We caught up with Roberta Smith, in Knoxville this weekend for the Tennessee Paracycling Open. She piloted a tandem for athlete Tina Ament in a time trial, criterium and road race,with goals of having fun and qualifying for the Paralympic talent pool. Read about her amazing experience.
Q: Roberta, you piloted a tandem in the Tennessee Paracycling Open, USA Cycling sanctioned race including a time trial, criterium and road race. How did this come about?
A: A few months ago, Tina Ament contacted our team looking for a woman cyclist to pilot her tandem. She was initially looking for someone for paracycling nationals in April, but I was unavailable and thought that might be a tough first race to do as a guide. My husband Paul and I, race on our tandem, but I am always the stoker and never the pilot. When I started talking to Tina on the phone, we discovered we had a lot in common. I used to be a swim guide for my friend, Trish Downing, and I have wanted to get back to guiding athletes. I thought helping Tina out with this race, geared to first time racers, might be just the thing.
Q: We understand it was your first time, were you nervous?
A: Totally!!! I had practiced exactly twice with my friends Ella and Jeannie. It’s one thing to go around the Cherry Creek Reservoir….. it’s another to do a criterium. I met Tina and her dog Higgins, for the first time this weekend. We practiced on her TT bike in the parking lot. She has a beautiful Hawthorne tandem that rides like butter. I was super nervous all morning. I think the nerves were more about the responsibility involved in not disappointing your teammate. We were in the first start position. There was no hold for the tandem, so we had to start from standing position. We wobbled a bit, but then were riding quickly. I think I was most nervous about the criterium. I love riding them, but had never done so on a tandem (even as a stoker). All of our fellow competitors were cat 1 men. I can not even imagine being in a Cat 1 Men’s race in Colorado! For our 44 mile road race, we experienced road debris from the previous night’s thunderstorm, and less than ideal weather. The race was essentially 5 loops of the same circuit. We got lost getting to the start of the race, and when we pulled the bike out of the car the rear wheel was flat. Our awesome race mechanic Brent quickly fixed our flat, and we rolled up to the start line. We had a rough start, the guys took off and this is the last that we saw of them. On our 3rd lap, we realized we had a slow leak in the rear tire. We stopped and as luck would have it, Brent the mechanic was right behind us. He got out and pumped up our tire. By the time we finished the 3rd lap the tire had gone flat again. We pulled off and Greg the race director and Brent switched the entire tube this time. With a new tube and 2 laps to go, we used it to practice some skills like standing on the bike together (which is difficult to balance). The rain held off and we had a great time.
Q: Tell us about the course and your goals.
A: TT: Course: The TT course was a 20K loop. We rode on a highway for the beginning and end of the race. The middle loop of the course (What we will do in the road race) was beautiful. One section is part of the Department of Energy and NO CARS – Smooth roads. There were rollers that kept us on our toes. One would think you could get a boost from the downhill to the next uphill. Now I am convinced there can be false downhills!
The strategy for the race was to try to get as close to the Paralympic national standard as we could. An award was being given for the man and women that got closest to their respective categories national standard. For our race, the national standard for tandem athletes is 1.28 (1 minute 16 seconds for each K). Our race was 20K so the goal standard is around 25 minutes. This would mean averaging 29 miles per hour. We finished at 103% of the standard. Our time was 30:37. To qualify for the Paralympic talent pool, we needed to be within 105% of the standard so we achieved this goal!
Crit Course: Pretty non-technical crit- 4 turns. One tight hairpin turn after the start/ finish line. Right hand turn to a slight uphill, Left turn at the top of the uphill, downhill to a left hand turn. Tandems raced 40 min. This was my first criterium as a pilot, and Tina had never raced a criterium. Our goal was one of survival, not crashing, and having fun. We checked each of these boxes. The male pilots are all cat 1 cyclists, so I knew we would probably be on our own. We only got lapped once and did ride a few laps with the guys.
Q: This seems like such a special skill set, how did you train for this and how did you become proficient?
A: Ha! I wouldn’t say I am proficient. As my friend Ella said, its 90% confidence. My friends Ella and Jeannie race tandems with Paul and I. Ella, Jeannie and I practiced twice. Once out at Wash Park and then did the TT course in Cherry Creek. That is it. They gave me the basic skills. I also have raced a lot with Paul on our tandem so I see what he has to do as a pilot so I also just mimicked him. I started swimming again, and that has helped my core strength. It is a lot about core strength too.
Q: Tell us about Tina, how you two came to partner together?
A: Tina is an accomplished endurance athlete. She has competed in several triathlons and Ironman races. She is a lawyer and practices as a criminal prosecutor in Washington, DC. She was looking for a new captain so she can compete in cycling specific events. She contacted Naked Women’s Racing through our website, I volunteered.
Q: If someone wanted to volunteer in the same way, where would they start?
A: There is a huge need for blind cyclists to find pilots. Especially women. In some of the national qualifying events for women, you cannot have a M/W combo. I think any one that is confident could do it. As I understand it, qualifying for the talent pool gives you invitations to training camps. Mike Durner with CTS is a coach for the paracyling team and would be a great resource. Jen Sharp also has piloted women and would be a good resource. In addition you can visit the following websites to be connected with an athlete.
Q: Anything else you care to share with us?
A: This was a fantastic experience. The race was so well organized. The local USA Cycling officials donated their time to score the race and they were just so amazing and supportive. The race director, Greg Miller is passionate about getting more paracycling events organized. This race was a great setting for beginners and it was amazing to see what we could accomplish on the tandem!