Five years on from landing gold and silver medals in the Rio Paralympic Games, Katie-George Dunlevy is convinced that chasing victory in three events this time around is a viable target.
Dunlevy and tandem partner Eve McCrystal took two silver medals this month at the paracycling world championships in Portugal, performances which fell slightly short of ambitions but which nevertheless bode well.
"The expectation was to medal, for sure. And we were going for gold," Dunlevy tells The Irish Times. "We were going in to try to retain the time trial gold medal that we won in 2017, 2018 and 2019. We were going for gold in that and to win the road race as well.
“But because we haven’t competed for such a long amount of time and because our competitors haven’t raced too, you just don’t know how it will go. Our last competition on the road was September 2019. The expectation was of course to medal, but we weren’t sure what that medal would be.”
Like many other sports, the paracycling calendar was decimated by Covid-19. Last year’s world championships in Ostend, Belgium, were cancelled, as were many other events. Dunlevy is visually impaired but that gap in competition meant they were metaphorically racing blind too, lacking barometers to measure themselves against and unsure where their rivals were at.
In the end they finished 30.72 seconds behind British rivals Lora Fachie and Corrine Hall after their 49 minute time trial effort. They were closer in the road race, sprinting home in the same time as another British duo, Sophie Unwin and Jenny Holl, and ahead of Fachie and Hall.
Reflecting on things, Dunlevy is a little conflicted. “Well, to win a worlds medal is very hard,” she reasons. “We are delighted to win a medal, we are proud of our silvers, but of course there was a little bit of disappointment in there. I’m not going to lie, we wanted to win the gold. So not to win gold in both events was . . . maybe a bit of disappointment. [Still] it is fantastic to get two silvers at the world championships.”
There is always self-analysis after sporting performances; breaking things down, adding things up, wondering what could have made the difference. That’s even more so the case with cycling, where skill, tactics and equipment play a huge part in the outcome. It’s not just about strength and endurance.
Looking back at the time trial, Dunlevy identifies some factors which may have cost them what would have been a fourth world championship time trial crown. She notes that the course was full of twists and turns and that it was very windy on the day. “It is really hard to know. We are happy with our physical performance, but think that maybe we lost it on the bends. We didn’t have much time on the course beforehand, it was really technical, really challenging with the wind and it was our first race back.
“So I think we need to spend more time to work on technical aspects on the bike. I think with that scenario we can definitely improve, and in being efficient on the bike together. I know we have been together for many years, but it’s just [perfecting] that time-trial position on the bike.
“Then there’s the wheel choice and your gear choice as well. It could be little things that come together that make you lose. We are happy with where we are but we have got work to do. We are up for the challenge.”
As for the road race, she has less what-ifs to mull over. She notes they were really active in the race, but that the course wasn’t difficult enough to be really selective. That meant that some tandems that might otherwise have been dropped stayed in contention for longer, and that there were more competitors still in the running at the end. That all contributed to them missing out on what would have been a third road race world title.
Still, no regrets. “I think the decisions we made were great. We gave it everything we could, and we were very active. We got a lot out of it. We learned about road racing, knowing what is going on around me [through] hearing, and in being efficient with Eve. I know we train together, but it’s very different when it comes to racing.
“I am glad we got those races in before Tokyo, especially after not racing for so long. It kind of blew the cobwebs off a bit, in terms of just being together racing with the other tandems. I think we learnt a lot and we will just take that moving on now.”
The two silver medals were the highlight of the Irish team's campaign at the paracycling world championships. Two other riders also medalled: Gary O'Reilly took bronze in the H5 event, while Ronan Grimes recovered from the crash to net third in the C4 road race.
There were several near-misses too. Grimes, O’Reilly and Richael Timothy were fourth in the C4 time trial, H5 road race and women’s C3 road race respectively. The Irish Paralympic squad won’t be confirmed for several more weeks but that trio will be aiming to be in Tokyo, as will several others. As for Dunlevy and McCrystal, their current strength and past success means that they will spearhead whatever squad ultimately travels.
‘A load off my mind’
Covid-19 has been a headache for many sportspeople, but it presents additional challenges for riders such as Dunlevy. She was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa aged 11. Her vision impairment means she needs to train with a pilot, someone to steer the tandem, watch out for hazards and to act as her eyes. If she is training alone she needs to use an indoor trainer; if she wants to get out on the roads, she needs someone else to be riding with her.
We know we have got work to do, but also that there is more to come from us
Fortunately things have worked out quite well over the past 15 months. She’s normally based near Gatwick Airport, but when Covid levels surged in Britain during the spring of 2020 she travelled over to Ireland. She ended up staying with McCrystal at her home in Dundalk for four and a half months, working hard there.
“We had time on the tandem but there was also a two kilometre limit at times, so we weren’t able to go out on the bike. Then we were training indoors on [online smart trainer platform] Zwift. I’m used to that. And we were doing gym in the garden. It was great to have that time with Eve then.
"This year I came over in April to base myself in Dublin. I have been going out with Eve weekly up in Dundalk. And I've also been going out on the road in Dublin once a week with a local cyclist, Jen Bates. She is very good on the women's domestic racing scene. So I have been getting out twice a week while I have been over here."
Remaining fit despite a lack of racing has been a big goal. So too has been staying safe. “Covid has been my biggest fear, in terms of either of us getting it and how we would react to it. But also the time it would take off our training. You just have to be sensible, take the precautions that you can and hopefully you don’t get it.”
Fortunately both have now been vaccinated, something she describes as ‘a load off my mind.’
Next up for the duo is a training camp in Mallorca in July. They are due to compete on both road and track in Tokyo but because of Covid, they last trained in a velodrome in January of 2020. That heightens the importance of becoming familiar with the indoor track again, something Mallorca will play a vital role in.
Dunlevy and McCrystal have twice taken bronze medals in the track pursuit at the paracycling world championships and believe they can go better.
From Mallorca they will go to a pre-race training camp in Portugal, then travel on to the team’s pre-Paralympic base in Masuda in Japan. They will begin racing with the track pursuit on August 28th, do the road time trial three days later and then the road race on September 3rd.
That gives them three events to target, three chances for gold medals.
“We are happy with where we are now,” she says. “We are in a good place physically. We know we have got work to do, but also that there is more to come from us. We will be working hard on the technical aspects of the time trial between now and Tokyo, as well as on everything else.
“We believe we can win in Tokyo: that is the aim.”