October has been a month of getting back into the swing of things. The weather has been glorious, the temperatures haven’t dropped a lot. I’ve been able to go out a few times on the tandem thanks to Sharon Chladek a local cyclist who pilots me.
I’ve started a new program in the gym, with a block of circuit-based work. These exercises improve my fitness as well as strength and I am progressing well. I am also doing a lot of aerobic work on the bike to build up fitness levels.
Tandem bicycles – the similarities and differences…
A tandem bike is not that different from a solo bike. The chain connects the frame to the rear wheel and the power from both riders drives that wheel. The biggest difference is the frame length to allow for two riders, the front rider is called a pilot and the back rider is called a stoker. The riders are synchronised meaning that both the pilot and stoker are pushing down on the same side pedal at the same time. Both riders clip into their pedals and are fixed in to allow maximum push and pull through the pedals. Unlike the heavy, restrictive clothing that motorcycle riders wear we need to be very aerodynamic and wear very little to protect ourselves.
Eve and I breaking our 10-mile time trial national record in July.
We are wearing our World Champions speed suit, helmets and overshoes. Using time trial handlebars means we can place our bodies nearer to the bike. The disk wheel on the back of the bike and a deep section wheel on the front means produces the best aerodynamics and free speed.
The stoker’s handlebars are fixed to the pilot’s seat post. There are only one set of gears and brakes on the bike and these are controlled by the pilot. My pilots are my eyes on the bike! It is their job to brake, change gear, steer and ride tactically. I focus on feeling what the pilot is doing through the pedals, their body language, the gear changing and the vocal information I receive to ensure both of us are working in unison at all times. Both myself and Eve train full time, we both contribute to the speed and both our efforts during a race affect the outcome. Eve and I both push ourselves to be the best cyclists we can be and when we come together, we focus on being the best tandem pairing in the world.
Tandem racing bikes are custom made by very few companies in the world. My current bike was made in France and is the one we were riding when we won our Paralympics and World Championship medals. The bike is made of carbon to make it as light as possible whilst maintaining strength and rigidity. The bike must not flex too much, or power will be lost. The timing chain isn’t actually a chain. It is a rubber belt that connects both cranks (what the pedals are connected to). This is used to lower the chance of it coming off or braking mid-race. Timing chains can be on the right or the left. Mine is on the right, on the same side as the drive chain.
One of our first time trials of 2018. The rubber timing chain is highlighted in red along with the direct drive chain shown in blue
I am in a slightly cramped position on the back of the bike due to being restricted by my pilot. Eve can use a longer stem to place her handlebars further away from the body and is far less limited. In a time trial Eve and I are in a similar position; our forearms are on pads and our bodies are low to make us aerodynamic.
Small bike computers on the riders handlebars give important information back to the rider. It measures each pedal stroke and feeds back duration, speed, cadence, heart rate and power in watts. Due to my lack of sight i’m unable to read the computers. To combat this I have equipment attached to the bike that sends the power readings to an app. The app communicates power through headphones on a phone which I carry down my sports bra! This is extremely important during a time trial as we are each focused on maintaining individual power numbers.
Practice makes perfect! …
We both train individually but time together on the bike is vital. Over the last 4 years we have spent a lot of time training and racing on the tandem. We constantly work on our positioning on the bike, working in unison and how to handle the bike in a racing situation.
Due to the longer wheel-base a tandem handles differently to a solo bike. The extra weight behind the pilot makes the tandem react like a long vehicle. Cornering is different and high speeds also handle differently. Tandems build up speed more quickly down a hill due to the extra weight. For this reason, there is a slightly different technique to braking on a downhill. Speeding up from a slow pace also takes longer due to gravity…That’s the worst thing about the tandem!! We don’t like going slow!
Once you’ve got used to a tandem and work well with another rider there is no other feeling like it. It’s incredible. It’s fast, exciting and exhilarating!
Eve and I have got to know each other so well on the bike that it’s as if we are one. Eve says it’s like being on her solo bike when we are going well and are in tune with each other. I have to practice following the moves that Eve makes, reading her body language i.e. standing out of the saddle, leaning to turn etc. We both have our own individual strengths and weaknesses, I am naturally good at climbing, but Eve is better at sprinting. Together we are great at climbing and sprinting but there is always more to work on!
We are a team and communication is vital on and off the bike. We talk through our sessions and about how we are feeling. If one person isn’t 100% then it’s crucial the other person knows this. Eve is my eyes and communicates many details to me including; changes in incline, distance indicators at the tail end of a time trial, or whether she need more power from me to stay on a competitor’s wheel in a road race.
I also ask Eve for information, particularly in a road race. I want to know if I am always giving the same amount of effort…sometimes I’m even told to ease off! It’s hard for me to judge how far or close I am to another bike and that is an integral part of any road race. If you lose contact with the wheel of a competitor it can be very difficult, sometimes impossible, to bridge that gap and can be the difference between winning or losing.
Out in front during the Road World Championships in Italy August 2018. We retained our world championship title to become double world champions for the second year in a row!
Trust is probably the most important element when it comes to tandem racing. I have complete trust in my pilot as they have my life in their hands! In track racing we are on the steep banks of a velodrome and on the roads we go up to speeds of 90kph. If I was nervous or tense in anyway it would disrupt the fluidity of the bike and it could be dangerous. The pilot also has to trust the stoker especially in racing situations. We ALWAYS have each others backs!
The 3k pursuit, bronze medal ride off at the Rio Track World Championships in March 2018. We beat New Zealand to the Bronze medal. On the track bike the timing chain is metal rather than the rubber belt that we use on the road bike.
Tandem racing is a highly competitive, elite sport. Races can be lost or won by very small margins. To gain a small amount of improvement takes a great amount of work and we train hard six days a week, every week. Becoming a successful paracyclist takes hard work, flawless team work, 100% commitment and peak physical fitness…but also resilience, mental toughness, self-belief and a vast amount of fighting spirit.