Skyler Espinoza, Joe Christiansen Reach World Stage As Tandem Team Pilots
by Paul D. Bowker
Long before jumping on the back of a tandem bicycle in August to help Hannah Chadwick win a world championships bronze medal in tandem track racing, Skyler Espinoza was a rower.
Espinoza had helped Stanford’s rowing team win its fourth consecutive national championship as a graduate student following three years of rowing at Columbia University in New York.
Biking surfaced as a way of rehabilitation following back surgery.
Joe Christiansen, a cyclist who was named to the USA Cycling Development Team as a teen, turned to tandem because he liked the idea of a team concept after racing individually as a sprinter for years.
Their worlds all came together in August at the UCI Cycling World Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, when Espinoza combined with Chadwick just six months after forming their partnership, while Christiansen teamed up with Michael Stephens in the men’s tandem.
A third-place finish in the women’s sprint B for Chadwick and Espinoza created a powerful moment for both teams.
“There was just like a huge crowd there,” Espinoza said. “That was an amazing moment that we kind of came together.”
“They ended up killing it,” Christiansen said. “They ended up doing just fantastic. They didn’t need any help. Just really intuitive racers.”
The two teams joined up to post a fourth-place finish in the mixed B team sprint.
“It was super cool getting to watch them ride and it was really cool getting to ride with them in the team sprint event,” Christiansen said.
Christiansen and Stephens, making their world championships debuts, finished sixth in the men’s sprint B minor finals.
Both teams will race in the Parapan American Games set for Nov. 17-26 in Santiago, Chile. Still to come is the big prize: Paralympic Games Paris 2024.
“It’s a huge goal for us,” Christiansen said. “The thing about the Paralympic Games compared to worlds and stuff for us, there is a lot more that’s out of our hands. We’re going to give it a good go.”
“Going to the Paralympic Games with Hannah would be really amazing,” Espinoza said.
But how did Espinoza and Christiansen, along with Chadwick and Stephens, get this far? It has been a fascinating journey.
Espinoza, who rowed in doubles at Stanford, wound up as a coach for the Cardinal after graduating. When the opportunity arose in February to team up with Chadwick, the move seemed perfect.
“I’ve been a mentor in a lot of different programs for a long time, so I think the pilot role really speaks to my values a lot in terms of supporting other athletes in sports, getting an opportunity to help a Para athlete achieve her dreams in sport,” Espinoza said. “It’s a teammate role, it’s a little bit of a mentor role and coaching role because I’ve been an athlete for a long time and Hannah is a relatively new athlete. It’s been a really great opportunity.”
Espinoza, who lives in Menlo Park, California, which is a short bike ride to Stanford, splits her time between the west coast and Colorado to train with Chadwick at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
While riding, Espinoza is a talker. She is constantly communicating with Chadwick, whose visual impairment means she must be accompanied when on the bike.
“Hey,” Espinoza will say. “A little more pressure, a little less pressure. … We’re going to go up track! We’re gonna go down track!”
And as a former rower, there are lessons in that sport which carry over to cycling, Espinoza said.
“There is a little less technique involved in cycling than there is in rowing,” she said. “Definitely, there’s similarities. Definitely feel like there’s things I learned from rowing I carry over to cycling.”
‘Looking For Something More’
For Christiansen, the journey toward the 2023 world championships and a shot at Paris 2024 began in 2019 when Stephens was looking for a new tandem partner. Both riders had the same coach: Brian Abers, a sprint coach with USA Cycling.
“Personally, I was just looking for something more,” Christiansen said. “Track cycling is a pretty individual sport. I was kind of sick of only having myself. I was looking to work in more of a team environment, looking to do something a little bit bigger than just myself.”
Christiansen is a Colorado native who grew up near Boulder, rode mountain bikes, won a keirin national title in 2018 and was a part of national championships in team sprint in 2017 and 2018.
“I was looking for camaraderie of sport,” he said. “The tandem was a great opportunity to do that.”
Stephens and Christiansen set a national record in their first year of competition in 2019. Then, they waited out a pandemic and classification issue, often training separately from their homes in Colorado and West Virginia.
The patient journey led them to Glasgow for the ride of a lifetime.
“It was just such an awesome experience,” Christiansen said. “I really felt like we executed perfectly, like it just was a subconscious flow state. There wasn’t really a lot of nerves. We were focused, but we weren’t like nervous.”
“We really enjoyed it,” he said. “We got to enjoy the experience as a whole. Really take it in, really see it, really feel it.”
That is why both riders are so pumped for the Parapan American Games.
“In the Pan American region, we’re definitely one of the top bikes,” Christiansen said. “This is the first time we’re kind of looking at something like, ‘OK, we want to win this.’ We don’t just want to be there. We don’t want to be like one of the top. We really want to win the Pan American Games here.”
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 USParaCycling.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.