If you asked me last summer what I would be racing in 2017, tandem track cycling is probably the last answer I would give.
In 2016, I raced my first race on a domestic elite cycling team, and was diving full bore into the world of UCI stage racing. In July, my cycling world came crashing down; my incessant training and inadequate nutrition began to cause some health problems that sidelined my racing season.
As my physical ability fizzled, I quickly fell out of love with the sport, and my training dwindled to almost nothing. In August, I traveled to Rio de Janerio to watch my roommate, Ben Kanute, race the Olympic triathlon.
I left Brazil both inspired with the Olympic spirit, and armed with the tools and information to fix my diet-related health issues. I had learned more about the Paralympics and para-cycling and wanted to find a way to get involved.
I vaguely knew about tandem racing from Dave Swanson, a well known Tucson cyclist, who was an able-bodied tandem pilot athlete at the 2012 London Paralympics.
Stoked to be a pilot
In the para-cycling world, visually-impaired athletes are legally blind and compete on a two-person tandem bicycle. An able-bodied, sighted athlete is the “pilot,” and the blind visually impaired (BVI) athlete is the “stoker.” Both athletes contribute equally to the power of the bike, and therefore, the sighted pilot is also treated as an paralympic athlete.
An able-bodied pilot must be a competitive cyclist who is strong enough to help the tandem compete at an international level.
Para-cyclists compete domestically on the road and track, as well as internationally in UCI-sanctioned races and the Paralympics, which is held in conjunction with the Olympics.
There are a variety of cycling disabilities, which are categorized based upon severity, with C-5 being the least impaired, through C-1 being the most impaired. All blind athletes compete on a tandem bicycle independent of the sighted para-athletes, who compete on single bikes.
It was not until a Tucson Thanksgiving ride when I bumped into Mike Creed, the former head coach of U.S. Paralympic Para-cycling. He quickly connected me to a visually impaired athlete who needed a pilot. Within a week, I found myself on a call with Chester Triplett. Chester, an experienced BVI stoker from North Carolina, asked me to pilot his tandem on the track for U.S. Paralympic Para-cycling Track Nationals in January.
National Championship and we just met?
Chester was a U.S. Army artillery soldier until he developed Stargardt disease in his early 20s. Stargardt disease is genetic juvenile macular degeneration caused by the death of photoreceptor cells in the retina. Chester’s vision slowly degraded to the point that he is left with only a small portion of his peripheral vision. He is legally blind, and classified as an MB (Men’s Blind) for para-cycling.
But I quickly dismissed the idea; I have never ridden a tandem on a track, and I had not been riding consistently for the past five months. I figured that there is no way that I could possibly get in shape in time. Chester insisted that we give it a try and use it to gain experience. So on a whim, I agreed, and he booked a flight to Tucson in early January.
With only three weeks to prep for our race, there were many questions on our minds. Would we get along? Could we get fit in time? But with a no-pressure attitude, Chester and I hopped on a road tandem together.
That is the only word we could use to describe our first ride together. There is an unexplainable feeling of speed and coordination that happens when two people mesh well and ride together on a tandem.
It is as if the bike has only one rider. In the rowing world, this effect is called ‘swing,’ and Chester and I found our swing immediately. Within the first 45 minutes of our first ride, we felt as if we had been riding together for weeks.
Even our first try sprinting on the tandem was effortless. This is normally an exercise in coordination that takes weeks to master. By our third ride, we were comfortably navigating the front of the Shootout group ride in Tucson. Both of us felt there was something truly special happening here.
Another important piece of the tandem that fell into place quickly was the interpersonal side. Riding a tandem is an exercise in cooperation and coordination that requires a huge degree of communication and trust. This is often times the breaking point of tandem teams.
Communication and learning to ride the tandem together is the X-factor that makes a fast tandem team. From the start, Chester and I promised to be as open as possible both on and off the bike. This open line of communication keeps small annoyances from becoming the driving points that cause tension for us on the bike.
I had to let go of the mindset of “what is good for me” and replace it with a mindset of “what is good for the bike.” It no longer mattered to me what power I did, or what power Chester was doing at any given moment. The only thing that mattered is the combined power of the tandem. That shared relationship is what makes the tandem a unique and specific beast.
After a series of in-sync rides in Tucson we headed to the Velo Sports Center in Carson, California for the U.S. Paralympic Track Cycling National Championships.
To the velodrome
The track in Carson is an indoor wooden velodrome. Each lap is 250m, and the 45-degree banked corners allow the bike to hold speed as if you are traveling in a straight line. On the track we ride a fixed-gear tandem with no brakes.
One of the challenges is gear choice. We have to find a gear with which we can accelerate but also allows us to have a high top-end speed without requiring too high of a cadence. This can be a problem because at high rpms, there is a higher chance of our pedaling to come out of sync.
Luckily for us, Dave Swanson traveled to Carson with us. He advised us to do some experiments to help find the proper gear choice, as well as some hands-on coaching to accelerate my learning curve on the track tandem.
Our target race was the 4k pursuit. The race is 16 laps in which two bikes start on opposite ends of the track at the same time. If one bike overtakes the other, the race ends immediately. If 4k passes and neither bike is caught, the bike with the faster time wins.
Moment of truth
As I sat at the start line for our qualifying run, I was praying for some magic. Up to this point, we had never even ridden 4k at race effort. I felt unprepared and crossed my fingers that if I could just focus and execute the series of coordinated moves from the moment the gun went off, our result would be good.
To our surprise, our first run was almost perfect considering our preparation. We far exceeded anyone’s expectations in our execution, and the time reflected that. We qualified for the finals that evening, where we would go head to head with another strong tandem team for the national title.
We focused on controlling what variables we could control and were confident the result would reflect that. We managed to catch the other tandem in 3km and left Carson wearing the stars and stripes jerseys of national champions.
As we left the track for Tucson, one thing still weighed on our minds. Was our time fast enough to qualify us for the UCI Para-Cycling Track World Championships?
On to conquer the world
Because of the number of disability categories, para-cycling selects the top seven to eight men and women for worlds by comparing their times against a standard set to reflect the gold-medal times at the most recent Olympics or world championships. This is to ensure that they take the most competitive mix of athletes, but it also means that even that being the best tandem does not necessarily qualify to compete at worlds.
Our resulting time was on the edge of being fast enough, and we crossed our fingers that some goodwill might come our way from being a relatively new tandem team.
After nervously opening an email from U.S. Para-cycling, our car erupted in cheers. We had been selected!
We could not believe that we had managed to qualify in our first race together, but the adventure had just begun.
A week later we flew back to Los Angeles to join a camp with U.S. Paracycling in preparation for UCI Paracycling Worlds March 2 to 5.
For me as an able-bodied athlete, I have found myself immersed in a new environment of sharing.
Sharing my training, sharing the excitement of winning, sharing the frustrations of losing, but most importantly sharing the magical moments where we ride a bike as one.
I am constantly inspired by the dedication and athleticism I see in the para program, and I am extremely honored to be able to be a part of it.
Stephen Pedone is a cyclist based out of Tucson and recently created ArT-18, a wine preservation company.