As I sit recovering in yet another hotel room with my room mate Jaco Van Gass a couple of days before the Belgium UCI Road World Cup. It’s funny to look back and reflect on being told I had Retinitis Pigmentosa, an eye condition that would cost me my drivers licence, career and probably my sight. How I thought nothing positive could come out of that diagnosis. This time three years ago I was hanging off one of the largest most famous rock faces in the world without a second thought about riding a bike or going to a Paralympic Games. I had everything I had ever wanted. Fast forward three years and here I am hanging onto the dream of competing for my country at the Rio Paralympic Games in just a few months. I’ve been lucky with a couple of amazing opportunities since opening my eyes to the world of being visually impaired, but it took me a while to open them again in a positive light.
When I became the first visually impaired person to solo climb El Capitan in the Yosemite Valley the question was what’s next? What could out do what I had just achieved? It had to be something so outrageous it was all most unachievable. Going to a Paralympic’s seemed to fit that bill on every level. I was 35 years old, surely far too old to become a professional athlete, my road leading to Rio was pretty much a steep uphill climb that would test the legs of a seasoned pro cyclist. It seemed impossible. That challenge for me was perfect!
I felt after climbing that 1000 metre rock face I could achieve anything and setting this goal was the perfect challenge to test that theory. Climbing El Cap was on my terms but going to a Paralympics was so far out of my control all I could do was apply myself, work harder than everyone around me and prove I have what it takes to be the best. I had the full support from my wife Caroline and my friends, they all know what I’m like and knew what this would mean. As my degenerative vision narrowed so did my focus on what I had to do. Everything that wasn’t helping me become an elite cyclist had to be put on hold. This would mean seeing less of my friends and family as I worked hard to prove that I would be an asset to the British Cycling Team.
I started with a talent I.D day in Glasgow and was asked then to attend a training camp in Newport Wales as a guess with the Development Team. John Hewitt was my first coach after being accepted onto the Development Team, he was one of the staff at the Talent day I attended. John has had a massive input into getting me where I am today and is still very much a part of the team of coaches and staff I have around me now. At first it was a shock to the system just how hard the training was, I was still working a full time 40 hour a week job and had to fit training in around that. Sometimes this meant getting up at 5am to get a session done before work and then doing another session after getting home from work. I entered a world I thought I would never know about, behind the scenes into becoming an Olympic athlete and loved it. I was learning so much about training, my body and nutrition and the best thing the progression was so motivating it made me work harder. I thought I had trained hard to climb El Cap but this was a different level, well structured and with proven methods of success.
One big influence I had early on was being paired to ride with Jason Queally. I had no idea at the time when John Hewitt told me who he was but quickly found out that Jason won a gold medal in the Sydney 2000 Olympic’s. The first of many to follow in the success of the Great Britain Cycling Team. Jason invited me to stay at his house for a week to train and I jumped at the chance. 3 hours into our first hilly ride, in the pouring rain and wind he told me he thought I had what it would take to become an olympian. All I had to do was keep working hard. At that time it was just what I needed to hear and it meant a great deal coming from Jason.
I think the most important part of the early days were the team mates I had. I was still living in Scotland but had regular trips to Manchester to train on the velodrome. I always looked forward to these intensive 3 day training blocks with the guys. We formed a tight bond and friendships that will last a life time. Right from the start we wanted to enjoy our time and made sure we did. During training we worked hard pushing each other to the limit but once the session was complete it was time to recover and have a laugh. Jon Gildea and Adam Duggleby (my pilot) always the jokers with the likes of Dave Smith, Jaco Van Gass and Louis Rolfe always keen to chip in enjoying the fun. I think back then we really bought something special to the GB team environment. I owe these guys a great deal for my progression as the standards we set ourselves were always really high and I never wanted to let these guys down. Not long after we had some talented girls join the development team which added another great dynamic. The energy as a group of development riders became infectious through the whole Para-cycling program.
I’ve got to come clean and tell you it hasn’t gone to plan right from the start. The journey of success is never clean cut or a straight line from zero to hero and mine has been no different. In my very first race in the GB colours with only 100 metres to the finish line my legs cramped so badly I got ejected off the back of the tandem. At 35 miles an hour I hit the rough tarmac. I lost a lot of skin but was very lucky not to break anything other than a helmet in the process of bouncing down the road. I was gutted that I had let Adam down, but thankfully due to his skill he hadn’t come off the bike as well, instead crossing the finish line on his own like some comedy sketch. As I lay flat on my back on the road Archie appeared to make sure I was okay, as soon as he knew I was fine he told me to get up and finish the race. A sharp reminder we hadn’t finished until I crossed the line. As I hobbled over the finish with a torn bloody skin suit and stiff legs I thought this wasn’t the start to racing I was hoping for!
This was the first stage of a two day stage race in Holland and I’m sure my coach at the time Tom Stanton was prepared for me to withdraw the following day. However I was there to show everyone that I could be a professional so I got on with it and climbed on the back of the tandem and carried on. The second day was a painful experience however a worth while one and we won the road race finishing on our own and taking the over all win of the tour. As we stood on the top of the podium pulling on the winners jerseys for the first time the announcer said ‘yesterday he was flying off the bike, but today he was flying on it.”
Adam and I went from strength to strength that following year and the results continued to show we were improving and getting to a competitive level. This just made me work that much harder and it paid off in our first World Cup race of the season in Italy. On a scorching hot day we had a bronze medal in the Time Trial and two days later a Silver in the Road Race. We then headed to Switzerland for the second round and finished 5th in the TT and 4th in the road race after a mechanical with the bike which ruled us out of the sprint finish. We were disappointed with our efforts during a hilly World Championships that year finishing 5th in the TT even after hitting 92kph on the descent which is pretty exciting on the back of a tandem. We could only manage 10th in the Road Race. We were selected to go to South Africa for the last round of the World Cup Series and we struck gold in the TT and bronze in the Road Race. 4 World Cup medals in 6 races, it had been a good season on the road. Not long after our return from South Africa we rode the Track Nationals and finally smashed the national 4km pursuit record by 5 seconds moving it down to 4:22.0 from a respectable 4:27.0. A record we had been after since Adam and I began riding together and one we thought we would never get after coming so close every time we rode a pursuit.
The start of this Paralympic year we raised our standards in training and worked harder than ever before and that paid off being selected for the Track World Championships back in Italy. We posted the third fastest time in qualifying with a time of 4:16.555, this breaking not only our National record but the sea level world record as well. Although that was short lived with it being broken 5 minutes later by a strong Spanish pair. Then we lost the bronze medal ride off by a second to the Canadians which was devastating. However thats bike racing, you lose more races than you win and just have to find the positives and chalk it up as experience. It was a great event for the team as we topped the medal table with Louis Rolfe coming away as a world champion for the first time something we knew years back when we started was only a matter of time. The same for Megan Giglia who broke 2 world records in a remarkable display of track cycling. The other amazing ride was watching Jon Gildea in the scratch race ride his way to a Silver medal in front of us and his parents. It’s always motivating to see the people around you who work just as hard as you do succeed at the top level and have their moment and add their name to the history books.
In the next 2 weeks we will hear wether or not we have made the cut for Rio. Exciting and scary times ahead. It will be disappointing to miss out but if I do I can honestly look back and know I’ve given it everything. Sometimes you have to accept that you simply are not good enough and thats okay. The main thing for me is knowing I’ve done the best I could have and I wouldn’t change my journey over the past 3 years. The only downside to being selected will be having my team mates miss out. These guys have been like family for the past three years and it seems so unfair that not everyone can go and have their time in the spot light to show the world what they are capable of. They have been massively inspiring for me to push myself as hard as I could have to make them proud to call me a team mate.
Without the help and support of the staff team around me this simply would not have been possible either. With special thanks to my carer team Anouska Edwards, Eamonn Deane and Sally Barker for keeping my body in one piece and able to train and race at my best. These guys offer so much more than the roles they are employed to do. The coaches both past and present Archie, Tom, Simon and the team I have around me now of Dan Henchy, John Hewitt and John Norfolk. Also program manager Jon Pett who is always open to new ideas and keen to see the program improve for the athletes and our mechanic Matt Cox for spending many a late evening preparing our bike before races. It hasn’t been plain sailing and there is still so much I need to learn and do but just don’t have the time before the Paralympics, if only there was another year! But I guess most athletes wish they had more time to prepare for the biggest show on earth.
British Cycling have now launched the Track2Tokyo talent search program with events taking place all over the country. If you have a disability and a willingness to do your best then please get in touch and you could join this amazing set up at British Cycling. I can promise you it will not be easy and will push you to your limits but then the most worthwhile things in life are the ones you have worked the hardest for. I wish you all the best in your Track2Tokyo and who knows maybe we will be team mates.
Thanks to BioCare and the Manchester Bike Co-op for supporting this blog.