Tokyo was the one that got away for Dave Ellis and guide Luke Pollard.
Utterly dominant in the build-up – and ever since – a broken chain ruined their chances of a Paralympics gold to add to the myriad of titles from every other event that matters.
There was redemption of sorts with first place at the Commonwealth Games in front of huge home crowds in Birmingham last year, but talking to them ahead of this week’s Paris Test Event, it’s clear how much is riding on next year’s Paralympics in the French capital.
Looking forward to the cobbles
Looking back at the Commonwealths, Dave says: “I think it just kind of gave us another focus, because sometimes you can kind of drift through waiting for the next Paralympics to come along, whereas having that so soon after was great.
“I know it’s maybe not quite as major an event as a Paralympics, but it’s still a big competition for us because obviously they pick different categories each time for a Commonwealths. I think it was probably the one chance we’ve had to have it, so it really made it pretty special – and being in the UK as well. So, yeah, it was awesome to do that last year and I think it was important just to get a major title different to the ITU worlds under the belt as well.”
And Luke adds: “It was an incredible atmosphere too – a real wall of noise. And I think going into Paris next year, hopefully it’ll be something similar. It was like a little taster, if you like.”
Building up to Paris 2024, Ellis says: “The next 12 months, it’s just trying to make sure we qualify. We’re in a good position at the moment, but you’ve still got to do well in the next couple of races. They’re like the important ones. The Test Event is good points and then World Champs is really good points as well. So if you can do well in those two races, then pretty much in a good spot to qualify.
“That’ll be the focus and we’ll also definitely learn everything we can at the Test Event and then take out what we need and focus on that for next year.”
As to what they expect this week, Pollard told us: “It’s obviously a bit of a different course, especially with the bike being on the Champs-Élysées. To be fair, I think we’ve both been absolutely dying to get on those cobbles at some point in our careers and so we’re pretty lucky to actually be able to ride on them. So, yeah, looking forward to it. It’s something different but I think the fittest person still is going to win the race.”
‘A completely different sport’
It’s almost exactly 10 years since Ellis’ first paratri event and there’s no doubt it’s become way more competitive in that decade – with rising star and British team-mate Oscar Kelly, along with his guide Charlie Harding, likely to be one of those pushing him in 12 months’ time.
“Ten years ago it was just completely a different sport,” agrees Ellis. “You can definitely see every year or two there’s people coming in that are just definitely pushing the level up and I think that’s really important for the future of the sport.
The sport is continuing to grow and get better every year.
“There’s the younger athletes coming through who are doing really well. And you can see they’ve got so much potential because they’re so young but already they’re good. So give them a few years and they’ll be definitely pushing on.
‘An inspiration – and a mate’
Both Ellis and Pollard believe it will be a great men’s PTVI race on Saturday and as well as their French and American rivals, they also expect Kelly and Harding to be in the mix.
That pair chased them home in second at the WTPS event in Swansea recently, which was changed to an aquathlon on account of high winds.
“Hopefully we’re getting closer,” says Oscar ahead of Paris. “That’s the target, trying to get close to those boys. They’re the big boys still and it really helps that we’re training alongside them.
“Dave’s such an inspiration, but he’s just a mate. You turn up to work and you’re like, he’s an absolute beast at training, but at the end of the day, it’s racing that actually matters. They’re definitely inspirational, seeing what they do with their lives, but they’re very modest as well.
“You’ve got people like Dave with all his experience – he was a swimmer before paratri and has been going to the Paralympics for something like 20 years while Charlie my guide was only born in 2003!
“So Dave has the wisdom from virtually Charlie’s whole lifetime but you’re all there supporting each other. Everyone’s got a bit to add to the team and I think that’s probably our strongest point as a country. That cohesiveness and we very much work well altogether.”
And Charlie agrees: “I guess they’re very friendly towards us and we can see them as mates, but then if you look at them from the outside, they are amazing athletes. We’ve got a great team mentality too.”
Speed bumps can be negotiated
In terms of their own development over the next 12 months and beyond, Kelly adds: “The bike is our weakest by far and some of the boys have got some powerhouses on the front but at the same time, we’re both young so it’s just about building that aerobic base.
“Give it another year and hopefully we’re a step closer and we’ve got the advantage that we are young so if we run into any speed bumps, it’s not going to take us as long to get over them.”
In terms of this week’s race, Kelly explained: “You’ve got seven or eight of the fastest guys there and like a couple of minutes between them. At the end of the day, it’s going to be competitive, it’s going to be close racing in our race and so any little slip up will make a difference, or who’s on the good day, who’s on the bad day.
“So it’s probably the one race of the year that’s super unpredictable. A couple of the guys have got new guides too. And it’s a different course to what we’re used to, so it’ll be interesting and hopefully in 12 months time it will give us an advantage over some of the guys that don’t do it this year.”
That was echoed by Harding who added: “We’re hoping for a good result this week, though we’re not too sure where we’ll be. But just as important as the outcome is learning from the experience and it should put us in good stead for next year.”