Brown and Shaw in almost perfect tandem

 

CYCLING MEN'S INDIVIDUAL B PURSUIT:IN A sweatbox velodrome where the air hung like a sub-tropical fug, Ireland came within a few pedal strokes of a first medal of the games when the tandem pair of James Brown and Damien Shaw were pipped in the bronze medal race of the 4km pursuit.

After a slow start, they dominated the middle part of the race and looked set fair for a medal with a kilometre to go. But the Spanish pair of Miguel Clemente and Javier Munoz overhauled them in those last four laps, winning by just over two seconds in the end.

The official nomenclature of this event demands that we call it the individual pursuit, with the official competitor marked down as Brown. The 47-year-old from Portaferry is blind and 27-year-old Mullingar man Shaw is nominally just the pilot. Some of the handbooks even describe the partner in this race as merely the guide – as if they’re just sitting on the front of the bike telling their blind team-mate there’s a bend coming up. Nobody could stand beside the panting Shaw afterwards and imagine this is anything other than a team event.

Brown and Shaw are separated by 20 years, half the country and a lifetime of different experiences. Cycling isn’t even what either of them would call their first sport. Shaw was a cross country runner before Cycling Ireland found him through their talent ID programme and Paralympics Ireland nabbed him before the able-bodied crowd could claim him as their own. They trained him up, put him on the front of Brown’s bike and told him what was what.

“I learned everything from them,” said Shaw. “They made it easy for me. I was doing athletics – I was a club runner, nothing more. The guys just picked me. They took all the short cuts and all the failures that most cyclists make and got me going. They wanted someone raw. I just gave them an engine and they tuned it up.”

As for Brown, life has just been a series of new layers laid upon old ones. He’s been coming to the Paralympics since 1984, when he won gold in both the 800m and the 1500m in athletics. When a friend brought him on a ski holiday to Norway one year, he found he liked it well enough to take up cross-country skiing competitively and kept at it for 16 years. He even represented Great Britain in the Winter Paralympics in the biathlon.

“Then three years ago, a friend introduced me to mountain biking and I said, ‘There’s no way I can do mountain biking, I can’t see enough.’ But he got me to do it and I agreed on the basis that he promised just to take me around the lake. But instead he took me up to one of the man-made courses in north Wales and he guided me around the red course, which is one of the hardest ones with drop-offs all over the place on it. It was his confidence in me that got me into it.

“I joined a club and made friends with one of the guys there who subsequently became my tandem pilot. He’s in the crowd here today. And then I got in touch with Denis Toomey, the Ireland team manager here, and he took me under his wing.”

And look where it took him. Two seconds short of another Paralympic medal. He was sanguine afterwards, far more so than his young partner. You could see that Shaw felt like they’d let a golden opportunity melt in the thick air and, when he spoke, it was with frustration. “We’re competing against full-time athletes and we’re not full-time athletes,” Shaw said. “That’s the difference.”

Brown was able to rise above it quickly enough. A life well lived will do that for you. “I’m pleased to be here, pleased to be very near the top, disappointed not to be on the podium but fourth is a good result whatever way you look at it. We haven’t been riding together that long so I’m just pleased to be here. It’s a fabulous experience.”

Takes all sorts, the Paralympics.

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