With the adventure of the travels out of the way, we finally get onto a bit of riding action.
Saturday. It’s hot, darn hot. I’ve been off the bike for three days which, at this point feels like ages, and I’m getting twitchy. I meet up with Karen and she has the generous suggestion of letting me use her bike to do my training sessions until mine arrives. I head over to Karen’s hotel and amongst a friendly chat, I set about adjusting Karen’s bike to fit me. Having adjusted the forks to raise the cranks I hop on the bike and I’m excited to finally be able to get riding again… apart from one issue… the cranks won’t clear my abs!
I knew I’d carried a bit of extra weight over as every time I tried to cut back on my diet during training I lost a lot of power and strength, so it was a bit of a trade-off. But come on, I was essentially too fat to fit on a bike! Sadly, it doesn’t take that much extra girth to create a tight fit on a handbike. Plus, the battery in my abdomen is located right where the cranks pass and there was no getting around the cranks slamming into a big block of titanium on every revolution. But this wasn’t the only time it would be an issue.
Alas, this meant that riding was still out and the best I could do for prep was using elastic bands for some resistance work. That’d just have to do. Luckily, there was a local coffee shop that had iced blended protein mochas that I could sooth my soul with. It was hot, I’m an athlete, so iced protein would be ideal, right?
The rest of the day was really just about getting used to the heat and the altitude. Not only was it hot, but it’s much higher in altitude than I was used to, 4,511 ft (1,375 m). I’d worked out in advance that this meant there was about a 12% reduction in oxygen levels which would certainly have an impact on my performance. Two days to get used to it though; that should be enough, maybe.
The weekend was also a nice treat as my father and his wife had arrived, having driven all the way from Washington just to watch the races. Happily, they brought a big stockpile of food for me. This was particularly handy as I have so many food allergies that I did wonder how I was going to fuel myself in a town of 3500 people with one small grocery store that I guessed (correctly) wouldn’t have much in the way of “specialist” food.
Now, Sunday rolls round and here’s where the action starts to pick up. After a leisurely breakfast the team got together with a plan for the day. Early on, the engineers had already been fiddling with the bike, making sure it made the journey in-tact (another teams bike did not), and getting it prepped. Today is testing day.
Having had a leisurely morning and knowing that we had a pre-race briefing in the evening, unfortunately the only time to do the road testing is near the middle of the day. This was going to be my first test of how hot it was actually got in to be in the bike. But more importantly, we were testing two new features added to the bike: long cranks and new shell braces.
Throughout the testing phases back the UK, we’d discovered an aspect of the bike that that I wanted to the engineers to finesse; this was the cranks. If you know anything about the bikes that race at Battle Mountain it’s that the bikes are cramped and the riders are packed in like sardines. Arion4 though, had other issues to contend with. Unfortunately the part of a handcycle that needs the most clearance, the cranks, is not only the part that moves the most (for pedalling and steering) but it’s also the part that will result in the rider shredding their hands when they scrape the inside of the shell. So, we needed room, but with an expensive and elaborately designed carbon fibre shell already in place there was only so much that could be done.
Probably much to the annoyance of the engineers, when they asked me during testing how the bike was I pointed out that it was generally great but it needed longer cranks. Each time we talked about changes, longer cranks was the one thing I asked for as I knew that we’d need them to be longer to get the needed power. I’ll be the engineers thought I was just nagging. But, given that there was a massive shell in the way that was designed to be as small as possible; this was going to be a challenge.
Here’s that amazing dedication of the Liverpool Engineers; not only did they just create longer cranks, but they created adjustable cranks that were narrower so that we could take advantage of the limited space inside the shell, and they did this during the last week before heading out. They also managed to put in some reinforcing struts to enhance the rigidity of the shell in order to optimise the application of power.
So, Sunday was the day we got to test the bike in final race mode: reinforced rigid frame and longer cranks. We set off for a nearby back road to try out these new features alongside the French team who were testing their own bike.
It must have been about two or three in the afternoon when we got out to the test road and good grief was it hot. While I was huddled in the shade behind our van draped in an ice pack that someone on the team had secured, Karen got prepped in the bike to take the first run. Having made it out and back with no problems it was my turn. Immediately, I could tell that the new improvements were going to be hugely helpful. The bike was much more rigid and as the shell top was lowered down I got a feel for the pedal and crank position and it was fantastic. They were definitely long enough to get some good power and the width gave me a generous one, maybe even two mm’s of clearance from my knuckle to the shell. As long as I didn’t have a death grip in the pedals, it was going to be great.
The test ride went very well, the bike was smooth and easy to control. The visual systems were clear and the adjustments to the data feeds (custom and independent for Karen and I) had been adjusted so I had a good balance of data and forward vision. Plus the new cranks were really superb for generating power. The only problem with the test ride, it seems, was a conversation I heard had occurred between two nameless people that went something like this:
“He certainly doesn’t do things in half measures, does he?”
“He never has.”
Apparently the team and I had a different interpretation of what “test ride” meant. They thought it meant “make sure that everything is functioning, the fit is good, and find any last minute adjustments that need to be made”. I thought it meant: See how fast you can get it to go in the half mile you have and if you break anything, the team still has 12 hours to fix it. Honestly though, the bike just wanted to run!
With two successful tests, the bike was ready for racing and we all knew it was going to be fast, but how fast? With the bike packed up we headed back to the hotel to cool off and get ready for the pre-race briefing and dinner.
The pre-race briefing…
He we get an introduction to all the people who have volunteered and given up time to make sure these races happen. From the organisers, to those monitoring the timing equipment, those monitoring wind speeds, people directing traffic, chase cars and observers, paramedics… there were A LOT of very generous locals and visitors that made this all come together.
After a review of all the race procedures and policies, we picked our start times for Monday morning’s qualifying race. Though this race is on the short course of 2.5 miles, it’s critical as, not only are some of us actually going to try to break records if we can, but more importantly it’s a test of the bikes stability and the rider’s control of it. If you don’t finish this race with solid control of your bike, you may not be racing during the week. Ride fast, but more importantly, ride controlled. I believe that’s what the team told me.
The official start of the racing is only 12 hours away and the reality and pressure of it is finally kicking in, but so too is the excitement. This is where I realised that two very key psychological components were about to kick in. In a much earlier post I believe I mentioned that when I went to do some simulated race testing at Cardiff Metropolitan University with Paul Smith and JP Nevin of Help for Heroes. On this day, in the second of two tests I completely bombed as, once I got to the point I had to put in my max effort the pressure of people watching and encouraging me became a distraction. I think it might have made Paul and JP wonder if I was up to the task (as it did me) but I’m glad it happened for two reasons…
At the briefing, I was told that there were a few races that people were really watching as they though records were going to be broken. These were the women’s, the youth, and in particular… the handcycles. So, it wasn’t just the Liverpool team (including a vastly skilled Paralympic handcyclist), family, and me watching and expecting that I would do well, it was everyone: including teams for all over the world. No pressure then, right?
The icing on the cake came next. After each rider is launched, they are followed by a chase car in case there’s a crash or other emergency, and to carry a race observer to ensure that all the race rules are being followed and they are sticklers with these rules. Now, the gentleman that was my chase official… I heard he had specifically asked to observe me. This seemed slightly unusual to me until I found out that it was Mike Sova, the designer of, at the time, the current record holding handcycle. So, the man partially responsible for the current record that’s on the line is watching everything we do, with no doubt, a detailed eye. Rest assured that all our i’s were dotted, and our t’s crossed in the most immaculate way. The designer of the current record holding bike possibly holding my fate in his hands, following and watching every move I make on the race course… no, no pressure at all.
And with those light thoughts in the back of my mind it was off for a late dinner then bed to get ready for a 4 am start! Good thing I’m used to sleep deprivation. Monday was going to come fast, and I was going to have to be ready to race, and race hard.