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.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Not Now, I'm Busy... Busy Living.

I’ll admit to being a cynical person at times. In my (short) career as a Paracycling rider, I have seen people do amazing things on a bike. I have been out-ridden and put to shame by a guy with one arm and one leg. I have seen men in wheelchairs descend mountain passes on a handcycle faster than I can on my (speedy) road bike. And have been outsprinted to the finish line time and again by riders with one leg.

When you’re surrounded by such talented individuals who constantly push you to your limits, it’s hard to by inspired by them as they are your equals in many ways. You don’t look up to them so much as you just want to beat them! But to many others who look at our feats on a bike - we are inspirational in all that we do.

My point is, it can be very difficult to meet people that inspire ME. People who have a story or back ground that jumps out oat you - or are doing things under such difficult circumstances that it makes you stop in your tracks and re-examine everything you are doing in your own life.

But Matt Hampson is one of those people.

Most people outside the UK (or even IN the UK) probably won’t have heard of Matt. He was a talented rugby player with a bright future ahead of him, until a freak training accident in 2005. Whilst preparing for an England U21 Six Nations match, a scrum collapsed on him dislocating his neck and severing his spinal cord. The resultant injuries left him paralysed from the neck down and breathing via the aid of a ventilator.

Matt spent almost 2 years recovering from the injury. And whilst confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, he hasn’t let his injuries slow him to a grinding halt as you might expect. He set up a charitable Foundation ( so that others who have suffered similar catastrophic injuries through sport can receive support and assistance. 

As well as his Foundation duties which include, visiting, mentoring, providing advice and fundraising, Matt delivers inspirational talks to young people and businesses around the country. He is also a forwards coach at Oakham School and Oakham Rugby Club, an ambassador for both the RFU's injured Players Fund and Restart (The Professional Rugby Association's charity), Patron of Special Effect: a charity set up to help disabled children communicate through technology.

The Foundation has a driving ethos – to help people “Get Busy Living”. And whilst it normally has the express goal of helping younger, disabled people get into sport, it occasionally also helps people like me; the more ‘established’ athlete that needs an extra push to keep achieving their potential.

I approached the Foundation earlier this year with the hope of receiving some assistance with the purchase of some of my equipment for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Most people see my successes and podium finishes, but don’t realise the amount of financial resources that go into it. Virtually ALL my equipment is purchased by myself, and at the level I race at, it’s crucial to have to have the best possible equipment. Giving away valuable seconds in races due to sub-standard equipment would be a complete waste of all the training that we do in order to be our best.

I was invited up to the Foundation HQ back in February to meet with Matt. I’ll admit I didn’t know what to expect. After meeting Tommy Cawston (CEO of the Foundation), I was introduced to Matt. They asked me to tell them my story and my background. As someone who lost a leg from playing rugby, I felt a certain kinship with Matt. It’s true that my situation and injuries pale in comparison, but at the root of it all, we were both just young adults with a certain gift for athletic endeavors, injured playing a sport we loved and left to deal with the aftermath.

And while I was there to talk about myself and try and convince these gentlemen that I was somehow worthy of their support, I couldn’t help but feel in awe of Matt and what he was doing to help others. As we spoke about what the Foundation does - and how I could play a role in inspiring other youngsters to be better and achieve their own goals (which isn’t always about racing at the highest level of the sport - sometimes it’s just about coming to terms with their injury and getting active again), I felt my creative juices begin to flow again. 

All of a sudden it was no longer about myself and what I needed – it was about what I could do to help the next generation of disabled athlete achieve their goals. This was a defining moment for me – I had found someone to inspire ME. Someone that made we want to be a better person and give back instead of just taking. Here was an organisation that I wanted to be involved with; that would allow me to use my status as a Paralympic athlete to help improve the lives of kids who had suffered terrible injuries and were looking take back control of their lives and get involved in sport again.

So, for their part, the Foundation has helped me out with a generous donation that has helped purchase some of the much-needed equipment I’ll use for racing in Rio (and in the run-up to it). Without a doubt this equipment will have a big impact on my performances. And for my part, I’ve found an organisation I can get behind and stay involved with not just this year, but for many years to come. 

I can’t wait to get out there with the Foundation, and help other people Get Busy Living!

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”.