Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Winning is all about your Pace

When competing in a Time Trial or the Pursuit on the track, a winning strategy always involves setting the right pace. Start off too fast and you'll suffer badly and lose time at the end of the race. Too slow, and you'll give away valuable time.

But this post isn't about that kind of pace. Instead I want to share with you some of what has helped turn me into a winner; a much different kind of Pace.

When comparing myself with my fellow competitors, the one thing that stood out more than any other was that all the best amputee riders had one thing I did not: a purpose-built cycling leg. I have been riding and competing with a day-to-day leg; a wonder of technology that is both functional and technologically advanced – and reasonably life-like to look at. But heavy as a sack of hammers. If I was to put myself on equal footing (pardon the pun) with the other riders, I was going to have to get myself something special made up.

At the start of the year I approached a company in Manchester called Pace Rehabilitation ( to see if they would be able to help me out. Amongst other things, they specialise in the design and construction of artificial limbs for proven and aspiring Paralympic athletes. In Paracycling alone, they have made limbs for two current World Champions (and a multiple Paralympic Champion). These folks really know their stuff.

Our initial discussions were based around where I currently stood in the World Rankings, and how much improvement a specialist leg could make to my prospects. At the time I was easily a top-10 rider in the world, but was going to need a big push to move up to the top of the list. However, I managed to convince them that I was a good prospect and they agreed to take me on board as one of their sponsored athletes.

Also at this time I was preparing to race in the Track World Championships. It soon became clear than any new leg would not be in ready in time for the competition, so I was going to have to use my existing leg. On the one hand it meant that my results would suffer, but on the other hand it has provided a good baseline for comparison for when the final leg is done and used in competition.

The design and construction of my leg was taken over by Pace's newest member of staff – Howard Woolley. Howard had just joined the Pace team and I was to be one of his first specialist projects. Howard and I met to discuss how I though the leg should look and function, and we quickly came to an agreement on how to proceed.

The first step in the construction process involves taking several moulds of my residual limb (stump). First a silicone sleeve is rolled onto the limb, followed by a layer of plastic wrap so that problem areas or weight supporting areas can be marked off in blue pencil. These marks get transferred to the inside of the cast and are used to fine tune the final socket.

The leg is then wrapped in plaster (just like a broken leg would be). Once dry, the plaster cast is removed and is taken to the workshop to be converted into a positive mould. Several of these moulds were made – both over top of my stump and also over top of the sleeve that I would ultimately wear inside the finished leg (it protects my stump and keep the final leg in place).

A clear socket is then produced and attached to the lower part of the limb. The socket is clear so that you can see how my stump fits on the inside in case there are any problems and makes adjustments easier. The lower part of the limb at this stage was made from a strong foam-like material that would later be shaved down into the correct shape. From the photos you can see why we joked that it looked like a pair of 1970's flared jeans! 
The next stage of production involved lots of fine-tuning. The shape of the new leg was slowly formed and constant changes to the length and fit were made. At each stage I had my bike in the lab on a static (turbo) trainer so that we could test out how it felt. Once a final working prototype was finished – I was able to take it out on the road for some trials. This required further adjustments to get it working perfectly and Howard was very patient in helping me make all the fine adjustments needed.  

Silicone sleeve and release valve
The way the leg works is I wear a silicone sleeve over my stump (for comfort, etc). The sleeve has plastic ribs on the bottom. These ribs get sprayed with a alcohol spray that allows it to slide inside the carbon leg. The alcohol evaporates, keeping the leg firmly in place. When you want to remove it, there is an air release valve on the rear of the leg that allows the sleeve to slide free from inside the socket.

Early and final prototype
The prototype was utilitarian and not much to look at. This is due to it being constantly cut and replastered together again. However, once the final adjustments had been made, Pace were able to make another version that would be the basis of the final leg. A photo of the final prototype was emailed to me in the morning for approval – and once I said I was happy – I was able to collect the final carbon leg that afternoon!

In the past few months that I have been using my new leg, I have skyrocketed up the World Rankings. I am beating the World Champion in my division with regularity and am now one of the top few riders in the world. I'm leading the World Cup and in September will be trying to win the World Championships. None of this would have been possible without the help of the good people at Pace. I have dedicated my first World Cup wins to them (In Australia earlier this year).

The final carbon leg with Howard Woolley at Pace
They have produced an excellent product and have been a pleasure to work with from the outset. I cannot recommend their services enough! And when I do win my first World Championships I will also dedicate that to them and look forward to having their logo on my jersey!

My thanks go out to Howard Woolley, Nigel Firth (the technician who actually built the leg), Scott Richardson, Toby Carlsson and the entire team of people at Pace that have made this possible. If you are an aspiring amputee athlete, someone who just wants better service than the NHS offers or are looking for something different – these are the people to see.

Pace Rehabilitation (

National Referral Centre
Tel: 0845 450 7357
Fax: 0161 428 5852


Pace Rehabilitation Limited
36 Brook Street
Cheadle, Cheshire
Tel: 0845 450 7357

Pace Rehabilitation Limited
Unit 1, Anglo Business Park
Asheridge Road
Chesham, Buckinghamshire
Tel: 0845 450 7357

Monday, 13 June 2011

You win some. You lose some.

This weekend saw me flying to Segovia, Spain (about an hour from Madrid) to compete in the second round of the Paracycling World Cup. After a pair of successful performances in the TT and road race in round one in Sydney, Australia – I was hoping for a repeat performance. Or at least a good enough performance to allow me to keep the World Cup leader's jersey.

While a few good teams and riders were present in Sydney, it paled in comparison to the field in Spain. Almost every country sent their best riders to compete in the second round (as most teams are European and it's easy for them to get to the race).This meant the best riders in the world were there and getting good results was going to prove to be a lot more difficult.

We (the Irish team) sent a full complement of riders, including some new faces that were trying out for spots on the squad. But with so many staff and riders, we didn't spend a lot of time preparing in Spain in order to keep costs down. I arrived in Spain on Wednesday afternoon and after waiting a few hours in the airport for the rest of the gang to arrive from Dublin, headed to the hotel. A quick dinner and straight to bed!

Thursday consisted of building up both my race bikes and then a quick drive out to the time trial circuit for a short training session and to get familiar with the course. We raced the same circuit last year so were fairly familiar with the roads. A few laps of the course was enough to get me prepared. Racing (for me) would be late the following afternoon.

The course itself is fairly flat and on long, straight roads. Wind is always a factor in this region of Spain and I can tell you - riding flat out for 7 or so miles into a biting headwind is enough to make anyone want to pack up and go home.

Fortunately the winds, while present, were fairly light on race day. I knew these would be the sort of conditions that might help me get a favourable result. I just had to keep the power on all the way.

For the days leading up to the race, I had been suffering with a tight hamstring muscle. I was lucky to have the team masseuse there to work it over every night to try and get it ready to race on. As I rolled up to the start line, it still felt tight but I hoped it was good enough to get me around the circuit.

And then….it was my turn to ride. I set off at a controlled pace - not wanting to overdo it too much at the start as this would cost me later on if I did. I pedalled my way of the main town and into the countryside. It didn't take long for my leg to start hurting and I knew I was going to be in for a long day.

At no point during the race did I feel like it was going well. In fact, I felt it was going very poorly the entire way. I struggled to get into a rhythm and felt like the soreness kept me from pushing as hard as I wanted to. I wanted it to be over the entire way. But…I kept going. And going. And going.

Every cliche in the book went through my head. I wasn't going to quit or give up, no matter what. The World Champion had started 1 minute behind me and I was convinced he was going to catch and pass me - and for the life of me didn't want this to happen. I had gone there to best him (again) and didn't want to give him the satisfaction of catching me.

As I made the final turn for the last downhill stretch of road towards the finish line I was in agony. The dry air was burning my throat, the heat was sweltering and causing the sweat to pour down my face and into my eyes, stinging them badly and making it difficult to see the road ahead of me. And still I powered on, knowing that the finish would be upon me in a matter of minutes.

Finally I saw the 1km to go sign and knew it was almost over. I made the last few pedal strokes into the town and sprinted towards the finish line. Looking up at the clock as I crossed the line I could see my time: 29 minutes. Over 2 minutes faster than the previous year! (And bang on the target time I hoped I would achieve.) But I didn't know how anyone else had done.

I waited at the side of the road for a short period of time, assuming that the World Champion would cross the line quickly after me - but there was no sign of him so I made my way back to the pit area to warm down.

I had to wait a good long while to get any results. When my coach finally came over to me he was shaking his head. "Second" he said. "By 0.4 of a second". Wow. Closest margin I've ever had in a time trial. And I was absolutely gutted. It such a small margin to lose by and there are 100 places on the course where I could have made that time up. But that's racing. (The World Champion had actually finished in 3rd place, 7 seconds behind me).

So, another World Cup and another medal. Plus more points in the bag towards the leader's jersey. But the competition was still very tight and I was going to have to beat the World Champ in the road race to guarantee that I would hold onto the jersey - and I knew this was going to be very difficult as he is a very good road rider. While I am not.

After a rest day, it was back on the bike on the Sunday for the road race. 55km of mostly flat roads with only a small uphill section to make things difficult. But again, the flat, exposed terrain meant that the wind was going to make things difficult for a at least part of the circuit. Nevertheless, it was the type of course that suited me well and I had hopes of a good result.

As soon as the race started I struggled to clip into my pedal correctly and while I pfaffed around trying to get my foot sorted, the rest of the field quickly rode past me! I felt like such and amateur. But I finally got myself strapped in and was away, easily catching up to the large pack of riders.

Up front with the World Champions and World Cup Leaders
Out of the saddle, sprinting up the first climb, I heard something pop - and suddenly my front wheel was wobbling all over the place. Damn it – I had broken a spoke! I could hear it smacking against my front forks with every rotation of the wheel, but once I sat down, it seemed to be OK. I didn't know what to do - pull over and get a new wheel or just keep going and hope for the best. I decided to keep going.

I found it easy to keep pace with the lead riders. As we came through the start/finish area to complete the first of 3 laps, I thought maybe the front wheel would hold out and I'd make it to the finish. Wrong again.

As the field powered up the small climb for the second time (and I got out of the saddle to follow), the spoke came completely loose - now smacking against the forks non-stop whether seated or standing. I couldn't stand it and decided I had to change wheels. I put my hand up in the air to call for the service car and drifted towards the rear of the peleton. The service car rolled up beside me and I explained I needed a new front wheel. We both stopped and he hopped out to give me a new wheel. He struggled briefly to get it attached, costing me an extra 10 seconds, but I was on my way again with only a short(ish) delay.

The only problem was that the peleton was now a fair distance up the road and I was going to have to work hard to try and catch up to them again. I put in a strong effort, riding my time trial pace to try and bring them back. I could see me slowly catching up to them on the long, straight road ahead. But as they hit the next town and turned into the wind, I knew I was in trouble. When I got on that same stretch of road, with the wind fully in my face and no shelter or no one to share the work with me, they began to pull away again.

I wanted to pull over to the side of the road and call it quits. But I was riding in the World Cup leaders jersey and in respect for the jersey….kept going. Coming through the finish area with one lap to go - I saw something that made my heart soar. There was my main rival - the man I had to beat to guarantee that I would keep the jersey. He had also had mechanical problems - but had pulled out of the race!! As I already had more points than him, I was going to keep the jersey for the next few weeks. I didn't even have to finish the race - but of course kept going.

I managed to catch up to a few of the stragglers and in the end crossed the line in 13th place (a little unlucky perhaps?). No points outside the top-10, but the jersey was mine nonetheless. I am convinced that had I not messed up my wheel I would have been in there with a shout for the win (or at least a podium position), but racing is so unpredictable and anything can happen.

There is one more round of the World Cup left in Canada. I had not originally planned to go and race there, but if I do, there is a good chance that I can win the jersey - and the first ever Paracycling World Cup competition. If I DON'T go - I will most certainly lose it, as the rider who won both the road race and time trial in Spain will most certainly get the points he needs to overtake me.

Mark Rohan and myself - World Cup Leaders
So, it's a tough one. We are going to try and find a way to raise the funds needed to send me there in July to go for this historic achievement. (And if anyone out there reading this wants to sponsor me - feel free to get in touch!) If not, it's been a great World Cup for me. I have seen that I can beat the best in the world and my confidence for the World Championships in Denmark this September is growing.

And now it's back home (I'm writing this in the airport waiting for my flight) for some more local races - and then the final 3 months of training leading up to the World's will begin. The hard work has only just begun!