For those who know Heidi Franz, it’s only natural that she has emerged as a talented all-rounder in just her third pro season. The motivation to push for that extra mile runs deep in her family thanks to an incredible role model: her father.
For Heidi’s father Ernie Franz, an avid rider for most of his life, the bike has always been a source of joy and freedom. But in 2004, cycling took on a new meaning for Ernie and the Franz family. While out riding on a calm Monday afternoon, Ernie Franz was hit by a drunk driver, sustaining serious injuries that would affect his use of all four limbs.
Despite this tragedy, cycling became Ernie’s pathway back to living a full, healthy life – and Heidi grew up watching her father’s perseverance and determination every step of the way. Now, both riders inspire each other to keep thriving on the bike.
Ernie’s initial road to recovery was filled with four months of operations to repair multiple fractures. The accident changed his life forever.
“Surgeries and hardware would restore much of my health, yet a high spinal cord injury would leave me an incomplete quadriplegic and end my career,” Ernie said.
As a trauma doctor, Franz had spent plenty of time working in the hospital, but his injuries changed things.
“He could no longer work in the ER,” Heidi said. “He ended up breaking both his arms, among other things, had severe nerve damage in his left arm, and that’s really what keeps him out of the emergency room, that he can’t use his left hand very well.”
Ernie went home from the hospital in a wheelchair, but with the hope that he would get back to walking at some point after a long rehab process. He did not waste time getting to work to make that hope a reality.
“The day I got home from the hospital, my physical therapist came to our home, told me my vacation was over, and that it was time to get to work,” Ernie says. “He figured out quickly what would motivate me: cycling.”
Over the course of several weeks, Franz worked his way from a recumbent trainer to riding on the road in a recumbent tandem with his physical trainer. As Heidi put it, “my dad was super determined to get back on his bike,” and at age nine she had a front-row seat to her dad’s hard work.
That hard work paid off. Within a year, he was strong enough to take on the “Chilly Hilly” ride around Bainbridge Island on a tandem bike with his physical trainer. A young Heidi Franz would not miss the chance to take to the road alongside her dad. She tackled the challenge too, on her mountain bike.
“It’s 33 miles and almost 4000 feet of elevation gain,” she recalls. “I walked up every single hill. It took me six hours… I was nine. But I did all 33 miles of it.”
Heidi grew up with more than one source of inspiration to draw from. Her mother, Gwen, was the loving, supportive, and hardworking center of their family.
“My mom was the backbone of the family while we all went through my dad’s recovery,” said Heidi. “I really looked up to her as someone who sacrificed a lot to take care of my dad and to encourage him to pursue his dreams while raising me and my two siblings.”
Heidi would ultimately try her hand at racing in her junior year of college. She was quick to find success in the collegiate ranks and was able to enjoy it alongside her dad who worked his way not only back to riding, but even to racing at para cycling events nationally.
In 2017, when collegiate nationals and para cycling nationals were both held in Grand Junction, Colorado, Heidi won a collegiate title and Ernie rode to bronze medals in both the time trial and the road race in his para cycling category, C3.
After college, Heidi turned pro.
“When I’m suffering on the bike, when I’m at a race and I’m like, ‘Man this really hurts, it’s really bad,’ it just puts it in so much perspective, watching my dad work so hard to get back to doing that same thing,” Heidi said. It’s a sentiment Ernie echoes.
“She motivates me to ride and to keep competing, and perhaps I can be a role model to her by my refusal to quit, even when it looks like there is no clear path ahead,” he said.
As an emerging talent in the pro ranks, Heidi relies on an “underlying competitive edge” to find that next level on the road. She suspects she inherited it from Ernie, who always found time to “squeeze in another rep or another half hour on the bike.”
Last year, she gave her father even more reasons to be both proud and inspired. Following a strong offseason, and in her sophomore season year with Rally Cycling, it didn’t take long for a big win to come.
During stage 2 of the 2019 Tour of the Gila, Franz jumped into a breakaway and followed one of her fellow escapees on the attack to form a two-rider lead group that would make it all the way to the line. There was no touching Franz on the finishing straight.
The victory was the team’s first UCI win of 2019, and Franz’s first win of her professional career. But just as Ernie Franz didn’t stop at simply getting back on the bike, don’t expect Heidi to rest on her laurels. There’s plenty of racing left in her legs, and she’ll be as motivated as ever to rack up more results with the inspiration of Ernie’s perseverance just a thought away.