Saturday, 11 February 2012

This is becoming a habit

Still a day to go here at the Paracycling Track World Championships, but so far it's been...eventful. I'll keep this brief as I have to try and get some sleep. Up early tomorrow to ride in the Team Sprint, but want to share a quick update.

Friday saw me competing in the 3KM pursuit. It's my best event and the one I have spent the most time preparing for. And also my best chance to win a medal. As usual, I knew the competition would be tough and expected the current World Champion and World Record holder (from China) to perform his usual magic and destroy the field.

I had watched him in training a few days prior to the start of racing and he was flying around the track. So much so, that I felt I couldn't match his pace. I had resigned myself to going for the silver medal. Or at least qualifying second and maybe pulling a rabbit out of the hat in the final. Probably not the best attitude to have (giving up before you've started) but that's where my head was at.

For anyone that doesn't know – the 3KM pursuit is basically a very short time trial on the track. Two riders start on opposite sides of the track and race around for 3KM. In the qualifying heat, it's all about your time. So the goal is to go as fast as you can. If you catch the other rider, you have to go around him and carry on. All riders need a finishing time.

Once all the riders have done their qualifying round, the 4 fastest ride off for the medals; first and second fastest for gold and silver, and third and fourth fastest for bronze. The aim, therefore, is to be one of the 2 fastest in qualifying and then ride off for gold. And there is a break in between the qualifying and finals of several hours so you can rest up and recover.

I was the third from last heat (based on my finishing time from last year). The plan was to go off easy, settle into my pace and hang on. Keep the laps times steady and build up a good lead. And that's just what I did. Lap after lap I hit my target time and before I knew it, there was just 2 laps to go – and I could see my opponent in front of me. I had managed to catch up to him (as I had expected). I eased off slightly at that point, not wanting to have to pass him and waste energy. I finished comfortably, setting the fastest time and taking 8 seconds off my previous best time.

I was then able to sit back and watch the 2 final heats. Of greatest interest to me was the final heat in which my main competitor (from China) was racing. But it didn't go as I had expected. Lap after lap he started to slow. He was still much faster than the other rider on the track, but wasn't coming anywhere close to the time I had set. I thought he must certainly be holding back, knowing that he had done enough to get into the final, but saving some energy for the evening ride. I was nervous about what was to come.

After the qualification, I had a chance to cool down, get changed and pack up my gear. I was just about to leave to go back to the hotel and get some rest, when one of the folks from the UCI came over to speak with my team manager. It seems several other teams had filed a protest against me – claiming that I was in the wrong category. Basically saying that my disabilities were not great enough for ht category I race in – giving me an unfair advantage over the other riders.

This has been a source of contention for quite some time, and I have had to face the classifiers on 5 different occasions now. I'll go into detail on this in another post, but because my injuries are so varied, it's hard to definitely say which category I should be in. If I was 'just' an amputee – it would be a clear-cut case.

The fall-out from this protest meant that an emergency classifiers session had to be called and they had to look at me. BEFORE being able to race in the final that evening! I was able to go back to my hotel, but only briefly – before having to go back and face the classifiers. Not exactly the best way to recover and prepare for the biggest race of my life!

And so...I faced off against the classifying team once again. But they know me well and after a thorough exam on their part, they confirmed what they had said all along. I was and still am in the C2 class. I was cleared to race. Straight back to the track after that to change and start warming up for the race.

I was able to clear my head and focus very quickly. And able to channel the anger and nerves from the classification farce into my preparations for the race. I went through my warm-up routine and had to admit I was feeling pretty good. I knew I would be able to give the rider from China a run for his money.

From the way he rode in the morning I suspected one of two things would happen. Either he had been taking it easy on purpose and he would ride like I knew he was able and destroy me, or he had actually been going flat out in the morning and wasn't on a good day. In which case I'd have a chance.

The plan was to ride the first half on a set schedule (specific laps times) and then my coach would let me know if I was up or down each lap after that.

I set off a little faster than in qualifying and quickly found I was going faster each lap than I had in the morning ride. But the legs felt great so kept on it. Within the first few laps my coach was telling me I was already up by a second or more! This spurred me on even more and I hit the gas harder. It wasn't long before the lead stretch to 3, then 4, then 5 seconds. By the time I rounded the final turn, I had taken a whopping 6 seconds out of him. And... I had won.

Another World Championship. This time on the track. I had been dreaming of this for months. I didn't think it would be possible to beat the rider from China, but (thankfully) I was wrong. Just goes to show what hard work and determination can do.

After the podium presentation, I had to go through the joys of anti-doping before I could head back to the hotel for the night. By the time I got there, got some food and chatted to everyone else, it was getting late. But the buzz and the adrenaline still coursing through my veins meant that it would be several hours before I would get to sleep. And it wasn't a great sleep. Only got a few hours before I was up again and back to the track for day 2.

Today I had to ride the Kilo (1KM time trial). This one is just 4 laps of the track as fast as you can go. Fastest rider wins. I got up and did my ride. And it felt great. Only problem... it wasn't fast. At all. I suspect the strain of classification, 2 pursuit races and little sleep the day before had taken their toll on me. In the end I only managed 4th place. I know... people will be saying "but 4th is really good." Yes - but I had expected to win. Or at least get a medal. And certainly was capable of doing a winning time. But not today. So be it.  Something to work on before London.

But the journey is not over. Team Sprint to come. Not really our best event – but we hope to pull a few surprises out of the bag. We shall see!


Team Sprint went off on the final day. Myself, Enda Smyth and Cathal Miller gave it everything but it wasn't to be our day. A problem with Cathal's helmet (basically it fell down over his eyes so he couldn't see properly) cost him time on his closing lap and we lost valuable time. We ended up finishing in 11th place, despite setting a new Irish record and going almost 2 seconds faster than last year. Disappointing for the lads as we had high hopes of a top-5 result.

So that is it from Los Angeles. Last year I finished 6th in both the Pursuit and Kilo, this year 1st and 4th respectively. New personal bests all around. Still room for improvement and lots of work to do.

Some key people have helped me this year and want to say a quick thanks to 3T for providing me with my Brezza Nano bars (review to come soon), to Look for their stunning 596 Pursuit frame and Keo Blade Aero pedals, ZipVit for Sports Nutrition, Giro for the Selector TT helmet and of course – Pace Rehabilitation who are responsible for making my carbon cycling leg(s). Without the help of these great companies, I wouldn't be able to achieve the highest of heights!

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Waiting... is the Hardest Part

Well, here we are. Been in LA for the Paracycling Track World Championships for over a week now and still a few more days to go before the racing begins. We took the decision to fly over here early (compared to some of the teams that only arrived yesterday) so that we could have some extra time to get over the jetlag and have some extra training sessions on the track here. And...mission accomplished.

Everyone on the team has now adjusted to the 8 hour time difference and we've had daily sessions on the LA velodrome – getting used to the peculiarities of the track and getting a good feel for our surroundings. We've setting in nicely and found our way around a bit and met some of the 'locals'. But because we are racing in a few days, the amount of time we spend on our bikes is limited each day. And that leaves a LOT of free time to kill.

Personally, I'm OK with lots of time to kill. I am adept at surfing the internet and always have a laptop loaded with films and TV shows to keep my brain turned off. As race day approaches, I try not to stress too much about my performance and worry about things like lap times or what my competition will be doing. I have confidence in my training and know that I will put it all together when the starting bell rings and I come flying out of the blocks. So I try and spend my free time relaxing and letting my batteries recharge fully.

Some of my teammates find the downtime harder to deal with – especially when the sun is shining and we're in one of the biggest US cities. There is a lot to see and do here and it's very difficult to stay put in your hotel room when you could be out sight-seeing and having a good time. It's easier for me as I lived in the area when I was a child and have visited these parts many times. Plus, I simply remind myself that I'm here to work – and win medals – and anything that distracts me from my goals, or takes away vital energy isn't worth my time.

I would love to be seeing the sights or wandering on the beach, but being in the sun, or (in my case) spending any time at all walking around unnecessarily can hurt my chances of winning a medal here. And I have a very good chance of taking some silverware home, especially if I keep my head screwed on tight.

In these final few days before racing starts, we are fully into the 'taper' period. It's basically where we do an absolute minimal amount of work to keep the legs working to their full potential without expending too much energy. The efforts are short and intense and few in number. The afternoon road rides are cut out too, meaning there is even more time to kill. The body gets fresher, but the mind can get stale.

We are all ready to race. Chomping at the bit. Our tandems all start their racing on Thursday (it's Tuesday as I write this) whilst the solo bikes go on Friday. Which means I have an extra day to wait until it's my time to go. But I'm just going about my business as usual – and resting as much as possible. In a few days it will all be over and we'll all be able to relax, sit back and have a beer together and if we've done it right... enjoy our victories together.

And so... I'll see you in a few days. Hopefully with some hardware to share!