Amazingly athletic, vision-impaired, Paralympic cyclist, Kieran Modra asked me (his ‘hired gun’ for the day) would I ride an honour lap of the Athens Olympic velodrome, but with him on the front instead. We had just conquered a most extraordinary journey to winning Gold moments before, in the men’s B1 4000meter tandem pursuit final, and set a new World Record time. But I said ‘no’.
I will never recover that lost opportunity, and I’ve wished ever since that I did it with him on the front instead. I am well known for having an adventure-seeking nature and being irreverent in life, generally, but the truth is, I was scared off by his request to pilot the tandem, because, well, he was blind.
BLIND & FEARLESS
Kieran was quite literally a fearless cyclist, and I know now that he would’ve ridden around that whole 250meter Olympic Velodrome without incident. Of course, it’s hard for others to appreciate the unique context of the whole situation and our thinking at the time, but I was basically terrified that he would get me on the back of that bike and do exactly what I felt like doing.
That is, be overcome with elation after winning Australia’s first Paralympic Gold Medal in Athens (against some significant odds, see later). I thought he would let loose and ride high on the banks of the track, reaching out to slap people’s hands and then zoom off the bends at high speed, laughing and letting go of the bars to ride no-hands and salute to the crowd for a once-in-a-lifetime celebration.
I thought, “no bloody way am I doing that with a blind guy on the front!?”
But I’ve realised over time since then, knowing him better, that we could’ve easily done this irreverent honour lap, and it would’ve been the icing on our achievement cake in 2004, and been another remarkable spectacle in our already colourful story about winning through a difficult time.
Kieran was an astoundingly talented athlete, and skilled bike-rider within that. He could control the tandem amazingly well, even from the back position with leaning and balancing – despite his partial blindness. Unlike most modern elite-level cyclists, he also had such broad versatility in his powerful horse-like engine – he was capable of cycling to title event wins in both track and road disciplines, at the same games. That’s like riding top level sprinting events (200 meters at 1800 Watts), and then the next day winning a time-trial endurance race (4000 meters at 500 Watts) – at international competition level. I commute to work at a quick tempo around 180 Watts.
Kieran had even sourced a specialist tandem sprint-pilot in Sydney-sider, David Short, to compete with him for the Athens track sprint event, and then was aiming to switch over to a road pilot (me) to win against world class expert duos in the 4000 meter tandem-pursuit event. He was an all-rounder, at the highest level. When you look up ‘Kieran Modra’ on Wikipedia you will see that he also had high-level talents in swimming and javelin, in his earlier sporting life. Kieran Modra was something of an enigma in modern day sport.
I was introduced to Kieran as a ‘potential solution’ at the SASI cycling velodrome in Adelaide by Australian Paralympic cycling coach, Kevin McIntosh, back in May 2004.
Kieran had lost his regular tandem endurance pilot, Tyson Lawrence to a hip injury only months before the Athens Paralympics, so this meeting was an assessment to see whether there was a good enough fit for me to step in as Kieran’s replacement pilot. Normally, it would take up to 2 years of training and familiarising to perfect a duo like this, to become equally high-powered, with well-matched cadence, the ultimate tandem-racing pair. With Kieran’s experience in tandem competitions and knowledge and skills riding with different partners (he’d even competed with his wife, Kerry, in mixed pairs before), and my explosive power as a pedigree road-racer of the past, we would need to accomplish it in just 4 months.
So it was essentially an emergency-style throw-together preparation, it had to be done to get Kieran back out on the track, and if nothing else went wrong for the four month lead-up, we could reasonably be sitting with confident smiles at the Athens Games Opening Ceremony, with real hopes for Gold. Both of us brought very high calibre engines to the table, and Kevin McIntosh knew it.
However, the inherent difficulty with elite tandem racing is, you both need to be perfectly synchronised in your pedal-stroke patterns, the bike gear is ‘fixed’ with no free-wheeling freedom; if you pedal backwards then the bike will go backwards – so you pedal the tandem together in every way you ride. You feel every single moment of pedal-stroke pressure with your tandem partner. You must perform in complete harmony with each other, and at high-end rev-ranges. It’s like you are matching every pedal-stroke with the other person, but up over 120 rpm, continuously. My own Australian Road Champion time-trial training and competing at Olympic level in the 90’s was done at cadences between 90-110 rpm. Note that the average ‘Joe’ recreational rider on the street will turn the pedals at 50-80 rpm.
To win on a tandem, our bodies needed to be like a mirror of the other, working exceedingly well in precisely the right cadence range, so we could accelerate a single fixed-gear tandem track-bike from standstill 0 kph up to 60 kph in just over 1minute, and then hold that pace for 3 more minutes, and then go even faster for the final 250 meter lap. It took head coach, Kevin McIntosh, about 30 seconds watching our first tandem ride together that day to discern that Kieran and I, while both bringing a lot of power to the coupling, were not actually cadence-matched, at all.
HIGH CADENCE IS KING
Now, saying that cadence is everything in cycling is too big a claim to make. But as I have 30 years racing experience, and the wisdom from training other riders as well as of my own aging self, I’ve come to understand what’s happening in the human cycling engine as a person gets cycling fit. I’d say you are getting closer to being your ‘best cycling self’ if you have a good pedalling cadence range. That is, you pedal smoothly in a circle (not pushing and pulling, but turning) at 60 rpm and still keeping the 360 degree engagement powerful, as a circular propulsion, right up to and above 120 rpm. All things considered, a rider who is well-trained at high-cadences is very hard to beat.
Well, Kieran was too fast for my legs; he could hold 140 rpm for minutes on end while I needed the rev rate to stay under 120 rpm for my big powerful legs to last. And my type of muscular strength needed too heavy a gear to suit Kieran’s quick legs. I wanted to push a much bigger load than he liked, and just hold it at 100 rpm. It wasn’t going to work to select one bike gear like we had to, and both be happy pushing out the big watts at 60 kph.
We both had to change our cadence fitness, and do it as soon as possible, to become stronger and faster respectively, and create the match we needed to be on that Athens start-line. I proceeded to ride a high-rev similarly fixed-gear track bike on my own, holding the 50kph typically express-paced ‘North Road’ bunch ride on week-day mornings in Melbourne – putting myself regularly up near 130 rpm just to keep up with the front bunch riders on their normal road bikes. Meanwhile, back in Adelaide, Kieran towed a trailer full of sand-bags and bricks around behind his tandem, to work and back, over the hills and along the beaches, slogging out 70-80 rpm under heavy load to get his muscles accustomed to more weight and slower revving power.
I was dubious about the whole mission, actually; it was all too new with too little time available to achieve it. But, Kieran had a fierce commitment and relentless enthusiasm, even under time pressure; he repeatedly convinced me that we could carve out our own way to succeed together on the tandem, soon enough to qualify by the IPC deadline in 12 weeks, and then win Gold. He maintained that he could build the strength, and that I would learn the new cadences; that we would combine our powers to make 130 rpm happen and hold a world class tandem speed.
PERSISTENCE AGAINST ADVERSITY
But other hurdles challenged our quest much more seriously. A team selection lawsuit battle embroiled Kieran’s inner circle for virtually the whole campaign. It was a technical fight over the right to his berth in the team, based on him bringing in new pilots too close to the final qualification period. We were forced to miss out on a critical U.S. preparation training camp in Pennsylvania, and trained in the snowy winter of July back home, separately in our own states for budgeting reasons. For the whole four months preparation that I was involved, the lawsuit findings would rule him in and then out again. It was an ongoing legal tennis match and was massively disruptive to our preparations. At any time that we thought we were in the clear, there would be different news arise again, rendering him and his pilots technically invalid and dropped from the next stage in the Athens 2004 AUS Paralympic Team plan. We arrived to pre-games Paralympic team camp in Italy with 3 weeks to go, feeling like ghosts and half-included members, an added stress for the whole team to have to accommodate our on-again, off-again presence amongst the group.
And then exactly that horrible news did come again, as a final blow. Two weeks before the games. Kieran’s spot was ultimately de-selected from the team in the final fortnight before the games began, and it was here that our personal race against adversity really started.
Bravely, we stayed in that funny little Italian town of Avezzano, with the rest of the AUS cycling team being transferred by train 2 hours away to the Paralympic Village in Athens.
I believe that the best elements of one’s character are borne, or come out, in the toughest times. It was hard to think that our situation could turn around after the lawsuit’s final ruling, after so many setbacks along the way already, after the whole campaign had been crammed tight down to the minutes of track time available, after we’d started showing world class times in the qualifying sessions only one week earlier.
Some little flickering light of a chance floating around in the universe dared to take over our minds. We decided to keep training, on an old concrete velodrome at the edge of town, pretending that the crowds were cheering, ignoring that our old cycling kits were un-matching, yelling positive feedback to each other as if the coach was still standing there on the finish line giving time-splits. We visualised ourselves still capable of pushing out the 130 rpm, we knew we must practice shorter 1000 meter trial time-splits to preserve the engines so we could still turn up last minute and ride our best. We thought, if we could just ride, we could win. Simple.
The astounding thing was, though, we both watched the clock timer as we trained, and again and again we envisaged ourselves doing it and then we actually rode those world record time-splits – and finished with more pace to spare! Alas, they were all there, and we were here!? Our scarily thin plan was, there must be a way where this works out. But what was it?
I felt a cracking realisation in my intellect, the insult that we were only flogging a dead horse; I saw it in the others too, and yet, we all stayed. Each new day would start again, and the reality would sink in… just go home.
AGAINST THE ODDS
Then, with 5 days to go, we were encouraged, not to have hope, but to stay open-minded to an idea given to us in confidence by an APC official who was talking with the IPC governing body in Greece, and our own Australian Sports Commission batting for us on the side. It was clearly stated to us, our situation was in fact moot, like untenable, so going home and watching it on TV in Australia was justified, save our money, we’re done, finito guys, forget it all like it never happened. Apparently there was really only one, rather unorthodox scenario, where an athlete could actually gain access to an Olympic Village in the final hour – but it was extremely unlikely to happen.
Sorry, but, WHAT!!!? What situation? Who, when, how, where? We were all ears…
Say there was to be a local Greek athlete who suddenly could not fulfil his or her representative duty to compete – a broken leg, or a technical problem in their team selection perhaps. If a spot became available, at the very last minute, like as the curtain was going up on the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony, and another athlete needed to be quickly assigned into the village, what would happen with that? If there was a simple solution, sitting there ready on the decision table, like someone right nearby, and there was a really good argument for giving the spot to an Australian cycling medal-hope (and his two pilots, plural)!? Geez, what argument sorts that?!?
We boarded a train the day before the Opening Ceremony and bought a hotel room outside the Olympic Village gate – and waited. We didn’t sleep, we didn’t eat, we didn’t train, we didn’t even watch the Opening Ceremony on the Greek TV, we just sat still in that room.
The finer details of what happened behind the Olympic Village fence that night will probably never be revealed, but someone made a really good argument, and we got a knock on the hotel room door at 7.09pm. Australian Paralympic Committee official, Tony Naar was standing there with a small but green and gold and white pile of AUS cycling skinsuits in his outstretched arms and he had quite the smirk on his face. He said,
“… you’re in. Shave your legs boys, the B1 Men’s Tandem 4000 meter Pursuit is the first event of the whole games, and it’s on at 9.00 am tomorrow. See you there.”
The rest is our history, an amazing few days unfolding, more amazing stories to be told in detail sometime,I promise it to you. But I’ll reveal this here…
In the final kilometre of the 4000 meter ride the next day, when the coaches stopped giving us time-splits because the World Record was effectively beaten, and the real people in the Athens velodrome crowd were screaming and clapping in a deafening standing ovation to our rocketing pace around the track, Kieran tapped me on my upper thigh, just like he said he always would. If we get to that final quarter and we both have good legs, we really should go for it, and break a record.
I felt the tap (it was more like a giant smack!), and I heard him yell out the “let’s go!”
He surged, the cranks were suddenly spinning even faster, his legs incredibly accelerated to a higher cadence, the golden 130 rpm. My legs responded, in the serene athletic harmony they were trained for. I didn’t feel any pain, just the joy of the thrill.
Then my vision went blurry. I don’t know if it was tears in my eyes, or the sheer force of my exertion squeezing and expanding every muscle – but I had to switch to automatic and just let it happen naturally. Let the well-known routine run freely, trust in the rehearsals we’d done and just keep that front wheel on the black line for 3 more laps. Trust in Kieran and his confident process, the experienced blind guy who had my back. It was a beautiful thing, and I guess in that moment, at the golden 130 rpm and without my own full vision, I had blind faith.
our own hearts back that day, and I’m sure a lot of others too; plus two
Paralympic Gold Medals and a 4000 meter Tandem Pursuit World Record. Kieran
went on to win another Gold in the Mens B1 Sprint Tandem with pilot David Short,
and also a Bronze in the Men’s B1 Tandem Road Race, with me.
It didn’t surprise me to learn that Kieran’s team-mates occasionally called him ‘horse’. He was actually very strong and lightning fast, all at once. I now know it for sure, better than ever, that real dominance as a cyclist comes from the formidable combination of these two pedal-stroke qualities, so much so that any ambitious cyclist really should be striving to acquire them both. I’ve naturally put a great emphasis on developing people’s high rpm rev-fitness, and also their heavy-load resistance-fitness, as the very backbone to my indoor ergo sessions at the Ridewiser cycling training school in Melbourne.
But my take-home lesson from all of this was something else. Inside the really unforgettable experience of the whole Athens campaign, and the tumultuous journey of 2004 that we all had, and even my riding 300,000 km over 15 years as a high level racing cyclist on my own bicycle and feeling like I’ve achieved some things; inside it all was something much more profound.
It’s that sharing the challenges in life with other people is the best way to do it, the most enjoyable way, to get through difficult times.
Kieran, I will always remember you as the person that taught me that great lesson, using a tandem bike. And in my dreams, every time you ask me to let you ride me around the track, blind on the front, I will smile my biggest smile, and say loudly and resoundingly, yes!
You might find out more about Kieran’s positive outlook on life through his book published in 2018 via booktopia online here: