Scottish cyclist Louise Mcleary is 37 and completely blind (“completely” refers to “no light vision”). She is just over 5ft tall.
Paula Regener, 27, hails from Germany and lives in Glasgow. She is able-bodied and 5ft 10in tall. She is coached by Glasgow-based Vicky Begg,
For the past year, Louise and Paula have been training as a tandem pair. Paula is Louise’s pilot.
The pair train as often as they can but there are limited opportunities. Paula says: “We make it to as many of the disability track sessions as possible at the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome in Glasgow but they are only held every second Thursday from 6 to 8pm.”
Louise has to travel from Kirkcaldy, Fife, and reveals that she spends more time on the journey there and back than on the track.
The pair train separately outside of these session. Paula is a keen road cyclist and a member of Glasgow Triathlon Club, while Louise makes use of her turbo trainer.
Paula says: “Getting together on the track and getting used to each other’s riding styles and learning technical skills is really important. We do not get to do this enough, sadly.”
The joys of tandem cycling
For Louise, a tandem is the only way that she can safely enjoy cycling. She gradually lost her vision through her childhood and become completely blind aged 19.
She says: “I did have a fair bit of useful vision until I hit adolescence when I started to gradually lose what I had from 14. I finally lost the last of my vision during my first month at university.
“I am now totally blind, that is, I have no light perception, which is not common even among visually impaired people. I think about one per cent fall into this category.”
As a child she begged her parents for a bike of her own but problems with progressively poor sight meant his was not possible. When Louise discovered the potential of tandem cycling at Glasgow’s Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome she became (this is an understatement) very, very excited.
She says: “For as long as I can remember I wanted to ride a bike. I had a couple of shots on bikes as a young child but it simply wasn’t safe or possible for me to ride as my sight failed.
“For some reason, I always knew I’d love cycling and when I tried tandem cycling four years ago for the first time, and as a way to keep fit, I quickly discovered that I really did enjoy it
“I got into track cycling when the tandem club I’m a member of visited the Velodrome for an open day. I loved track cycling from the very first and took it up from there.”
More recently, Louise has paired up with Paula.
PhD student Paula also came to cycling quite late. She says: “I only started cycling about three years ago, when I went on a road cycling holiday in Tenerife. I then started running and swimming and naturally got into triathlon. So the cycle racing world is pretty new to me.”
Tandem track cycling
Both women describe the tandem track cycling as a great love. Paula says: “I love racing on the tandems and I really love the team work aspect of it. Initially, I thought racing on a tandem would mean there was less pressure as there are two of you but really there is a lot of responsibility for a pilot.
“I need to control the bike and be in charge of the steering, holding a straight line and communicating essential information to your stoker, such as the lap number, pacing and how far we are from the finish line. It’s a lot of work but its also extremely rewarding.”
Louise says: “I think my pilot has to do all the work and I’m just the stoker at the back pedalling. It’s hard work but she also needs to be thinking about everything else.”
First taste of competition
If you are at amateur level there are not many opportunities for competitive para-cycling. This summer, Louise and Paul were offered the chance to ride in the Scottish National Track Championships, held at the Glasgow Velodrome.
Paula explains: “The thing is, we weren’t really part of the championships because they don’t have a separate para cycling category but we got the chance to ride at the event.
“In the 500m Time Trial – that’s two laps – we were the only tandem racing and we weren’t placed among the typical riders. In the 3000m Pursuit Race – 12 laps – we had another pair, Laura Cluxton and Lindsay Carson, racing us. Laura Cluxton had raced in the Commonwealth Games.
“With a time of 4:24.539, Louise and I were only 19 seconds behind them and they were cycling a carbon tandem, wearing skinsuits and had aero helmets. We had an old steel tandem bike and ordinary kit and helmets.
“So we were very happy about the result because it was the first time we had done a 3000m effort. We really had no idea about pacing and had no idea what lap times to aim for and this shows us there is definitely room for improvement.”
But for what aim? Louise would like to be part of more competitions and she is aiming for the British Championships in Manchester next year. This is the only amateur track race that has a para-category.
Paula would like to race more locally and to support Louise in training where possible. She says: “The atmosphere is great. I loved the velodrome contest. In the 3000m we got straight out of the start gates and were quickly riding a smooth line. Holding the pace that I’d initially set was tough but it felt great when we finished. Loads of other competitors congratulated us and were really impressed with how well we raced.”
Louise isn’t entirely sure why she likes track cycling. She says: “I’m no athlete and in all honesty my ambition probably exceeds my ability but for some reason I still want to give it the best shot I can.
“It’s exhilarating and I love the way I feel when the bike banks over when we’re going fast and how it feels to hear the wind whistling past my ears on an effort. The sense of elation I get when, as team, we reach a personal best is hard to beat.
“I just want to progress my cycling and to achieve something by doing it with a purpose. I guess that competition is the natural progression and I’d rather try it and fail than never try it at all.”
Frustrations of UK para-cycling
Both women enjoyed the experience of racing as part of the Scottish champs but would like to see more being done for para-athletes. They are frustrated that “there simply are not enough events in the UK with para divisions for us”.
Paula says: “It’s very frustrating to have only two amateur level competitions for para-cyclists in the UK. The able-bodied events that we can race in are also very limited.”
There are cost barriers, too. Louise says: “It was expensive to take part in the Scottish champs but we wanted the opportunity. We had to pay for two full race licences as well as being expected to pay double for each event because there was two of us on the bike instead of one. And all this for just to possible annual events, the Scottish and British champs.”
Paula adds: “The Glasgow velodrome has amazing facilities – and they have tandems for hire. There is the opportunity for people like Louise to race and train with little other support because everything is there and it’s a safe environment.
“It’s a shame the velodrome and Scottish Cycling don’t try to promote it and try to get more people involved.”
Scottish Cycling replies
Vicky Strange, Head of Development at Scottish Cycling says: “Scottish Cycling aims to support the development of para cycling where possible and is delighted to be able to include the development of performance para cyclists within the remit of our National Sprint coach.
“We were also delighted to offer para cyclists the opportunity to compete in our National Track Championships this year and we hope to see the number of entries grow in the future.
“For this to be successful we need more riders and this is something that we hope to grow through working with Scottish Disability Sport and British Cycling to find much-needed resources to enable development work to take place.
“Through our facilities strategy we have said openly we would like more tracks across Scotland which would help to increase more opportunities at a local level but we have to work with local and national partners to find the necessary resources to make this happen.
“We will continue to do what we can within the constraints of our current resources including working with Time Trial event organisers to include tandems where appropriate, and also work with our affiliated clubs to make some simple steps to be more inclusive.”
The women would like to take their cycling further. Louise says: “I’m not expecting to be at the top echelons so I would really like to see much more effort being made at a local amateur level for blind and disabled cycling.
“In fact, I would be happy with simply having a disabled event once a month at track league. Track league is a weekly event at the velodrome where non-disabled amateur track racers can compete once they have achieved their level four accreditation.
“It’s not much to expect and it wouldn’t be hard to organise if the event organisers were really series about inclusiveness. The trouble is that although they have lots to say in their handbook about making more opportunities for disabled cycling, in my opinion, they seem to lack the vision to make this a reality.
“I’ve seen the same in other disabled sports, where there is little opportunity below Paralympics standard. Most of us will never get to Paralympics standard, myself included, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have the same opportunities afforded to us as able-bodied and sighted cyclists who take part in amateur events such as track league every week.”
Keep an eye out for Louise and Paula if you are at the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome.