Recapping the 2015 Season: The #Road2Rio Journey Continues Part 1
I am sure all of you are eager to get the full recap of my 2015 racing year straight from the horse's mouth. I apologize for the delay but I had a few things happen this year such as getting married, traveling to Europe for 60 days and learning how to ride a bike dangerously. In between all of these things I also had to manage to squeeze in work at my Physical Therapy job. So what I am saying is that my life hasn't changed much. Its still a wild traveling circus show that somehow keeps the wheels on and moving forward.
As many of you know, last October I thought my Paralympic dream had been swept away when the IPC decided to cut the Male Blind/VI (PT5) category from the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. This decision hit me straight in the heart. It was very tough to come to grips with but over the years I have learned how to be resilient and do whatever it takes to get the job done and that is what I set out to do for the Paralympic Games.
After contemplating what sport gave me the best chance to not only make it to Rio but also medal at the games, I chose Para-Cycling. I looked into running the marathon and was training for the Houston Marathon this past January to run the "B" Standard time of 2:40 but developed a stress fracture in my left foot that just wouldn't go away and ended up being in a walking boot for six weeks and had to cancel my participation in the Houston Marathon. The fact that I was just trying to meet the "B" standard to qualify for the Paralympic Team and getting injured made me contemplate whether running was the right direction.
Throughout the fall of 2014 and into early 2015, I was also in conversation with the high performance director at the USOC for Para-Cycling to figure out what the path in cycling looked like. I literally think that every department of the USOC got a call from me inquiring about their sport. After weighing my options and figuring out the most feasible route, in February of 2015 I committed myself to taking the cycling path.
I was already scheduled to run the Boston Marathon, as it is the greatest one day endurance event in the world, sorry Kona but Boston has you beat, but with the healing stress fracture I made a smart decision to just run the first half. I figured if nothing else I at least had to run through the "screaming Wall" of girls at Wellesley College. I ran as part of Team With a Vision, raising money for the Massachusetts Association for the Blind (M.A.B.). It was a great experience once again and I even was able to interview, Peter Segal from NPR about why he likes guiding blind people.
The following week after Boston, I traveled to Kansas City to take part in my second straight CCVI Trolley Run. This event is awesome. It raises money for the Children Center for the Visually Impaired (CCVI) in Kansas City and I always love meeting new kids and becoming best buds. I have connected with many people over the two years of Trolley Run so it was good to see Nicola Heskett, Courtney Craig and Greg Heishman. Trolley Run occurred right around the time of Caitlyn Jenner coming out so we had plenty to talk about this year, most notably why she should not have won the ESPN ESPY for Courage (LOL).
The 3rd weekend (May 1st) in a streak of 8 in a row, I traveled to Monterrey, MX for the CAM TRI Paratriathlon Championships. Although, I would not be going to Rio in triathlon, I believe strongly that I have been and should continue to be an ambassador for the sport for the blind/VI. I want to keep the participation numbers up and the competition level high so that those that have dreams of competing in triathlon in the Paralympic Games in Tokyo 2020 are able to fulfill these dreams. Continued participation is the only way this can occur. I know how much it hurts to have a dream swept away by something that is out of your control and I don't want that to happen to any of my other fellow blind/VI counterparts.
With all of this in mind, Colin Riley and I traveled to Monterrey with the rest of Team USA Paratriathlon. This race would determine the best in each classification from north, South and Central America. The swim would take place in the World's longest swimming pool. They even needed the world's largest bucket to fill the pool when water levels were low. Colin and I used the bike portion of the race to get ourselves prepped for our first cycling race coming up soon after. We just did the run because, well, that's the third leg of the triathlon and we had to in order to finish the race. We came in first, but more importantly we got more valuable time on the tandem. I also got the honor of getting drug tested after the race and drank a record 12 bottles of water and Gatorade but still took two hours in doping control waiting to pee.
Back to cycling, I had many conversations with Ian Lawless, the high performance director at US Paralympics in which I asked him, "What do I need to do to get myself to Rio?" "I told him I take my athletic career as a business and I am on a mission. You tell me what I need to do and I will do it." He said, "Ok, that's what I like to hear." From there I began to set the calendar. My first race would be a Selection Time Trial in Asheville, NC which would determine the team the US would be taking to the first set of World Cup races in Italy and Switzerland. Now, when I say this was the first race, it was not only the first cycling race on my calendar for 2015 it was my first pure cycling race ever.
After my conversations with Ian, I went back to the drawing board at my little desk area in my office and started making phone calls I had been in talks with two guys that were strong riders and loved guiding me in triathlon but I had to make sure they were ready to pilot the stealth rocket, also known as the Matrix Tank at races around the world. Colin Riley and Ben Collins were committed to me and the long journey that we had in front of us. The plan was that it would be a tag team effort. Colin Riley would be first man up at the Asheville race on May 9th.
Colin and I arrived in Asheville not knowing what the heck we were supposed to do other than push the pedals over on the bike. At that point I had a good bike frame but crummy components. I am not a gear geek but someone told me that the Sora derailleur we had on was near the bottom of the line and I had 10 speed front shifters with an 11 speed rear wheel. All that meant to me was that the bike was shifting crappy! We had no idea of the level of our competition at this race. After all, we we're triathletes, we didn't know how to ride a bike if there wasn't a swim before it and a run after it. Despite this, we attacked the slightly rolling 28K course and clocked in an average of 30mph.
In Para-cycling competition, everything is compared to a standard for your classification. The "A" Standard (highest standard) is 1:17/Km which equates to 28.6mph. We had smashed that and won by 1:01 over the next competitor. Come to find out 1:01 is a ton when it comes to Time Trials in cycling. The fact that we won was good but in Para-Cycling it doesn't matter if you are the best in your category in your country, its all about how your time compares to the category standard. The standard is divided by your time and multiplied by 100 to get a percentage. All other categories are done in this way with respect to their category standard and then all results are compared against each other with the lowest percents being the best. This meant that Colin and I could celebrate the win but we couldn't celebrate making the US Team for World Cups 1 & 2.
Weeks later we found out that with our finish in Asheville, Colin and I were named to the US Team for World Cup 1 & 2 in early June. Prior to that would be the US Para-Cycling National Championships in Chattanooga, TN over Memorial Day weekend. This event would include a Road Race and a Time Trial and would be the selection race for the US Team for the 2015 Para-Cycling Road World Championships. This time is was Ben Collins turn to jump on the tandem and ride at ridiculous speeds and whip around corners like a NASCAR driver. Just like Colin, I think Ben was a little nervous the first go around and rightfully so as we had only ridden the tandem once in the last year prior to the race.
Ben and I had great support from Chattanooga local Cathy Champlin and we also spent much of our time at Nationals hanging out with the "Blondes on Bikes" tandem of Amy Dixon and Lindsey Cook. The time trial was a little more hilly this race than in Asheville which made hitting the standard more difficult but Ben and I crushed it and took 1st by 50sec to the next tandem. The next day would be the Road Race which was an entirely different beast than we had ever encountered. Thank God for the great support of Greg Miller who is the man that knows all when it comes to tandems, we were able to get the bike switched over from a time trial bike to a road bike and were set to tackle the 15 loop roller coaster circuit inside the park that they had set up. This course was way more technical than we had ever set wheels on and we also had never done a road race in our life.
The gun went off at the Nationals Road Race and we started out just strolling along with the pack for the first half mile. Then, another bike tried an attack but dropped their chain. We surged to go with them but then they were gone so we just decided to make it our own attack. This attack became the rest of the race as we did what we do best as triathletes. We turned the road race into a 60K time trial and ended up riding way from the pack and winning by 4minutes. We didn't know what we were doing but sometimes that is best. Again, after the race we didn't know whether this meant we were on the world's team or not. We met many of the other Men's Tandems and they were all very nice. Some them like Chester Triplett I had met before and others I hadn't.
After the road race at Nationals, Greg Miller had arranged a local tandem dealer to bring out some sweet mountain bike tandems so we could take them to the trails. I had ridden a mountain bike tandem in my near death experience doing an Xterra triathlon but never one with full shocks and suspension. These things could handle any dip, rock, stump or terrain that we threw at it. I giggled and laughed more in that one hour than I think I ever have. It was amazing and made me wonder why they don't have tandem mountain biking in the Paralympic Games. If they did, you could sign me up. Its probably good that I didn't tell my manager Carie Goldberg that I took the bike off road!
So my first two races on a bike went well but these were just domestic races within the United States. It was only a short time before we would put our big boy pants on and go against the world. The Men's tandem category is one of if not the strongest and most competitive categories in all of cycling and we would have our hands full. Colin Riley would be my first pilot in international competition and getting a pilot eligible for international competition is not as simple as one would think. After a lot of paperwork, licensing and other procedures he was ready to go.
In early June we set off with Team USA to a small town outside Venice, Italy named Maniago for World Cup #1. Of course, it wouldn't be right if there wasn't some chaos and a wrench thrown into things. After many delays and flight changes, Colin and I arrived with the team in Venice, the Matrix Tank did not. Our first race was the time trial on Thursday and we didn't get the tandem for three days. The Tank arrived Wednesday and the mechanics did an excellent job in getting it ready for us to ride. We scouted the course the best we could and it was a good one for us. The course had a few rollers but mostly flat. Colin and I put on our Team USA Super Hero suits and stepped up to the starters ramp. We were the first tandem to go because your start time is determined by past results and we had none. The timer counted down from ten to one and we blasted out of the start ramp. I think there were flames coming off our wheels. We powered up the first hill and hit the flat section going 35mph. The course then began to get a little more technical going through small villages. We were no more than four miles into the TT when all of a sudden "BANG," our back tire blew. Colin did an amazing job in controlling the bike to a stop. Luckily, we had a follow car behind us with a spare wheel but with the level of competition in our category, you get a flat and you are out. We swapped the back wheel and got back on but it felt as though the new wheel had flatted right away. We made one more quick stop to check and it was all good so we hammered the rest of the way. We ended up 13th of 24 which wasn't too bad considering that was with a flat. Two days later was our first road race and we were in for an eye opening experience.
The road race course in Maniago was an 8K loop that we would do 15 times. Each lap included riding through cobblestone streets and a sharp right hand turn at the bottom of a long descent. We lined up with the other 24 tandems and in the back of my head there was a voice saying, "What the heck are you doing?" That voice continued coming back during th race while one by one we dodged carnage on the course of other tandems going down. After five laps we were doing good. We were still in the lead pack and doing our best to stay out of dangerous situations. On our sixth lap though as we set up on the left side for a swooping right hand turn onto the cobblestones we were pushed off the road by a Canadian rider into the barricades smashing into the curb and shearing the front fork completely off the bike. Colin went into the barrier and I went over top of him. Colin cracked his helmet and bruised his low back and I came out of it pretty much unscathed. The Matrix Tank on the other hand looked like Humpty Dumpty just after he fell off the wall. We were very lucky and to state the obvious, we went down as a DNF in the race results.
After making sure we were okay, we immediately did what every competitor would do. We asked, "what do we need to do to fix the bike so we can race next week?" And so, for the next 48hrs the team managers and I searched every outlet to get a tandem fork to the little old town in Italy. Thank God for Greg Miller as he had a tandem fork at his house and shipped it to another US athlete that was just coming for World Cup #2 in Switzerland. This was great news but yet again Colin and I were without a tandem to ride up until a day before the race. The chips were not in our favor but that was soon to change.
With our low end components including our Sora Derailleur we went into the flat and fast time trial in Yverdon, Switzerland an took Silver. We were only beaten by the Dutch tandem which is composed of two 6'5" giants that have been in the sport for over ten years. The stoker (rider on back) on the Dutch team could be mistaken for an NFL linebacker, he's that big!
We averaged nearly 32mph in this race. Also, to show you how close the competition is, we beat the Spanish team in 3rd by 20sec but 3rd-8th place was operated by a total of 14sec. This was definitely an eye opener to me that every little second counts in these time trials. Following the podium finish in the Yverdon TT, many of our Team USA teammates came up to us saying that there had been a revelation. They said, "You guys were triathletes, but now your cyclists!" We cracked up about this, but it definitely shows how a good result really changes people's perspective and level of respect.
The road race in Switzerland was declared by others as the toughest road race course ever in Para-Cycling. For the men's tandem race, it was 107km (8laps) with nearly 6,000ft of climbing. Each lap had one hill that went up to 14% grade an another hill that was 3-miles long. It was definitely one that was not for the weak at heart. Colin and I hung with the leaders through the first lap, but struggled to hang with the experienced riders who train together a lot and were in sync on the climbs after that. The Polish, Dutch and Spanish teams dominated this race as they often do in tandem racing. During the second time up the 14% grade Colin and I broke a spoke on our back wheel in the middle of the hill. Team director Ian Lawless just happened to be there with a spare back wheel but we were running 10-speed components and he had an 11-speed wheel. For the rest of the race including climbing the 3-mile long hill, we could not get into our smaller chain ring, therefore we had to grind in the big ring for 60K of climbing and lost significant ground on the leaders. We had quickly learned that in road racing, you lose the pack, you are pretty much toast. We got lapped by the leaders but at least finished the race to count towards a result for our country. We would learn and move on.
Part of the learning process meant that the Matrix Tank needed an upgrade. We couldn't continue traveling across the world and having mechanical problems. I came to the realization that my bike was like my own NASCAR vehicle, every little component is crucial. Races are decided by seconds, not minutes so everything had to be right.
Tandem bikes are not easy to find components that are compatible but thankfully we got connected with some of the best in the business. Full Speed Ahead, also known as FSA is local to Seattle and helped us get all the components such as cranks, handlebars, brakes, seat posts and more. I am so thankful that FSA makes stuff for tandems because a lot of companies do not.
Shifting on a tandem is always a challenge but Shimano DI 2 is the latest technology out there. Wayne Stetina at Shimano was amazing in helping me get the 50+ items that I needed to make the DI 2 work on the tandem, which is equivalent to a semi-truck in automobiles.
Lastly, the upgrade process was completed by getting stronger and more durable wheels that were certified for tandems. There are very few companies that will certify their wheels safe for tandems but FFWD (Fast Forward Wheels) do certify their wheels for tandems and they are very good but do come at a price. Since upgrading to the FFWD wheels we have had no broken spokes or cracked rims! so I am a very happy man.
I also need to give probably the biggest thanks to my local bike mechanic and training pilot Niels Thogersen as he was the one that made the Matrix Tank the machine that it is today. Niels has helped me more than I could ever thank him. Of course, just like with every tandem bike conundrum even when you think everything is good, its not. Once we got all the components we found that DI2 is made for only two chain rings on the front and pretty much every tandem crank set is made for three chain rings. This opened up an entirely different can of worms but after much investigation and help from Steve Donovan, the Team USA mechanic, we found that FSA actually makes an adaptor. Basically, the long story short, we spent a lot of time coming up with an array of solutions and come to find out the solution was knocking on the back door.
This is the conclusion to part 1 of my 2015 Season Recap. I know you are very angry and will be sending me hate emails because you just can't wait for Part 2 to come out but keep your emotions in check because Part 2 is right around the corner. Thanks for following along with me in my journey, also known as the #Road2Rio!