view counter

Pedaling to London and Beyond

After competing in the Paralympics, Annapolitan Clark Rachfal is eager to see where else tandem cycling takes him

Paralympian Clark Rachfal came home to Annapolis from the London Paralympic Games Sunday, September 15.
    Rachfal, 29, was diagnosed with Leber’s congenital amaurosis when he was four. The degenerative eye disease has slowly taken his sight, leaving only fuzzy outlines on his periphery.
    “I can see less than I saw yesterday, and more than tomorrow,” he says.
    Leber’s hasn’t stopped Rachfal, who won last year’s World Cup in road racing and competed in four races in London.
    Pilot-partner Dave Swanson, of Tucson, Arizona, is Rachfal’s eyes when cycling. On their tandem bike, Swanson sits in the front and steers, while Rachfal, in the rear, pushes his athleticism and the bike forward.
    The day after his return, Rachfal and I met at Rams Head to talk about his experience. He ordered a Fordham brew. We sat outside, his favorite place to be.

Clark Rachfal and pilot Dave Swanson powered their way through four races at the Paralympics in London this summer.

What stories have you brought back from London and haven’t had time to tell?
    Just getting to the team village and getting our Team USA swag and trying everything on, it’s like Christmas. Opening ceremonies were totally off the charts, doing the walk of nations surrounded by teammates. Marching in, my teammate found my family on a second-story balcony, so I held up the entire procession behind us to wave to them, shouting at the top of my lungs. The whole experience put a smile on my face.

Then the games started …
    Going in for the first day of competition, that’s the first time we had seen the stands packed. We got there two hours before our race. Walking through the tunnel to the track, when the tunnel door to inside the velodrome was opened, the wave of the crowd cheering hit me right in the tunnel. I stopped to soak it in.

What about your races?
    We didn’t medal.
    We rode in four races. On the track, a one-kilometer sprint and a four-kilometer endurance race, where the fastest cyclist wins. Then two road races, a time trial race where everyone starts separately and whoever finishes 20 to 30 kilometers the fastest wins. The second road race was about 95 kilometers. Everyone starts at the same time and whoever crosses the finish line first wins.
    Two out of the four I was very happy with. One was a good effort, just the legs weren’t that fresh.
    The road race time trial felt like a missed opportunity. That day it really felt more than anything else that we had lost.
    I’m glad we didn’t have to race the next day, because I was not in a good place that night. I started to get over it the next day. The day of our final race I was in a good place and happy. I was ready to ride.

Were you expecting to come home with a medal this year?
    The men’s tandem field is so competitive that you can have a great day and wind up third or you can have a slightly off day and end up 10th. The time difference could be 30 seconds. I thought we had a good ride, but looking at the results there were a of couple teams that have never beaten us at a time trial at the world championships, so it’s like, What did we do or they do differently?
    Hindsight is 20/20. You think you should have pushed harder on that hill, but then you remember: I tried to push harder on that hill but my leg cramped. Maybe that’s all there is to it.

Do you plan to ride in the 2016 ­Paralympics in Rio?
    At this point, yes. I think I’d be lying if I could say I’m just going to walk away or stop here. But four years is a long time. Today’s answer might not be next week’s answer or next year’s answer.

How about your nearer future? Are we going to see you riding around town?
    As for right now, I’m not going to touch the bike for a while. When I do pick it up again it will be training for next year.

Not touching the bike for how long?
    I don’t know. Our track national championships are at the end of September and as of right now I don’t think I’ll be there. I just don’t care right now. Before yesterday, I had been home 12 hours on July 11 and not since then; before then, a total of two weeks since the beginning of May.
    My sister is getting married in October, and I haven’t been around for any of the things going on with that. I want time to meet up with family and friends and catch up on old times and make some new memories, too.

You gave up bike for quite a few years as your eyesight failed.
Once my vision wasn’t good enough to ride a single bike anymore, I stopped riding — when I was around 13. That was around 1996.

That was while your were growing up in Annapolis?
    Annapolis was a great place to be. We’re close to hospitals like Hopkins and University of Maryland. I was able to be outside. I could get out and walk the dogs every day.

How has being blind affected you?
    I always wondered why me? Once I accepted that I couldn’t see and learned that I could do whatever it was I wanted, life became a lot easier for me. Everyone has issues. I didn’t have it harder than anyone else.

How did you get back on a bike?
    I started riding again in 2004 when I was studying abroad in Australia. Some friends were organizing a tour-style charity ride through South Wales, and one asked me if they found a tandem would I ride with them.
    I did some quick number crunching: It’s about two months away, you have to find a tandem, someone has to let us use it … it’s never going to happen. So I said sure, I’ll do it.
    Two weeks later she found a tandem.
    It wound up being way too much fun.

New South Wales is a long way from the London Paralympics. How did you get from there to here?
    In 2005 I was at a presentation by a member of the Australian Blind Cricket Team. I hadn’t known there was such a thing, and I still don’t know how they play. He told me about the U.S. Association for Blind Athletes and the Paralympics.
    I looked into the sports that were offered, and cycling jumped out because I just did it the year before. I’d get to be outdoors, and I thought of all of the places the pros race their bikes — Italy, France, Spain. I could do this.
    I went to one of the development camps in Colorado Springs.

And you got hooked?    
    I really like riding, wanted to get into racing, went to the Nationals with a pilot that I met at that camp, Dave Swanson.
    In 2007, we thought we’d qualified for the World’s Team. In 2008, we came close to making it to the Paralympics in Beijing. That would have been amazing after training for just a year. From the experience we did get the coaching that comes with a World Team selection event.
    After that we just kept riding, pretty full on, especially the past two years. We race on both road and track. It’s train for the track all winter, then two weeks off, then train for the road spring and summer.

Cycling has given you memories as well as Olympic standing …
    On my first time on a tandem, we went to parts of new South Wales and Australia that I never would have gotten to otherwise.
    After my first week at an Olympic training center, I could have stopped right there and had an amazing experience.
    Cycling has taken me to London, and it’s not over. I have no regrets so far, and I’m excited to see where else it takes me.