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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.



Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Commitment


You hear it all the time: “I’ve spent the last four years working towards this.” The words that most Olympic and Paralympic athletes say when talking about the upcoming Games. Most recently it was London and we were all saying it – talking about the level of commitment we have for our sport and the amount of time that we’ve spent preparing.

In my case, I wasn’t able to say that. Simply because I only got into the sport of Paracycling 3 years ago. It was during the Beijing Paralympics of 2008 that I got inspired to go out and start training again, but my first competition in National colours wasn’t until 2010. Since then it’s been a lot of hard work and in recent years, a meteoric rise to the top.

During those three years I worked hard. In the beginning I held a full-time job and trained when I could find the time. Later on, when the company I worked for went bankrupt I decided to become a full-time athlete. I improved drastically once I was able to focus solely on training.

Last year, in the lead-up to the Games, I spent all my time preparing JUST to compete in London. But even with unlimited hours in the day to train, there are still many obligations and distractions. Even simple things like writing these blog pieces takes time away from your focus. I still do it gladly, but it’s also still ‘work’.

But London is over and I now have my eye on Rio. If all goes to plan, I’ll be there spouting the well-versed mantra: “I’ve spent the last 4 years preparing for this”. But unlike the last 3 years, I’ll actually mean it.

Going into London my focus was split. I was coming off a phenomenal year, winning two World Titles and had spent a lot of time trying to leverage that into some publicity for myself. To some degree winning had lead me to believe I was better than I actually was and I probably let my foot off the gas pedal at times. I probably should have been more focused and trained harder (smarter) than I did. I’ve admitted it before – mistakes were made and they cost me medals.

A few more of these would be nice
But the next fours years will be different. There are many World Championships to race in over the coming years, but win or lose – my goal is to win in Rio. Don’t get me wrong – I want more World Titles. But if I DO win again, I won’t let that make me overconfident.

Additionally, I have changed my approach to training. It’s now not something I have to do. It’s something I WANT to do. I embrace it. I look forward to it. And when I’m doing it – I’m 100% committed to doing it. That means training harder over the winter than ever before. Not just this year, but every year. It means going away week after week to warmer climates so that I can get the long days in on the bike. And when at home, it means suffering daily on the turbo trainer to avoid the cold and ice on the roads.

Winnng Paralympic medals can’t just be a hobby – it has to be an obsession. You have to sacrifice more than you think to not just get there, but to WIN there. If you’re not 100% committed, you might as well go home now. See you in Rio. 

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Meeting the Wizard and Peeking Behind the Curtain: My day with 3T Cycling

I've spoken in the past about my love of all things 3T Cycling – the bar, stem and fork specialists based out of Brembate, Italy. I have used their bars for as long as I can remember. They are now my bar and stem provider for all my bikes: road, track and time trial. I've used their aero bars en route to both my World CHampionship titles and couldn't dream of using anything else. (See my review of their Brezza Nano Aero bar here.)

Recently 3T has branched out and has dipped their toe into the deep section carbon wheel market also. I've had a chance to use their Mercurio 80 wheels and can report they offer a superb aero ride on par with some of the best names in the business. I'm looking forward to the release of their 40mm carbon clincher wheelset next year – which should offer a great option for longer racing or training trips where I don't want to use my tubular Zipp wheels. And lastly, 3T are responsible for creating the rather unique aerobar designed specifically for use on Cervelo's P5 time trial bike, which coincidentally I will be riding next year! In short, 3T is all about speed and aerodynamics.

After the Paralympics I needed a break. I mean I REALLY needed a break. I hadn't had any time off worth mentioning in almost 3 years. And if I was going to try and refocus and dedicate myself to another 4 years of racing and have a go at making it to Rio, I needed some time away from the bike to clear my head and let the body recover. So, along with my girlfriend, we hopped on a plane for 3 weeks to visit Italy. Although I've been there a few times, it's usually been for racing and haven't had time to enjoy myself.

Checking out bars
It made sense that I should go and visit the 3T offices, especially as I was virtually passing by their location on my travels. I had spent so much time trading emails with people there and as a huge fan of their products, I couldn't resist the chance to go and see where the magic happens. Unfortunately there was a bit of bad timing to my visit, and the president and my main contact person were both away in Hawaii for the Ironman World Championships. Nevertheless, Rene (the president) made sure that I would be welcomed warmly.

I was greeted at the offices by Claudio Santi, 3Ts Worldwide Sales Manager. The offices once belonged to an architect's firm and are stylishly modern and open. Spread out over several floors, there are meeting rooms (galore), offices for sales staff, a basement full of product and a design centre where their small team of designers work on computers trying to come up with the 3T products of the future.

Claudio showed us around the entire office and introduced us to all the staff. We were able to sit and speak in great length about the history of the company, it's products, the way products are designed, produced, sold, and so on. For the layperson it probably wouldn't be all that interesting – but for a bike geek like myself it was heaven.

Richard and I discussing bar widths
We were also introduced to the head designer, Richard McAinsh. Richard is a Brit that now makes his home in Italy. His background before going to work for 3T was working as a designer for Ferrai's F1 cars. Richard, despite his self-confessed lack of a bike of his own, knows carbon fibre and he knows how to make it go fast.

Richard had just come back to the offices with some new 3-D prototypes of some new bars they are working on. Basically (and I hope I get this right), they design products on computer with CAD software and then are able to have 3-D protoypes 'plotted' (or cut) from a solid block of plastic. They can then take the plastic prototypes back to the office to attach to test bikes (on a turbo) for fine tuning. They aren't road-worthy by any means, but it's a fascinating way to see what products will look and feel like in real life before going to final production.

Myself, Richard & Claudio talking about the design process
I was fortunate to get a glimpse of some of the new products they have in the pipeline (some good stuff coming) and satisfy my inner geek by getting an eyeful of the design process. Richard also sat with me and spent a great deal of time talking about their design philosophy and the way products come to life.

The conversation continued over an authentic Italian meal where Claudio and Richard continued to indulge me and allowed me to pick their brains. I knew very well that your average member of the cycling community doesn't get the red carpet treatment from a company like 3T, but I could tell they were genuinely proud to have me there and their continued support of my efforts to win more World titles (and hopefully that elusive Paralympic medal) shows their forward-thinking. Not many companies with their reputation (they are the official supplier to the Garmin-Sharp Pro Cycling Team) would give someone like myself the time of day, let alone give me their ENTIRE day! 
Presenting a jersey to the 3T designers

Before leaving I had the honour of presenting them with a signed World Champs jersey (which proudly bears the 3T logo on the front) for their offices. I'm hoping it ends up framed and placed on the walls next to the signed World's jersey of Thor Hushovd!

In short, it is a day that I shall remember forever. It was one of those rare moments where I actually felt like a World Champion and was given ultimate respect for my endeavours. It is why I am proud to be a 3T athlete and why I choose to you their products. I hope they realize what an impact they made on me that day! (They will after reading this...)

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Cost of Cycling







I’ve written many times about the amount of time and dedication it takes to be a great cyclist. Not accounting for genetic pre-disposition and a pinch of good luck, it’s mostly just hard graft that gets you to the top.

As I discovered this past year, staying at the top is even harder. There is always someone out there who is willing to work harder than you and who is looking to take your titles away from you. You have to make every training session count and if you truly want to be at the top, you have to remain focused and dedicated.

Training aside, the next biggest part of the equation when it comes to winning is equipment. And good equipment costs money. Lots and lots of money. I’d estimate, that I have spent over £25,000 in the past 2 years on equipment. And that is before any sponsor stepped into either provide free equipment of give a discount.

On top of the equipment costs, there are the every day costs of living, training, racing, etc. It all adds up very quickly. So how do I do it? Well – the Irish Sports Council is a major source of funding to myself and all the other elite Irish athletes. In short, the better you do, the more they fund you. But that money only goes so far (as my severely drained and stretched bank accounts and credit cards can attest to!).

What’s left is for me to hit up sponsors. It’s the part of being a ‘pro’ cyclist I hate the most and the hardest part of my job. How do you convince someone that you (and not someone else) are worthy of their attention? In these financially challenging times when so many people (men, women, disabled, etc) are all trying to get something for nothing – how do you stand out? And when they DO pick you, how do you repay their faith in you?

The simple answer is…. Win. Just win. It sounds simple, right? But anyone who has ever raced can tell you it isn’t. Sometimes just racing using their equipment is enough. I can attest to the fact that when I roll up to a race on Brand X of bike, it draws attention. People want to know what I’m riding, how I like it, where I got it, etc. Instant ‘free’ advertising for sponsors.

Then there is social media. I am addicted to Twitter – and I shamelessly will tweet about the products I use. Why? Because I believe in them! I only use products and brands that I like and never will promote a brand I don’t use. If I win a race or do a good training session because of a certain product – I will let the world know.

In the last year I have been blessed to get the support of companies and brands both big and small. Sometimes (like in the case of 3T bars and stems, Schwalbe tyres and ZipVit nutritional supplements and energy products) I get product for free. Other brands will get me their products at a discount.

Last year (and hopefully next year!) I was fortunate enough to be able to work with two of the best distributors in the UK. They compete against each other in many ways (one supplies Sram, the other Shimano), but they both are superb when it comes to serving the needs of their customers. And just as good when it comes to helping me out.

Me and my Look bikes (road and track)
Fisher Outdoor Leisure (www.fisheroutdoor.co.uk) has been my source for all things Sram, Zipp and Look, whilst Madison (www.madison.co.uk) has supplied me with Shimano Di2 and Giro helmets. I have different bikes for different events and I use all these brands. And without the help of these two giants of cycling in the UK, I wouldn’t be able to afford to kit out my bikes with the top-end parts they need. I’m stretched too thin as it is!

But it’s not just getting me parts at a reasonable cost, it’s also advice or service or help in a pinch... or pulling my fat out of the fire. Like when I broke a seat clamp on my Cervelo right before the Games…  Madison was able to get me a replacement sent to the Village and had it there waiting for my arrival. No questions asked. When I crashed in the road race in London and snapped my brand new front wheel, Fisher’s was there to rebuild it for me quickly and cheaply (not easy to do with a Zipp wheel!). These folks make my cycling life possible.

Cervelo kitted out with Di2 from Madison
My 2013 season is off to a great start. I’ve committed myself to some serious training abroad for most of the winter months (more expense – but worth it!) and I’m fortunate that I won’t need as much new equipment next year. But I will need a new TT bike and parts will always be an issue – so I’ll be once again looking to outside help to get what I need.

The suppliers and big brands often mostly support the Pro teams and it’s rare that this goodwill trickles down to the Paracycling ranks. But when it does… what a difference it makes. Thanks to all of you that have supported me and continue to do so! Let’s make 2013 OUR year.


Wednesday, 28 November 2012

New Beginnings

We're deep into Autumn (Fall) now and Winter is officially fast-approaching. The temperatures are dropping significantly to the point where anything over freezing is considered a 'warm' day in these parts. Daylight fails to exist by 4:00PM on most days and it's almost always a rush to get back in the house before nightfall. In cycling terms, it's the worst time of the year.

















No matter how hard-core you are and how little the cold affects you, it's still a struggle to leave the house and brave the elements for a ride outdoors. Many cyclists spend this time of year in the 'dungeon', a corner of a shed or the garage (or if you're really lucky – the living room), perched upon their bike on a turbo trainer, a high-powered fan blowing stale air into their faces as they struggle to find the motivation to get through an hour or more of pedalling.

Training in the summer months is easy. The weather is (usually) better, there's loads of daylight extending the hours you can train outdoors without lights on the bike, and there are opportunities to race on a weekly basis. It's much easier to train hard when you have a race to look forward to at the end of the week and a way to check your progress. But in the winter there is no racing on the horizon for months. Just monotonous and uninspiring training sessions to plough through.

So... how do you stay motivated through this dark and cold time? For me, it's easy. The sting of losing out in the Paralympics is still fresh in my mind and the knowledge that in order to win the World Championships next September I must start training and get focussed NOW is all I need to get me going. I didn't lose by much in the Paralympics, and a lot of that came down to bad timing and bad planning. Physically I had the tools to win, I just failed to get it out there on race day. So closing the gap to get back to the top isn't a huge ask – it's just a matter of making as many small improvements as I can.

Going into the 2013 season I feel a renewed sense of hope and direction. Despite (still) being the reigning World Champion (due to there being no road and TT World Championship in 2012), I don't feel the same weight to perform as I did in 2012 and don't feel like the 'favourite' any more. People will be looking closely at the riders that medalled in the Paralympic Games and will tend to overlook me. Not having that external pressure to perform will help me greatly. There will still be the same pressure I put on myself, but that... I can handle!

In many ways I feel like I'm stepping back in time a few years – to when I was an unknown rider. Back then I believed I had what it took to win, but because I was overlooked by most of the competition, there was less pressure to win medals. Every ride (especially medal-winnng ones) was a joy. Not only afterwards, but also in the lead-up. I feel like in 2013 I'm going back to that ethos.

Even my approach to preparing will be new. I've had great success and great failure at top-level competition now. And I have a much better understanding of what works and what doesn't (for me). I'll be in a much better position to avoid the mistakes that have lead to poor performances and focus on the things that have worked. Even my approach to training and diet is going to be new and better. My focus will be squarely on winning and I will let outside influences affect me a lot less.

Of course I will still have obligations outside of merely riding my bike. But I will learn to say 'no' when it doesn't suit me. I'm lucky to have most of my sponsors sticking with me next year, and (hopefully) with the addition of a few more key players I can forgoe the chase for new sources of equipment. I should have the best possible equipment at my disposal (and for the entire year) which will just make my life a lot easier.

Lastly, 2013 is a year that is all about the road. There is no track cycling for me to compete in so my training and focus can be 100% on the event that I want to win (the time trial) and I won't have to split my training time between the road and the track. For me, this was a problem in 2012 – trying to be good at too many things at once. Jack of all trades, master of none. 

2013 hasn't quite begun yet (on the calendar), but for me – it started a while ago. And I can't wait to get back out there and show the world what I've got. This is what it's all about:


Monday, 19 November 2012

Falling


Start of the road race. Me on far left... before the carnage occurred.

At some point in every cyclist's career, they are going to experience a fall. It's pretty much inevitable, whether it's physically falling off your bike, a fall in form, or as we have seen recently in the case of Lance Armstrong, a fall from grace. Picking yourself up, finding a way to heal and carry on after a fall can be just as traumatic as the fall itself, especially if it was serious. How an athlete approaches the recovery process will determine their longevity in the sport.

Giving it all in the Pursuit.
At the London 2012 Paralympics I was unfortunate enough to experience falls on several levels. Going into the racing I was a favourite to win a medal as the reigning World Champion in two different events (time trial and individual pursuit). And yet, I walked (or limped) away from the Games without a medal. I experienced a fall in form at the wrong time. Nothing major, but enough to keep me off the podium.

And in my final race of the Games (the road race, in which I am not a specialist by any means), I decided to lay it all on the line and try a different strategy than I might normally have done. Rather than merely sit in the bunch and wait to either get dropped mid-race or lose out in the final sprint for the finish line, I decided I was going to try and spring a surprise attack right from the start. But my plan lasted all of about four minutes. I went screaming into the first hairpin corner at 40 miles an hour, lost control of the bike and ended up in a heap on the side of the road.

Focused before TT
Being the competitor that I am, I immediately hopped up off the ground and attempted to get back into the race. My bike was somewhat mangled so it took a few minutes to try and get it working again. I was so focused on the bike that I failed to see that I was also somewhat mangled. Mostly just missing skin from where I had slid across the pavement at high speed. In the end I was able to get back on my bike but it was only partially functional, so just finished the first lap and had to pull out of the race.

I left the Games a broken man. No medals (I missed one by a mere 1/10th of a second in the velodrome), a broken bike and a broken body. But the one thing that wasn't broken was my spirit. I had experienced falls on so many levels, but it has only made me more determined to come back next year stronger in my desire to win. I will have to look at every aspect of my training and equipment again to make sure nothing is left to chance, and to learn from the mistakes that I made this past year, but I have every confidence that I will bounce back even stronger than before.

This is what defeat looks like. Lost by 1/10th of a second.
It took several weeks for the physical injuries to heal and the bike will be pretty easy to repair. The blow that my pride took will take longer to heal, but this is what I was alluding to at the start: how you let such things affect you can determine your longevity in the sport. If you can find a way to carry on and learn from these experiences, then you have a greater chance of thriving in sport. Sport (obviously) has a huge physical component to it, but the mental aspects are just as important.

And so as fall (or autumn as they call it in the UK) begins, I know that I have a lot of work to do. I want to be in Rio in 4 years' time but for now I am preparing for the 2013 season. One step at a time. There will be more falls ahead for me, but as long as I can continue to pick myself up, I can continue to succeed.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Boutique Comfort: Dash Stage.9 Saddle

I admit to being a bit of a weight weenie. That is, I like my equipment to be as light as possible, especially when it comes to my TT bike. TT bikes in general aren't light, so any opportunity to shed a bit of extra weight will make it easier when it comes to those uphill portions on the course. You might not think a few grams here and there is much, but it all adds up. Carefully looking at each piece on the bike can save you pounds off a complete build.

The Dash Stage.9 saddle
But it's no good having super-lightweight parts if they aren't functionally useful. And one of THE most important parts when it comes to functionality is the saddle. If you can't sit comfortably (a relative idea when it comes to the somewhat painful discipline of time trialling), then you are going to lose valuable power and time.

For the past few years I have been a big fan of the Adamo TT saddles. They are much more comfortable than a conventional bike saddle and allow me to sit in the TT position for a lot longer than I ever could before. But they have one major drawback: they weigh a ton.

So last year when I was looking for ways to lighten up my TT bike in preparation for the hilly TT course in London, my research brought me across a company call Dash Cycles (www.dashcycles.com). They are a bit of a boutique operation out of Boulder, Colorado in the USA. They have built up a reputation for creating extremely lightweight hubs/wheelsets and saddles. And I do mean LIGHT.

Dash managed to do what no one else could do; take the best parts of the Adamo saddle and improve on it. And then cut the weight significantly. Dash first came out with their Tri.7 saddle – a kind of mini-Adamo. And it weighs all of 79g. Compared to the boat-anchor weight of an Adamo (close to 300g), that's a savings of almost 1/2 pound of weight. The only problem with it... is that it's too short. At least when it comes to UCI regulations. And so... the Stage.9 was born.

More comfortable than you might think
The Stage.9 saddle is UCI-compliant in it's height and width. And at a mere 99g it still is super light (that's with the standard triple layer padding, but you get the double layer padding version at a skinny 91g). But as I said before – what is lightness if you can't use it? Well, I can honestly say that not only did it tick the 'lightness' box, but it is actually MORE comfortable to use than the Adamo! This may be due to the better nose area or the carbon rails, I'm not sure. All I know is I found I could ride it for hours without the chafing/rubbing on my inner thighs that I got from the Adamo.

It gives a firm but comfortable ride. There is enough flex to soak up road noise while still providing a solid base to push against. It uses the same principle as the Adamo – namely that it supports your weight on your sits bones using two 'prongs', but unlike the Adamo the two prongs are joined together with a recessed carbon 'bridge'. Furthermore, the prongs are curved and passed so that you can rotate your weight forward easily and comfortably, allowing you to get into the TT position with ease... and to stay there.

Carbon rails
If you've ridden an Adamo before, setting up the Stage.9 is almost the same. In fact, all I had to do was swap out one saddle for the other with no further adjustments needed. And from the first ride onwards, I have been pleasantly surprised. 

The quality of the build reveals top hand-made quality and craftsmanship. It appears to be one bonded piece of carbon fibre, wrapped in sturdy leather. I have been riding mine for several months with no issues whatsoever.

When I first used the saddle in competition at a UCI World Cup race last year, the UCI commissaires were so intrigued with it that they are all taking photos of it! Even a representative from Selle SMP (another brand I ride on my road bike) was at one race and came over to ask me loads of questions. It may not look comfortable, but it does look sleek and sexy! At the Paralympics, once again the commissaires were looking it over and I had to convince them that it wasn't custom-made for me (and was commercially available, as per UCI rules!). 

My full TT rig with the Stage.9 perched on top
Dash offer a demo program for their saddles, so if you're interested in trying one out before making the leap, I'd highly recommend it. Because the one and only drawback of these saddles is the price of $465US (£295). I realise that the majority of readers just tuned out or thought to themselves 'holy cr@p!!', but if you value your rear end and are serious about performance, it's worth it. Every penny. To be honest, if I could afford it, I'd have a second one on my track bike and I'd be using their new disc wheel! But that's a different story.

I'm happy to say I am NOT sponsored by Dash, I don't get paid to write the review and I believe 100% in their products. I will never go back to riding a different saddle on my TT bike now that I've tried the Stage.9 – it's that comfortable. Dash are now even offering a custom program – where you can get your saddle wrapped in different coloured leather to match your ride. And in addition to the Stage.9 they also offer a range of road saddles (do you fancy a 59g road saddle!?) and some additional TT/Tri saddles. If you're serious about performance, give Dash a look.