With double Rio medallist Emma Foy retired, a six-strong group of Para cyclists as part of the New Zealand Paralympic Team, will carry the torch in the blazing heat on the roads around Fuji Speedway and boards of the Izu Velodrome when the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games get underway this week.
Competition at Izu Velodrome, near the site where the keirin was first introduced after the Second World War, begins on Wednesday. It will feature three Kiwi Para cyclists in Sarah Ellington, Anna Taylor and Nicole Murray. While there is considerable international experience, it will be a Paralympic debut for the trio.
After four days of competition at Izu, the attention moves an hour away to the Fuji Speedway for the road competition. There the trio of Murray, Taylor and Ellington will be joined by US-based Rory Mead, Rio 2016 Paralympian Stephen Hills and 2019 World Champion Eltje Malzbender for the time trial and road race.
“It is a small team for the track because we are used to having a couple of tandems plus our quota allocation meant that we were restricted in other ways. But we have put everything into them and they have been like sponges just soaking it all up. It is first time at a Paralympics for them so all three are excited and can’t wait to get started,” said head coach, Stu MacDonald.
Competition begins with the individual pursuit for Ellington (Auckland), a C2 athlete with a spinal cord injury, who will compete in a combined C1-3 category, with no factoring in this event at the Paralympics.
Murray from Otorohanga has been in the PNZ Para cycling programme for a number of years and made her international debut at the 2018 Para Cycling Track World Championships. Murray, who has a limb deficiency, exceeded all expectations winning a silver medal at this event.
Taylor from Cambridge first came into Para cycling through a PNZ talent identification camp in 2018 after an injury. She has cauda equina (a partial loss of power), making her international debut at the 2019 UCI Para Cycling Track World Championships.
“Nicole has many talking with her performances in New Zealand this year. She has been in the programme for some years but is starting to click and understand how it all works, especially in the pursuit,” said MacDonald.
Her main targets will be the pursuit and road, especially in the time trial.
“Sarah will produce a good performance in the pursuit but at the Paralympics some of the events on the track including her pursuit is combined across three categories of disability and is not factored so she will compete against C3 riders that are more able.”
“Anna is enthusiastic and can’t wait to get out the race. She is a bit of an unknown at this level but all our training data suggests that she has the potential.”
After the 500m time trial on the track on Friday the action moves to Fuji Speedway with time trials on Tuesday 31 August and road races on September 1 and 2.
Mead is a former competitive motocross rider who sustained a spinal injury while racing.
“Rory used a handcycle as part of his rehab and contacted us to ask how he could get involved.”
Mead placed top-five in his first World Cup in Europe which earned him selection to the world championships and now to Tokyo. He has three formidable opponents who have dominated recent competition but he could upset.
“It is the Paralympic Games and anything is possible,” said MacDonald. “One advantage is that Rory lives in Ohio where it is very hot and humid, so he will be well acclimatised.
“As a former top level motocross rider, he has a performance mindset and lives a high performance lifestyle which fits in well for Para cycling.”
There are hopes for a strong performance from two-time Paralympian Hills from Taranaki, targeting the road race in particular for the trike exponent. He won two medals at the 2017 world championships and a bronze in 2019 for the likeable Para cyclist who has right side hemiplegia.
“The time trial is factored with the T1 which counts against him a bit. He is a technically gifted rider so this road course should suit him because it is super-tough for the trikes. He is really strong which will help. I am excited to see what he can do.”
Malzbender from Cambridge has been training exceptionally well and hitting personal bests with her power efforts.
“This is her first Paralympics which is very different to a world cup or world champs. The focus is the time trial for her. The road race will be very tough as they race with the T2 riders who could be 8-10kph faster which makes it really tough for a T1 rider on this course.”
Heat will be a key factor for all the Para cyclists but MacDonald said they have worked diligently in this area.
“Spinal cord injuries especially have a problem with thermo-regulation in that they don’t sweat so they can’t cool. We have done a lot of work with the heat strategy for everyone and I am confident we have that dialled in.
“Overall, I am happy with the work that has been done to get here and now it is about sticking to the plan and executing.”
NZ PARALYMPIC COMPETITION SCHEDULE
Wednesday August 25
Women C1-3 3000m IP Qualifying Sarah Ellington
Women C4 3000m IP Qualifying Anna Taylor
Women C5 3000m IP Qualifying Nicole Murray
Women C1-3 3000m IP Final Sarah Ellington
Women C4 3000m IP Final Anna Taylor
Women C5 3000m IP Final Nicole Murray
Friday 27 August
Women C4-5 500m time trial final Nicole Murray and Anna Taylor
Tuesday 31 August
Women C5 time trial Nicole Murray
Women C4 time trial Anna Taylor
Women C1-3 time trial Sarah Ellington
Men H2 time trial Rory Mead
Men T1-2 time trial Stephen Hills
Women T1-2 time trial Eltje Malzbender
Wednesday 01 September
Men H1-2 Road Race Rory Mead
Thursday 02 September
Women C4-5 road race Nicole Murray and Anna Taylor
Women C1-3 road race Sarah Ellington
Men T1-2 road race Stephen Hills
Women T1-2 road race Eltje Malzbender