Jon Gildea – Interview with Aaron Gales

“Would I change anything? I’ve been asked that question a lot. I don’t think I would. Those rainbow jerseys mean everything to me. It makes the journey I’ve been on make sense.’

***

Gildea sits on his bike and takes a deep breath.

To the right a clock counts down.

When it gets to three, he sits up and pushes down on the pedals.

In less than five minutes time he could be a world champion.

 

***

 

Two years ago as Jon Gildea prepared for the 2015 Manchester Para-cycling International, he did so with the goal of being selected for Rio 2016 and becoming a Paralympian for the first time. It was a goal that had consumed him since suffering a broken leg in a mountain biking accident in 2012.

Just 12 months later the front and back pages were dominated by the stunning exploits of Great Britain’s Paralympians, with the cycling team finishing top of their respective medal table.

Unfortunately for Gildea he wasn’t one of them.

A silver medal in the scratch race at the 2016 Track World Championships, while a brilliant achievement, wasn’t enough to get him on the plane.

However, unencumbered by the pressure of trying to earn a spot in Rio, Gildea found himself more relaxed than he had been in years, though the initial disappointment lingered for some time.

‘I always thought I’d be going to Rio,’ he admits.

‘So when I wasn’t selected I went through all sorts of stuff in my mind. Am I deluded? Was I wrong to think I had what it takes?’

‘After a couple of weeks of being left to my own devices I got the bit between my teeth and decided I needed to find out what I can do. I made a pact with myself that if I didn’t get better I would call it a day.’

It was this new mindset that would shape his future. He would take control of his own destiny.

While his squad members were winning gold in Rio, Gildea was back riding his bike.

He paid for aero testing out of his own pocket to make sure his position was right on the bike.

After some tweaks he estimated his new position could give him an extra 30 watts of power which over the course of a pursuit, his favoured event, would gain him seven seconds, a huge improvement, in a sport so often decided by the finest of margins.

‘Taking control of the process suits me down to the ground. It’s how I built my business. I was more than capable of deciding for myself what the best thing was for me.

‘I like to be responsible for myself and knowing I’ve made the decisions, whether they turn out to be right or wrong.

‘The previous three years had been a massive learning curve and I probably didn’t question enough things. I would get given a training plan and I would crack on with it whether I thought it was right for me or not.’

After getting in some strong blocks of training leading into the winter months, suddenly he had a target to aim for – the 2017 UCI Para-cycling Track World Championships.

However the selection criteria was tough. He had to prove he was gold medal competitive and he had one opportunity – the HSBC UK National Track Championships in January, with Gildea targeting the individual pursuit as his major event.

He completed the four kilometre event in a time of 4.35.667 to ensure selection for the worlds.

The impressive nature of his performance at nationals left Gildea feeling confident going into the first major para-cycling event of the Tokyo 2020 cycle.

‘There wasn’t the same pressure as before. I knew after my performance at nationals that I was going to be quicker than the guys I was going to be up against.

‘When we were all trying to qualify a spot for Rio, everything we did felt like a test. You couldn’t just think about that particular race or that particular performance because you knew you were being assessed with a longer term goal in mind. It always felt like the end of the world to me if I didn’t get to Rio.

‘This felt like a bonus competition. Tokyo wasn’t even in my thoughts. All that was in my mind was thinking about trying to get a rainbow jersey.’

Jon would compete in three events: the kilo, the individual pursuit and the scratch race.

He won a silver medal in the kilo before turning his attentions to the pursuit.

There were four contenders for the crown and he was drawn against the impressive Brazilian, Lauro Cesar Chaman in what was essentially a semi-final. Riding a big gear, he never really got going and the Brazilian was comfortably quicker.  The one consolation was that he set the second fastest qualifying time to set up a rematch against the Brazilian in the final.

Despite the relatively disappointing performance Gildea was relaxed.

“The day before I was thinking I should go down a gear. I knew I was going better than I had at nationals, but that wasn’t reflected in my times because the track in LA was significantly slower. But instead of going with the bottom I went with the bigger gear and it showed. It was a sluggish performance.

“But the important thing was I knew what I needed to do.”

The time waiting for a medal ride can be a tricky one for a rider. After cooling down there is time to kill in track centre before the warm up routine starts all over again. Gildea had never had to back up a ride before, but had gone over the routine with his coach in the weeks beforehand so he knew exactly what he needed to do between races.

It was preparation that would pay off.

Riding a lower gear he was supreme in the final, finishing just under two seconds clear of his rival, so comfortable that he had time to slow down and pump his fist in celebration as he crossed the line.

‘In the immediate aftermath I just felt completely overwhelmed. I phoned my Mum and Dad and spoke to my wife and I was surprisingly calm.

‘I could have done with just bursting into tears, but I did what I always do and parked it immediately.

‘But it suddenly made Rio feel ok. Winning that world title makes the journey I’ve been on make sense.

Two events and two medals down he had one event left; the scratch race, an event he had won a silver medal in the previous year.

He initially crossed the line in third place however it quickly became apparent that Slovakian rider Josef Metelka was a lap behind and should never have involved himself in the sprint finish, moving Gildea up to second place.

And then, in an incredible end to an incredible week news spread that the Brazilian winner had been relegated due to an incident with another rider, promoting Gildea to first and his second rainbow jersey.

He would stand on the top step of the podium again.

What makes his achievements over the last 18 months has been the trauma in his personal life with his Dad’s ongoing battling against leukaemia.  His silver medal the previous year at Montichiari had been tinged with emotion as his Dad had travelled out to Italy to see him compete, but the following months had not been easy.

“There have been times when we thought he was literally going to die. He has been given weeks and sometimes days to live but he’s always managed to hang in there.

“I remember when we managed to get him back home, my Mum asked me to get his bikes out of the house. I was in the middle of doing it when he popped his head around the bannister and asked me ‘where are you going with that? I might want to go out on it.” This was a man who had been sent home to die.

“A few days later I had been on a ride with Jaco (Van Gass) and I had an epiphany. I was going to take my Dad out on his bike. I went home, got his mountain bike and took him for a ride.

“He could only go a few metres, and then he would need to stop, but then he would get back on again.

“But he’s been amazing. He’s managed to ride 10 miles on his own which would have been completely unthinkable at one stage. He’s been incredible.”

So what next for Gildea?

Tokyo is undoubtedly the goal.

“Since track worlds my health hasn’t been quite right so I’ve had some time off the bike and missed out on the road season. I’m now back on the track looking ahead to the season in 2018 and defending my jersey in the pursuit.

“I like to think I’m on a steady trajectory towards Tokyo.

“I feel like I have finally proved myself.”

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