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Since her retirement from professional cycling, Lyne Bessette hastried out a number of new career paths, from race commentator to triathlete. Now, she can add another to the list: pilot.
Not that type of pilot — rather than a airplane, Bessette’s been behind the handlebars of a tandem bike, where on Sunday she and her partner Robbi Weldon pedaled to gold in the road race at the UCI World Para-Cycling Championships in Baie-Comeau, Quebec.
“I had the best time of my career,” Bessette said. “Para-cycling…it’s just very true and very real.”
The pair’s success capped a journey that began in June when Weldon took part in a para-cycling training camp in Calgary. Weldon, whose vision is impaired by Stargardt’s disease, was looking for a new challenge after four years as a para-nordic skier — including a trip to the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics.
Almost from the moment that Weldon’s feet touched the pedals, her potential was obvious.
“They saw my wattage on the bike, and right away they were making phone calls to see who they could get as a pilot,” Weldon said.
Bessette wasn’t easily convinced—she didn’t want to “live the stress” of her competitive career all over again, she said.
The two met for the first time at the Canadian Para-Cycling Championships, where they were able to squeeze in a single hour of practice before finishing second in the time trial. After some coaching that night, the two went out and won the road race the following day.
The events were “a disaster” for Bessette with regard to her anxiety, but she decided to continue through the world championships anyway.
Tandem para-cycling places a premium on teamwork and communication, so Bessette and Weldon took more time to prepare for last weekend’s world championships. They trained for two weeks together before competing in the time trial and road race in Baie-Comeau.
As the pilot, Bessette sits at the front of the bike, in control of shifting and braking. A direct-drive chain links her crank with
Weldon’s, and the two pedal with an identical cadence.
“It’s a challenge in itself, for sure,” Bessette said of tandem riding. “It’s a bigger bike — it’s a lot more physical than riding your own bike.”
In addition to shifting and braking, it’s also Bessette’s job to keep Weldon clued into the race as it unfolds, which includes warning of impending course features like corners, climbs, and descents. When they’re drafting, Bessette will communicate her intentions with her feet.
“It happens so quickly, you can’t always be saying ‘pedal, stop pedaling, pedal,’” Weldon said. “You can feel her ease off pedaling, so you ease off at the same time. You don’t want her to ease off…and me to power us right into the back of another tandem.”
Their technique honed, Weldon and Bessette began their World Championships campaign with a silver medal in Friday’s 23-kilometer time trial, finishing just two and a half seconds behind the winning team from the Netherlands.
Sunday was the 80-kilometer road race, which started with a peloton of 13 tandems and was winnowed down to a group of six with 20 kilometers remaining.
An initial attack from Weldon and Bessette was foiled when they were neutralized by a passing men’s field, allowing the rest of the tandem women to regain contact. But no one could respond to their second salvo, up a one-kilometer climb, and the pair rode alone over the final 11-kilometer lap to take the win.
This time around, after spending more time with Weldon and the other Canadian para-cyclists before the world championship races, Bessette said that the stress wasn’t a problem.
“People are very, very kind, very understandable, very patient,” she said, “and that really caught me. I really loved it.”
After their success in Quebec, Weldon and Bessette have set their sights on the 2012 Paralympics in London. Though she insists she’s still officially retired, Bessette says that she is excited to take on the new challenge, as well as to lend her fame to the sport.
“Because of my name, people will get more interested,” she said. “It’s something new. I wanted to try it, and I liked it, so I think I’m going to give it a shot for another couple of years—and then I’ll do something else.”