Wednesday, 29 December 2010

I Am Not An Inspiration

I am confronted by it all the time – the inevitable comments of "you're such an inspiration" when people hear of my quest to ride in the Paralympics. That because I have a disability and chose to try and overcome it by doing something relatively simple – something that the majority of people reading this right now do on a daily basis – that somehow that makes me a better person. That I should be looked upon as any more worthy than the next person is laughable though. For I am NOT an inspiration, nor have I ever wanted to be one.

I ride a bike because I enjoy it. And I compete because it motivates me to train when I otherwise wouldn't. Competition is one of those yardsticks that you use to measure your progress from month to month and year to year. Beating people that were better than me the year before, or riding a time trial faster than the week before brings with it a sense of personal accomplishment and gives me the motivation I need to keep going, and keep pushing to ride at the highest level. But if you think I do it for any altruistic purpose or to any way inspire other people with a disability (or even the less fit able-bodied athletes out there), you would be sorely mistaken.

I just finished watching a documentary about someone that every single Canadian will know; a young man by the name of Terry Fox. When Terry was 19, he lost his leg to cancer. It was amputated above the knee (quite close the the hip). As I was just 21 years old when I lost my leg, I can relate to his situation in some respects. But that is where the similarities end.

Terry Fox in 1980
In 1980, at the age of 22, Terry decided to embark on one of the most incredible journeys any Canadian has ever made. It is this endeavour that has imprinted his name indelibly upon the consciousness of all Canadians, and indeed many people around the world. Terry decided that he was going to run across Canada to raise money for Cancer research.

In 1980 there was no internet, no 24 hour a day news channels, no satellite TV and artificial leg technology was in the dark ages compared to what it is today. To say that this was a massive undertaking by any standard, let alone modern ones, is something of an understatement. Furthermore, if you know anything about the size of Canada, you'll appreciate how difficult something like this was.

Calling it "the Marathon of Hope", his goal was to try and raise $1 for every one of the 24 million people living in Canada at the time. When the run started in April of 1980, virtually no one had ever even heard of Terry Fox. It was just him and his best friend driving along behind in a camper van. But as the days passed and more and more people began to hear of this extraordinary feat, he quickly became something of a national celebrity. 

Terry Fox ran 3,339 miles in 143 days. That's an average of 23.3 miles a day.... for a 143 days in a row. And while that may not seem that hard, consider this: Terry had his leg amputated slightly below the hip. So he wasn't running all those miles as you might – he did it in such a way that it was almost a 'hop'. 

Tragically, his journey was cut short and he never made it all the way across the country. The cancer that had claimed his leg returned and spread to his lungs. Terry died 9 months later.

To this day, annual fundraising runs are held in his honor all across Canada - and the Terry Fox Foundation has raised over $500 million dollars (£330 million). He is a TRUE inspiration to so many people – not only for what he attempted, but because that is what he WANTED to do. He wanted to show cancer patients that life can go on, that the disease doesn't have to rule your life. He chose to put himself forward as something to aspire to – and is still considered a national hero by most Canadians. And while he isn't the reason behind why I do what I do, it certainly gives me pause to think when I consider what he achieved and how that pales in comparison to riding a bike for a few hours a day.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day

Me. Frozen and tired. But happy!
Bah Humbug. I hate Christmas with a passion. I really do. The carols, cards, presents, family, snow, Santa, and so on. I just can't stand any of it - and probably have been this way ever since I was a child.

But there IS one good thing about Christmas Day: the fact that most people are home with their families – leaving the roads clear of traffic! So today I headed out for my (now) annual Christmas tradition: a long bike ride in the cold!

Two years ago my marriage fell apart during the Christmas holidays (in retrospect another reason to like Christmas). I think the stress of dealing with 15 different family members, the dinner, presents for everyone, trying not to gain 20 pounds, and the fact that I just don't like this time of year was just too much to handle. By New Year's Day we hadn't spoken to each other for almost a week and parted ways.

The deserted dual carriageway
That meant that last Christmas I was on my own for the first time in my life. Not wanting to stay at home alone, I grabbed my bike, tossed it in the back of my car and drove out to a local race circuit. I spent the next 3 hours going around and around the circuit – up the climbs, down the hills, along the dual carriageway; all the while with barely a car in sight. It must be the only day of the year where you can have the road almost entirely to yourself.

When I was done I headed home to relax, and treated myself to a roast chicken dinner. No sweets, fattening deserts, alcohol, mince pies or anything else that was likely to pile on the pounds. The upshot of all this – while most of my competition was sat around gaining weight and losing fitness, I was out on the road getting fitter. I guess there's just something about riding on Christmas Day that makes me feel like a 'real' athlete, instead of just a recreational rider. 

By early January I was in the best shape of my life. The dedication to cycling I showed over the Christmas period really was starting to pay off. Had I not injured my back and lost about a month recovering, I probably would have been in absolute peak condition by the time racing season started. With the carrot of peak fitness dangling in front of me (and a World Championships fast-approaching this March), it's no wonder that I headed out again today to repeat this new tradition.

Frozen landscape on the drive there
Although it meant a bit of a drive to get there, I opted to go back to the same race circuit as last year. If you're going to continue a tradition, you have to follow the same routine as the previous year! True to form, the roads were virtually deserted. The one main difference from last year however, is the massive discrepancy in temperature. Last year it was positively balmy compared to the minus 10 degree weather I faced today. That, along with lots of snow and ice along the side of the roads made it a little risky, but I soon found the best line to take on the route. 

For the next two hours I pounded my way around the circuit – 7 times in total. There's a steep little climb in the middle, just to put a sting in the legs and give the lungs a workout. My hands went numb a few times from the cold and my face felt like it had been punched repeatedly and shot full of novacaine, but by the time I returned to my car, I really was glad I had made the trip.

So once again, while my competition is tucking into a fattening meal, I'm out there pounding the pavement and keeping my fitness at peak levels; all with no traffic on the roads. If every day was like this.... I would be World Champion in no time! And as much as I hate the day, I still would like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas! Now I'm off to prepare my roast chicken dinner...

Thursday, 23 December 2010

For Club and Country

Staying motivated and interested in cycling all year round is no easy task. The rigours of training and racing at a high level take their toll, and especially at this time of year when the weather is cold and snowy, the desire to even get on a bike, let alone *train* on one – day in and day out – can reach all-time lows.

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.

I am probably on a bike close to 6 days a week, 52 weeks a year. That's a lot of time to try and stay interested. Some days it may just be an easy hour-long ride, while other days it can be as much as 7 hours in the saddle. Just depends on what the day calls for. To try and do all that time in the saddle, alone and with no one else with you to help keep you motivated is a tough ask. Which is why I am glad to be a part of a great cycling club.

Racing in (orange) Macclesfield Wheelers kit
Being a part of a good club (Macclesfield Wheelers) has been one of the factors to my improvement as a cyclist this past year. It has given me the opportunity to ride with other people, make friends, get additional training, race with a different group of people and just generally break up the monotony of solo training. I look forward to the weekly club run - just for the opportunity to go on a long, easy ride with 20 or so like-minded people. And the weekly training rides have helped push my limits, undoubtably making me a fitter and faster rider.

They say, when you want to get into racing, one of the first things you should do is join a club. I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment. A good club will give you experience riding in a group – an invaluable skill to have. And a REALLY good club will offer you the chance to go on some fast training rides – simulating race conditions. My club does it all!

A lot of the time I feel bad when I go out with my club as I'm not the most 'social' person. I have a terrible time remembering names and even after a year or so of being with the club, know very few of the members' names (although know all the faces!). I will shy away from talking to a lot of people on the club runs because of this – but it doesn't take away from my enjoyment of being able to ride with them!

Racing for Ireland
The race season for me is on two fronts – the international races where I represent Ireland and the domestic scene where I strap on my club colours. I am equally proud to represent both groups. And even though I rarely wear my club colours (I only have one jersey that I save for race days), I always feel proud to be a part of the club. 

Even things like the weekly club time trial competition throughout the summer gives my training some focus and further stimulates improvement in my cycling abilities. Week after week it serves as a way to check my form, track improvements, test out new equipment or bike positions and gives valuable feedback to my coaches.

Next year I will probably be spending a lot more time training and racing with the Irish team. But I know whenever I am home, I can always look forward to the next ride with my club. Anything to make the training a little more pleasurable!

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Get With The Plan

A few weeks ago I was in Ireland with the entire Irish Paralympic Team (all sports, not just cycling) for a pre-London 2012 preparation camp. It was an opportunity to meet athletes from others sports, train with your own squad, meet people from the Paralympic Council of Ireland (that help make it possible to actually make it to London) and get a lot of information to prepare us all for the whole Paralympics experience.

The idea is to get you as familiar as possible with what to expect, so that when the time actually arrives to go to London, there are no big surprises and you can concentrate on the task at hand. There will be a series of these mini-camps over the next 2 years and they are an invaluable tool in getting ready to compete on the biggest stage in the world.

While there, there were also a series of presentations from various guest speakers. The highlight for me was a presentation from a current Irish Olympic athlete – Olive Loughnane. Olive is a World Silver medalist in the Race Walk and is preparing for the 2012 Olympics. She was able to share some of her insights into success and failure in the sporting world.

The one thing she said that really stuck with me, is that it's great to have goals. But without a plan to achieve those goals, you have little chance of success.

So I can sit here and say I want to win a medal at the Paralympics – but the way to achieve that goal – is to put a PLAN in place to get there. And it has to be a realistic plan. Seems obvious, but I had never thought of things in these terms before. I suppose I just thought that if I train hard enough, I'll do well – but it's not always that simple.

I am now 'on the plan'. It's MY plan – unique to me – and designed to achieve MY goals. Of course it involves lots of training, that's a given. But it's the other details that make the difference. Things like a nutritional plan designed to help me not only get to my ideal race weight, but make sure I have enough energy to train at the optimum level on a daily basis. A psychological plan to help make sure my mind is in the right place, and stay motivated. A strength and conditioning plan to help build the right type muscle. A medical plan to ensure the entire body stays healthy. And it goes on and on...  I think about my goals every day now – and everything I do is leading me towards them. It is my sole focus.

Many people reading this will also be cyclists. Many of you train and probably race on a yearly basis. You will also have a 'plan' so you know what I mean. Some might train a little, others a lot. You might look at what I do for training and think to yourself, "That's easy! I do way more than that!" Others may think, "There's no way I could spend that much time training. I've got too much going on in my life."

So for those of you that are wondering, here's a peek into what I do in an average week for training. It does vary from week to week and the closer we get to competition, the harder it gets. Right now I am training for track racing, so the focus is on shorter efforts – later in the year when I go back to road racing, the efforts will become much longer.

So, without giving too much away and in no particular order, here's what I do in an average week:

2 Gym (Weights) Sessions and Core Work
1 Pilates Class
12 hours of road rides with 9 x 10 minute high intensity efforts and 8 x 1 minute sprints
4 hours of recovery rides (low intensity rides)
Standing start efforts (practicing starting from a complete stop)
2 hours turbo work at high cadence (practicing spinning the legs)
And lots and lots of rest!

Team Sprint, May 2010. Me on right.
In January, I'll also be spending a few hours a week at the Velodrome as I start gearing up for the Track World Championships in March. My efforts will probably become shorter and more focussed with less emphasis on the longer rides.

Everything  do is monitored by my coach and changes are made along the way in order to maximize my performances. It's all very flexible - but always follows a structure.

So if YOU have a goal next year – don't just dream about doing it – put a plan in place to make sure you can actually achieve that goal!

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

A Heavy Burden to Bear

80 pounds overweight in October, 2007
I have always found comfort in food. I've long said that I would rather eat than have sex (pretty sad, I know). Some people drink when they get depressed or bored. I eat. And eat. And eat. It's like I have no 'off' switch. So it's no wonder that dealing with excess body weight is the biggest challenge and obstacle I face in my efforts to become a world-class cyclist.

As a 'normal' person I am a healthy weight. I don't look or feel overweight in the slightest. But on a bike, every excess ounce makes a difference, especially when going up hills. And when those excess ounces become excess pounds – it's easy to see why I quickly get outdistanced by my very skinny opposition! So this winter and spring, my main goal is to lose (more) weight and give myself a chance to keep up with the (not so) big boys on the road next year.

My love affair with food started as a child. I think I was about 8 years old when my mother sent me to Austria for the summer to be with my grandmother. 2 months later, after daily gorgings on strudel and shnitzel and various other fat-filled foods, I returned home a much larger version of my former self. To this day, my mother still claims she didn't recognize me when she came to collect me from the airport - I was that fat!

It didn't help that I was an awkward child. And as we seemed to move every few years (which meant new schools), I often lacked lots of friends. Add to the equation that my mother was an excellent cook and that I seemed to spend a lot of time in the kitchen with her, it's easy to see how I stayed a fat kid for many years. It wasn't until I went to boarding school at age 12 – where they forced sports on me (plus the fortuitous onset of puberty) that I finally managed to lose my substantial 'baby weight'.

During my boarding school years I was 'forced' to participate in sports and while I hated it at the time, it has served me well in later life. In no particular order I.... did rugby, basketball, rowing, weights and of course – cycling! It was then that I got my first taste of bike racing and the thrill has stuck with me to this day.

Then it was on to university, where I was introduced to the sport of beer guzzling and pizza-eating. I could chug a pint of beer in about 3 seconds and once drank 6 beers through a funnel in 6 seconds! I also remember the eating contests that I inevitably seemed to get involved in - like the time I ate 4 Big Macs in under 3 minutes. Or the 18 slices of pizza from the all-you-can-eat buffet I scoffed in one sitting. Yes - food has always been my achilles heel!

Fortunately, during my university years much of the excess was worked off in other ways. I spent a good amount of time in the gym and playing sports with my friends. And chasing girls always seemed to burn off a few extra calories!

Lastly - when I moved to the UK about 6 years ago, there really wasn't the same type of facilities to work out and the weight started to pile on again. Then I got married and settled into married life. As I was unhappy being married - I turned to food for comfort again. And the weight grew and grew. Until one day I found myself a good 80 pounds overweight.

Slim and trim in October 2010
But that is all in the past. I am now single and lead a healthy lifestyle. I don't drink, only go to McDonald's a few times a year and rarely eat pizza. I am constantly on the scales and weighing myself (probably not healthy – but it makes me conscious of everything I eat!). I still struggle with impulse control when it comes to food - and still don't have an 'off' switch when faced with food.

I am glad that I am 'skinny' again these days. It's a relief to be able to fit into normal sized clothing and not break out in a sweat just getting out of bed. It's nice to get positive attention from the opposite sex and it certainly helps the cycling skills the less I weigh. I keep photos of myself in racing kit around the house (and on the fridge) to help keep me motivated to stay slim (and lose those extra pounds). But the biggest motivation is wanting to win on the road.

I have often said that I have all the skills to be a great cyclist. As far as I can tell - my only weakness is my weight. I don't get dropped on the flat - it's only in the hills. So if I can lose that last 10 pounds (or 15 in my case!), I may be able to make that final step up to being a winner, rather than a participant.

Maybe if I spent more time having sex and less time eating, I would be able to shift those extra pounds a lot faster!

Saturday, 11 December 2010

On Top of the World

When I began racing against other disabled cyclists a few years ago I was really bad. I mean REALLY bad. I was overweight, slow, constantly out of breath, unable to keep up and usually finished well back of everyone else. But I stuck with it, trained harder (and smarter) and eventually got better.

Next came the transition from local disability racing to international racing. The step up was immense. I couldn't believe how much better these guys are than what I was used to! When I first started with the Irish team – I had 2 goals: to race for Ireland in ANY race – and secondly to make it to the World Championships (as it was being held in Canada where I grew up). Since then my goals have grown considerably as I now want to medal at the Paralympics, but this is a look back at the World Championships last August in Baie Comeau, Canada.

Baie Comeau is about 600 miles North-East of Montreal, Quebec in Canada. Getting there was a competition in itself! 7 hour flight from Manchester to New York, 4 hour layover, then another flight to Montreal. On arrival in Montreal, met with the rest of my squad who had flown from Dublin. We all packed our kit onto a charter bus and settled in for the 10 hour drive to our hotel. All told – it was over 24 hours of traveling before arriving at our destination.

The squad consisted of 2 male tandems, 1 female tandem, 3 solo bikes and 2 handcycles, plus coaches, our masseuse, mechanic and team manager. 

We decided to travel to Canada two weeks before the actual competition so that we could have a training camp prior to racing – and spend as much time as possible training on the actual course to get familiar with it.

Now, the course itself was by far the hardest thing I have ever encountered in a race. It was a circuit of about 12 miles long with two climbs – the second being about a mile long with a gradient of up to 15% in parts. It was the type of climb that would break the legs off even the most accomplished cyclist, let alone a one-legged wonder like myself! To give you an idea of how brutal it was – on the way up the climb I was going about 6 MPH. Going down the other side.... I was doing 50 MPH! The time trial consisted of 2 laps of the circuit, while the road race meant going around it 5 times.

This is a BIG event. It is a UCI event – and all the very best paracylists in the world are there. The competition to win a coveted striped jersey is intense. For me personally – I was there for the experience. As one of the heaviest riders in attendance, the massive hill was always going to be a problem for me. In fact, hills have always been my greatest weakness. On the flat road I can easily hold my own and have a decent sprint on me, but as soon as the road goes uphill.... I go backwards.

That was to be the case in Canada. I respectfully call myself a good time trialist – when the road is flat. But that hill was the death of me. Especially on the second lap – I just wanted to die going up it. Heart pounding, legs burning, eyes popping out of my head.... and the road just goes up and up. Still, the support of all the spectators yelling at you from the side of the road drives you on. You dig deeper than you ever thought possible and carry on.
For me, there was an added incentive to do well. My mother and her mother-in-law had travelled there to watch me race. As my mother lives in Canada (and I live in the UK), she had never seen me race. And even at almost 40 years old – I still felt the need to show off and do well in front of her! (Pic is my coach, my mother and my team manager after the road race.)

So... in the end, I finished 12th in the time trial. I was gutted as I had hoped for at least a top 10 finish, especially after placing 9th in the previous World Cup event in Spain. (And managed 2nd place on a flat course a few weeks after in Kent!)

The following day I had to regroup, put the TT behind me and get back on the bike for the road race. It's a 'combined' event - with riders from 3 different disability classes all setting off together. (We wear different coloured helmets to distinguish what class we are in). I was dreading having to go up that hill 5 times - but thought if I just rode a steady pace up it, I can hang in there. I was in the shape of my life (despite having a somewhat swollen undercarriage as the result of an infection) and was raring to go.

The crowds on the day were massive. Like nothing I had ever seen. I was used to races with a handful of supporters - not hundreds! I made sure to line up right in front and get away as quickly as possible. Probably a good thing as there was a crash right at the start (left side of the photo – I'm in green on the right side). As the peleton headed up the first climb I was right at the front – not struggling at all. I remember thinking to myself that if it carries on like this - I'll be in great shape and have a chance.

But as we hit the base of the second (killer) climb – everyone blew by me like I was standing still. I just looked up and all I could see was people riding away from me. Arrrgghh! I figured if I got up the climb in reasonable time, I would be able to catch up on the downhill section. I tend to go downhill quite fast due to gravity hauling my overweight body towards it's core!

I ended up in a small group of riders and we worked together the rest of the day. The first few times up the hill they would pull away from me, but I would always catch them on the downhill. By the last time I was able to stay with them both going up and down the hills. As we approached the finish line, several riders kept trying to break away and sprint for the finish, but I managed to latch onto their wheel every time. As we rounded the final corner into the home stretch, I was leading out the group. I saw the line....put my head down.... and sprinted as hard as I could. I crossed the line ahead of the other riders. Of course, we were well back of the main group - but this was my consolation prize - and proof to myself that I never give up. Race to the final second.

So what did I learn? I learned that I AM good enough to compete at this level, but far too heavy. If I want to be a real contender, I need to drop some weight so I can stay with the main groups on the climbs. I learned the value of teammates (a discussion for another time). I learned that self-belief can be more important than ability. And I learned that if I want to win, I have to work harder than the other guys.

I also want to share.... that the squad had some mixed results as a whole. Some bad luck and broken chains hurt our tandem riders. We had a 5th place for one rider in the TT and most importantly – we came home with a World Champion! Mark Rohan won his road race in the H2 Handcycle competition. The boost his win gave to the team was incredible and a real accomplishment for him and Irish cycling.

I didn't travel back to Ireland with the rest of the squad, but as you can see from the photo - they get one hell of a reception! I hope to get one like that myself one day!

I'm now in the middle of my winter training, slowly losing weight and getting stronger. The next World CHampionships on the road is next September in Denmark - on a flat course that should suit my riding style a lot better, but first up is the World's on the track in March. A competition that doesn't penalize a rider for being too big! So maybe my parade is coming.... :)

And if you have the time and patience - below is a video showing some of the highlights from Canada. And when you see people walking up the hills faster than the cyclists are riding up it – it's not because they are unfit. It's just that the hill was THAT steep! (Just ignore the brief introduction in French)

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

I Don't Feel Your Pain

If you cycle, you are used to pain. Sometimes it's the lung-busting, leg-burning, eye-popping pain that comes from a hard effort in a race... while other times it's just the dull all-over body ache you get after a long ride. They say that what separates a good cyclist from a great one is the ability to suffer. The more you can suffer, the longer you can go and the better your chances of achieving your goals. If pain and suffering is the yardstick that is used to measure a great cyclist – I am going to be one of the best ever.

But this isn't about regular pain. It's not about the pain that you have to deal with. Not as a cyclist and not as a regular person. It's about the very special pain that I have to deal with on a daily basis. And it comes from being an amputee.

Other amputees can attest to the pain that can come from simply wearing an artificial leg. If the fit isn't exactly right, you can get blisters or sores. Not exactly what you want to be thinking about in the middle of a race. I've had legs that have fitted so poorly that I had to wrap half a roll of toilet paper around my residual limb (stump) just to add enough padding to make it comfortable!

My particular problem is a horrible nerve pain that affects my stump. Normally I only suffer from it later in the day or at night, and it is always at it's worst when I take my limb off. Imagine someone stabbing a knife into your leg – over and over – for hours on end. That's what it feels like. But the pain doesn't always come at night – it can hit me at any time. Like a migraine of the leg.

I take a special medication to fix the problem – something normally given to epileptics to ease their seizures. It stops the nerve endings from firing in my stump. It makes you incredibly drowsy though and takes a few hours to take effect – so I have to be sure to time it right or can fall asleep in the worst places! It's a constant balancing act – always assessing how much pain I can take and weighing it against the need to be alert.

Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that after my spinal cord injury I lost a fair amount of feeling in my legs (and this was even possibly the cause of me losing the leg in the first place). Yet I have to suffer with this very specific nerve pain on a daily basis. There are times when I don't even want to leave the house, let alone get on a bike a ride for hours on end. If I didn't have my eye on the Paralympics I'm not certain I would always 'ride through the pain'.

Lance Armstrong may have said it best: "Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever."

Monday, 6 December 2010

Getting Naked With a 300 Pound Gorilla in the Room

I admit it. I'm ashamed of my body. I'm a world-class athlete and I'm embarrassed by my body. More specifically - I'm embarrassed by what my injuries have done to it and about showing anyone my artificial leg.

Being a Paralympic athlete is as much about overcoming physical problems as it is about dealing with mental ones. And not just the stresses of training and racing, but the everyday stuff - like having a social life and dealing with the negative body image that can come from having a serious injury or disability.
One of the only times I have raced without tights

I have always struggled with being an amputee. Especially with the 'superficial' stuff. Imagine, if you can, what it's like when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex. When do you reveal that you have a fake leg? First date? Second date? Right before you drop your kit?

As I'm constantly embarrassed by my disability, I always assume that the women in my life will be similarly put off by it. But to their credit - the vast majority haven't batted an eyelid at it. It seems as long as the other parts work, a missing leg isn't a big deal in the grand scheme of things! In fact, I can recall a girl in university that I met at a party that was so intrigued by the prosthetic, that she couldn't wait to get me back to her place so she could get me naked and inspect it in greater detail!

Not only do you have to deal with the issue of having a fake leg, but also deal with the appropriate time to take it off! If you think putting a condom on is a passion killer - try stopping the 'action' to pop a fake limb off!

And the artificial leg can have other drawbacks in a relationship. I recall one instance when I was arguing with my partner - and as I stormed off up the stairs, she chased after me and pulled the leg right off me - leaving me sitting there on the stairs, unable to move!

My experiences are unique to me, and I know many amputees I have met or raced against that are totally fine with their disability. I probably never will be. my 300 pound gorilla.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Just What is Paracycling?

It occurred to me today that people may not know exactly what Paracycling is. What distinguishes it from 'regular' cycling - and what kind of disabilities to people in the sport have?

This pic - taken at a recent training camp, sums up a lot of what Paracycling entails:

In the back there is the female tandem of Catherine Walsh and Fran Meehan. Catherine - who sits ont he back is visually impaired. She is called the 'stoker'. Fran is called the 'pilot' and controls the steering, brakes, gears, etc. They are one of the best female pairings in the world - and had they not broken a chain at the last World Championships, most likely would have ended up on the podium. Tandems compete both on the road and track.

On the right is Mark Rohan on his handcycle. Mark is normally in a wheelchair - but this is how he cycles. And Mark is the current World Champion in his division. Handcyclists only compete in road events.

Then there's me on the left. There are 5 different 'levels' of disability for solo bikes ranging from quite basic (like a missing arm or hand) to the more severe (combination of missing arms/leg). Cyclists with cerebral palsey also fall into these classes, depending on the extent of their disability. Like the tandems, solo bikes compete in both road and track events.

Lastly - there is a class for cyclists that suffer very badly from CP - and lack the balance to ride a solo bike unaided - so they ride on giant tricycles. (Don't laugh!) Basically modified road bikes with extra wheels added so they can't fall over. But they still get some speed on them!

As disability sport goes, cyclists (in my humble opinion) are some of the best athletes. In many cases, they are as good, if not better than 'able-bodied' athletes. For example - Jody Cundy who competes on the track and is missing a leg, has a sprint times that would make him world class if he had two good legs. If he wasn't British and didn't have to fight for a spot against the likes of CHris Hoy, could probably compete for the Olympic sqaud! And the female cyclist Sarah Storey will be looking to compete in BOTH the Olympics and Paralympics in London. I have competed against former stage winners in the Tour de France in this sport - and have lost badly!

Due to my injuries, I am in a high disability class (C2 out of 5 - with C1 being the most disabled) and yet, am one of the better time trialists in my cycling club. If you saw me out on the road, you probably wouldn't know anything was 'wrong' with me. I'll never win the Tour, but I can usually hold my own on the road!

Lastly - I would like to point out the difference between the Paralympics and the Special Olympics. First and foremost - the Paralympics is about winning medals and competing at an Elite level. It deals with athletes that have suffered some sort of injury or have a physical disability. The Special Olympics is geared towards those with learning disabilities - and is more about participation than winning. Both a valid organizations, but we (Paralympians) are all about kicking the crap out of our competition!

Friday, 3 December 2010

Gym training and new equipment... of a sort

As a follower of many a training thread on the bike forums, I have always gotten conflicting reports when it came to going gym work. The conventional wisdom seems to be that for endurance cycling, weights aren't needed or particularly helpful. But for track sprinting, certain exercises are useful.

After speaking with the team's strength and conditioning coach this week, I have now started gym workouts as part of my regular training. And I was surprised to find out that many of the exercises I HAD been doing in the past were not only useless, but possibly even hurting me!

So today I hit the gym with a new outlook and a bunch of new things to try. Squats were still on the menu, but now I'm doing them differently and in different positions. Things like sit-ups are out - but Pilates are in. Planks and bridges - to strengthen the core. Never again will I scoff at housewives who go to Pilates classes!

And yesterday I visited to Limb Centre - when they build my artificial legs. It's a pretty standard prosthetic - made for walking and everyday use. But I'm after a cycling-specific one. One made without a foot - but so that the cleat attaches directly to the bottom of it, and then to the pedal. They are lighter and stronger, and transfer more of your power directly to the pedal. Here's a pic of Jody Cundy (World and Olympic Champion and World Record Holder, with his leg):

They are going to look into if they can make one for me or not and also gave me the contact info for a place in Manchester that works with other Paralympic athletes. I have contacted them regarding some form of sponsorship to see if they can help me out.

A leg like this could take seconds off my sprint times - and that could be the difference between getting on the podium.... or not.

And you thought choosing a pair of cycling shoes was difficult!

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Training starts today

In March 2011 I will be traveling to Italy to participate in the 2011 Paracycling Track World Championships. How I do there will largely determine my future as an elite cyclist and my position on the squad... and most importantly... my potential to go to London. A top 3 finish in either of my events will cement my future and keep me on the right track (pardon the pun), whilst a lower finishing position does not spell disaster, but muddies the waters. So I am aiming to get on that podium.

The squad will be doing everything we can to get ready for this event - including several training camps between now and March. But the majority of the hard work must be done on our own. Coach sent over my training plan from now until January last night - and the hard work starts today.

It's a mix of gym work to build strength and many hours on the bike - both indoors and out. Two sessions a day for the most part. If you thought we just show up and ride - you are sorely mistaken!

With the snow that has just fallen here, the roads are a mess, so all of my training will be done indoors for now. I have a gym session followed by 2 hours spinning the legs on the turbo trainer (my bike hooked up to something of a treadmill for the rear wheel - for those that don't know). I also have phone calls to both my coach and the strength and conditioning coach to look forward to.

At this time of year, most people take cycling at a slow pace, building their base, riding less and just trying to keep some level of fitness before training starts in earnest next year. I don;t have that luxury. I have to stay focussed and look forward to several months of pain and hard work already!

So - here is me racing last May on the track in Newport, Wales. I need to drop 8 seconds from my time in the Kilo (1 KM race against the clock) and about 20 seconds off my Pursuit (3 KM against the clock) times. Not easy - but can do it!

Let's start with some background info

OK - here we go. Never had a blog before, but I wanted to share my journey and give people an idea of what it takes to become a Paralymic athlete. But before we get to that - a little background about myself.

I spent most of my life living in Canada. Although born to an Irish father and English mother, I left England when I was 4 years old and spent the next 30 years living in Canada with my mother.

When I was 16, I broke my foot playing rugby. But there was no pain and I actually walked around with it broken for a few weeks, before the doctors figured out I had a problem. They discovered I had a tumour on my spinal cord that had caused me to lose feeling in my legs.

The put a cast on the broken foot and removed the tumour. Unfortunately, the cast was too tight and when they removed it, it had caused serious damage to the tissue in my foot. Fast forward 7 years and multiple plastic surgeries to try and fix the problem... and they had to amputate the leg (below the knee).

To be honest, I was never much of an athlete. But I did participate in a lot of sports. I tried cycling (racing) before I lost my leg and have always loved riding a bike. Even did a little racing, but wasn't all that good at it.

After I lost my leg, I spent most of my time on a mountain bike, and usually just going from point A to point B. But a few years ago, after gaining a LOT of weight, I decided it was time to get in shape again. I bought myself a bike and got back on the road.

Over the next few months the weight dropped off. I lost 80 pounds in 3 months (through diet and exercise) and found my passion for cycling again. (See pic below).

In 2009 I got a job working as the Disability Coordinator for British Cycling. It was then that I discovered the world of Paracycling and found that there were loads of other people like me - people who had suffered an injury or had a disability, but still wanted to compete as a cyclist.

I eventually got in touch with the Irish National Team and asked to try out for the squad. As I hold an Irish passport through my father - I qualify to ride for that country. I did some testing and they agreed to let me do a few races for them.

Last year I participated in several road and track races on behalf of Ireland. I even managed to go to the World Championships in Canada. I didn't achieve my goals.... but it has given me a taste of what I CAN do.

So follow me on my journey as I prepare for to participate in the London 2012 Paralympics. There is no guarantee that I will make it as there is a tough qualification process to go through. But I'll share my training and racing, both the success and failures - and try and give some insight into what it takes for a disabled athlete to compete.

Thanks for tuning in and check back soon!