. Here, we talk with Max Syron, who competes in downhill mountain bike racing. Syron, 20, of Rockport, Massachusetts, has mild hemophilia A. He is a junior at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, where he is majoring in sculpture. His younger brother, Ray, 17, also races. He is unaffected by hemophilia.

How did you get into mountain biking?

My dad had always ridden bikes, so my brother and I were always riding bikes around. Then, we started making jumps and riding in the woods a lot more. When I was about 16, we saw an advertisement and went to a race at Mt. Snow in Vermont. We were hooked after that, and we started racing a lot. My brother and I both placed on the podium in our first two races. We did about six or seven races that first year and started doing downhill the year after; that’s the majority of what we’re doing now.

Downhill mountain biking is usually on a ski mountain. You take the lift up. You don’t usually ride right down the ski trail, but you actually go back and forth across the hill in woods on narrower trails. It’s anything from smooth, rolling sections that you can jump off of rollers, or rocky, sharp turns and rooty, steep shoots. It’s really a mix.

We do two different race series that go up and down the East Coast. One is primarily in the Northeast, called the Eastern States Cup. Then there’s the race series called Gravity East that goes all the way down to Pennsylvania and West Virginia and up to New York and New Hampshire. In both of those series, I had been in the top three overall points lead in 2011. There are four different classes: beginner, sport, expert and pro. I race in the 19–29 age group, in the expert class. Expert is a pretty fast class, and there are usually anywhere from 14–24 guys in my class every race.

Did you or your parents have any concerns because of your hemophilia?

Before I was mountain biking a lot, I had played soccer, Rollerbladed and skied, so I’ve always been pretty active. I had to learn to infuse about six years ago by myself so I wouldn’t have to go to the ER every time I got hurt. Also, for these sports, I would have to infuse prophylactically before an activity because of a high risk of injuries. I still do that before I mountain bike. Mountain bikers always wear kneepads and helmets, and when we’re racing downhill, we wear chest protectors, elbow pads and a neck brace so you can’t overextend your neck. We also wear full-face helmets like motorcycle helmets, so we’re pretty well padded. I wear hip shorts under my pants, which not a lot of racers do; they’re padded shorts with a little protection on your hips and the top of your thighs. A lot of times if you crash you’ll hit your legs on the handlebars, and the handlebars are the perfect instruments for making deep bruises in your legs, so those hip shorts help a lot.

I get a fair amount of bruises; I don’t have any target joints. It helps that I prophylactically infuse. I will infuse on Saturday morning, practice on Saturday and then race on Sunday. My factor goes down on Sunday, so if I take a harder crash or am sore, I’ll usually infuse Sunday night. That’s worked pretty well for me when I’m mountain biking.

How did this season go?

This season was going really well. We went to Canada the last weekend of June to this really intense mountain, and after that I got a lot more confidence. I podiumed at almost all the races, and I won my second-to-last race. And then I broke my arm.

It was a Sunday morning in mid-August at Killington Mountain in Vermont. You practice all day Saturday, and you get a couple of runs on Sunday morning to practice before your one race run. I was following my brother, and I didn’t jump high enough over a bump. It hit my back wheel, and I ended up going off another big bump on my front wheel and then flipping over.

My arm didn’t swell up immediately, and it was the only thing I hurt, which was really lucky, because I was going pretty fast. By the time I got to the hospital, it had swollen up a lot more and they knew it was a break. I cracked the end of my radius. They needed to pin it through surgery so I wouldn’t have joint problems later. Then, when they went in for surgery, they realized a tendon had pulled a piece of bone off, so they had to pin the piece back on. So that’s going to be the injury that’s going to take longer to heal. My doctor at Tufts Medical Center set up a big infusion schedule for my surgery.

What’s the outlook for next season?

I’m going to start off next season in the expert class, I’m pretty sure, but I feel like halfway through the season or the end of next season, I’ll be ready to turn professional. But besides turning professional, I don’t have any huge goals for racing at any higher level or becoming a dedicated mountain biker, as if that was my job. I know it’s possible, and my brother’s really trying for that. I would have to commit a lot more, and I’m also very interested in my art and working on that.

Do you think mountain biking has helped your hemophilia?

I used to play baseball and soccer a lot, but I got injured in those team sports in high school and ended up doing a lot more mountain biking. In the winter, I’m an Alpine skier and telemark skier, so I’m exercising a lot.

I feel like from mountain biking and skiing a lot, I’ve gotten stronger, which has prevented me from having other injuries. I’m always going to get bruises, but it’s helped me from pulling and tearing things. So, keeping in good shape does help.