Feature Interview: Colin Lynch

A former World Champion and Silver medalist at the Rio Paralympic Games, Colin Lynch retired from racing in 2019 and is now Sales Director at Shutt Velo Rapide – we chat about his career on a bike and clothing then and now! 

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Feature Interview: Colin Lynch

Brought to you by Shutt Velo Rapide clothing

1. At what stage in your life did you take up cycling and why?
Colin: I started cycling competitively when I was 15. This is going back a LONG time and cycling was nothing like it is today in terms of support and popularity. But I was instantly hooked. I managed to race for a few years, even with the injury to my leg. After my leg was amputated, I kept on riding a bike, but only for pleasure. Fast forward to 2008 and I started riding competitively again – this time as a Paracyclist.

2. How difficult was it to ride a bike with your disability – ie, getting the prosthetic limbs made to fit you and a bike?
Colin: When I initially took up cycling as a Paracyclist, I was riding just using my ‘every day walking leg’. This leg is built for getting around and is fairly basic. The fit is OK, but not designed for the rigours of cycling. It limited my power output and comfort on the bike. Eventually I started working with a specialist prosthetics company (Pace Rehabilitation in the UK) to develop a cycling-specific limb made from carbon fibre. The difference was revolutionary. My power output went up 50% overnight and my comfort levels were vastly improved.

A cycling-specific limb is designed solely for use on the bike. It doesn’t have a traditional ‘foot’ on it like a walking leg, but instead, the cycling cleat is bolted directly to the bottom (instead of a cycling shoe). The leg clips into the pedal giving a direct link between body and machine. Far less energy is wasted in each pedal stroke. These types of limbs aren’t cheap (over £6,000 each), but the difference they make in terms of comfort and performance are a necessity when competing at the highest level.

3. You won a silver medal at the 2016 Summer Paralympics in the time trial C2 event – is that the highlight or are there other events or times in your life which are the most memorable?
Colin: For me, the highlight of my career was winning my first World Championship title. To some degree it was unexpected, but also an indicator that I was progressing in the sport. It gave me the belief I needed to work harder and carry on in the sport for the next several years. Winning the medal in Rio was more of a redemptive experience for me after trying and failing to medal at London 2012 (missing a medal by 1/10th of a second). It was more of a relief than the highlight of my career.

Picture: Craig Zadoroznyj

4. In some countries, the rainbow stripes are more valued than a Paralympic medal – for you, which is the most rewarding, Paralympic medals or World championship rainbow stripes?
Colin: As above – the Worlds have always held more sway with me. People look upon the Paralympic Games as the biggest competition as it only happens every 4 years – but I always found it easier in some ways. For starters, the number of people you compete against is limited, whereas in the Worlds, it’s much bigger field. The exposure at a Games is beyond any other race as is the pressure to perform, but I always found the Worlds more satisfying. And then there is the privilege of wearing the Rainbow Bands for the following year (and indeed for the rest of your career on your sleeves). The Games doesn’t really have an equivalent.

5. Time trialling was a rewarding discipline for you – how much of the sports science such as getting aero and so on has Paralympic sport taken on board during your career?
Colin: I pride myself on being one of the people at the forefront of using technology in the Paracycling community. I discovered very early on the gains that could be made from aero testing, clothing, equipment, tyres, and so on.

Attention to detail in these areas was a major contributor to my success as the majority of nations and riders were not paying attention to it in the early part of my career. I’m also very proud of helping introduce this mind-set of paying attention to the little details and leaving no watt behind to the Irish team. Without a doubt, it helped me and many of my teammates to continually improve.

These days the science and technology of ‘free speed’ is readily available to all riders and nations. The vast majority of larger and more competitive riders/nations have taken it on board and are doing the right things in terms of maximising performance. It is still an arms race though when it comes to the nations that can afford to throw more money at the problem, but the gap between big and small is far smaller than it was even four years ago.

6. Was the hour record the most difficult event of your career?
Colin: This is an excellent question. It was probably the most specifically I ever prepared for an event and certainly the hardest to finish. But it’s hard to say it was the hardest full stop. The first time I attempted it (in 2015), I did an enormous amount of specific work to prepare. And as I rode, it was probably the most pain I’ve been in as I got deeper into the ride. (For those that don’t know, at 42 minutes in, my front tyre exploded and I crashed out.)
Coming back a year later to do it again, I did very little specific prep as it was just a few weeks after the Rio Paralympic Games and I was still in peak condition. I was very relaxed going into it, and it showed. It felt far easier than the year previous and I eclipsed the distance that I would have done if I had finished the year before.

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7. What is the one thing you remember from being in that pain cave for an hour and how difficult was it to maintain focus on the end prize?
Colin: In many ways, crashing out in 2015 helped me a lot doing the record in 2016. I learned to control my start and not go off too hard. It meant that I was in far less distress early on in the ride and was able to keep my laps splits fairly consistent throughout. But no amount of preparation can make it seem easy when the pain sets in.

As many people taught me – it’s about breaking the ride down into smaller chunks. The first 15-20 minutes are essentially ‘free’. You are riding at a pace that is designed to last an hour, so it feels quite easy at first. The trick is to HOLD that pace and not try and go too deep, because you will pay for it later on if you do.

Between 30-45 minutes it gets hard. Really hard. This is as much mental as it is physical. Time becomes a blur. You need to focus on hitting your splits and maintaining your lines – especially though the corners. You drift towards a point where your body wants to stop but your mind has to tell it to keep going. Physically you are capable still, but if you aren’t strong enough mentally it’s easy to give in at this point.

At around 10 minutes to go you are in agony – but you are also so close to finishing that adrenaline and euphoria push you towards the finish line. I had worked out how fast I had to ride each lap in order to hit my target distance and knew that I was doing it. And I was able to sneak a peek at the scoreboard a couple times to see that I was on target distance-wise as well. This was enough to push me through the last 10 minutes. But I was happier to finish this event than I’ve ever been at anything in my life!

8. After the success at Rio, was that something that helped you come to the decision to leave one career behind and start another in the cycling business?
Colin: After Rio I was still in great shape and initially decided to push on for another 4 years to try and make it to Tokyo 2020 for one last tilt at a gold medal. 2017 was a great year for me – winning all 3 World Cup time trial events.

I only finished 5th in the World Championships that year but it wasn’t a course that suited me and I still rode reasonably well. Then came 2018 and everything started to fall apart. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t seem to find my form or get any results. I was miles off the performance levels of my entire career. It seemed like switch had been flipped and I could no longer compete on the same footing as before.

This led me to do some in-depth medical testing and I discovered I had a progressively deteriorating spinal cord problem that was robbing me of balance, coordination and power output. I pushed on (now unfunded) into 2019 to try and overcome the issue (and even sought reclassification) with no success. It became clear to me that I could no longer compete at the level I was accustomed to and would never achieve my goal of making it to Tokyo. I had to make the very difficult, but also realistic decision to retire from racing.

The one question that I was asked more than any other in the latter part of my career was: “what’s next”? And to be honest – I never had a clue. I knew I wanted to stay involved in cycling in some form. Initially I was looking at the coaching side of things, but clothing and/or sales/marketing was high on my list. Previous to being a full-time rider, I spent almost 20 years in the design/advertising world, so finding a way to use those skills again seemed like the most natural fit.

I was very fortunate that the opportunity to work with Shutt Velo Rapide came along right when I needed it!

9. Going back to your early days, how did the skinsuits of 2010 or earlier compare to those of today?
Colin: In 2010, skinsuits were still an afterthought. They were literally just tight, one-piece fabric suits! Virtually no research had been done into how different fabrics reacted to airflow or body position on the bike.

These days, there is an endless amount of constantly changing research into all things clothing and aerodynamics. So much so that the UCI has deemed it fit to ban certain types of fabric. This never would have occurred back when I started!

Even with all the research being done, one thing is still true now: there is no one universally correct answer on what will make you go faster! What works for one rider, whether it is clothing or position – is not guaranteed to work for another rider. The only sure-fire way to find out is to test.

10. During your racing days, what were the things about clothing that stand out that help you now working for Shutt Velo Rapide?
Colin: Spending up to 6 hours a day, 6 days a week, for 9 years taught me a lot about cycling clothing! And the things that were important to me as a racer weren’t always the things important to me a cyclist.

As a racer, I was always primarily concerned with what was going to make me faster, even at the cost of comfort. As a cyclist, I was mostly looking at comfort for the long hours on the bike – and the longevity of my clothing. I learned that it was sometimes worth paying £200 for a pair of bib shorts if they were going to be comfortable over that type of usage and last for several years.

Now, at Shutt VR, I’m happy to say we try and provide that same level of comfort and longevity, but at half the price. Although Shutt has a retail branch, my main focus is custom/club clothing. So, to be able to provide elite-level clothing at club kit prices is something that drew me to the brand.

11. Would I be right in saying that in the very early days of your career that the types of clothing you had to race in was much more limited than now where there are lots of types of jerseys, shorts etc?
Colin: Yes. When I started racing, cycling clothing was still in its infancy compared to today. There was no thought given to fabrics, aerodynamics, fit, comfort, etc. We wore what we were given and never thought to ask for anything better! It didn’t take long for this to change though. By 2012, we all started to see the difference that good quality clothing could make in terms of comfort and performance.

12. What is your role now at Shutt VR?
Colin: I’m the Sales Director for Shutt VR. Whilst I help out in many aspects of the company, my primary role is to drive forward the custom clothing arm of the company. I’m out there trying to get new clubs and teams on board – to start using Shutt VR to provide their custom clothing over the other brands in the marketplace. And then servicing the accounts as they come on board. It’s an ongoing process – from initial contact, through design, to production and delivery. I even occasionally find myself using my old design skills to design kit for customers!

13. Coming into the company, what pieces of clothing have you seen that have made you sit up and take notice that you didn’t know existed?
Colin: To be honest – nothing. What has changed for me though, is to now understand how many things are actually made. Before I just took for granted the finished item of clothing. Now I see how things are designed, printed, stitched, etc to produce the final garment. And this brings about new challenges, but the more I learn, the easier it becomes to advise customers on their designs and garments.

14. Of the custom clothing range, what is your favourite piece of kit that you wish you had with you when you raced?
Colin: One of my favourite items that we produce is something that has actually been around for several years – and as something I requested to race in for MANY years. Our team was only finally given it as a piece of kit in 2018! But it’s a ‘race suit’ – a jersey and bib shorts sewn together as one. It’s essentially a skinsuit with 3 pockets sewn in at the back for road racing. You get all the aero benefits of a skinsuit, but with the convenience of pockets which you need when you road race.

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And ours is something special. We don’t sell a lot of them as it’s a niche item. But we aero-tested ours and it came out faster than most peoples’ standard skinsuit. Not bad for something with pockets on the back!

15. If we take the humble cycling jersey for racing in, how many types would you say Shutt VR do; ie, one for winter, summer etc? Or, is kit now so customisable that there are too many custom possibilities to count.
Colin: Clothing is ultimately limitless when it comes to the possibilities to customise it. Which can lead to limitless amounts of confusion. So we try and keep things simple. We offer a range of clothing based along performance and budgetary lines.

At the top end we have our ‘Proline’ which is as it sounds – Pro-level clothing that is designed with the racers in mind. But it’s also a premium, handmade Italian line of clothing that is suitable to those that want our top-quality product. It’s shaped more for the racing types but not exclusively so. It costs a bit more but the quality is easy to notice.

We have a few other options ranging down through our Sportline and Classic Line. Some of these are more race-orientated and others geared towards comfort. All offer excellent value for money.

In terms of customisation – it’s mostly around the design. We don’t change the physical garment very much but can print any design you want on them. We do have summer and winter jerseys and something in between so effectively you can have a garment for any type of weather.

Some brands offer over dozens of different types of jerseys but we find this is overkill and confusing to the consumer.

16. Would you say that custom kit for racing is just as scientific as coaching and the bikes riders race on now?
Colin: Custom kit really just refers to the design we print on them – not the garments themselves. But cycling clothing in general, whether custom or retail, is now one of the most scientific areas of cycling equipment.

For years we developed bikes and equipment and then the position of the rider ON the bike. But clothing lagged behind in terms of research and development. That’s all changed now. The gains to be found in traditional equipment are reaching their peak (due to the UCI limits on weight and frame shapes). But clothing still has some way to go in my opinion.

17. Is there a piece of clothing yet to be invented you’d like to see in cycling?
Colin: Yes. Truly waterproof clothing that is also breathable!

18. Do you miss racing and the competitive side of cycling?
Colin: I do. I don’t miss the stress of it, but I miss the camaraderie found at races. I don’t miss having to train day in and day out but miss riding my bike as a job. One of the things I’m still involved in is at a UCI level. I’m on both the UCI Athletes Commission and UCI Paracycling Commission. As such I stay in touch with the Paracycling athletes to make sure their views are being represented at the top level. I recently attended a World Cup race in this role and was there to see some of the racing and converse with the athletes. It drove home for me how much I miss it, but also how much I don’t!

19. And do you miss the training and the efforts required to training the body to go as fast as you did?
Colin: That part, I definitely don’t miss! I miss actually riding, but I don’t miss training. The really bad part though is that I really haven’t made time to ride my bike as much as I’d like (even for pleasure). I’ve gained a lot of weight really quickly!!! I need to get back out there and soon.

20. Finally, can you see yourself racing again, this time in Shutt VR clothing to test it as well as keep yourself racing?
Colin: I did want to do exactly this. But for now I’m riding in the clothing as a ‘club rider’ and not a racer. We have a whole team of racers to provide much more valuable feedback on the clothing than I could at the moment!

Thank you Colin, a truly interesting chat!


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