Blind cyclist Pam Fernandes is building an enviable track record.
Despite frequent changes in tandem partners and a lack of races close to home,
the Needham track and road cyclist who won a bronze medal in the 1996
Paralympics is in full pursuit of the gold in 2000.
By mid-season, Fernandes had racked up an unofficial world sprint record and another national time trial title, plus the Massachusetts tandem criterium championship -- all with different pilots.
This from a woman who had been talking the previous season about retiring and watching a new generation of disabled athletes develop.
"I didn't do as well last year," said Fernandes, 38, at home after the European Disabled Cycling Championships in Blois, France, in July. "Now my faith in continuing racing, at least for a little bit, has been refueled."
Tandem riding is a natural for the blind, for the stoker doesn't need to see. The pilot steers and shifts gears; the stoker supplies horsepower. Many racing pilots prefer blind partners, because unlike sighted stokers, they do not lean to get a view of the road or try to "drive" the bike.
Fernandes' best showing in the European event, which was open to non-European teams this year for the first time, was second place in the mixed tandem kilo. She was racing for the first time with pilot Kenny Williams of Tacoma, Wash., who was fresh from winning the individual time trial in the 30-34 age group at the U.S. Masters National Road Championships in Fort Smith, Ark.
It was another first-time partner, Al Whaley of Houston, Texas, who teamed up with Fernandes in June to set a U.S. mixed blind tandem record of 11.16 seconds in the flying 200-meter sprint during the Tandem Track Cup Series in Colorado Springs, Colo.
"We smashed it (the record of 11.61 seconds, held by Americans Cara Dunne and Scott Evans) by over half a second, and that's significant when you're talking about an 11-second race," Fernandes said.
The world record for mixed blind tandems, officially, is 11.38 seconds, set on the same track in 1998 by a German team.
Whaley, who on his own has won four national and two world track titles in masters competition since 1996, initially had doubts about piloting Fernandes' bike. "I'd heard all these horror stories from other pilots she'd had, about how the bike was really flimsy, like a wet noodle."
But he got to ride the bike alone before Fernandes got on, and it "wasn't bad at all." He said he believed from their first clocked sprint that they could attain a record time. "Our first 200 ever on that bike, we did like 11.6," he said.
Fernandes "loves leg speed, to spin fast, and so do I," said Whaley, 39, who in 1997 became the first African-American to win a world track cycling championship since Worcester's Mashall W. "Major" Taylor in 1899. "I gave her some exercises to do on the trainer to improve her cadence, and it just really worked out for us."
Fernandes was diagnosed as a diabetic at age 4 and lost her eyesight at age 21. Her kidneys stopped functioning, and after years of dialysis, she had a kidney transplant in 1987. She took up cycling as a way to regain fitness after more than 20 operations.
She has to monitor her glucose level closely during training and races. She had a hard time maintaining the proper blood sugar level during the European championships and ended up altering her insulin regimen on the advice of a physician from another team. "You have never seen one person consume so much Coke and glucose tablets in one day," she said.
Until her insurance-company job was phased out last December, Fernandes was the project manager at The Hartford for a campaign called Break Away, promoting athletics for people with disabilities. The Hartford's Team Ability is still her major sponsor.
Being a full-time athlete still means juggling family responsibilities -- Fernandes has a husband and a school-age stepson -- and beating the bushes for sponsors. Her agent is Kevin O'Neill of Capital Sports Ventures, the same agency that represents Lance Armstrong.
"None of this would be attainable without all of the people who have sacrificed their own goals to work with me," Fernandes said. "I've had some great partners, but it also shows me that I'm not washed up at 38."
"I feel honored just being on the bike with her. The attitude that she has is just so cool," Whaley said. "Man, what a go-getter! This girl's got a fire in her ... If I can help her get there (to the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney, Australia), it's all cookies in the cookie jar for me."
Fernandes and Whaley raced together in the EDS Elite National Track Championships in Trexlertown, Pa., this month, setting a national record for mixed blind tandems in the flying 1-kilometer event at 19.78 seconds.
"We are definitely on track for the gold in Sydney," Fernandes said. "We need a new bike, one that fits Al better and is more suited to sprinting on the track. Once we have that and get more training together, we hope to go even faster."
While Lance Armstrong is mountain biking this weekend at Mount Snow, some of his U.S. Postal Service teammates are getting ready to hit the road at the other big Vermont ski area that shapes cycling champions: Killington. Last year's winners of the Killington Stage Race, George Hincapie (U.S. Postal Service) and Linda Jackson (Timex), will return Sept. 4-6 to defend their titles.
Hincapie will be joined by teammates Christian Vande Velde and Dylan Casey. Rivals include Trent Klasna (Navigators) and Mark McCormack (Saturn), who won the Rutland Criterium at Killington last year. (McCormack recently made the biggest win of his career, a stage victory Aug. 13 in the Tour of Denmark. The Postal team's Tyler Hamilton, also from Massachusetts, was the overall winner.)
The Killington race, which competes with the Fitchburg Longsjo Classic annually for racers' votes for "New England's best bike race," has been shortened this year from five days to three. The prologue time trial and the Sunrise Road Race have been eliminated, leaving the Brandon Gap Road Race, the Rutland Crit and the Saab Road Race.
The reason is "lack of sponsorship," said Killington spokeswoman Lisa Durstin-Madigan, although the press releases mention only "a competing Canadian event." Also, it was difficult for many amateur racers to get that much time off, she said. The prize list has shrunk from $27,500 to $21,000. Fitchburg's purse was $25,000 this year.
Although Tour de France winner Armstrong will not be at Killington, his foundation for cancer research will get a boost there from the charity event Ride for a Reason, a 35-mile recreational bike ride on Sept. 4.
TIP OF THE HELMET -- To Gardner native Paul Martin for his first podium finish in a USA Triathlon-sanctioned race: third place in his age group in Scott Tinley's High Altitude Triathlon on Aug. 8 in Brian Head, Utah. Martin, 32, lost a leg in a car accident seven years ago and uses a prosthetic limb. He lives in Boulder, Colo.