Published on 30 Sep 2010

A crazy but very British thing to do

‘Tis the season of mellow mists and fruitfulness. No more so than this very day. Setting off from London in the dark on the 6.17am for Manchester – the dawn came up over Hertfordshire a light missed hanging over freshly ploughed fields.

It is on days like these that you cannot imagine living long term in any other country. The train is on time, comfortable, uncrowded and the scene beyond is of breath-taking beauty.

I am on my way to the Manchester Velodrome for Channel 4. We have the broadcasting rights for the Paralympic Games and as part of the series leading up to 2012 they have asked me to experience Paralympic cycling.
I am on the track in my cleats and lycra. OK – I look a sight. It still isn’t 9.00am and the track is buzzing with cyclists – some able bodied some not. There is the cyclist with one arm (motor cycling accident) who rides faster than I will ever know.

There is magnificent 26-year-old Terry who lost his leg below the knee as a Para on ground patrol in Helmand province a mere two years ago. He has a prosthetic with a cleat on the bottom and he goes like the wind. He is a singular man – six weeks after being blown up by an IED losing part of his hand and the leg, he was out of hospital, six weeks later he is out of the military rehab centre at Headley Court. And less than two years after all that he is training from Paralympic cycling never having cycled seriously before – he came 7th in the able bodied trials and is headed for gold.

Picture copyright: British Cycling

There is an amazing spirit here. Suddenly I am aware of what a profound impact the London Paralympic Games are going to have on people’s whole perception of disability.

Anthony and Barney are Paralympic gold medallists (Beijing) on the tandem. Barney is able bodied Anthony is severely partially sighted. I’m taking his place behind Barney on the tandem. I have never been on a ‘fixed wheel’ (no breaks) – never been on a tandem; and never shut my eyes to experience blindness whilst cycling. Neither have I ever cycled in a velodrome before.

They give me a few rounds on a single fixed wheel bike. And then it’s for real and off. The single stuff was alarming – never being able to free wheel on break and taking those high-banked curves – ‘keep pedalling’ – they urge.

With eyes shut the other senses intensify – I feel more on the bike, sense better what Barney in front is doing. But I am lost – am I at the top of the track or at the bottom?

On the tandem we knock up 40mph – it’s scary – at one point Barney pedals so fast I can’t keep up and I panic and cry out: “Stop!” Fortunately he doesn’t. It’s exhilarating – we do a Timed 200 metres.13.2 seconds (pathetic!).

I loved it – crazy thing to do, but somehow very British. Maybe that’s why we are the world’s top Paralympic and Olympic cyclists.

My urban boy racer bike waiting for me at Euston will feel very tame.

Read more about Channel 4’s Paralympics coverage.

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17 reader comments

  1. adrian clarke says:

    I can have empathy with the beautiful British countryside on an Autumn morning, the sun slowly rising over the horizon around seven ,highlighting the mist sat over the distant brook at the foot of our valley, Green,green grass between the ploughed brown fields.All surrounded by multi coloured trees and hedge rows taking on their Autumn colours.In the distance the dark bleakness of what i call the “tops” but is the beginning of the Peak District.
    What a beautiful land we live in.It takes me back many years when returning from abroad and seeing the green topped cliffs of Devon,and theit welcoming look of home.
    As for the para olympians and in fact all those with disabilities who strive to overcome them and live life to the full , one can have nothing but respect.Good on you Jon for highlighting them

  2. margaret brandreth- jones says:

    Now who would have connected an adrenaline buzz with paralympics some years ago..well done.

    You might have left the green misty fields and Autumn colours for excitement , but Manchester ;well hardly a good place to be. I have been here in Greater Manchesr all my life and have been trying to escape for 40 years.

    Still, my small plot is my eden and next to the hills I can taste freedom.

  3. Danno says:
  4. @Reeb1981 says:

    ‘Missed’ or ‘mist’, Jon?

  5. onmybiketoo says:

    My very keen cyclist husband before he became paralysed would love to be able to do this. But since the NHS have kept him waiting 506 days now for appropriate treatment I guess it will never happen.

  6. the-Richard-of-Nottingham says:

    You have to admire the spirit of most of our guys & gals. Life may deal some of them a hard knock but they dust themselves off and get on with it. It’s good to read that British stoicism is alive and well despite the modern media’s attempts to turn us all into bare-your-soul-open-your-heart-have-a-good-blub-group-hugging-hello-reading numpties. The Dianafication of Britain isn’t complete yet despite the tony Blair’s, Nu-Labours and the BBC’s best efforts.

    1. adrian clarke says:

      thumbs well and truly up richard

  7. anniexf says:

    Before we get too sentimental about this green and pleasant land, perhaps we should wonder how long it will be until the only place we can enjoy it will be from a window. So much of it is in private or big-business hands that the rest, e.g. NT land, is in danger of degradation from over-use.
    That said, it is indeed glorious in autumn, though it’s not the mists that are mellow, Jon, but the fruitfulness!
    I was delighted, as I blogged a few weeks back, to learn that C4 got the Paralympics, with complete coverage instead of the patronising “if there’s time” slots afforded elsewhere. I’m not that bothered about the Olympics per se – because of the hype and adulation, and because today’s hero/ine will most likely become tomorrow’s disgraced drugs cheat; but the Paralympics seem to me to represent more accurately the original ethos of the modern Games.

  8. Dave Richardson says:

    Well done for having a go on the velodrome. Let’s hope the Olympics does change attitudes.

    By the way, has anyone given any feedback about the default text font that Channel 4 use for their blogs? It’s really bad. e.g the two letters cl looks just like a d, so cleats reads deats. I had to increase the font size quite a bit and it was still more difficult to read than it should be.

    1. Paul Begley says:

      Agreed – I do wonder if anyone over fifty is ever allowed to comment on web page designs, before they’re approved? I particularly hate migraine-inducing flashing adverts. Not too many of those on C4 sites, thankfully.

  9. Paul Begley says:

    I think we have to bear in mind that these paralympians were probably extraordinary or exceptional before they became disabled. I’m just a little concerned that “expectation-creep” could set in, leaving the ordinary disabled unaided and overwhelmed.

  10. Simon Ernest says:

    I first came across para cycling several years back when I went to watch a para cycling track World Cup at Manchester – the strength of mind and body was awesome. Several years later I was invited to pilot a tandem for Anthony Kappes on spring training camp with British Cycling. A once in a lifetime opportunity (which fortunately, my wife also agreed I must attend). All fantastic people and a left me with memories that hopefully I will never forget, not least the attitude ‘this is the hand dealt us … let’s get on with it’.
    Completely agree with Jon ref the speed on a tandem. Flying down a mountain in Majorca at 50mph when I was on the front was terrifying!

  11. Karla says:

    @Paul: you’re only referring to athletes who became disabled but a very big amount of world class disability athletes were born disabled!! They are exeptional! There is just no need in pushing up people because they got a good story behind them when they in fact arent world class disability athletes, e.g.soldiers, car crashes, etc

    1. Paul Begley says:

      Sorry – obviously didn’t make the point very clearly. My worry is that with this focus on the heroic, exceptional paralympians, our expectations of ordinary disabled people building ordinary worthwhile lives will be unrealistic, and they won’t get the help they deserve.

  12. Mudplugger says:

    Admiration for the amazing achievements of all disabled athletes is a given – truly remarkable and inspiring, whatever the source of their disabilities.

    However, the habitual high medal-scoring from the UK Para-team is largely a result of the more enlightened treatment which our disabled now (rightly) receive, coupled with investment in facilities.

    But, as with conventional sports, once the less advanced nations are able to participate equally, they soon surpass our own players. Our remaining success in mainstream Olympic events is now mostly restricted to minority sports or those requiring high entry-cost (equestrian, yachting etc.) – we are no longer anywhere near in the simpler (cheaper) running, jumping and throwing stuff.

    That’s OK – none of it’s important anyway, it’s only a game. But the consequent measures of equality across the world will only be delivered when all athletes, able or not-so-able-bodied, can compete on truly level fields in their various contests.

    In the meantime, good luck to all our paralympians in all their endeavours.

  13. phil dicks says:

    Those first few paragraphs…what can anyone say? I’m the first to slag-off this country(and rightly), but, yes, the UK of GB and NI is totally tops.

    “You cannot imagine living long-term in any other country.” Bold, provocative sentiments – this is the difference between ‘Liberal’ and right-wing commentators; with liberals, the ‘idea of Britain’ is always refreshed; with the Kavanaghs/Littlejohns/ad inf, this country is never good enough. They are the haters of the opposite (just as many of us Lefties are).
    But the pluralist just bloody-well loves living here.

  14. Roberta Boeh says:

    The U.K. at dawn – anywhere in the UK countryside, is beautiful. Lauding the efforts of paraathletes is important mainly, I believe, not just because of what they have achieved – whether already athletes when injured or born with bodies that are disabled, but also shows the abled-bodied people, like me, that one chooses to have quality of life. I find them inspiring and am glad to read about them and see them in action. Thanks, Jon, and Channel 4 News for bringing us their stories.

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