Submitted to us by Jennifer Triplett
"Come on! Let's go! Push harder! Rio's coming fast! Let's do this! Come on, Rachael! Focus! Let's go! PUSH! Come on!"
"COMING!" she responded only after 15 minutes of my nonstop banter.
On task - a seven mile hill climb with an average gradient of 5%. On a tandem. Our combined weigh of girls and bike topped 320 pounds. Linked by a timing chain, powering this beast uphill is a combined effort.
That morning I woke up nervous. Two days prior we had completed a ramp power test, one that increases wattage every 3 minutes until exhaustion. Two stationary bikes set up parallel to one another, affixed to a CompuTrainer that measures our power output.
It was there, in the thralls of pedaling to exhaustion in front of the national team coaches, that I learned my first lesson in piloting. The tandem is only as fast as the combined power of its passengers. It became obvious that I was a lot stronger than my blind stoker. And that ate at me, especially when considering the daunting hill climb.
Of course I want her to push hard. And although new to piloting, I've piloted enough to know that although strong, I cannot shepherd up an additional 160 pounds when defying gravity. No, this would require teamwork. So my immediate response was to be her motivator. An attached cheerleader of sorts. It never crossed my mind until she finally responded, "COMING!" that it could be annoying. That my enthusiasm was in fact having the exact opposite effect.
Second lesson as a pilot: less is more. We sometimes gain the most when we just experience life and stop forcing things.
Deflated after the uphill time trial, where we raced against the clock, I asked Craig Griffin, the US Paralympic Cycling Team Director for any pilot advice.
"Communicate, communicate, communicate."
It's just that simple.
"Figure out key words to get your stoker to push harder, sprint, corner, etc. Remember - you are her eyes. She can't see what's next and you need to tell her."
Sounds great in theory and easier said than done. But what Craig didn't mention is the importance of being clear and concise. Too much verbiage and she'd either not hear me due to the wind or I'd confuse her. I started experimenting.
"We're almost to the top of the hill, Rachael." Too much vague and ambiguous wording. My perception of a hill is likely different than hers. No, I needed to come up with simple, concise wording. We were both frustrated.
Rachael constructively told me that she wasn't sure who I was trying to will up the hill - her or me. I was trying to encourage myself and at the same time wasting precious energy.
It took a few more days and a cold to figure it out. Being at the Olympic Training Center was great. No cooking, access to nutritious food and exposure to lots of germs. Including my stokers cold. Having avoided colds for the past 3 years, I was more than overdue.
After a rest day, I could tell something was different. "I feel like we're synched." What? I couldn't name it for Rachael but I felt something different. We went from being one of the slower riders in the group going uphill to being in the lead group. Good thing, as our 60 mile ride had over 3,000 feet of elevation gain.
What changed? I stopped fighting. My cold wore down any extra energy I had. My head and throat hurt but my legs could still pump.
We hit a riser in the road.
"More." Rachael responded with more power. Aha!
"More!" meant dig deeper. The simple influx of just one word can have different levels of meanings. Bottom line though, more meant push. This simple word was revolutionary. Less is more. All thanks to a common cold.
The following day we had another uphill time trial. Craig wanted to see how we were responding to the training load. With our new found communication tactic, we were ready. Same hill, relatively same conditions. This time, I could hear Rachael breathing, or not. And I knew the terrain. "More" was all I said for 40 minutes. And I started noticing new things - grunts and groans when she's digging deep.
Craig had his stopwatch on us and as we got to the top I wanted to see our time. We dismounted the bike and Rachael could barely walk. She sat down on the tailgate of our follow car and promptly puked. She had given it everything. She gave it more. And our combined efforts bested our previous time by 2.5 minutes.
It was there, in that moment in a town closer to Mexico than San Diego, that I fell madly in love with piloting. Being the eyes and driver for another human being lies great responsibility and leadership. And that quiet leadership and experiencing the moment often yields the best result. What an honor.
Next time you find yourself responding to a situation where you're trying to force an outcome, pause for a moment. Stop talking, stop giving feedback. Just observe and listen. And when you're ready, find simple, clear, concise wording. Less is more. At times it may take more discipline and effort to quiet the mind, but the impact can be revolutionary.
For me, that revolution translated to going as fast as humanly possible with two girls on a tandem bike.
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