Four-Year Journey Lands Tandem Riders Michael Stephens, Joe Christiansen In Cycling Worlds
by Paul D. Bowker
Tandem cyclists Michael Stephens and Joe Christiansen have been building up to this moment for four years.
They set a national record their first year together in 2019.
They waited through a pandemic and a temporary classification issue, often training separately from their homes in Colorado and West Virginia.
Now, finally, when the Para-cycling competition begins this week at the UCI Cycling World Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, Stephens, a 38-year-old visually impaired rider, will make his world championships debut in front of his wife, Kylee, and 15-month-old son, Weslan. Meanwhile Christiansen, the 27-year-old pilot for Stephens, will be back on the track where he once excelled as a sprinter.
“I can’t even envision how loud it’s going to be, how wonderful it’s going to be,” Stephens said. “Racing our bike, not only with the fastest bikes in our discipline, but with the fastest riders in the world on the elite side. The environment, it’s going to be electric and it’s just going to feel incredible to have been a part of it.
“It’s something that I’m really hoping I’ll just carry that through the rest of my life,” Stephens added, “knowing that we got to be a part of this.”
Stephens and Christiansen were among 12 riders named to the U.S. Paralympics Cycling track team for the world championships, and one of two tandem combinations. Hannah Chadwick and pilot Skyler Samuelson will compete in the women’s tandem.
“It’s been a long journey for us,” Christiansen said. “We’re super excited to finally get to worlds here and get to do it with his baby and his wife. It’s been a huge goal of ours for four years basically.”
The entire Stephens family was also along for the ride at the national championships, which were held in early July in Carson, California.
“This was the first time I’ve ever been able to compete in front of my wife and child,” Stephens said. “I had them in tow for this. There was a lot of pressure on expectations personally and knowing that making the worlds team was not a walk in the door, suddenly you’re on the team. We really had to put forth the best effort we could in the time we had to train.”
For Stephens and Christiansen, the biking relationship has been nearly perfect in a tandem combination that is not too easy to make perfect.
“It was my first time having someone that treated the front of the tandem like any other bike, although there were differences,” Stephens said. “From my position in the back, it didn’t seem like he had any concern about the differences. He hit that bike as hard as he could every time. Prior to that, there was always a hesitation in the pilot. So the confidence on my end was able to rise because the confidence on the front end was in a place it had never been before.”
Christiansen, who had been an individual sprinter on the USA Cycling national team in able-bodied cycling, welcomed such a choreographed team concept.
“Michael was looking for a partner,” he said. “Additionally, I was just kind of looking for something more than all the individual stuff. I was looking for more of a team atmosphere. Michael brought that to the table.”
The two quickly learned to communicate, even if communication wasn’t always in words.
“Totally, across the board, it’s a symbiosis,” Christiansen said. “We have to be very in sync with each other. Predictability is really important. To give Mike confidence, I have to be very predictable. He’s able to read me well. I’m constantly telling him stuff. I’m communicating on the bike. We’re at the point where we’re just communicating with our bodies. He can feel when my legs are going.”
Said Stephens: “Something that’s really unique for our tandem, which doesn’t usually happen, is there’s no warning about if somebody’s legs blow up or the other person’s do because we’re putting in absolutely everything we’ve got on the bike. So, if Joe’s legs start to get tired, or all of a sudden he’s dragging me because I’m tired, it’s just part of that effort, it’s just part of the tandem. And you just have to drive through it.”
In Glasgow, Christiansen returns to a track he competed on in 2017 and 2018. With all cycling disciplines coming together at the same venue at the same time in these world championships, there’ll be more than a few cyclists Christiansen will reunite with.
“A lot of people throughout my entire cycling career are all going to be at the same place at the same time, so it’s going to be really cool to share that with our family and friends,” said Christiansen, who was mountain biking before turning to track sprints. “It’s going to be awesome to share that with all the riders there.”
For Stephens, it’s a “bucket list” moment that will include a week-long sightseeing trip once the world championships are done.
“The pressure that I have is purely internal on my own expectations and what I know I’m capable of,” Stephens said. “And the only thing I’ve been able to do to center myself is bring my family along for the ride and know that I need to finish this. Being proud of whatever we put in on the day regardless of where we fall on the clock. That will give me everything I need out of this world championships.”
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic and Paralympic sports since 1996, when he was an assistant bureau chief in Atlanta. He is a freelance contributor to USParaSnowboarding.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.