“The rider that wins the bike race is the one that tries a bit harder for a bit longer.” Good advice for sporting endeavour but also applicable as encouragement to overcome lifetime’s challenges.
This was advice that Special Olympics Great Britain cyclist Ruairidh Brown received from former professional cyclist Neil Martin, father of current Cannondale Garmin professional rider Dan Martin. It was passed down to Neil from his own father when he became a professional cyclist and Neil and Dan have used the mantra throughout their respective careers.
Ruairidh has been fortunate to meet and cycle with Neil and Dan on a number of occasions in their adopted hometown of Girona, Spain. Ruairidh’s father, Graeme, is a professional sports photographer and having worked with the Martin’s in the past, was ideally placed to introduce his son on a family trip to Girona a few years ago.
Most family holidays have involved riding for his father and it was only a matter of course that Ruairidh would soon be enjoying the smooth roads and warm weather that cycling in southern Europe allows. Days at the beach with Mum were replaced by mornings in the hills with Dad whenever they were on holiday.
Cycling is now an enduring passion for Ruairidh with every free weekend spent riding around his local lanes near East Kilbride in Scotland. Like most teenagers however, Dad is left behind now, too slow and probably not cool enough. It wasn’t always that way. Whilst Graeme and his wife Alison always hoped Ruairidh would, like any child, take to a bike and find a degree of freedom, his learning difficulties meant they could never be sure if he would succeed or not.
As a young child Ruairidh was diagnosed with a condition called Dyspraxia. This causes an impairment in the way the brain processes information, which results in messages not being properly or fully transmitted. It affects his speech and language, reading and writing and organisational skills. At nursery school age, to help him, it was recommended that Ruairidh take part in co-ordinated physical activities such as swimming and cycling. He started pre-school swimming lessons at the Dolan Aqua Centre in East Kilbride at the age of 4 and at the same time got his first bicycle.
For a long time the stabilisers remained on the bike but with many of Ruairidh’s development characteristics riding solo and unaided happened instantly.
“We had been at the park one day and just before I packed his bike in the car I decided to take the stabilisers off and see how he got on,” explains Graeme. “He was riding along a playing field and I was holding the rear of the saddle but accidentally let go. Ruairidh was unaware and pedalled off. When he turned around and realised I wasn’t there, there was a moment of panic but a quick reassurance from Alison “keep pedalling!” and he was away. He has literally never looked back.”
It wasn’t long before he found the racing bug either.
The explosion of cycling’s popularity following the success of Team GB on the track at the Olympics gave rise to youth cycling clubs around the country – GoRide Clubs. Aimed at children from ages six to 16, Go-Ride is British Cycling’s development programme for young people. The programme provides a fun and safe way to introduce young riders to the world of cycle sport and provides a platform to improve bike handling skills. At the time Graeme and Ruairidh’s local club, EK Road Club weren’t Go-Ride accredited but through another Go-Ride specific club, Glasgow Riderz, they found the ideal vehicle to help Ruairidh’s development. His lack of speech and difficulties in processing information were no hindrance to the coaches who took him under their wing and began the development process that has brought him to where he is today.
As part of the Riderz, Ruairidh began racing regularly in youth races, on closed road circuits such as Bellahouston Park in Glasgow, to track racing at the world class Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome. As part of the coaching experience, Ruairidh, aged 14 now, was invited with other children from the club to take part in a British Cycling training weekend in Scotland. Sadly, however, this was one of the few times where his learning difficulties held him back. At Under 16 age group coaching the riders are expected to be fully independent in the classroom and on the road. This was clearly an issue for Ruairidh and the coaches in hindsight decided that it was maybe too much of a challenge for him so the invitation was withdrawn.
Within British and Scottish Cycling there is ‘little’ structure to accommodate athletes with learning difficulties. It was, however, at this stage that Ruairidh was introduced to head cycling coach Tom A’Hara at Special Olympics through Gordon McCormack at Scottish Disability Sport. Undaunted, he plunged himself fully into the Special Olympics organisation where he has been able to continue racing and training out with mainstream cycling.
Since 2012, therefore, Ruairidh has been a member of the Special Olympics Scotland West cycling team and has competed in two National Competitions and was selected by Special Olympics Great Britain (SOGB) to compete at last year’s European Summer Games in Antwerp.
“Joining the Special Olympics team has been really good. I have met so many people, made so many new friends and been to lots of cool places,” said Ruairidh.
“I have raced in Manchester and Belgium and this year I will go to Los Angeles in America. Last year in Belgium I met Eddy Merckx who presented me with a medal. He is the best cyclist ever. Meeting him was awesome!”
Whilst still only 16 years old, his experience in mainstream cycle competition has clearly been of benefit as Ruairidh has won medals at every Special Olympics competition he has raced in so far. The current tally is four Gold and a Bronze medal at National level and a Gold and two Bronze medals at the European Summer Games last September.
The highlight has clearly been the Gold in Belgium. It was a great individual achievement but it was also of huge significance that Ruairidh was unaware of at the time. The 15km road race was the first medal competition to take place at the Summer Games. Ruairidh won the M1 Division, the highest performance level for men, and therefore claimed the first Gold medal to be awarded at the entire Games. An achievement that took a while for him to appreciate.
“Winning the gold medal was awesome. Everyone was really excited for me and I was interviewed for a magazine and TV in Belgium. I didn’t know it was the first Gold medal of the whole Games so when I found out I was really happy.” explained Ruairidh. “Having my Mum and Dad and my wee sister Molly there was really good as well. Both my Gran and Grandpas were there and so was my Aunt Nicola. I was so happy to have them there to see me doing well.”
The European Summer Games were a highlight of 2014 when Ruairidh also carried the Queen’s Baton in the Relay for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. He received a special achievement award from the local South Lanarkshire Council and was also given The Special Olympics Award from Scottish Disability Sport for 2014. At the end of the year, along with three other fellow Scottish Special Olympics athletes he was invited as a guest to the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards held in Glasgow.
In addition to his cycling achievements Ruairidh has also been working hard at school and until recently, when cycle training began to take up more time, was an active member of the 7th East Kilbride Boys Brigade where he was awarded the President’s Badge last year. He attends Sanderson High School in East Kilbride and takes a number of subjects within the ASN class structure. However, in the last two years he has been taking Mathematics and PE lessons in the neighbouring mainstream Calderglen High School. Last year he gained his National 5 PE certificate at ‘A’ Grade and also passed all the modules to achieve National 4 Mathematics.
“We are so incredibly proud of Ruairidh’s achievements” said Graeme.
“His success as an SOGB cyclist has given him a number of fantastic opportunities but aside from that he has performed well in his chosen subjects at school and completed two successful work experience programmes. As parents, Alison and I really couldn’t be any more proud.”
With the cycling success of Belgium behind him Ruairidh will now turn his attention to the Special Olympics World Games that take place in Los Angeles from 25th July to the 2nd August this year having been selected to represent Great Britain once more. His preparation now includes regular training at the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome in Glasgow but as a sixteen year old he is now training and racing in the mainstream adult ranks with his new club, Glasgow Cycle Team. It is hoped that riding and racing at this higher level will give Ruairidh the strength and speed to be able to repeat his success from the European Games this summer when the competition is expected to be a lot stronger.
Ruairidh is counting the days until the end of July when the team set of for the USA. “I can’t wait to go to LA. I am so excited. I want to win three gold medals but I am really looking forward to making lots of new friends from around the world. Hopefully I will get to meet someone famous in Hollywood.”
This is where the cycling story oddly completes a full lap. When Neil Martin was racing as an amateur in the UK he was selected to compete for Great Britain in the cycling road race at the 1984 Olympic Games in LA. Neil was part of a four man team that raced at the Games but unfortunately the Great Britain team were not as well prepared as they are now and were no match for the likes of the home nation who had Alexi Grewal win Gold and had 4 riders finish in the top ten. With the help of his current racing team and the coaches at Special Olympics Scotland West, Ruairidh hopes to arrive in LA with the best possible preparation.
Ultimately, his aim will be to ‘try a little harder for a little longer’ than the other athletes but he will undoubtedly race in the spirit of Special Olympics: “Let me win, but if I cannot let me be brave in the attempt.”