Ravell Call, Deseret Morning News
Saul Raisin, pro cyclist, suffered a near-death accident in Europe and has returned to Utah to train.

It was barely 15 months ago that Saul Raisin was in a coma.

Surgeons in France performed emergency surgery to relieve pressure on his brain from fluids that had built up following a horrific crash during the Circuit de la Sarthe cycling race.

The injury and following surgery left Raisin unable to walk, feed himself or do many of the normal, everyday tasks a world-class athlete takes for granted.

Riding a bike, as you might imagine, was out of the question.

On July 7, Raisin — who had a portion of his right temporal lobe removed and still suffers from some of the lingering effects of the injury — will make his return to competitive cycling at the Porcupine Hill Climb. The race, which starts at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon and ends almost 15 miles and 3,800 feet of elevation gain later at Brighton Ski Resort, presents Raisin with what he calls a "safe" race.

"This isn't an 'I'm back' race," Raisin said. "But it's going to be a huge test for me physically and mentally ... I chose this race because it seemed like a race with not much risk to it. It's not dangerous."

Perhaps coincidentally, the men Raisin used to race with and against will begin the Tour de France at almost the exact same time in London with the prologue stage of the grand tour.

Raisin's life was once hanging by such a thin thread his parents were discussing organ donation options with European doctors before he came out of the coma.

And while Raisin's comeback story is taking off at the Porcupine Hill Climb, it began almost as soon as he returned from France after the accident.

For many, the name Saul Raisin is not a familiar one. For cycling enthusiasts, though, he is a star, and one of only a handful of Americans racing for the biggest cycling teams in the world.

A Georgia native, Raisin has now made Salt Lake City his home as he trains to rejoin the European pro tour. Once considered the next big thing in American cycling, Raisin won numerous races before signing a multi-year contract with Credit Agricole — one of the top cycling teams in the world. He was sent to prestigious races around the world and was fast moving up the team's list of riders, expecting a spot in races such as the Tour de France this year.

"I was doing pretty well," Raisin said. "I was racing hard and things looked pretty good."

Raisin often wears custom-designed cycling socks and gear that say "Raisin Hell" on them to reflect the risks associated with the high-speed, low-protection sport. Now, though, he also wears custom bracelets like Lance Armstrong's LiveStrong bracelets. His are imprinted with "Raisin Hope."

Raisin's recovery took a big step forward this spring when he rode ahead of the peloton at the Tour of California. His subsequent Raisin Hope charity ride helped raise more than $30,000 for a variety of charities. On his way home to Georgia, he met Aleeza Zabriskie in the airport. Aleeza is the younger sister of Salt Lake's David Zabriskie — among the best cyclists in the world.

The two hit it off immediately and soon Raisin decided to move to Salt Lake and train in the canyons of the Beehive State for his return to the pro cycling peloton.

"I love it here," he said. "I really think this is a cyclist's dream with all the canyons and mountains. You have bike lanes all over the place. It's a perfect place to train for my comeback."

He has spent hours training with and being evaluated by doctors and cycling experts like Massimo Testa and Eric Heidin at TOSH. He's been evaluated by top national cycling coaches as well as brain injury experts to make sure he has the mental skills needed to keep up with the demanding physical expectations he'll have in pelotons of tightly packed cyclists going more than 50 miles per hour down a mountain or around a corner.

One hard hit to the head could, understandably, kill him.

Raisin is going back to racing against his family's desires.

"I get worried every time he gets on a bike," Jim Raisin, his father and frequent cycling companion, said during a ride up Emigration Canyon on Friday. "But, he's been doing dangerous things that kind of scared us all his life. So I guess this isn't anything different."

In fact, for Saul, riding his bike competitively again is something he feels compelled to do.

"I feel God has given me a second chance for a reason," he said. "Even if I never win again, I want to help other people to show them that a brain injury is not the end. Life is not over."

It's not uncommon to see Raisin wearing his Credit Agricole racing uniform as he speeds along a road. He's found many training friends in the area including pro Burke Swindlehurst, junior cyclists T.J. Eisenhart and Connor O'Leary and others.

One person Raisin has not been on a training ride with, however, is his future brother in law. Though he competed directly against Dave Zabriskie numerous times in Europe before the accident, distance and schedules have kept the two future family members apart since Raisin and Aleeza became engaged on April 5 — exactly one year and one day after the accident that nearly killed him.

"I think it will be great to go riding with him and learn from him," Raisin said. "He's probably the best time trial racer in the world. So there's a lot I can learn from him."

Raisin said he is thrilled to be given permission from medical advisors to race again. There was a time, after all, that he thought it was an impossibility.

"While I was in the hospital, after the surgery, I just asked God to let me live a normal life again," he said. "Getting back on a bike wasn't even in the scheme of things."

A natural climber — Raisin is a small cyclist, just 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds — with unusually large heart and lungs, he is able to power his way up Big Cottonwood Canyon with ease. Last year's winner, local pro cyclist Jeff Louder, motored up the hill in 61 minutes. Raisin said he's made the climb recently in less than 55, and while he said "I'm not really a super competitive kind of person," he wants to win his first race back.

"Just taking the start line is going to be a victory for me," Raisin said. "I'm worried about doing my best and nothing else."

Porcupine Hill Climb

When: July 7, 7 a.m. citizens, 8 a.m. licensed riders

Starting point: 3690 Ft. Union Blvd. (14.7 Miles, 3,800 feet of elevation gain)

Info: PorcupineCycling.com

E-mail: jeborn@desnews.com