Wednesday, 14 September 2011

What a difference a year makes

A year ago I considered giving up competitive cycling all-together. The 2010 World Championships had just ended, I was suffering badly with injuries that ended up keeping me off my bike for a month, I had performed poorly in the World Championships and failed to meet even the minimum standard for staying on the squad and was feeling pretty sorry for myself.

What a difference a year makes.

Here I am – one year later – and I am a World Champion. I like the sound of that: World Champion. It's taken a while, but I've finally had a few days to relax and let it all sink in. And despite the racing only having finished a few days ago, I am already hard at work, preparing for the next challenge – which will be to win a world title on the track in February.

But I'd like to share a bit about my 2011 World's experience and recap my 2 races. First up was the time trial. It is the race I've been targeting all year and the one I wanted to win more than anything. Since my first win in the TT in the World Cup in Australia back in April, I knew that it was going to be possible. I just had to keep working hard and keep improving.

When I arrived in Denmark I immediately hopped on my bike and headed out to do a quick lap of the circuit. It was then that I knew I was going to win. Assuming, of course, that the weather stayed dry and that I had a bit of luck!

The days leading up to the event were dire. Wet and/or windy pretty much every day. But on race day, we had the first bit of luck and the rain held off. The winds, whilst present, weren't too strong. Perfect conditions for me. I went through my standard warm up and felt almost perfect. I knew it was going to be a good ride.

But as I rolled the bike up to the start ramp, there was a small problem. My SRM (the device that measures my power output) wasn't working. I had no power readings – something that I normally rely on to help pace my effort. I started fiddling with my computer to try and get it working – all with less than a minute to go! As the starter counted down 10 seconds to go, I realised I hadn't even clipped into my pedals yet! I quickly clipped in and got ready to race.

As I set off, I pushed a few more buttons on the computer to try and get it working, but it wasn't happening. So I put it out of my mind and got down to the business of riding. I would have to go off feel – and not off power readings. This can be risky as you can push too hard or not enough and have no way of knowing for sure if you are in the right zone. Was fortune conspiring against me?

Fortunately I had ridden the course many times in preparation and had pretty good idea of how each section should feel on the legs – where to push and where to recover. It didn't take me long to get into a rhythm and the miles quickly ticked away. I made mistakes on certain parts of the course, but in general I rode well. I knew it was going well, when I caught up to my 'minute man' – the rider who had set off a full minute before I did. He was a rider that I thought could win the race, so if I was catching him, I must be going well.

And at last... the finish line was in sight. I put my head down and put every last ounce of effort into the pedals. And just like that – it was over.

I circled around quickly to watch the other riders finish. There were only 2 more after me and both were capable of winning the whole thing. It seemed like ages till the next rider appeared. Surely it was more than a minute – meaning I had beaten him. Only one more to go now; and there he was. But he appeared much quicker than the previous rider. In fact – I thought he might have beaten me.

There was a small glitch by the organiser; there was no official times being shown. No one knew who had won! My coach reckoned that the final rider had crossed the line around 10 seconds slower than me. But we had to wait for official results. I went back to my tent to do my cool down. 15 minutes of slow riding – and still no results. I got changed out of my cycling clothes – and still no results. I finally went over to the time booth to ask for results. No times were available! 

But... there was a list on the outside of the booth. The top 5 riders for the race were listed in order. And my name was at the top of that list! I had won! I didn't believe it. (No - I really didn't believe it.) I went back to my tent and told my coach and manager - and we all went nuts. But I still didn't really believe it. Until someone finally came over and told me to go to the podium for the presentation!

And even then I was sceptical. Until I finally had the jersey on and the medal around my neck. In the end I had beaten the reigning World Champion by 12.6 seconds and the next person by 26 seconds. Not having power readings may have cost me some time, but everything else went my way so it didn't matter. A year of hard work and sacrifice had finally paid off and I shall forever be a World Champion. 

I like the sound of that.

So after a day off, it was back on the bike again for the road race. It's a combined race with 3 different categories all setting off together with a total of 60 riders. I knew it was going to be tricky with so many riders, especially given how narrow and twisty the course was in parts.

As we rolled off the start, I immediately made my way to the front of the bunch, thinking this was going to be the safest place and my best bet to stay out of trouble. Sure enough, within a few miles of the start, there was a huge crash in the main group (behind me) and a load of riders went down. I didn't even turn around.

The race was 4 laps of the same circuit we had used for the time trial. I knew some parts were going to be tricky and that success in the race would depend on me being in the right position at the right time. I worked hard to stay near the front and out of trouble. Near the ned of the first lap - ANOTHER crash. And again – it was behind me. The lead group had shrunk considerably in size already.

I continued on, staying out of trouble and doing my best to stay with the lead group. But I could feel myself getting tired. I just didn't 'have the legs'. I knew it might only be a matter of time until I was dropped.

On lap 3 (of 4) it happened. I was already near the back of the lead group when someone at the front upped the pace. All of a sudden the group was strung out in single file – on a particularly exposed stretch of road. Next thing I knew, a gap formed in front of me as I lost the wheel of the rider in front of me and I found myself battling a strong headwind. I just didn't have the strength to hang on.

I was forced to ease off and sat up a bit. I kept riding and waited for the next group of riders on the road to catch up with me. At this point there was only a lap to go. Our small group of 4 worked well together - with each of us taking turns on the front. As we approached the finish, I was well-placed in second position when a rider came around behind me and made a mad dash for the finish line. 

I was waiting for the move and jumped on his wheel almost immediately before he could ride away. It was now only a few hundred meters to the finish, so I decided to go for it. I accelerated around him and made my sprint to the finish line. It was a lot further than it looked, and I could feel my legs starting to seize up, but I had to keep going.

I crossed the line ahead of the other riders in our group – securing myself 6th place overall. A massive improvement on the 18th place I finished last year in the Worlds! Yet – I felt a little empty. For a while I believed I had a shot to get not he podium in this race also and felt I had let my team down a bit. But as my coach pointed out to me – would I rather have one gold and one 6th place - or 2 second places? Gold any day please!

And so, the 2011 World Championships was over for me. In no particular order, I want to thank all the people that have made it possible: Pace Rehab, Brian Nugent, Gerry Beggs, Denis Toomey, Frank O'Leary, Fiona Kirby, Global Bikes, Cyclepowermeters, Ultimate Ceramic Bearings, Cycling Ireland, and Paralympics Ireland. 

It's been a great year (and not over quite yet) and I can't wait for the next chapter to begin. It won't be long until I'm back.... on track!

Chasing Rainbows

Every sport has World Championships – and they all give out medals. But in cycling, when you win a World Championship, you also get the 'Rainbow Jersey'. As a cyclist it is one of the highest achievements you can get. It is up there with the Yellow Jersey of the Tour de France as one of the most recognisable icons of cycling.

As a winner of the Rainbow Jersey – you are required to wear the jersey in all competitions (of the same discipline you won it for) for the following year. So if you win it in the time trial – you must wear the Rainbow Stripes for all time trial events for the next year. Same for Road or Track events (if you win it in those disciplines). And when the year is up, you are entitled to have Rainbow Bands on your sleeves and collar or your regular jersey for the rest of your career.

It is a badge of honour that few ever get to bear. And so it it sought after with great passion by all that participate at the highest levels of the sport. The Rainbow Stripes are also given out to the Paracycling category winners and their achievements are looked upon as highly as those in the able-bodied community.

To an outsider, or someone not intimate with the history of cycling, it must seem odd – the drive to wear a rainbow-coloured jersey. But to those of us that have the chance – once a year – to compete for this coveted piece of clothing, it is a driving force that can't be deterred or set aside. 

And the feeling of stepping onto the podium, and pulling that jersey over your head for the first time, is something that will stay with me for a lifetime – in my heart and on my sleeves.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Say hello to the new World Champion

Buzzing. That's the only way I can describe this feeling. I'm in Denmark for the 2011 Paracycling Road and Time Trial World Championships... and I've just won the biggest race of my life. I've been target tin this one all year - it's the one I've wanted to win more than any other.

And today – I became the new World Champion in the time trial. 

All week the weather has been horrible; either raining or windy. Or both. The course is challenging due to the multitude of sharp and fast corners and in wet and windy conditions, it can be difficult to stay upright. But today, the rains stayed way, the winds (although present) were under control and all that was left to do was go out and ride.

I'll post more when I get a chance, but now I'm off to bed to rest up and start getting ready for the road race the day after tomorrow!