After what had felt like a very long time, I was able to represent GB para-cycling for the first time in April in Mexico at the Para-World track championships. This was actually earlier than expected, due to the reduction of time needed away from elite able-bodied competition, but 18 months still felt like an awfully long time away from any major competition.
It was decided that I would be riding with Neil Fachie, who with 6 previous world titles (not to mention Gold in the London Paralympics) would certainly have high expectations, making us possible favourites for each of our two disciplines. To add to this expectation, I was told GB have won the double at the previous 9 world championships in the men’s events, no pressure then!
The event itself was held at what is widely regarded as the fastest track in the world, Aguascalientes. Sitting at an altitude of 1800m, the thin air offers the ideal compromise between low air pressure, and enough oxygen for your body to operate at near full capacity. Conditions were described in training as perfect; it was going to be fast!
We were fortunate enough to travel to Mexico 8 days prior to competition starting. This allowed plenty of time to get over the length travel, as well as to get 4 track sessions in to try and acclimatise to the altitude and the new challenges that the extra speed might bring on a tandem. After the first effort of the first session, I was glad we had the time. A simple flying hundred on warm up gear left Neil and I both gasping for air and a burning in the lungs that usually would result in an effort 3-4 times that length. We were worried. How would 4 laps feel!
Surprisingly we got over this initial shock very quickly. By the end of session 2 we were actually feeling pretty good and were very encouraged by our times. They were crazy! The first shaky flying hundred on a middle gear was 4.86. That track sets new records and numbers meaning all previous times are largely irrelevant. It was actually a little strange, not knowing if we were going well or not. In some ways looking at the watch seemed pointless, it was stupidly fast, end of. Until we were up against some opposition, we didn’t know just how fast…..
Our hotel was good. Food restrictions of no meat caused some interesting homemade meals with tuna but it did the job well and I managed to get through the week with no gripes at all from the change in diet (others were not so lucky….). It is always strange being in such a beautiful hotel, weather and country, but remaining focused and out of the sun in the hotel room. Not hard when at such a major competition, but I did allow myself a quick dip at 6pm each day as soon as the pool was in the shade. No harm in cooing off!
That brings me to one of the other major factors of the week. The heat! It was immense. Track temperature was in access of 40C (110F?) for 5-6 hours each day. One day it peeked at 45C. I truly believe that at this temperature it was a hindrance. I know the theory is the hotter the faster, but this was a joke. Iced towels and buckets were a must and saved us. Without these we would have been in real danger, many other teams were suffering from serious heat exhaustion. Fortunately we were surrounded by a superb team that looked after us. 2 people wobbling my legs after the kilo with 1 person with a cold towel and another with a cold spray is just one example of how good our team is when it counts.
Training for the rest of the week went well, leaving us confident of a good ride on race day. Kilo was up first. Would we break the minute? Would anyone else? Warm up went well, we were last up so watched each of our competitors go before us. The Aussies set the benchmark of 1.00.460 and with the style of riding they have, we knew we just had to hit it with everything and try and hang on. We were a second up after a lap and then just maintained that lead for the remaining three laps. And it hurt! To be honest, the ride itself was normal and the legs were normal, but breathing was definitely a challenge. Our physiologist said to me before we left, it will be fine, you will just gasp for air a little more than usual. Fine I thought. But then it occurred to me that I would rate my gasp rate at 10/10 after a kilo. There is no room for more!
We finished with a time of 59.4. The first and only tandem ever to break the minute barrier. Standing on top of the podium listening to the National Anthem for the first time in 7 years was a special moment. Winning with someone was also something I really enjoyed. A change to my previous career, but definitely one that I am happy happened and hopefully will continue to enjoy for many years to come.
We were fortunate enough to have a rest day (much needed) before sprint day. Qualification was early and actually pretty cold. 17 degrees when we arrived at the track climbed to 22 for our 200 TT. Strange in a way to go slower than in training, but again we managed to pip the Aussies to set a second world record of 9.711. I definitely think these times will stand until an event goes up that high in the air again. Possibly for some time…
We were some distance ahead of our rivals for the first few rounds and so made it to the final relatively comfortably. Dealing with the heat was the biggest challenge. The final itself went as planned. We lead the first from the front and won comfortably. The second was a one-lap drag race followed by 2 laps of hanging on. We won by a wheel, which was a little close for comfort, but a win is a win! We had done it, delivering on the day and winning two world titles at the first time of asking as a pairing.
Mexico was a fantastic experience. There was expectation and we knew we could, maybe should win. But saying and doing are two different things, so I was immensely proud that we did what we had come to do.