I'm getting a crash course in para-cycling piloting.
It started with a camp in January. Seven straight days on the bike with Rachael on a bike that fit me fairly well. I tried really hard at first to adapt to this new role. To mold myself to the bike and stoker, verbally encouraging us to go faster up hills. And found out, the hard way, that willing and trying can only get you so far. No, no. That kind of work has to be accomplished. You simply have to do it. Sticking to your training plan, getting stronger every day, feeding your body the proper nutrition to perform well, sleeping soundly at night - it all counts in the big picture of riding well.
And it wasn't until after I cracked from getting sick, cracked from trying so hard it ran my ragged, that I finally got it. We had a breakthrough on the bike. Simple is best. One simple word: more. It transformed how we worked together on the bike. It brought the best out of both of us.
Next and most recently - a camp last week. I was asked a week prior if I would be interested in piloting a new up and comer. Absolutely! Six days straight on the bike with Shawn Cheshire, who is new to cycling and being blind. A traumatic brain injury 9 months prior left her 100% blind. We had to work harder to find common ground. She's new to cycling, I'm new to being around someone who is 100% blind. (Rachael could make out shapes and forms and was fairly independent.) First things first - we walked around the dorm room so she could feel where things were so she could memorize their position.
"If you really want to mess with me, just move my things," she joked.
Thankfully the week went well so I didn't have to go to such drastic measures.
Curbs, shrubs, and obstacles we so take for granted of being able to see. I had to look at things in a new light - is this going to trip Shawn? She carries a cane, but built enough trust with me, she would leave it in the dorm room. I was totally responsible for her well being. Thankfully she trusted me on the bike. We did have our moments - like when she constantly compared me to the other well practiced male pilots. Like how long they've been piloting, the way they felt compared to the way I feel.
I found myself having a hard time living up to their piloting.
Eventually we had a breaking point. It was unexpected, as all breaking points are. Picture this: standing starts on a tandem. I know how these feel on a single bike but when you add another rider on the back who doesn't know what they feel like, well, things were dicey. Our first attempt rocked the bike so hard I thought I might dump us. When I leaned forward to accelerate, she stood straight up making the back of the bike sway dramatically from side to side.
"I've never felt that before! That movement has never happened with another pilot!"
We asked Larry, the other blind athlete, to describe what standing starts felt like to Shawn. It's one thing to hear what it's supposed to feel like. It's another to actually feel it.
I let out an audible sigh.
"Jen, why are you frustrated with me?" she asked.
"Because this is new to me too. But you have to be open to us figuring it out together. We'll get it, it just takes practice."
By week's end Shawn told someone who jokingly teased me, "I can't have you talking about my pilot like that."
I know she felt the smile that spread across my face. I didn't have to tell her.