I gazed out the window from the back of our donated mini-van, looking at the thousands of beautiful windmills that faded off into the pancake flat landscape. “They’re stunning” I said to Lindsey and Joe, my tandem pilot and her bike mechanic beau who was navigating from the passenger seat. “I hope this represents the topography of the course we’re riding in tomorrow.” I smiled, thinking of a nice, flat, open road to try to make the time standards on during our Cycling Time Trial.
Tomorrow would be July 4th, almost two months to the day since Lindsey and I met in person. While we had spoken via Facebook, it was fate that brought us together as a team back in Colorado on May 6. We had both been invited by the United States Association of Blind Athletes to participate in a Tandem bike racing camp to develop a new crop of blind athletes in preparation for the Paralympics in Rio. Lindsey had been assigned to me, the stoker (the blind person on the back of a tandem bike), as my experienced pilot. Lindsey had a history of guiding several blind athletes to Marathons and Ironman Distance Triathlons. A little cycling would be cake for her.
We had immediately hit it off at camp, and it was a perfect match by Pam Fernandes of USABA and the coaching staff that would guide us through Drills, skills, long rides, and races for the week. We walked away (more like limped after all the time in the saddle) with an arsenal of new knowledge, and a renewed faith in our potential as cyclists. We were encouraged to check out some local cycling races near our homes, and to come to USA Cycling National Championships. Now here we were, taking the 7 hour drive from Lindsey’s home in Indiana, to the US Cycling Mecca of Madison Wisconsin, home to the Trek Bicycles world headquarters. We were giddy and completely excited to try something totally new.
With a borrowed WAY-too-big bike, borrowed helmet, and no aero bars attached to the bike, we were a little bit outclassed at this big event. We felt like the newbies that we were, gawking and pointing at all the elite Para-cyclists and Junior Cyclists warming up in air-conditioned tents on fancy computerized bike trainers, riding $10,000 bikes. Some even had their own sponsored vans, busses and cars with their logos plastered from bumper to bumper. Lindsey had literally only completed one cycling race before today. I had NEVER ridden in one. This would be one heck of a first race for us as a team. Yup, we were in the big leagues now.
We arrived just in time to go on a course preview ride. Lindsey took out the map while her boyfriend assembled Palomino, our nickname for our beautiful borrowed bike. After all, we were two blondes, with a blonde guide dog and a blonde bike. The name fit. We headed out on the course and immediately hit a substantial climb. “So much for making the standard on THIS course,” I whined. “Yeah, well, at least we are good climbers. Maybe we can hit talent pool.” “We can try,” I replied. “We’ll see!”
USA Paracycling has standards in place for athletes to hit in order to get funding and coaching from the Paralympics. At our camp 7 weeks prior, we had hit the military standard in our very first attempt at a Time Trial, having only ridden as a team for 4 days. We were confident going into Nationals, after 7 weeks of tough training at home, that we could hit the next standard, which would be the “Emerging Athlete” standard. The next level up from there was ‘Talent pool’, which would put us on the watch list to make the USA Team, and finally, there was the National Standard, which would require us to average a blistering 24.8 MPH for a minimum of 20Km. With the topography of this 28 kilometer course leading to some serious rolling hills and ‘false-flats’, we would have to ride the race of our lives and have a serious tailwind to hit National Standards.
We settled into our home-stay with Team Red White and Blue Teammates who we had met through social media. Jason and Daphne Madaus had generously offered to host us, and their sweet son Mikhael would be in charge of Elvis for the weekend while we raced bikes. Daphne, a talented amateur photographer, would play paparazzi and Jason would cheer-lead and keep us hydrated. Joe spent our first evening working on Palomino, while Lindsey and I battled giant mosquitos that seemed to take a shine to us. After ten minutes, I relented and sprayed myself from head to toe with deet, praying that it didn’t get in my post-surgical eyes.
The morning of the Time Trial loomed, and we were grateful for the cooler weather that would help us maintain our fastest possible time. Our friends Greg Miller, Greg Hoffman, Kathy Champion and Ray Middleton from Cycling Camp, pulled up alongside us, patting us on the back, and offering words of wisdom and encouragement. We heard tips like, “Don’t over-gear on that first climb. Go hard from the start. If you don’t puke, you didn’t try hard enough,” and many other sage tidbits to help us do our best.
As we sat in the saddle in the starting tent, where a race official held the bike upright for us from the back wheel, I rubbed my pilot Lindsey’s back. “Love and gratitude, lady. Love you. We got this. Smooth and fast. We can DO this. Trust your training.” Lindsey shifted in her saddle. “love and gratitude.” I patted Palomino for good luck as the official began the countdown. “Ladies in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, GO!” The miles ticked away. I stayed with my head and back low and tight to Lindsey, trying to stay as aerodynamic and still as possible, while maintaining my power to each and every pedal stroke. I worked hard on managing my asthma, exhaling forcefully on each climb. I watched my Garmin watch, showing us our average speed. It showed 23.4. we needed 23.7 to hit Talent Pool standards. “Push Lindsey, PUSH!” I yelled. And off we went.
Lindsey expertly handled the bike for 28 kilometers. Each turn was effortless and fast, the climbs tough but fluid, and the descents fun and terrifying all at once. As we approached the final turn for the finish line with less than three miles to go, I began to cheer Lindsey on. “Go Lindsey! Push! Harder! Do it! We GOT this!” And with that final cheer, I tilted my chin to the right and puked underneath my outstretched arm and smiled. We gave it everything we had.
NEXT WEEK? PART TWO- Our First Road Race- At Nationals!
If this post inspires you, please share with friends, family and your employers, and support Team Palomino with a tax deductible donation to my USA Blind Athlete’s Association ‘Athlete Development Account”, which will help me purchase a bike of my own that fits me, and cover entry fees and travel to international races. THANK YOU!