Bike

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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.



Thursday, 1 December 2011

Happy Birthday to.... this blog!

It was one year ago today that I made my first post on this blog. And what a year it has been. No better time than today to look back and reflect on the past year!

When I started this blog, it was my intention to chronicle my journey to qualifying for, and ultimately participating in the London 2012 Paralympics. A year ago I had no idea if I would be riding in the Paralympics, let alone if I would remain a member of the Irish Paracycling team. The 2010 Road World Championships in Canada hadn't gone well for me and I was questioning whether or not I had a future in the sport. But I decided to train hard over the winter and give myself one more kick at the can at the Track World Championships last March. If I didn't get some results there, I would pack it in.

A hard winter of training paid dividends and I managed two 6th place finishes in my track events, putting me back in the picture for London and giving me a spot on the Paracycling squad for the upcoming season. There was a glimmer of life in my cycling career after all! But this was just the start of the hard work, and the start what has been a fantastic year of competition.

I got to work straight away – putting in place a plan that would (hopefully) lead me to achieving my goals for the year. First up, I had to address the issue of my artificial leg. I didn't have a cycling-specific prosthetic and this was costing me valuable time and energy in races. As chronicled here, I contacted Pace Rehabilitation and together we designed and built a purpose-built custom carbon cycling leg. Over time this would prove to be a turning point in my career. 

The leg was put through it's paces shortly thereafter when I travelled to Australia for the first World Cup race of the season. The number of riders there was smaller than usual and the level of competition not as great as at the World Championships, but I still came away with a 2nd place finish in the road race. But it was the following day, in the time trial, that the first big surprise of the year came. I managed to beat the reigning World Champion for the first of what would turn out to be many times. It was proof-positive that I was on the right track to success and that the new leg was doing it's job. And it proved to me that I had what it takes to win on the big stage. It was the confidence boost I needed to keep me going through the rest of the season.

It wasn't all gold medals this year though. The next World Cup race in Spain saw things go rather differently. Frustratingly I managed a silver medal in the time trial, losing out by a mere 0.4 of a second. And the following day in the road race, on a course that actually suited me well, I broke a spoke and finished well out of the points. I managed to hold onto the World Cup overall lead, but it now would require a small miracle to win the overall tittle.

It was in search of the overall win that saw me travel to Canada in July for the final stop of the World Cup series. I was back at the site of perhaps my greatest failing – the site of the World Championships almost a year earlier that had nearly broke me and made me give up cycling for good. And even though my races went significantly better this time around, I still fell short of the points I needed to win the title. Still – it was a good lesson to me, and losing there taught me not to assume I would win every race, and showed me that I would have to work even harder if I wanted to win the World Championships.

September meant another trip to the World Championships – this time on the relatively flat roads of Denmark. It was a contest I had been preparing for, in one form or another, for a whole year. Since I found out where it was going to be, I knew that I had a chance to win. I knew I had to work for it, but with the right preparation I was confident I could pull out a win. And I didn't disappoint! I achieved my year-long target of a win in the World's in the time trial.

And so – a year ago the blog was a chance to remind myself of my struggles as a disabled cyclist and document my attempts to qualify for the Paralympics, but since then it has grown to be so much more. By virtue of my win in Denmark and my performances this past year, I have assured myself of a spot on the team in London (assuming I maintain my fitness and results of course!). So now the focus of the blog has shifted somewhat to looking at my preparations for my remaining competitions (Track World Championships in Los Angeles in February) and then London.

But it also now gives a chance to thank some of the great companies that have come on board to sponsor me with equipment. I enjoy being able to review the products I use and share my impressions of them – as well as why I use them and why I recommend them – with the public.

One year down, and only 272 days to go now. I know the Games will be here before I know it and even though there is a massive amount of training and racing to be done before walking into the Olympic stadium next August, the excitement builds on a daily basis now. No longer are the Paralympics a distant dream, but a very real competition that must be planned for and meticulously prepared for. 

In the coming months I will continue to chronicle the build-up to the Track World's and continue to share my reviews of the products I use. And I'll continue to talk about what the Games mean to me and how I'm dealing with the stresses and pressure of getting ready. And hopefully, in about 273 days from now once my first race in London is finished, I'll be able to write about how it felt to win my first medal!

Thanks to all who have supported me this past year and followed the blog so far – and thanks to all those who will be supporting me over the next year. 

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

In need of the fastest pedals on the market? Look no further.

Pedals are one of those things on the bike that are not only very important, but also a very personal choice. Anyone who rides a bike regularly will be using the 'clipless' pedal – something akin to a ski binding whereby there is a cleat attached to the bottom of your shoe which interfaces with the pedal and holds you attached – until you need to release yourself (usually by twisting your foot sideways). For safety reasons, these pedal systems are designed to release in the case of a crash (again – somewhat like a ski binding). It can take beginners a while to get used to them and it's not uncommon to see cyclists keel over sideways at traffic lights because they haven't released themselves in time. But in general, they are safe, provide excellent power transfer to the bike and make cycling easier.

The pioneers of this technology are a French company called 'Look' (www.lookcycle.com). They launched the first clipless pedal system into the market back in 1984. Their pedals (and virtually all clipless pedal systems) use a spring tensioning mechanism that holds the cleat in place. Some pedals allow you to adjust the tension on the spring, making it easier or harder to get out of them. I prefer the tension to be as high as possible, particularly when it comes to riding on the track – as you want to be held firmly in place when putting all your power down from the start. 'Pulling a pedal', or having your foot release from the pedal under heavy strain, can cause accidents or disqualifications in important races, so it's important to get it right.

The actual componentry involved in these pedals (with the heavy-duty springs needed), tend to make the pedals heavy. The influence of carbon fiber has certainly improved matters over the years allowing for lighter and stronger platforms and pedal bodies, but the core spring that holds you in place has always been a constant. But never one to sit back on it past successes, Look have gone back to the drawing board and re-engineered the clipless pedal concept with an innovative solution to get rid of the spring... and the excess weight.

The Keo Blade pedal uses a flexible carbon 'blade' to hold the foot in place. The blades come in two different tensions (12nm or 16nm). The higher the tension (16nm), the harder it is to get out of it. But the use of this carbon blade eliminates the need for the traditional spring, and saves weight. In the photo above you can see the usual spring that most pedals use. But compare this to the new Keo Blade pedals shown to the left. You can see the blade (shown flexing as the cleat engages) on the right hand side of the pedal. This replaces the traditional spring and cuts the weight down significantly. It's an elegant and innovative solution and possibly represents the way forward in pedal technology.

Look Cycles, via their UK distributor, Fisher Outdoors (www.fisheroutdoors.co.uk), have come on board as not only my track bike provider, but also my pedal provider. For me, it was an obvious choice as I have been riding Look pedals for years now and was happy to stay loyal to them. They make great pedals, have excellent customer service, and are proven winners. I have 6 different bikes I use between the road and track, and they all are equipped with Look pedals. Different models on many of them for my different needs, but all equally top-notch.


The curved undercarriage of the Aero Blade
Lat year for my time trial bike, I purchased the Look Keo Blade Aero pedals. These pedals are rarely seen in the wild, but at the time I was looking for something different, and perhaps something that could shave off a second or two from my TT times. The Aero Blade pedals use the same blade attachment mechanism, but the underside of the pedal is a curved section of carbon fiber. This helps smooth the flow of air across the bottom of the pedal. I know this probably sounds ridiculous to most people, but consider this: I lost a World Cup time trial last year, over a distance of 12.5 miles, by 0.4 of a second (riding conventional pedals). These Aero pedals would have given me that time back and given me a win. So whilst this technology may not benefit your average club rider, there is an argument for an elite rider such as myself to use them. (Then again, everyone needs pedals and these are just as light and fast as any other, so no reason to NOT use them, even for everyday riding!)

I am now using the regular (non-aero) Keo Blade pedals on my track bike. I like the positive feel as you click into them and the 16nm blades hold me firmly in place, even under the stress of standing start efforts. They are light also, shaving valuable grams off the bike's weight. Right now I'm using the cro-mo spindle version of the pedals, but with a little persuasion I am hoping that Look will pass on a pair of the titanium-spindle pedals to me for competition. Anything to help go a little faster!

One last aspect of the Blade pedals that I find to be of great help is the wide platform that they have. The surface area that comes in contact with the bottom of your shoe is larger than most pedals. It means more stability and better power transfer. Your foot is held stable with less lost energy or rocking from side to side. Even micro-movements add up over the course of a ride and can cost time and energy. This diagram shows the difference between an old Look pedal and the Blade pedal. Notice how much wider the base is on the Blade pedal: 

Aesthetically, the pedals look amazing (for those, like myself, who want their equipment to stand out). And the blades ARE replaceable should any problems occur (but I've had none to date). In short, they are simply superb. I can wholeheartedly recommend them if you are in the market for a new pedal system and want to try something a little unique.


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. 



Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The double-pronged pillow

Time trialling is a painful discipline. Not just because of the effort required to ride as fast as you can with no one to sit behind and draft off of for endless hours, but also due of the position that the rider must adopt on the bike in order to maximise aerodynamic efficiency. This usually means leaning forward with your weigh supported on your elbows, whilst being perched on the edge of the saddle. No matter how much padding there is on the tip of a saddle (where ALL your weight is put), it still hurts.

On a road bike, you can sit further back in the saddle and your weight is spread out more evenly. A good road saddle will allow you to use your sit bones to take the brunt of your weight. A traditional time trial saddle just bears all your weight on the tip (which is usually stuck somewhere in your perineal region). So basically – at the end of a time trial, your undercarriage is less than happy. And the longer the race, the greater the pain.

Adamo on the start line
As has been documented previously, about a year ago I suffered some injuries and infection in my undercarriage region – primarily due to the trauma that my time trial saddle was inflicting on the area. I was forced to start looking around for an alternative to the traditional TT saddle – or face the very real prospect of never riding a time trial bike again.

Fortunately for me, one of my teammates was using something a little 'special' on their bike. I had seen this saddle on a few different bikes, but because it looked so odd, I had dismissed it as a fad or something I shouldn't take seriously. But they claimed it was comfortable and that more and more people were starting to use them – so I decided to give it a try. I purchased my first ISM Adamo saddle (www.ismseat.com)... and the rest is history!

The 'prongs' of the Adamo saddle
The most obvious difference between an Adamo saddle and a traditional saddle is the shape. Adamo saddles don't have a 'nose' but instead have two 'prongs' on the front. These prongs are padded and rounded slightly.  The prongs support your weight on your sit bones rather than on your perineum (undercarriage). And the angle of them allows the body to rotate further forward meaning you can achieve the time trial position comfortably and put out maximum power with less discomfort.

There are loads of stories and reviews online that explain exactly how these saddles work so it's probably pointless for me to go into the scientific detail. Suffices to say that the unique design increases bloodflow to your nether regions and decreases pain and discomfort. For me, it meant being able to continue my time trial career (and this is a good thing considering I won a World Championship a year later while faithfully perched on my Adamo!)

Putting out maximum effort on the Adamo
Wherever I go, people constantly ask me about the saddle. Is it comfortable? What do I think? Do I recommend them? The answer is always the same: they are the absolute best option out there for anyone who is serious about their time trialling. And even though Adamo saddles are most often seen on TT bikes – they also make versions for road bikes (and even mountain bikes!).


In the interests of fairness, I would have to say if there is one criticism of the saddle that I could give, it would be that the prongs are a little wider than the nose of a standard saddle. Although you sit on an Adamo differently, this 'wideness' means that the Adamo can rub the insides of your legs slightly. However, after the first couple of rides, I stopped noticing it and it has caused me no pain or injury. It's just part of the fit of the saddle. But for anyone who is new to using these saddles – don't give up if it doesn't feel 'right' on the first ride! Like any saddle, it takes a bit of adjustment and it's worth sticking with it!

In the past year I've even started using the Adamo saddles on my track bike. Despite my track events being short (4 minutes or less), it's critical that I am as comfortable as possible so I can focus 100% of my energy on going as fast as possible. Even the smallest bit of discomfort can take away from the overall result and in track racing you can't afford to give away a split second.

One by one, my teammates are starting to come around to the Adamo way of thinking. They have seen my struggles and injuries in the past, and the results and relief I have achieved by using the Adamo saddle. They are tired of constantly being in pain and want the same pillow-soft ride that I have found. And with a little help from Adamo, I'm hoping to get my Team Sprint partners all on Adamo and on the podium in 2012!

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Meeting Oscar

I have to admit, prior to this past week, I didn't know much about the man. I mean – like most people I'd heard the stories and seen the odd news clip of him in action, but that was about it. And as a fellow amputee, I took some interest in his legs. Who am I talking about? Oscar Pistorius, the South African runner also know as the Bladerunner.

What sets Oscar part from the crowd? Basically it boils down to this: he's an immensely talented athlete that despite his 'disability' has risen almost to the point of being able to compete on equal footing (pardon the pun) with 'able-bodied' runners. But controversy has surrounded his efforts due to him originally being prevented from running in the Olympics because various governing bodies thought his carbon fibre running legs gave him an advantage over able-bodied runners.

These decisions have since been overturned by CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport) clearing the way for him to compete for a spot on the South African Olympic team and participate in the London 2012 Olympics (as well as the Paralympics). He has achieved the 'A' standard once already (the minimum time that an athlete must run in competition in order to be allowed to run in the Olympics). South African qualification criteria state that ALL athletes must achieve this standard within 3 months of the Olympics in order to be eligible for selection – so he'll have to do it again some time next summer to make the team, but he's confident that he'll achieve the time and gain selection – paving the way for him to be the first Paralympic athlete to also participate in the 'regular' Olympics.

He may actually be one of several Paralympians to make the jump to the Olympics in 2012 with Irish athlete Jason Smyth looking to compete in the 100m and 200m sprints and GB cyclist Sarah Storey trying to secure a spot in the Olympic Team Pursuit squad as well as her usual range of Paralympic cycling events. But there is something much more dramatic about Pistorius' bid for Olympic inclusion due to the double carbon fibre bladed legs he runs on.

On Thursday I travelled to Glasgow in Scotland along with my prothetist Howard Wooley from Pace Rehabilitation (www.pacerehab.com) to present at a conference focussing on prosthetics in sport. Howard and I were there to discuss the leg that Pace had made for me and the impact it has had on my cycling whilst Oscar was the keynote speaker at the conference.

We were invited to a dinner the night before the conference along with the other presenters, and of course, Oscar as well. This was my first chance to speak with the man about various different topics. It's always a little odd when you meet a 'celebrity' – or at least someone that is perceived to be one. But he was modest and approachable in every way. We chatted about training schedules, travel, the Opening Ceremonies, the weather and a host of other topics. At no point did I feel out of place asking questions and I have to admit he was one of the nicest people I have had the pleasure of chatting with. I even thought he was embarrassed by all the attention heaped on him by the other dinner guests.

The following day at the conference, there were several photographers, news interviewers and TV crews there to interview him. I was asked to tag along so that they could also ask me some questions, but it was a bit of an afterthought as it was clear who (rightly) the star of this show was. But he made no complaint about sharing the spotlight with me and when the photographers asked if I would produce my bike and carbon leg, Oscar happily jumped in to have a look at my equipment and have his photo taken with me. He had never seen my particular type of cycling leg and I think it interested him to see how the cleat bolted directly into the bottom. We discussed the weight, the shape, the performance benefits and even the weight of my bike. 

Lastly, over lunch, we were able to talk some more – this time about diet, weight loss, training loads, different sponsors and even the delicate task of finding a balance between training and doing these types of promotional events. At this point I'm was starting to become a huge fan of the man and possibly even become a little star-struck. I think I'd started to develop a man crush on him simply because he was so nice. 

There is a moment, just before he must go on stage to do his speech, that he is introduced to a young boy of 15 that has come to see his presentation. The boy has had all of his limbs amputated due to a terrible illness and is wheelchair bound. Oscar chats happily and with ease to the lad – probably making a lifelong impact on him. To me – this is what sets him apart. It's not his achievements on the running track, but the way in which he so happily tries to better the lives of those who are less fortunate around him. He's a true professional sportsman – but also down to earth and at ease with his 'fame'. There is a willingness to use his celebrity status to make the lives of other people better and to perhaps inspire a future generation of Paralympians to succeed. I saw it in the way he chatted with me, treating me as an equal and in the same way he spoke to this young boy.

I'll never reach the same level of exposure as he will. I simply am not as big a story as he is and never will be. But meeting him has somehow inspired me to try and reach bigger heights. Not because I want to be famous in the same way he is, but because I'd like to be a better human being like he is. I admire his professionalism, his dedication to sport and his ability to touch other people's lives.

I hope to see him again in London next year – and hopefully he'll remember who I am (although even if he has forgotten, I suspect he'll still make me feel like he remembers and put me at ease again!).

Video of Oscar talking about competing in London next year, with some footage of he and I together at the end:

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

This time they are out for blood

Another morning and another rather insistent knock on the door. This time I am awoken from a deep sleep by pounding at my front door. Grudgingly I open my eyes and look at the clock. 7:00 on the nose. Too close to the start of the hour and too early to be a random visitor. I sit up and contemplate whether I should bother answering or not. Usually, unless I'm expecting a delivery I will ignore anyone at this hour. But the knocking isn't stopping; whoever it is means business and they seemingly aren't leaving until they get some face time with me.

So I fumble around for some clothes, strap my leg on and head downstairs. Scanning the living room, I quickly grab the pile of plates and clothes lying on the floor from the night before and dump them in the kitchen, closing the door behind me and 'try' and make the room look presentable. It's not working.

Bikes and boxes fill my living area
My living area is a sea of bikes, bike parts, bike clothing, bike tools, bike trainers, etc. It's like a bike factory vomited all over the floor, leaving a trail of grease and grime. But it's a testament to how much cycling rules my life and how little time I dedicate to anything else (as in cleaning!). My living area is most definitely NOT guest-friendly. 

With a sense of guilt (because of the mess and not because I have anything to hide) I open the door to see who it is. But before the turn of the deadbolt I already know who's going to be there. It's anti-doping – back again for more.

On the one hand I shouldn't be surprised. It's what they do; it's their job to collect the samples and make sure we are all clean. I suppose my shock came from the fact that I only recently received the letter informing me that my last test was clean (not that I was particularly worried – but it's always nice to know everything is on the up and up). Since joining the testing pool earlier this year I had only been tested out of competition the one time. I was starting to think the tests for us Paralympians were not a priority and were going to be few and far between.

There was a difference this time though. Instead of the duo of testers that greeted me last time, today I was faced with a trio. It seems I'm getting more popular and they brought a friend to meet me. Not satisfied with making me pee into a cup, this time they want blood. And I mean it!

The testing procedure, as always, is quick and professional. I don't envy the man whose only contribution to the process seems to be watching the urine physically leave my body while it fills up the sample collection container. I haven't had a chance yet to ask if they pay him more than minimum wage for his troubles. I fear I would be taking the piss if I did. Instead of the other way around.

We go through the motions. Sample containers are filled, labels checked and rechecked, paperwork filled out and signed off. As I've said before – I believe in testing and I consider it part of MY job to conform to the rules. If they want to come and collect my urine daily, that's fine with me. (But please make sure you are also testing the other athletes out there. I want a clean field of competition).

Once the urine is taken care of, it's time for me to meet the new member of the team. Today I am giving blood to the cause. More paperwork, sample containers, serial numbers and so on. I fill up the vials with my red life-force and sign off that everything is above board. I've never had blood taken before for testing so this is a new one on me. I suppose it means they will be doing more in-depth testing and screening for more banned substances than can be found in the urine. And I say.... good. Bring it on. Let's keep this great sport clean.

While the testers are doing their thing, I mention to them that I am surprised to see them again so soon after the last time. But they very rightly point out that with the Paralympics quickly approaching, testing is increasing to make sure all the athletes are clean. I can expect to see them again and on a regular basis as next September draws ever closer. I'm going to have to clean up my house a bit I think.

My experience today is nothing special. As I've said before – it's part and parcel of being an elite athlete. I support drug testing and will gladly donate my samples at any time. I hope other countries are doing their part and testing their athletes also on a regular basis. There have been a few cases in the past year of Paralympic cyclists getting caught for banned substances – so I assume the process is working. And it just goes to show, that even though we are 'just Paralympic athletes', that people will try and beat the system at any level of competition.

For the briefest of moments I wondered if this test, coming as soon as it did after the last one, was a result of me writing about the process. I wondered if I had somehow publicly shed light on a process that was meant to be kept secret and as a result I was now being targeted for testing. Foolishness obviously. It is clear to me now that it's simply a measure of my improving status in the sporting world. But it sure is a funny way to start your work day.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Building a Champion From The Ground Up

In one of my first entries, I said the following:

"Cycling, for the most part, is an individual sport. Whilst I am part of a 'team' and spend part of the year training with the squad, the majority of the work comes down to solo effort. No one else can do the training for you and even in races, although you might be lucky enough to get some help from a teammate, ultimately it comes down to how well you can turn the pedals over."

Still as true today as when I first wrote it (almost a year ago now!). But whilst it's true that cycling is largely a solo endeavour, winning is a true team effort. Not 'team' as in teammates, but the team of support staff that make training, racing and winning possible. I'd like to share a little about these people and the great work they do behind the scenes – and give you some insight into the smaller cogs in the big machine.

For the sake of this post, I'm going to overlook all the sponsors (whether they are monetary or equipment-based). They play one of the largest roles and I'll address them at a later date. This is more about the actual human beings that contribute to the cause of making me go faster on a bike. (I should also note for the benefit of any of them that read this, that you are listed in no particular order!)

Let's start with the organisational support we (the Irish Paracycling team) receive. Cycling Ireland provide us with a team of staff – from Susan in the office who helps arrange our flights, hotels and other logistics – to the men on the ground with us.

Our Team Manager, Denis Toomey, travels with us everywhere constantly working behind the scenes to try and keep up moving forward. He deals with race organisers and sponsors alike. Making sure we have the right clothes on and gets us to the races on time. He takes care of all the little details so we don't have to worry about them. And he does it all for free. (There's a lot more that Denis and the rest of the crew do, but I can't list it all so am just giving a sample).

Gerry Beggs is our faithful mechanic, van driver, father figure and source of comedic relief. He keeps the bikes running, the tyres pumped and in many cases is responsible for getting much of the equipment needed for races to the actual race. Driving the van across Europe on his own time to be there when we fly in several days later. Also unpaid, he is a key member of the team. And all he asks for is the odd pint of Guiness to keep HIS wheels greased.

Then we have the men that make sure we are best-prepared to give the best performance we can – the coaches. Head coach Brian Nugent and development coach Frank O'Leary impart their knowledge to us on a daily basis. Brian develops all the training plans and makes sure I'm doing the right things, day in and day out. Frank helps out at all the races and his Cornering School has quickly become legendary. Without proper coaching and development, I would still just be a guy riding a bike around aimlessly. These man have taught me how to focus my energies in the right direction and get the best out of me that I can.

Manager Denis Toomey and Coach Brian Nugent
I also receive assistance from Paralympics Ireland as we head toward the Paralympics next year. This is much larger organisation with an even larger network of support staff. I don't get the same day-to-day support from these folks as I don't really need it as much, but their aim is ensure that come next September I am as best prepared to win medals as I possibly can be. So to CEO, Liam Harbison and Performance Director, Nancy Chillingworth – and the entire staff at Paralympics Ireland that work tirelessly behind the scenes, making preparations for London and making my life just that much easier – I thank you.

Through Paralympics Ireland, I also have access to a network of support staff that, at times, proves immensely valuable. Sports Psychologist Alan Ringland sorts my head out when I get pre-race jitters, Dr. Joe Conway makes sure my bumps and bruises don't slow me down, Darragh Graham is there to help my muscles and strength to develop properly, Alan Swanton who videotapes me on the bike for later analysis, Antonia Rossiter and Bruce Wardrop oversee the Sports Physiology testing that helps make sure I train the right way and monitor my development over the years and even Sharon Madigon the nutritionist – who tries to make sure I keep my weight down and eat the right things to give myself the best chance to win races. They are all there to help and support me whenever I need it.

And while I hate playing favourites, there is one member of staff, that although I don't see her very often (usually only at major competitions and the odd training camp), has worked magic on me time after time. A very special mention goes out to Fion Kirby – our masseuse. She always has the ability to soothe sore muscles, find and remove any knot, and keep my legs feeling fresh and ready to go for the big races where it matters. My only wish is that I lived closer to her so that she could take care of me all the time! Without her, there is no doubt in my mind that I wouldn't be able to deliver the top performances when it matters.

Lastly, there are my teammates. They aren't an official support mechanism by any means – but they are the ones that I spend the most time with at training camps and races. We room together, train together, laugh together and complain together. We don't always get along, but deep down inside I want every single one of them to win and do well – and I hope they feel the same way about me. We are all different personalities, but without them life and competition would be a lot more boring. We celebrate each other's wins and commiserate with each other when we lose. Many of these folks have given me guidance and advice over the past few years and it is because of them that I now feel a part of the team.

And so... when you see my hurtling down the road, in training or in competition, all these people (and more) are behind me in spirit. We all have a role to play and even though I may be the one that gets up on the podium to receive medals – they are the ones that often work just as hard as I do to make the winning possible. 

THANKS TO YOU ALL!!

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Pain is my new best friend


Despite my previous postings about how I was now 'back at work' and knee deep into my training again, there is nothing that compares to actual track time doing specific efforts in the events you compete in. You can ride around on the roads for hours on end, but until you get on the track and start doing race-paced efforts, you don't truly get to experience that special kind of pain and suffering that helps you win races.

I am fortunate to live close to an indoor velodrome so that I can get valuable training time on the track. It still requires an hour-long drive each way, but it's worth it. I have much respect (and envy) for the GB riders that live virtually across the road from the track – and get to spend as much time as they want there. And from what I can see, they are out there training on a daily basis (or sometimes twice a day).

In recent weeks I have taken part in several 'general public' training sessions – sprinting around the track doing drills with other riders. It's great fun and definitely gets the body used to the feel of riding a fixed wheel bike on an indoor track. But the efforts are never specific to the type of racing I do, and are not done at a full-out pace.

That is, until yesterday. Yesterday I started my event-specific training. That meant reconfiguring my bike from a sprint set-up (standard road handlebars) to a pursuit set-up (aero bars that you lean your elbows on like in a time trial). Also have to tweak other things like saddle height and even change the saddle to time-trial specific one. And it also means that I no longer ride in the group sessions, but instead do specific solo efforts whilst the rest of the group is off the track taking a break.

I have high hopes for my track events this year. I had a chance to do some track work back in August when the squad was in Portugal and we had access to a velodrome there. It was the first time I had been on a track bike for months, but as soon as I got out there I was whizzing around the track as super speeds with what seemed like little effort. I was riding laps at close to world-record pace and it seemed like things were going to be quite easy for me when it came to training and competing on the track next February.

Of course, at the time I was in peak fitness and preparing for the road World Championships. I found the efforts easy because I was in very good shape and had been training and racing for several months at the time. Right now I haven't raced since September and my training has been focussed on longer distance endurance and getting a good base – and not the short, sharp efforts needed in track racing. So it's no wonder that when I got out there yesterday to do some specific race efforts that my body got a bit of a shock!


Pursuit training at race pace
I managed to get three race-paced efforts done yesterday – and whilst that may not sound like much, those 3 efforts are about as hard as riding around at a steady pace for two hours! Race efforts are hard and painful. They make your legs burn and your lungs work overtime to suck in enough oxygen to power your muscles. When you're done, you feel like you've just run a marathon. Your throat is sore (what we call 'track throat') and your legs feel like someone has beat on them constantly with a large stick. At least... that's how I feel afterwards!

Nevertheless, my laps times were good. Not world-record good, but good enough for a first effort. And that's the key thing: it was just my first effort. I have 3 more months of this before I have to race. 3 times a week – getting out there and battering myself, but each time getting just a little bit faster and a little bit better. I have every confidence that by next February when the World Championships get underway in Los Angeles, that I will absolutely flying. I can't wait to compete again and show the world what I can do.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: pain today means glory tomorrow. When I was out there and felt the searing pain in my legs and lungs, there was a brief moment when I wanted to just pull off the track and go home. It hurt so much but I KNEW that this is the gateway to bigger and better things. The person that can suffer the most is usually the one that will win. Because track cycling is all about suffering. It may only take 4 minutes or less (or about a minute-20 for the Kilo) but the pain involved during that brief time is extraordinary.

So... much respect to my fellow competitors that manage to get out there day after day and suffer like I do. It's the price we pay to keep doing what we love – and chase the dream of winning medals. I am glad that I am starting early this year and am confident that I will get all the training in that I need to do in order to win medals next year. 

And one last thing that makes it a little easier: training indoors over the winter (no matter how painful the efforts) is a lot better than rolling around outside for hours on end in the freezing cold! A quick video of me racing the Kilo (1KM TT) last March in Italy. I finished 6th overall – just 2 seconds outside the medals. But this year will be different.









Monday, 31 October 2011

My new lights are truly.... brilliant.

OK, so the title is a bit cliché, but as the days get shorter and darkness seems to arrive by 4 in the afternoon, it's important to have a good lighting system on your bike. And if you spend any time whatsoever cycling after dark, especially on poorly-lit roads, you'll know what I mean and how important a good set of lights is.

I am fortunate to recently come across a fantastic set of lights – and the best part is, they are from a UK-based company. They have a great reputation amongst those in the know, but aren't particularly well-publicized or known to the general public. Which is a shame, because they make high quality lights that are, well, brilliant. (Last of the puns, I promise.)

Lumicycle (www.lumicycle.com) have quietly been making bike lights in the UK since 1997. Everything is assembled in-house in their UK base in Bournemouth on the south coast of England. They pride themselves on their great customer service and their direct-to-consumer sales approach helps keep costs down. They do lights for both road and mountain bikes in a variety of configurations and price points.

OK – the sales stuff over – let me talk a little about my REAL WORLD experience with the lights. I opted for their 4Si bottle-battery system. It's a small, 4 LED light that mounts to the handlebar and is powered by a battery cleverly disguised a water bottle (and fits nicely in a standard bottle cage). I chose one of their best systems, so the price wasn't as low as some of their other products, but don't let that in any way put you off. Shop around their site for cheaper alternatives.

First and foremost, the beam of light that comes out of this little unit is MASSIVE. It has to be one of the strongest and brightest I've seen from any lighting system before. Not just a strong beam that hits the road far in front of you, but a nice spread of light also, illuminating the road around you as well. This pic illustrates the difference in beam strength and spread between the 4Si and a couple of other lower-priced popular lights. The difference is quite remarkable!

The light has several settings, from Flashing to Boost (the highest and brightest setting). Battery power ranges from 144 hours on Flashing to 4.5 hours on Boost. If you are riding in a semi-lit area with street lights, you can get away with some of the other settings such as High (7 hours) or Low (63 hours). The bottle battery easily plugs into the included charger to replenish itself also.

Operating the light is also quite easy compared to other systems I have tried. The back of the light has a little toggle switch that can be operated even with heavy gloves. It's just a matter of holding it up or down to switch between settings. Easy to change, even on the fly.

The light will step down in power by itself as the battery starts to run down so it gives you some warning that it's running low (it'll go from Boost, to High, to Medium, etc. as the power starts to dwindle). But 4+ hours of night riding is probably more than enough for anyone, especially as temperatures drop!

The light clamps to both 26mm and 31.8mm handlebars with no problems (there's a little extension for the oversize bars). The battery doesn't actually weigh that much, despite it's size. My only gripe was that the power cable that runs from the bottle to the light was a little short on my bike, limiting my choice of location for the light on my bars. Or rather, I had to mount in under the bar instead of over the bar in order to make it possible to have a complete range of motion (side to side) for the bars. But this might be due to the long stem I run on my winter bike!

My dealings with the folks at Lumicycle have been really positive with great customer service. Friendly and professional – and my lights were shipped quickly after placing my order. It's rare to find a 'local' company that has what I want, provides good service and makes a quality product. These guys ticked all those boxes.

I can, with all good conscience, recommend you check out Lumicycle's products if you are looking for a high-quality set of lights for your bike. Keep your path well-lit this winter and stay safe!




Wednesday, 26 October 2011

What will it all mean?

Yesterday I flew to Dublin to be a part of the Paralympics Ireland Media Day. I think initially it had been intended to be a free-for-all for the Irish press to come and meet the athletes, try out some of the sports, take photos and do interviews. As a member of the team, I can assure you that this sort of exposure and publicity is much needed and much appreciated. The more that the general public know about who we are and what we do, the more support we will have when it comes time to compete next September in London.

However, it seems mother nature isn't a sports fan and decided to throw a flood-sized spanner into the works. Dublin experienced some of the worst rain and flooding it has seen in years the night before (and the rain continued into the following day), making it difficult for many people to get to the event – and those that did come may have arrived a little soggy. So while we did get some valuable coverage, not as much as I would have hoped for.

Like the good trained monkey that I am, I dutifully donned my World Champs jersey and mounted a stationary bike so that I could show off the Rainbow Stripes, answer questions and give the press an up-close-and-personal look at my carbon leg (courtesy of www.pacerehab.com). Not that I mind of course – I am ALWAYS happy to talk about the Paralympic movement and my goals for 2012. I think it's important that we get the message out that we are Elite athletes competing at the highest levels of our sports and deserve to be treated with the same respect and admiration as our able-bodied compatriots. Hopefully London 2012 will go a long way to to opening people's eyes and raising the collective profile of all our sports.

One of the questions that came up during my interviews was, 'what will it mean to me to compete in these Games for Ireland'? It's actually an excellent question that has two important components for myself. I'll see if I can answer them both.

The first part of the question for me, relates to competing 'for Ireland'. My ties to the country and nationality are both life-long and tenuous. My father is Irish and lives in Ireland, I have an Irish passport, an Irish name, I ride in Irish colours, etc. – but I've never lived in Ireland. In fact, I was born in Singapore (on an Air Force base) and spent most of my life living in Canada. Even 'worse' is that I currently live in England. So how can I call myself an Irishman?!

I suppose it comes down to this: I am Irish by birthright. And my loyalty to the Irish team is because when I got into paracycling and decided to compete internationally, I first approached the Irish team and they were the ones that gave me a chance. They were the ones that stuck by me, even when it looked like I wasn't going to amount to much. Someone must have seen the glimmer of talent and decided I was worth the effort to keep training. And (so far) it has paid off. I am a loyal person – and I will always support those that support me. Ireland gave me my shot, and I will always remain true to them. I miss my friends, family and life back in Canada at times, and call England my home, but Ireland is my country. So to compete in these Games for Ireland is my chance to say thank you to all the people that have been behind me the last few years and helped me get to where I am now. I will do them all proud.

The other part of the question is what it will mean to compete in the Games in general. I won't say it's been a lifelong dream. I won't give an X-Factor style answer and say "it will mean the world to me". I can't even say that as of right now I'm excited about the prospect. That may sound cold and callous – but one thing I've learned in the past year, is that you must take one day at a time. Focus on your next race and not the one a year from now. Before the Paralympics arrive next September, I have a year of training and racing to get through. I have another World Championships in February (on the track) that is currently my main focus, followed by a season of road races and time trials all next summer. It's all building towards London but I'm trying to stay grounded and focussed on each race as they come up on my calendar – and not look past them to the 'big one' in September.

Don't get me wrong – I AM guardedly excited about the whole thing and it IS a big deal. I just haven't allowed myself to think about it too much as of yet. Winning the World Championships means that I have achieved the Paralympics Ireland criteria for selection to the team for London, but until the final selections are made and ratified (sometime next July), I am not 100% certain of going to the Games. So I guess until I get that letter from 'the boss' I won't believe it's really happening!

I recall watching the cycling events in the last Paralympics in Beijing and thinking to myself that I could do that. That was when the seed was first planted for me and I first had dreams of competing on the highest stage in the sport. At the time I remember thinking – if I can just get a try out with the team, I think I can make it. And then, if I can get on the team, my goal would be to make it to a World Championships. Even back then I had the belief that I could win a World Championships. And deep, deep down inside... I knew that I had what it takes to make it to the Paralympics.

So what will it mean to compete in the Paralympics? It will be a justification for all my hard work. An affirmation that I am a worthy sportsman and one of the best in the world. In Paralympic sport, we so often compete in front of a handful of people. To compete in London in front of thousands of people (and potentially many, many more watching on TV) will be the thrill of a lifetime. I want to open people's eyes and show them that we ride just as hard and fast as anyone else. It's just that our artificial limbs slow us down, not our hearts.