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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