637 Days To Go is my blog, which was originally started with exactly 637 days until the start of the London 2012 Paralympic Games. And now it's been re-started with 637 days until the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

No man is an island

I've said it many times before: cycling is primarily an individual sport. You do the training as an individual and you race as an individual. You might have the benefit of some help from a teammate in a race, but at the end of it all, you are the one that has to turn the pedals... all by yourself. But there is so much more to the sport than what happens ON the bike – and your teammates can play a vital role in you life OFF the bike. And their help and influence at these time can make performing in races, when it matters most, a lot easier.

The Irish Paracycling Team is a small, but dedicated group of people. It has grown significantly over the years and as of today stands at 12 riders: 2 male and 2 female tandems, 3 solo bikes and one handcyclist. It is a team full of different personalities and ways of dealing with things, and at times there is conflict between the different personalities, but when you need support, someone always has your back.

I have been involved with the team for the past few years and it has not always been easy. I think there is always an element of distrust when someone new enters the group, particularly when they don't even live in the same country! Add to the mix that my personality can set people on edge, particularly when they don't know me and it's easy to see how I might have struggled to fit in. I found it difficult initially to get to know people and embrace the group dynamic. However, as time passed, despite there remaining conflicts with people at times, I was able to find my place in the team. 

For the record – I want to state unequivocally that I respect the effort and ability of every single one of my teammates. Just because they aren't all winning medals (yet), does not in any way diminish their contribution to the team. I am lucky to be a World Champion and this is partly due to being in a category that is possibly less competitive than the categories that some of my teammates race in. Most (if not all) of them are far better cyclists than I am. I race in the most 'disabled' category out of everyone (except for the handcyclist, but that's a different ball of wax), so it stands to reason that I would be the least talented rider in a straight-up comparison. But it goes beyond that – there are fewer competitors in my category, and even fewer still genuine contenders. On any given day, I may only have to beat 4 or 5 really good riders, whilst my teammates may have to beat more than 10 (and sometimes closer to 20) world-class riders in order to win. 

So how do teammates help you become a better rider off the bike? I can only give my personal perspective on this. Going from racing locally with little or no formal coaching, to racing on the international scene, with the demands of training and travel and the pressures that come with this, can be a difficult transition. There is a lot to learn – whether it be race tactics or race preparation – and having experienced people to help you along the way is a massive asset. Being able to ask questions from fellow riders who have been through it all themselves in the past and draw from their experience is a big aid when it comes to gaining a level of comfort that can ease the pressure.

One person in particular has helped me over the past two years. Cathal Miller has been a part of the squad for longer than he would care to admit and as a fellow solo bike, we often get paired up together for room assignments. I have spent hours coped up in hotel rooms with him with little else to talk about than race tactics, how to best prepare for a race, what to do after, what to wear, how to travel, what to eat and so on. There is only so much a coach will tell you so it is down to the guidance of your fellow teammates sometimes for you to get the crucial knowledge you need to succeed at the top level of racing.

But it's not just the nuts and bolts of riding and racing that you need help with. You need fun and interesting people to pass the time with. Training camps and being away for competition usually involve long periods of hanging around hotels with too much time to kill. If you're away in a country with no english TV channels, the time can pass even more slowly. You have to rely on the company of your teammates to pass the time, and during these long downtime periods, there is nothing better than to have someone like my other fellow solo bike teammate Enda Smyth around. If this gent can't bring a smile to your face, then you are brain dead. Possibly the funniest person I have ever met – being around him is always a laugh a minute. The guy can bring up the mood of any room he is in. 

At the last World Championships, we had mini-apartments for accommodation, with 4 of us sharing a living space. I was in one room with Mark Rohan – our double World Champion handcyclist, and the other room had the tandem pairing of James Brown and Con Collis in it. It was a real pleasure sharing living space with these guys – just having extra people to chat with and get support from before my races – made the time pass quickly and kept my mind off the task at hand until I was ready to focus.

Rooming with different people also gives you different perspectives on life away from the team. We all live and train differently, but it's nice to see what the other guys do and try and pick up tips from them. And it can be good to see how they deal with the pressures of trying to succeed, or (in the case of Mark) how to deal with the pressure when you have achieved great success and everyone wants piece of you.

There is even an element of friendly competition between us that can help you improve. We (if only secretly) are usually trying to outdo each other on the bike. This drives us to become stronger and better. We celebrate each other's successes and commiserate each other's losses. I have watched teammates like the female tandem pairing of Catherine Walsh and Fran Meehan succeed, and thought to myself that I wanted to be like them and be on the podium. And have felt the heartbreak that other riders have felt when their race didn't go to plan and they didn't get the result they needed or wanted.

And so, while I am glad that I have found a bit of success in my career so far and plan to have a lot more in the future, I don't think I would have come this far without the help and support of my teammates. Life is a lot easier and more interesting these days now that I get along with all of them. And as new riders become a part of the team, I will try my best to help them fit in and share some of my experiences with them so that one day they may be able to look back on their early days and know that things went smoothly for them because they had a little bit of help from their 'friends'.

The team arrives home after the last World Championships in Denmark.

From L-R: Con Collis (tandem pilot), Fion Kirby (masseuse), Damian Shaw (tandem pilot), Cathal Miller (C5),
Enda Smyth (C3), Louise Moriarty (tandem pilot), Andy Fitzgerald (tandem stoker), Trix Schwedler (C5),
Denis Toomey (manager), Brian Nugent (coach).

Front row: Fran Meehan (tandem pilot), Mark Rohan (handcycle), Catherine Walsh (tandem stoker).

Absent: Katie-George Dunlevy (tandem stoker), James Brown (tandem stoker) and myself.