I’ve never been so nervous going to an event as I have the Track Worlds in Milton Canada this year.
2020 is the year of the Paralympics in Tokyo and Milton was the final opportunity to put in a performance that can get me selected for the games. I started on the British Cycling Team in 2013 and was absolutely gutted to miss out on selection for Rio 2016, so to make the team in 2020 would mean the world to me and my family. My main event is the 4km pursuit and I had won Gold in 2017, Silver in 2018 and had a shocker last year with 4th place. Last year, I had been knocked off my bike in the run up to the competition and sustained a nasty head injury which badly affected my training for the event. I knew going into Milton this year that another 4th place finish wouldn’t be enough, I had to medal if I was going to be in with a chance of getting selected for Tokyo.
On the morning of my first event ‘the Kilo’ I got the news from my doctor at home that a mark on my face was confirmed as skin cancer and needed removing. Nothing to worry about because it wasn’t malignant! It did worry me though I don’t like the “C” word, and it got my mind racing on what was already a high stress week. There were no expectations on me for the kilo, it’s not my focus or something that I train for, so I was able to put the cancer worry to one side and really enjoy the ride. I had fun clocking up a personal best and 5th place. My performance in the kilo left me with a belief that I could probably squeeze a medal in Tokyo as a second event if I do some specific training towards it.
On the day between the kilo and pursuit I wasn’t racing until late in the evening for the flying 200, so I went out for a coffee in Milton town on my own to get some headspace. In hindsight I spent too much time on my own that day and in my own head, my mind was all over the place. Answering all my inner doubts and questions, trying to build myself up and reassure myself that I had done everything I could to put in the performance that I knew was possible in the pursuit. My steadfast belief in myself was replaced by doubt, nerves and panic. I knew that to be in with a chance of selection for Tokyo I had to back up my previous performances with a medal. I had already made the commitment to myself that it was all or nothing, a medal or I was going to retire from the sport, I had even made plans for what the year would look like if it didn’t work out for me. I felt like I was on a cliff edge looking down. The skin cancer thing was also a factor while I was wondering around Milton in a daze having a mini meltdown.
When I got back to the hotel my close friends on the British Cycling Team seemed to sense my unease. The usual banter was replaced by words of reassurance that they had belief in me, “You’re flying mate”, and “You’re going to smash it”. I spoke to my wife Kelly and told her how all over the place my mind was, she was full of reassurance and positivity. I had a race that evening ‘the flying 200’ which ended up being a sub standard performance because my head wasn’t with it. It was way below what I was capable of, but it didn’t matter because it’s not a medal event in Tokyo. I decided to put the day behind me and start again in the morning.
On the day of the Pursuit, my mind had settled down and I felt strong. It doesn’t do any harm rooming with Jody Cundy who is a Paralympic legend and a great friend. I got the bus down to the velodrome with Steve Bate and Adam Duggleby who were coming to watch me. They were full of words of support and I knew I could put in a good performance if I just did what I have been doing in training. I rocked up at the velodrome 2 hours before the race and all the support staff were giving me nods and words of encouragement. My coach John Hewitt was looking out for me making sure everything was as it should be. We looked at lap splits and he told me when to warm up and be ready. I watched the other heats while I was waiting for mine, a French rider caught his opponent and put in a blistering time of 4m29, then in the next heat a Brazilian rider caught a team-mate and clocked up a 4m29. These guys both had the perfect rides with catches towards the end giving them a well-timed rest from the wind and huge personal bests in the process.
I would be racing against the Paralympic champion from Rio in 2016 Yehor Dimatev from the Ukraine. We had once been in a road race together when he pulled alongside me and said “What’s wrong? One more gear” before riding off and dropping me. He also beat me in the world championship final in 2018, I had never beaten Yehor but I couldn’t wait to put him in his place.
We were in the penultimate heat, so I knew I had to post a mega fast time if I wanted to get into the final and this time my mind was in a good place. I did some practice starts with my coach John Hewitt, I could tell John was confident and that gave me confidence. He’s a great coach and we make a great team. We’ve spent so much time together at the track that we often think the same things at the same time.
I got in the starting gate, cleared my mind, the beeps started then we were off. My first lap felt easy and then the second lap John shouted out my lap split ’15.2’, this was too fast and I needed to knock it back a bit. 2nd lap ’15.3’, still going too hard! I focused on calming it down then I was into a more sensible pace in the low 16’s by laps 6 and 7. Some of yesterday’s doubt crept into my head and I lost concentration, hit two pads on the track. They were like sandbags and it took a chunk off my speed as well as my right arm rest slipping down. That was on lap 8 and now I was up against it big time! I struggled to get comfy on the bike with the dropped armrest at the same time trying to press on and regain my lost speed. As the laps ticked down, I could hear from the commentary that I was still in the lead although my over paced start and drama with the pads was leaving me exhausted. My supporters in the crowd and all the British Cycling staff were going bananas shouting for me, my coach John was going mental. It’s the first time in a race that I could really feel the energy of the support carry me to the line where I held off the Ukrainian and finished in 4m30! Disappointing that I wasn’t going to make the gold medal final and not sure what would happen next with the last heat to go which included the current Australian World Champion. Unfortunately for the Australian he was well down on pace before he also hit the pads like I had done fell off his bike and hit the floor, his race was over.
That put me in the Bronze ride off against the same Ukrainian rider who had finished with a 4.31m in the qualifier. I am usually my own worst critic, so I made a deal with myself that I would celebrate the bronze medal if I won this one. I had felt empty when I won a silver in 2018 which was still a great achievement in hindsight after winning in 2017. But this was a huge race for me and winning this might get me a seat on the plane to Tokyo! I spoke to my coach John who told me to just go out there like I had in the qualifier and not change anything in terms of strategy. The first race had taken the edge off me slightly but I was feeling confident in the starting gate and after the beeps I had solid start making sure to keep my position tight on the bike and not hit any pads. I kept my head clear like a training session and towards the end of the race I knew I had won. I was a full 5 seconds up on the champion by the end of the race and I won with a time of 4.31m. I stopped short of going over and saying “1 more gear to the champion”. I might save that till Tokyo!
I was buzzing with the result, especially knowing that I have got so much more to give. I’m so grateful for all the support I receive and that I have the potential opportunity to represent my country. Hopefully I have done enough to get selected for the games as I don’t find out until June, but I’m feeling optimistic this time!
I finished this blog in the waiting room having had the cancer removed from my face, so it’s good to have that worry out of the way. Thanks for reading my blog. Jon.