Elite pilots fuel recruitment drive in Paralympic tandem cycling

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An influx of able-bodied champions acting as pilots for visually impaired Paralympic cyclists is fuelling something of an arms race in the tandem competition.

Pilots don't just steer their partners, they cycle with them, helping drive them over the line in a more direct way than guide runners in other Paralympic events.

And a crop of established cycling names is appearing in Tokyo as pilots, including French cyclists Francois Pervis and Corentin Ermenault, and Germany's Robert Forstemann -- all of them medal winners at the Olympics or world championships.

It's a clear advantage to have a champion in the front seat rather than an amateur, according to Ermenault's partner Alexandre Lloveras.

"With Corentin, when we rode together for the first time in November, even though he was just starting again, I immediately felt that he had a lot more power than my usual pilots," he told AFP.

The Paralympian said he had "stars in his eyes" when he learned he would be able to compete alongside Ermenault, who took bronze in pursuit in the 2020 World Championships.

The pair fell short at their first appearance on Wednesday -- with a slower-than-usual time leaving them in fourth place in the individual pursuit. But they have another chance at Tuesday's road time trial, in which they placed second at the world championships.

French cycle team manager Laurent Thirionet makes no secret of his pride in having recruited 25-year-old Ermenault.

"We've got the best pilot in the world we could have," he said.

And he's not the only champion Thirionet has lured to the team, with seven-time individual world champion Pervis joining up to compete in Tokyo with Paralympian Raphael Beaugillet.

Thirionet admits, however, that the turn to professional-level pilots risks creating something of an arms race.

"It's getting professionalised to death," he told AFP.

"The level is getting so high that continuing to work with amateur pilots, even if they're at a high level, isn't enough."

- 'You have to train' -

Beaugillet and Pervis will face off against another Paralympian-professional pair: German Kai Kruse and his partner Forstemann, dubbed "Quadzilla" for his massive thighs, who holds an Olympic bronze medal.

"I want to play a pioneering role and take Paralympic sport to another level," Kruse told the Berliner Morgenpost when he announced his partnership with Kruse in 2019.

The pairing caused a bit of jealousy in the field.

"It's really interesting to see guys like that, but I thought 'why can't I have a big name too'," Beaugillet recalled feeling about his rivals before he was paired with Pervis.

The trend for tapping champion cyclists as pilots began at the London Games, when the UK's Anthony Kappes took gold in speed cycling with Craig MacLean, an Olympic silver medallist in Sydney.

There are rules that put some limits on recruitment: pilots cannot be under professional contract or have been in a world cup event in the previous 12 months.

Pervis said different circumstances motivate the pilots.

"I'm at the end of my career, and it was a way for me to do the Games in Japan," he said.

"For Corentin, it's a reboot," he added, referring to the "burn-out" Ermenault experienced after his world championship competition in 2020.

It was only the year-long delay to the Games that allowed the 25-year-old -- who is younger than most pilots -- to be eligible for Tokyo's Paralympics.

The Paralympians make no secret of the advantage their pilots give them.

"When Francois came on board, I said to myself 'now we really have a way to do something'," said Beaugillet.

But nothing is guaranteed, he adds.

"That's all on paper. You have to train."

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