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.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Big In Japan**

The email arrived in my inbox months ago. I was being invited to fly to Japan and take part in the Saitama Criterium and then race in the Japan Paracycling Cup. Both firsts for Paracycling in Japan – and both firsts for me.

There wasn’t even a second of hesitation as I hit the reply button and sent back my answer: YES. Without a doubt, yes. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and there was no way I was going to pass it up.

For those that don’t know – the Saitama Criterium is an end-of-year ‘race’ held in Saitama – on the northern outskirts of Tokyo. It is organized by ASO, who also run races such as the Tour de France. It is less of a race and more of a procession as riders follow a scripted race plan, lapping the 3km city centre circuit in front of the thousands of fans gathered to watch. Each year the Tour winner is there along with a host of other supremely talented riders. A few other local teams are also invited along for good measure.

This year as part of the festivities, they held a short time trial on the course, with one rider from each team doing a lap of the course as fast as possible. Along with the Pro riders, they also invited 7 women and 7 Paracyclists to take part. This is where I came in. I would be putting my best lap time up against the likes of Simon Geshke, Joaquim Rodriguez and yes… Chris Froome. It’s all a bit of fun, but it’s not every day you get the chance to race against top Pro riders, in front of 100,000 people!

Accompanying me on this epic journey would be fellow Irish (current) Paracycling TT and Scratch Race World Champion, Eoghan Clifford and our faithful coach Neill Delahaye.

The trip to Japan, despite the long distance, was relatively painless. Sitting on an airplane for 12 hours at a time is never a lot of fun but we got to Japan in one piece. I made sure I had very little sleep before the flight so was able to sleep a bit on the flight and arrived in Tokyo at 6:30am ready for a full day ahead.

We were met by our host, Ryuji Hiratmatsu who works with the Japan Paracycling Federation. Ryuji would be key to us enjoying our trip – and is also the key person behind the Japan Paracycling Cup that was taking place the following weekend. I’ll have more on him in my next post as he deserves his very own article.

The next few days would prove to be a whirlwind of adrenaline and jetlag. We spent a fair bit of time travelling between the hotel where we were sleeping and the hotel where our bikes were stored – just to be able to ride them on turbo trainers in a conference room! Unfortunately the city streets are a bit busy and not really conducive to proper training. All the while, trying to get over the 8 hours of jetlag we were dealing with! Fortunately we only had a couple of days of this to deal with before the festivities started.

Our second night there was spent mingling with all the other invited riders. It was a bit surreal hanging out in a hotel ballroom, eating sushi and drinking beers whilst Grand Tour podium finishers, Paris-Roubaix and Milan-San Remo winners and a host of other cycling gods walked past. I admit to be a fanboy, and I had brought a few jerseys with me to get signed by some key riders. It also gave me a brief chance to introduce myself and chat with them.

The next morning was the big day. Once again we found ourselves in our little hotel conference room, with (effectively) our backstage passes, waiting for the festivities to kick off. Pro riders wandered the hallways freely. At one point I saw Chris Froome sat on a sofa, so I headed over with my Yellow Jersey to get a signature. He invited me to sit down and we chatted for a short period of time as he (mostly) quizzed me on how I lost my leg and my cycling background. I’m not sure why but I couldn’t stop my leg from twitching – I was that nervous!

Eventually it was time to get the event started. We headed downstairs and through the hotel lobby. Throngs of fans had lined up for photos and autographs. Although not exactly for us! All the riders gathered outside the main entrance until Froome came out – and then it was time to leave. We headed out on our bikes onto the race circuit. We (myself and Eoghan) we mixed in with all the other riders. We pedaled around the race circuit in parade fashion – Froome and his teammates just off my rear wheel at times. It was surreal.

After a lap of the circuit we headed to our pit area – which was located inside a small concert arena. The race actually passes through the arena each lap in front of hundreds of seated fans all watching and cheering you on. After a brief introduction – the Paracyclists all headed back onto the course for another lap in front of the crowds. They probably had no idea who we were, but that didn’t stop them from cheering us on as we rolled past. Many of the fans at the edge of the circuit leaned out across the barriers, high-fiving me as I went past. I was loving every second of it.

After another short stop back in the pit area we were called up to the start area for the time trial. Again we rode around the circuit past the gathered crowds to a row of seats near the start ramp. I picked a seat in the long line of chairs and sat myself down to wait for my turn. As I sat there waiting, 2 of the Pro riders sat themselves down in the seats beside me to wait. Let’s just say it made for a photo opportunity I won’t soon forget.

Finally it was my turn to get underway. I rolled up onto the start ramp and waited for the clock to tick down. 5-4-3-2-1…. and off I went. This wasn’t a normal time trial. It was just one lap of a race circuit – on a road bike as fast as possible. An all-out sprint to see how fast I could go around the 3km circuit. There were several corners to negotiate, a descent and ascent under an overhead road (twice), a 180-degree turn in the road, and a passage through the arena on soft rubber floor covering.

I was riding so hard that everything was just a blur. I was pedaling as hard as I could and could barely see where I was going at times. I could hear the cheers of the crowd as I sailed past but definitely not paying much attention. Just trying to get to the finish. And it was over before I knew it.

In the end, I didn’t break any speed records. In fact, I was one of the slowest of the Paracycling riders, but as the most ‘disabled’ that was to be expected. Furthermore, riding a road bike instead of a TT bike doesn’t do me any favours but all that is irrelevant. I was only 37 seconds slower than Chris Froome – and to me – that’s a win. 

**Title is in reference to the Alphaville song “Big in Japan”.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

60 Minutes to Make History

You've probably heard of it - a LOT in the past year: the Hour Record. First it was Jens Voigt, then Matthias Brandle, Rohan Denis, Alex Dowsett and lastly Bradley Wiggins. Along the way there were also failed attempts by Jock Bobridge (an epic failure), Thomas Dekker and Gustav Larsson.

So what is the Hour Record: the furthest distance you can ride in one hour, uninterrupted, on a 250m indoor velodrome. It doesn't sound all that hard at first until you take into account you have to do it on a fixed-gear track bike. So you can't change gear when you get tired. And you have to deal with going around a corner.... every 6 seconds or so!

I've ridden hour-long time trials before. They are easy in comparison. You can drink, eat a gel if you need to, change position, stay cool from the breeze, change cadence, get a break if there is a tailwind, and so on. On the track you have none of that - you have to pre-select the one gear you want to use and stick with it. No food or drink. Just a steadily increasing diet of pain and suffering.

The current record for my Paracycling category (MC2) is held by Laurent Thirionet of France and was set all the way back in 1999. It stands at 41km31m.  It may not sound like a long way (especially in comparison to Wiggins' 54.5km) but keep in mind that we effectively pedal with ONE leg (I have one prosthetic leg and one leg that has no function below the knee). There is a huge, personal extra incentive to break this particular record: Thirionet was the rider that snatched the Bronze Medal from me when he beat me by 1/10th of a second in the Individual Pursuit finals in London 2012.

Before committing to a formal attempt I decided it would be a good idea to do a dry run, to see exactly what it would feel like and how far I could go. I set off with a target in mind and a pace to match. For the first 20 minutes I circled the track with (relative) ease - hitting the lap splits I had in mind. As I got to the middle 20 minutes I thought I had better ease off a bit to make sure I could finish the effort. As soon as I slowed down it started to get harder. The ease at which I had been spinning the gear previously was replaced with a slight heaviness as I now had to push the gear at a slower cadence. I could really feel it now.

On top of this, the strain on my upper body from trying to hold myself crouched in an aero position, especially through the corners, was becoming unbearable. I found myself having to sit up every so often to ease the pain and give myself a chance to breathe better.

But still I soldiered on. The lap times tumbled dramatically at times but I kept on going. It was all about getting to the end of the hour, no matter how slow it might be. As I headed towards the final 15 minutes I was starting to become mildly delirious. I had to really focus on what I was doing. I was lucky to have teammates there shouting me on.

And at last.... the hour was up. It was certainly a telling experience. Nowhere near as easy as I thought it would - but the distance I did was good enough for me to commit to doing a formal attempt. And to putting in the specific training I would need to do to make sure I do a credible attempt.

In truth, I have been planning this attempt for the past year, and it has been on my mind in one form or another for several years. But formal planning started to take shape a year ago. I had actually wanted to spend several months preparing specifically for the attempt, but got sidetracked with things like the World Championships and a trip to Brazil to look at some Rio 2016 training venues. But even these 'distractions' were used as training opportunities.

In the last few weeks I travelled to Palma to do track-specific work. Spending 3 sessions a week on the track, doing long blocks of work above my desired pace. Getting comfortable (if such a thing is possible) riding lap after lap in the aero position and testing out different gearing options. And when not on the track, out on the roads for several hours a day working on my endurance.

And now, the attempt is just a few days away. A year of thinking, planning and worrying will come to a close one way or other. I am confident I have done the work needed to put in a good ride, but as I've seen many a time – anything can happen on the day. I have to be super-vigilant to not start too hard as I'll be feeling great – because a fast start will mean a painfully slow finish and can blow the whole thing.

Furthermore, there is a cost associated with this. It's not cheap to do an attempt. So if you get it wrong, you're out of pocket a hefty sum of money. Get it right, and your name goes int he record books.

I'm hoping people will tune in to watch (just the end at least). It'll be steamed live with the help of a company called "A Crew of a Few Productions". The link to watch is:

suppose the last question is: WHY!?

The answer is complex, yet simple. I want to show people what I can do. With Rio 2016 on the horizon (and another Track World Championships in March before that) I want people to start thinking about Paracycling again. Paracycling was one of the highlights of London 2012, and will be again in Rio. I want people to see what we do and realise how hard it is.

There is the selfish aspect also - I want a world record. I want to write my name in the history books. I've won world titles and (hopefully) will win a Paralympic medal. To add this to my palmares would be a huge honour.

And... I want other paracyclists to have a go. There are very few Hour Record attempts made by paracycling riders, but more should have a go. Maybe this will encourage more people to think about doing it. 

Lastly, I'm hoping to showcase what I can do for my sponsors (current and potential future ones). Rio 2016 is a great opportunity for companies to support world-class Paralympians, and I have a great chance to do well there. I want sponsors to look at me (and other Paralympians) and see the potential we have to succeed, and for them to associate their products with elite and inspiration athletes.

So - tune in on October 10. The festivities should kick off around 1:00PM GMT. Or if you want to come and watch in person - just rock up to the Manchester Velodrome and buy a ticket at the door. It's £10 - and you can make a day of it (The World Masters Track Championships are on all day so it's not just me riding around!)

I'll have another post up soon to thank all the people that have made this happen - and hopefully to report on a new World Record!