As Aaron and I headed out for the fourth and final lap of the Paralympic Trials TT course, the announcer was out of his seat practically yelling with enthusiasm into the mic, “Right now Aaron Scheidies and Ben Collins are continuing to post the fastest splits of the day for this course, but this lap will have to be even faster for them to qualify for this Paralympic Team! Let’s see what they can do!”
— Team MPI (@TeamMPI) July 2, 2016
By the time the announcer finished speaking we were gone, leaving behind a group of fans jumping and screaming and biting nails. Our coaches, Mark Sortino and Rick Babbington compared splits, confirming that we needed our final lap to be our fastest, about 15 seconds faster than the third lap split of 9 minutes 11 seconds. Seeing these two coaches deep in discussion the announcer joked, “Mark Sortino and Rick Babbington are over there arguing over who’s athlete is doing more work…”
Aaron and I were the last start of the day, racing right up to solar noon and the heat of the day. The shadows shrank with every lap of the course.
The clock ticked by. Knuckles were turning white among the crowd of fans that had dressed in blue C Different with Aaron #Road2Rio t-shirts to come support us. At 8 minutes 30 seconds Rick started leaning over the barrier, craning his neck to see us coming around the bend. Mark glanced at his watch, a bead of sweat dripping from his running visor as the Carolina heat beat down over course.
There was no tandem.
The clock passed 9 minutes, and still Aaron and I were nowhere to be found.
“Something happened,” Rick said softly, his jaw clenching in worry. Mark nodded, the look of worry apparent through his sunglasses.
The clock ticked by, and suddenly cheers could be heard from around the bend. Then, coasting down the hill, there we were. We came nearly to a stop at the bottom of the hill and dismounted as if were were doing a triathlon. We ran the final 100 meters with the bike and crossed the line.
For Aaron and I, we knew we had a tough mark to hit on our final lap. The announcers words sounded distant as we started that final lap. I heard, “…fastest split of the day, but…” and knew we needed to exceed expectations on the final lap. It was hot, and our third lap had us in no-man’s land, enveloped in pain, too far from the finish to push any harder. I had glanced at the clock as we crossed the lap split line for the final time, and knew the final lap would need to be our best.
Climbing the first hill of that final lap, I felt a surge of power from Aaron and knew he had heard the same thing. This lap was Rio or bust.
We nailed every turn. We came around the final U turn and used the entire road, sweeping our front wheel within inches of the curb as we stood and accelerated back onto the final hill climb. It was a soft left, then a right, a further climb, then descent. I had the course mapped in my head, I had gone over every pedal stroke a hundred times before the race started, and Aaron and I were perfectly in sink. We stood together, we pushed together, we suffered together.
In the last two kilometers of the race were three turns, that took perfect coordination to get through without losing momentum. There was a hard left that we took at a blazing pace, then a long sloping downhill into a right turn, a short kicker up and then the last turn of the race, a left into a steady descent before a small ramped finish. On every previous lap and in training we had nailed this section. The wheels would squeal through the left turn and again on the hard right. We would drop a shoulder, carving the rubber close to the curb and aiming the bike to set us up for the final turn of the course. After the right we would stand for 5 pedal strokes, then sit and pedal through the left, accelerating into the downhill and through the finish.
But this time when we made that right turn there was a crunch and when I looked down the chain had been dropped. “What have I done!?” was my immediate thought. I had put a 1x chainring setup on the bike a few weeks ahead of time in an effort to get a better chain line and simplify our drivetrain to avoid any of the mechanical problems we have faced in previous races.
We coasted, I hoped we could get past the small riser and into the downhill section, figuring that stopping to fix the chain at this point would be slower than coasting to the finish… it was 800 meters away!
We made it about half way up the hill, and I asked Aaron if he could reach the chain without stopping. He couldn’t. We stopped, Aaron hopped off and tried to get the chain on, but it wouldn’t pull easily. I hopped off and tried to get the chain back on the ring, but the chain wouldn’t budge. I looked back. It had torn through the cage of the rear derailleur. The chain was no longer on the pulleys.
“We have to run” I said. We made it to the top of the hill and hopped back on. I tried to clip in but my feet were shaking and I couldn’t. We coasted down the hill and as the bike came to a stop 100 meters from the finish I did a flying dismount, forgetting to warn aaron and leaving him perched on the back of the bike. He unclipped and ejected to the back, then grabbed the saddle telling me, “RUN!”.
We crossed the finish line to deafening cheers. But our road to Rio was over. We walked the bike away from the crowd, tears already streaming down both our cheeks.
I wanted to smash the bike. I wanted to throw it into a bon fire and watch it melt. I took off my helmet and tossed it in the grass, removing my temptation to smash it on a rock. More expletives crossed my mind in those first sixty seconds than an entire Quentin Tarantino movie marathon. I was mad, but mainly I felt like I must have missed something. I felt like I had let Aaron down. I surely could have done something to prevent this from happening. Something.
I stood fuming. I don’t even remember taking off my gloves. I turned around. Truth be told I intended to go back to the bike to give it a solid kick. I wanted to hurt that demon bike – but before I could take out my tantrum on the inanimate object I had spent so much time preparing, I was stopped by the scene unfolding in front of me.
Aaron was sitting on the curb, still wearing his helmet, his sunglasses resting on the grass beside him, his head resting in his open palms, his back convulsing with every sob. Rick and Mark, Aaron’s wife and parents, the national team coaches, our nutritionist and sport psychologist – everyone that had supported us on this journey within shouting distance was hustling over to where Aaron sat. I was angry at myself for missing something, for somehow letting Aaron down in this race, and yet here I am, the only person on Aaron’s team still stuck on the past and ignoring Aaron now, when he needed all of us.
I picked up my helmet and gloves and took a deep breath. I had tears on my cheeks as I hugged Aaron. I don’t know what exactly he said in the moment. He told me it was a great race. He told me we did our best and he thanked me.
That thank you stung. I was holding in a fireball of anger for the universe, blaming myself for ruining Aaron’s Paralympic journey. Thank you was the last thing I expected but it slapped me back to reality. Back to the partnership that Aaron and I had formed, and to the trust we have developed through this journey.
We embraced for a moment, wiped our faces and began walking toward the award podium. We had finished second in our category, despite running to the finish line.
I ran some numbers later on, and used my Garmin file to get my best estimate of where we were on the course compared to previous lap times. To qualify for Rio we would have needed to finish in 34:11. That would have been a 8 minute final lap, or 70 seconds faster than our third lap of 9:11. When the chain came off we were 10 seconds ahead of our time to that point on the third lap, so realistically we would have finished around 35:10. Third in the standings, and a full minute off of Rio qualification. We had the best time trial that we’ve had together. We raced our asses off, and were on track to post one of the most impressive tandem time trials in the history of US Paralympic cycling. We did our best. We did better than anyone predicted we would, and – mechanical aside – we still came up short.
Looking back, I’m glad for three things.
- This was the right team. Aaron and I bicker like a married couple. We’ve both questioned our commitment to each other this year. We’ve both sacrificed to be on this team together, but when it mattered, we were ready. We were ready! I learned so much from working with Aaron this year, about motivation, for myself, for my racing partner and the people that we needed on the sidelines. When everything went wrong, we weren’t alone crying on the curb. There’s more to a team than cheering each other on, or learning to work together. As the pilot I used to think I was the leader. I’m not. I’m lucky to be part of the team, and I’m lucky that Aaron trusted me to give everything I could to make our bike faster. I did.
- We did everything in our control to make the Paralympic Team. Mechanicals, flat tires, crashes… There are all kinds of bad luck that happen in bike racing. Extrapolate that to life, and it’s just not fair. Life is not fair. But we can prepare and we can do our best to get lady luck on our side, and Aaron and I did. The Paralympic selection wasn’t what we expected – there were only two spots left on the Paralympic team across categories, and qualifying on a tandem is among the hardest categories. But we couldn’t control that and we didn’t let it slow us down. We trained as hard as we could and came read to race. I spent the morning inspecting our bike and because of it I can look back with confidence that I didn’t miss something, that this wasn’t a known risk that could have been mitigated with any better preparation. Sometimes life isn’t fair, but you can only regret what you didn’t do. We did everything we could have.
- We finished. When we rolled to a stop on that last little uphill kicker, we knew we were out of the race. Even if we’d been able to get the chain back on, we were so close to the line that every second lost was critical. And yet, there was never a question that we would get our bike to the finish. We would run, crawl… we would have swam that bike to the finish line through a pool of sharks if we’d needed to and I can’t ask for more than that from my teammate. For all the negative thoughts that went through both of our heads, quitting was never one of them.