15 July 2021
Tokyo bonus for tandem debutants Unwin and Holl
Hurtling along roads at breakneck speeds on a tandem bike, Para cyclists Sophie Unwin and Jenny Holl have had to learn to trust each other – quickly.
The pair will compete together at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games this summer, after a sensational debut season which saw them win World Championship gold - in just their third race together.
“Our first time riding together was in March,” explains Unwin, who is visually impaired and so sits behind Holl on the bike. “It was quite strange because I wasn’t used to riding on the track - and wasn’t used to being on a tandem either, so the first few laps were sort of learning how to ride a bike – and certainly learning how to ride together.”
I think almost from the first time we met I totally trusted Jenny on the front of the bike.
Fortunately, the two riders gelled immediately and just weeks later took part in a World Cup race in Belgium, where they won bronze. In June they travelled to Estoril in Portugal for the UCI Para-Cycling Road World Championships, and this time they topped the podium.
“It was quite a big confidence boost as before that we’d only done the World Cup in Belgium, where we’d medalled but we knew there were things we could’ve done better,” admits Unwin. “It felt that could’ve been a one-off, so to win the Worlds gave us the confidence to know we can compete at that level.”
“I think almost from the first time we met I totally trusted Jenny on the front of the bike. But I do think having the time to spend socially helps as well. The more we get to know each other, the more we know how each other communicates - which obviously helps on the bike.”
Holl agrees: “It’s been crazy. I couldn’t believe how quickly we picked it up as a pair and got used to it. I think we just got on so well off the bike initially – Sophie is so easy to get on with and that was really nice. I think it would be quite hard if you didn’t get on with your partner.
“In every session we’ve done I can tell that Sophie is trying as hard as she can, and that’s all we can do. I don’t think either of us have been left wanting more from the other.”
Starting to sink in: the pair claim World gold in June
It is Holl’s responsibility to describe the race and tell Sophie what to do. “That was one of the things I found quite hard – as a solo rider you don’t talk through what you’re doing,” admits the 21-year-old Scot, who was part of British Cycling’s Senior Academy for three years before joining up with the Para cycling squad.
“On the tandem I have to talk through everything we are doing and tell Sophie when she can eat or drink as it’s clearer for me at the front when we have opportunities for things like that. I basically narrate the race out loud. Sophie can’t see when we are barrelling into a corner at 40 kilometres an hour, whereas I can - and I’m the one that has to brake.”
So what makes a great partnership? “I think the way we communicate on the bike – Jenny is very good at telling me the stuff I need to know without over complicating things,” says Unwin. “And I think I do respond very well when she says things like, ‘right, we need to go now’. It’s that trust in each other that we are both going to do what the other needs in the race.”
Unwin joined British Cycling’s Para squad last year after attending a Talent ID day. Living in Devon, and restricted in her opportunities to train with the Manchester-based team during the lockdowns brought about by the COVID pandemic, she was forced to train by herself on a turbo machine instead. But having enjoyed her first taste of tandem riding so much, the 26-year-old was determined to work hard on her own development.
“The first time I got on a tandem I thought I might hate this, because you’re not in control of the bike at all. But I absolutely loved it and that kept me doing all the training sessions on my own as I knew that once I was on the back of the tandem I just really enjoyed it,” she explains.
Unwin believes her lack of experience can also pay dividends when they line up in Tokyo in just over 40 days’ time.
“Because Jenny is so experienced in racing as a solo cyclist, almost everything she says I can learn from. I’m learning all the time, and I think in a way it helps that I am new as I am learning to cycle the way that Jenny cycles. It helps as a pair that we are doing the same thing.
“We are going in as world champions so there is a certain amount of pressure there, but we are still so new. The aim was Paris 2024, so being on the plane to Tokyo is a bonus. Any results we get will be amazing.”
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