When I began racing against other disabled cyclists a few years ago I was really bad. I mean REALLY bad. I was overweight, slow, constantly out of breath, unable to keep up and usually finished well back of everyone else. But I stuck with it, trained harder (and smarter) and eventually got better.
Next came the transition from local disability racing to international racing. The step up was immense. I couldn't believe how much better these guys are than what I was used to! When I first started with the Irish team – I had 2 goals: to race for Ireland in ANY race – and secondly to make it to the World Championships (as it was being held in Canada where I grew up). Since then my goals have grown considerably as I now want to medal at the Paralympics, but this is a look back at the World Championships last August in Baie Comeau, Canada.
Baie Comeau is about 600 miles North-East of Montreal, Quebec in Canada. Getting there was a competition in itself! 7 hour flight from Manchester to New York, 4 hour layover, then another flight to Montreal. On arrival in Montreal, met with the rest of my squad who had flown from Dublin. We all packed our kit onto a charter bus and settled in for the 10 hour drive to our hotel. All told – it was over 24 hours of traveling before arriving at our destination.
The squad consisted of 2 male tandems, 1 female tandem, 3 solo bikes and 2 handcycles, plus coaches, our masseuse, mechanic and team manager.
We decided to travel to Canada two weeks before the actual competition so that we could have a training camp prior to racing – and spend as much time as possible training on the actual course to get familiar with it.
Now, the course itself was by far the hardest thing I have ever encountered in a race. It was a circuit of about 12 miles long with two climbs – the second being about a mile long with a gradient of up to 15% in parts. It was the type of climb that would break the legs off even the most accomplished cyclist, let alone a one-legged wonder like myself! To give you an idea of how brutal it was – on the way up the climb I was going about 6 MPH. Going down the other side.... I was doing 50 MPH! The time trial consisted of 2 laps of the circuit, while the road race meant going around it 5 times.
This is a BIG event. It is a UCI event – and all the very best paracylists in the world are there. The competition to win a coveted striped jersey is intense. For me personally – I was there for the experience. As one of the heaviest riders in attendance, the massive hill was always going to be a problem for me. In fact, hills have always been my greatest weakness. On the flat road I can easily hold my own and have a decent sprint on me, but as soon as the road goes uphill.... I go backwards.
That was to be the case in Canada. I respectfully call myself a good time trialist – when the road is flat. But that hill was the death of me. Especially on the second lap – I just wanted to die going up it. Heart pounding, legs burning, eyes popping out of my head.... and the road just goes up and up. Still, the support of all the spectators yelling at you from the side of the road drives you on. You dig deeper than you ever thought possible and carry on.
For me, there was an added incentive to do well. My mother and her mother-in-law had travelled there to watch me race. As my mother lives in Canada (and I live in the UK), she had never seen me race. And even at almost 40 years old – I still felt the need to show off and do well in front of her! (Pic is my coach, my mother and my team manager after the road race.)
So... in the end, I finished 12th in the time trial. I was gutted as I had hoped for at least a top 10 finish, especially after placing 9th in the previous World Cup event in Spain. (And managed 2nd place on a flat course a few weeks after in Kent!)
The following day I had to regroup, put the TT behind me and get back on the bike for the road race. It's a 'combined' event - with riders from 3 different disability classes all setting off together. (We wear different coloured helmets to distinguish what class we are in). I was dreading having to go up that hill 5 times - but thought if I just rode a steady pace up it, I can hang in there. I was in the shape of my life (despite having a somewhat swollen undercarriage as the result of an infection) and was raring to go.
The crowds on the day were massive. Like nothing I had ever seen. I was used to races with a handful of supporters - not hundreds! I made sure to line up right in front and get away as quickly as possible. Probably a good thing as there was a crash right at the start (left side of the photo – I'm in green on the right side). As the peleton headed up the first climb I was right at the front – not struggling at all. I remember thinking to myself that if it carries on like this - I'll be in great shape and have a chance.
But as we hit the base of the second (killer) climb – everyone blew by me like I was standing still. I just looked up and all I could see was people riding away from me. Arrrgghh! I figured if I got up the climb in reasonable time, I would be able to catch up on the downhill section. I tend to go downhill quite fast due to gravity hauling my overweight body towards it's core!
I ended up in a small group of riders and we worked together the rest of the day. The first few times up the hill they would pull away from me, but I would always catch them on the downhill. By the last time I was able to stay with them both going up and down the hills. As we approached the finish line, several riders kept trying to break away and sprint for the finish, but I managed to latch onto their wheel every time. As we rounded the final corner into the home stretch, I was leading out the group. I saw the line....put my head down.... and sprinted as hard as I could. I crossed the line ahead of the other riders. Of course, we were well back of the main group - but this was my consolation prize - and proof to myself that I never give up. Race to the final second.
So what did I learn? I learned that I AM good enough to compete at this level, but far too heavy. If I want to be a real contender, I need to drop some weight so I can stay with the main groups on the climbs. I learned the value of teammates (a discussion for another time). I learned that self-belief can be more important than ability. And I learned that if I want to win, I have to work harder than the other guys.
I also want to share.... that the squad had some mixed results as a whole. Some bad luck and broken chains hurt our tandem riders. We had a 5th place for one rider in the TT and most importantly – we came home with a World Champion! Mark Rohan won his road race in the H2 Handcycle competition. The boost his win gave to the team was incredible and a real accomplishment for him and Irish cycling.
I didn't travel back to Ireland with the rest of the squad, but as you can see from the photo - they get one hell of a reception! I hope to get one like that myself one day!
I'm now in the middle of my winter training, slowly losing weight and getting stronger. The next World CHampionships on the road is next September in Denmark - on a flat course that should suit my riding style a lot better, but first up is the World's on the track in March. A competition that doesn't penalize a rider for being too big! So maybe my parade is coming.... :)
And if you have the time and patience - below is a video showing some of the highlights from Canada. And when you see people walking up the hills faster than the cyclists are riding up it – it's not because they are unfit. It's just that the hill was THAT steep! (Just ignore the brief introduction in French)