Anything you can do: Meet Team GB's paralympic cyclists
Shove over, Pendleton. Make some room, Hoy. Team GB's paracyclists are ready to rock the velodrome - and their expected medal haul looks set to blow their able-bodied peers off the track.
Emily Dugan is social affairs correspondent for The Independent, i and Independent on Sunday, covering Sarah Cassidy’s maternity leave. She was previously a news reporter for The Independent on Sunday. Her investigations into human trafficking have twice been awarded Best Investigative Article at the Anti-Slavery Day Media Awards and her human rights journalism was shortlisted for the Gaby Rado Memorial prize at the 2012 Amnesty Media Awards.
Sunday 26 August 2012
In the velodrome café at the British Cycling Centre in Manchester, the atmosphere is so tense that almost nobody is talking. In the week after Chris Hoy, Jason Kenny, Laura Trott and the rest of Team GB confirmed their dominance on two wheels at London 2012, you would expect to find their home training ground relaxed and triumphant. But relaxed is the last word that comes to mind.
Team GB's Paralympic cyclists share training facilities with the able-bodied team and if anyone wanted evidence that the Olympics were just the warm-up, it is right here. Queues of athletes are hastily refuelling with slabs of lasagne and huge bowls of rice – and everyone seems poised to perform. Some sit alone, plugged into headphones, getting psyched up for their next training session; others look nervously at a screen showing Olympics highlights.
Paralympic World Champions Jon-Allan Butterworth and Sarah Storey are sitting in one corner of the café, trying to remember how many medals their Olympic colleagues took home. "I think they only got seven golds on the track," says Butterworth, "I think we'll top that." Storey chips in: "You can do that single-handedly, can't you?" The quip is not quite true – Butterworth is in contention for four medals in the 1km and time-trial track races and a possible fifth in the team sprint if he is selected for the final squad. But between them they do have the potential to beat that number, despite being just a fraction of the 19-strong Paralympic squad.
In Beijing the Paracycling team won 17 gold medals and three silvers and tickets are already sold out to London's velodrome in expectation of a repeat performance. In the build-up to 2008 the team's funding was set at £1.8m, but after their golden return this was more than doubled for London, leaving them with £3.8m and a slick team running in parallel with the able-bodied Team GB.
In the Olympics there are just 18 cycling events with possible medals. But in the Paralympics there are 50 gold medals up for grabs, with at least one Briton competing for 27 of them. To make the contests fair, there are separate events for blind athletes on tandems, those riding tricycles, handcycles and bicycles – and each of these categories is also divided up according to the severity of the impairment.
Storey is likely to come home with the biggest pile of precious metal, as she is hotly tipped for two golds on the road and another two on the track. Her left hand is only partly formed, but she is such a strong cyclist that last year she took gold in the team pursuit with the able-bodied team. The 34-year-old had already won five Paralympic golds as part of her total haul of 16 medals in swimming between 1992 and 2004, and took up cycling only after getting an ear infection from the pool – but by the time she got to Beijing in 2008, her winning time in the individual pursuit would have placed her eighth at the Olympics.
Compared with Storey, Butterworth is an infant of Paralympic sport, but his podium chances are still very high. With his chiselled cheekbones, lean physique and metal left arm, he looks like the hero of a Hollywood sci-fi movie. He is already the face of a Sainsbury's advertising campaign and is set to become as much a regular on our screens as Jason Kenny and Sir Chris Hoy. He is a favourite to get two track golds, but you wouldn't know it to talk to him. "I think I'll medal in a few events," he says, cautiously. "I don't want to blow my own trumpet until afterwards, I suppose, but I'm in the best shape I've been so far, so hopefully that'll be enough on the day."
The 26-year-old former RAF weapons technician lost his arm in August 2007 when a rocket attack hit his air station in Basra, Iraq. Field doctors performed an above-the-elbow amputation and within three months, his talent for cycling had been spotted by British coaches in Loughborough. By November 2009 he had left the RAF and was a full-time athlete; and at his first World Championships last year he took gold in the 1km time trial, setting a new world record of 1 minute and seven seconds in the process.
"I didn't think at the time [of the accident], 'What am I going to do now?' I just fell into cycling," he says. "I didn't even think I was going to the Games a year ago. After my first win in the World Championships I think I realised that I had potential. I went out and went pretty quick and won. I'd only been doing it a year and seven months, so I saw I could be good at it. Some argue that you already are good at it because you've won, but in myself I don't think I was anywhere near my best and I'm still not at my best now – I think there'll be so much more to come."
He has been reducing his times at every competition he has entered. "In the 1km time trial I've got between one and two seconds faster and possibly even 10 seconds faster in the pursuit in the past year," he says. It may not sound like much, but in the world of elite cycling, shaving whole seconds off your records is extremely impressive.
utterworth is not the only member of the squad whose form has been on an upward trajectory. The Paracyclists' head coach, Chris Furber, makes the medal record of Team GB's performance director Dave Brailsford's charges look paltry: since taking over in 2006, Furber has led his team to 77 Paralympic and World Championship gold medals.
"They're an incredibly talented bunch of cyclists," he says. "The team we put out in Beijing was unbelievable and we've grown that and got so many new talents. We had a couple of people retire after Beijing, but we've been able to grow the squad over the past three years."
Furber is cautious about predicting the same success as the team achieved in Beijing. Since then the racing categories have been changed and there are fewer track prizes, which could count against Britain. "It will be incredibly difficult," he accepts. "The standard of competition has improved dramatically and the classifications have changed. We were head and shoulders above the competition then and now we're ahead but not by quite so much. The world is catching up."
But his warnings sound more like an insurance policy than a real fear of failure. They also echo the mutterings of Team GB ahead of their Olympic competition – which proved to be overly cautious. The target his team have set is to get at least 10 to 15 gold medals and a medal rate of 60 per cent among its 27 competitions.
The success of the Olympians is reassuring, as well as giving a prod to his own team to exceed their record. "There's a little bit of competition between us," Furber admits. "But it's a relief to us to see that they've done well, because we're using the same equipment and we've trained in the same way. We are them but delayed by four weeks. It gives us confidence that we'll do well."
Furber was moved over from being the north-west talent coach, where he had nurtured future two-wheeled Olympic stars including Jason Kenny and Shanaze Reade. He was already passionate about inclusion in sport – his dad Graham founded Disability Cricket and his brother Richard, who died two years ago, had spina bifida and played for England. "Richard enabled me to come in with a unique viewpoint. He meant that I don't see disability – I just see people. Adapting someone's prosthetic limb to make them cycle faster is no different to adapting Bradley Wiggins' bike to go faster."
nside the carefully monitored heat of the Manchester Velodrome, the Paralympic team is getting ready for another gruelling session on its steeply banked sides. And cycling around them at a frightening pace is a reminder of the competition. Romanian Eduard Novak is a three-time world champion in the 4km race who has bought a timed slot on the track. He was a national champion at speed-skating until a car accident as a teenager meant his leg had to be amputated below the knee. Now the 35-year-old is Romania's greatest medal hope at the 2012 Games.
While the GB coaches eye Novak, the athletes ready themselves for the afternoon. As Sarah Storey sets herself up on a fixed bike inside the track, her feet blurring in a circle as she sweats away at her warm-ups, a few yards away, tandem cyclists Lora Turnham and Fiona Duncan sit in the instantly recognisable red-and-blue Lycra of Team GB's Sky kit, having a break ahead of sprint training.
Tandem cycling, where a blind or partially sighted athlete rides with an able-bodied guide pedalling at the front, is likely to be the fastest competition of the Paralympics. The British men's tandem teams, expected to take gold and silver, have a target of less than 10 seconds in the flying 200m, making them as fast as the Olympians on single bikes, only two of whom went sub-10 seconds in London.
The women tandem riders will also be a formidable force. Turnham and Duncan are going for four events at the Games and, after taking gold in the time trial at the World Cup earlier this year, are on track for success. As they finish each other's sentences and exchange smiles, they seem like a contented married couple. Their speed in forming a close friendship, in a sport where trust and communication are paramount, has informed their results. In 2011 they took silver in the Track World Championships after working together for only five-and-a-half weeks.
Turnham was born with a hereditary sight-loss condition which meant that by the time she was five the only vision she had was light perception. Her guide dog Libby sits patiently at her feet, but when she gets on the track it is Duncan who acts as her eyes. A Grampian police officer in her other life, Duncan has left her husband at home in Aberdeen to train full-time with Turnham for the past 18 months. It is thanks to their friendship that after a bad crash in a road race at the World Championships last year they are still happily working together.
During the crash, Turnham was catapulted from the bike and Duncan was left with a broken collarbone after, as Turnham describes it, "faceplanting and going from 43mph to zero with her chin". As they recall the crash, Turnham looks serious for the first time: "I had no sense of what was going to happen. I only got skin damage and I maintain now that if I'd known what was coming I'd have tensed up and it would have meant I wouldn't have rolled. But I just hit the ground and rolled on – I just went floppy because I had absolutely no warning. Fiona stayed really in control to the point where we were on the ground almost and there was no sense of danger. I was very confused, I could hear someone crying out. Fiona was in a lot of pain and I could hear her but it didn't sound like Fiona."
Any worries that they will be too shaken from the experience to perform, though, are quickly dispelled by Turnham, who says: "I personally feel that I've never been as strong as I am now. I'm as fit and strong as I've ever been. I know what we've been able to do when we've not been at our strongest and now that we are, it gives me that extra bit of confidence."
The only unknown for the pair is the crowd. "I've never raced in front of 1,000 people, let alone 6,000," says Turnham. "I'm trying not to get too caught up in it because if I think about it too much it will blow my mind."
Tom Stanton, the team's endurance coach, is itching for the interview to finish so he can get them back on the track for precious preparation. He says there is no chance of anyone slacking off: "We train them as elite athletes. We expect the same commitment and professionalism as we do from Jason Kenny or Chris Hoy. We won't be attending the opening ceremony because our competition starts too soon after. It's not about partying – it's about medals."
And his professional formula looks like it will prove to be golden. As a motorbike heads out around the track, setting a fearsome pace, Turnham and Duncan are off, flying around the circuit at a speed that would worry even Laura Trott and Victoria Pendleton.
Six British paracyclists to watch out for
Cheshire-born Storey was 14 when she won her first gold medal, as a swimmer. Four Games later, she turned to cycling. "She is an exceptional athlete who has been competing on the able-bodied team pursuit," says the paracyclists' head coach, Chris Furber. "She rode twice in World Cups for them and was a champion both times. She is competing in four events and is the world champion twice over in all four of them."
Growing up with cerebral palsy, David Stone found cycling difficult: he fell a lot. Ultimately, the 31-year-old Birmingham native has said, riding a bike gave him confidence, freedom and enjoyment. He is the defending Paralympic champion in both the road race and time trial events.
An adrenaline junkie from Halifax, Darke was 21 when she told friends she would rather die than be paralysed. While climbing the next day, she fell 10m from a cliff and lost all sensation below her chest. Unfazed by her disability, Darke, now 41, has hand-cycled the Himalayas, sea kayaked the Canadian and the Alaskan coastline and skied the Vallée Blanche on a sit-ski. At this, her first Paralympics, she will compete in both the time trial and the road race as a hand-cyclist.
Cambridgeshire-born Cundy, 33, was born with a deformed foot that was amputated when he was three. At 17, he won his first gold medal, in swimming, at Atlanta 1996. A decade and almost two dozen international medals later, he took up cycling. "Jody goes in as double para-champion and world champion in the kilo," says Furber. "He's a brilliant sprinter."
The 26-year-old from Sutton Coldfield lost his left arm during a rocket attack on Basra Air Station while he was serving in Iraq. Inspired by Chris Hoy, Butterworth resolved to become an elite cyclist. While he is one of the most disabled athletes in his class, the C5 kilo, Butterworth set a world record in 2011 at the World Championships.
The 24-year-old from Liverpool and her partner, sighted pilot Fiona Duncan, will compete in both road racing and track events in their first Paralympics. Turnham, who lost her vision as a child due to a hereditary illness, began training as a cyclist while studying physiotherapy at university. In an interview earlier this year, she explained the dynamic she has with Duncan: "[As she steers], I have to relax and respond to the movements of the bike, and if she digs in, I know I have to pedal faster too."
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