On Tuesday I had the chance to meet the Great Britain para-cycling team as they prepared at a training camp in Newport for the World Championships, taking place in Los Angeles next month. By the time the Worlds begin, it will be less than six months until the start of the London 2012 Paralympics.
These are just a few of the things I discovered during the day, which will mean I’m keeping more of an eye on action and results both in LA and in London:
1. Newport is ideal preparation for London
The British team, who train full time and whose top athletes are fully funded, are normally based in Manchester with their able-bodied counterparts. With the Para Worlds and the London Track World Cup both looming, though, track time in Manchester is precious so the para team have decamped to the Wales National Velodrome in Newport.
Despite its rather drab industrial estate surroundings, Newport’s track is world class, designed by the same person who put together the track in London’s Olympic Park. GB’s Olympic and Paralympic riders will prepare here for their Games this summer.
Tandem rider Anthony Kappes said: “I’ve never ridden two tracks that are the same. The geometry is different. Although they’re all 250m the banking is different, the angles are different and the drop-offs between bankings and straights are different shapes.”
2. Paralympic tandems are among the fastest ever
Three years ago, Kappes was half of the duo that clocked the fastest time ever over 1km distance by a British pairing on a tandem – able-bodied or disabled – in 1 min 1.626 sec. Now Kappes, who is visually impaired and acts as “stoker” behind his able-bodied pilot, the Sydney Olympic silver medallist Craig Maclean, is aiming for the world mark, which is almost two seconds faster.
Tandems were dropped from the Olympic programme in the 1980s, and from the able-bodied World Championship programme in 1992 so para cycling showcases the fastest racing in the world, with the tandem sprint a display of force and speed that outshines Olympian Chris Hoy’s solo efforts.
There are problems with taking tandems faster than ever before: frames just are not built for the amount of power being put through them and the coaches have to deal with broken frames and fittings, and exploding tyres, in almost every session. During afternoon training behind a motorbike “derny” on Tuesday, Barney Storey, pilot for Neil Fachie in GB’s other tandem, suffered a broken seat while riding at 72km/h.
3. GB’s approach is a brutal “gold or nothing”
Great Britain’s team is packed with stars – they won nine golds in Motichiari, Italy last year and there are six Paralympic champions in the 14-strong squad heading to LA – but few of them are already certain of selection for the Olympics.
Results at the Worlds will dictate how large a squad GB is allowed to take to London 2012 but they could be in a position of having to leave a silver medal prospect – like one of the tandem pairings – at home because there is a better chance of gold elsewhere.
Lead coach Chris Furber said: “We want to win almost every event that we enter so that shapes how we select the squad. The athletes are here because they want to be number one in the world. Second place isn’t good enough for any of them.”
4. Jody Cundy’s motivation is still sky high
Jody Cundy has been to four Paralympic Games – three as a swimmer and one as a cyclist since switching sports in 2006 – and won five Paralympic golds, as well as 10 world titles across both sports but the 33-year-old from Cambridgeshire is not finished yet. In fact he could keep going until the 2016 Paralympics.
Looking forward to London, he told me: “It will be an opportunity to go there in the prime of my career, compete on home soil, in front of a home crowd. It’s stuff dreams are made of.
“It would be the perfect place to retire if I pull off a gold medal performance but I’ve only been in the sport since 2006 and as long as I’ve got motivation I can see myself taking at least two years, and then seeing if Rio’s on the cards.”
Cundy, whose right foot was amputated when he was three, finds motivation from new challenges. After a 10-year international swimming career, he moved into cycling in 2006 and, after winning the “kilo”, 1km sprint time trial, and team sprint in Beijing he added the 4km individual pursuit to his repertoire, winning world silver last year.
Jody is well worth following on Twitter too.
5. Sarah Storey is faster than ever
She may not have managed to achieve her aim of making the Olympic team but Sarah Storey, 34, has come back to the para-cycling team far stronger after her time with the able-bodied team pursuit squad, to the degree where she has earned a place in the sprint team – an event where all-male trios are the norm – in LA.
Should that team stick together, it could be one of five golds Storey targets at the Paralympics, along with the 500m time trial and 3k individual pursuit on the track and the road race and road time trial, both of which take place at the Brands Hatch motor racing circuit.
Furber said: “That close harmony we had with the able-bodied programme where she was training with the team pursuit girls has opened the door for her to ride in our team sprint. She is now able to ride a lap of the track faster than she’s ever been able to before. She is also able to start better.”
6. Attention to detail can save your life and win you gold
Jon-Allan Butterworth says the Basra Air Station, where he was working as an RAF weapons technician in 2007, was generally attacked between four and 11 times a day. Had the ground he was lying on been harder, he believes, the shrapnel from a shell would have bounced at a higher angle of around 45 degrees, and not severed his left arm.
What feels like an alarming attention to detail in such a traumatic situation appears a key trait for Butterworth, a likeable, chatty rider from the West Midlands who won the C5 kilo title with a world record in on his World Championships debut last year having come through the Ministry of Defence Battle Back scheme.
Butterworth also took part in the setting of a record for the number of consecutive loop-the-loops by four aircraft flying in formation. He was a passenger in a plane that managed it 26 times before they felt too sick to continue.
7. Hoy’s former team-mate will be watching in London
Maclean won Olympic team sprint silver alongside Chris Hoy 12 years ago and plans to be watching from the stands when his fellow Scot begins the quest for three more gold medals in London.
Maclean, now 40, made his last appearance at an able-bodied World Championships in 2006 and started riding as a tandem pilot after the Beijing Games. As tandem is the only Paralympic event where able-bodied guides can win medals, he could join an exclusive club in August.
But rather than closeting himself in Newport in the run-up to the Paras, he will be watching some track cycling heats, and has tickets for the athletics 100m heats too.
“There’s part of me that would still like to be competitive at able-bodied sport but age and injury goes against you,” he admits. “Not that it’s a poor second [to be at the Paralympics]. It’s a bonus at my age still to be able to compete.”