Most observers wouldn’t even notice him when he’s racing his bike.
K, the Athenry man has an unorthodox style. Many cyclists ride with their heels or toes pointing down, but never one of each.
Upon closer inspection, his saddle looks too high or too low depending on which side you look from. Lean closer and one foot appears to be smaller than the other. Zoom in again and you might notice that his left calf doesn’t have the same muscle as his right calf.
Still, Ronan Grimes can handle himself in the national peloton, he rode the Rás, so he couldn’t be turned off. Could he? “In my case, I never considered clubfoot a handicap because I was born with it,” explains the 36-year-old para-cycling road world champion. “I’ve always had it. When I was 11 or 12 they fused the metatarsals and my ankle was fused enough already so it doesn’t move much. I can’t run for more than a few minutes on it so the ball games were kind of out of place and then you worry about contact on it as well.
After that, Grimes, like many other disabled or handicapped youngsters, found himself giving up the sport altogether. “Once I had this operation, I stopped playing GAA,” he says. “I was an avid pitcher, but I was also a little intimidated, so I didn’t really miss it. I didn’t play any sports from my teens through college, but I would have always ridden a bike.
The bicycle was however a mode of transport, first traveling about a mile to school and then, when he moved to Dublin, continuing the tradition by cycling the 6km to Trinity College where he studied pharmacy.
The sport was completely off his radar until an internship saw him spend eight months working in Dungarvan, where he noticed a local group going out for laps on Sunday mornings and joined them one day on his new cycling bike.
“I had nothing else to do,” he said. “I saw the guys leaving the square on a Sunday morning and walked out with them. After a while they told me to come to the club league on a Wednesday night so I went to a couple of those. It was my first introduction to racing. It inspired me and I joined Orwell Wheelers when I returned to Dublin.
His first race in the A4 class earned him a sixth-place finish, but he admits it took a year to get another result. The following year he progressed to A3, but it was a decision to go for a bike fit that changed his life forever.
“I just did it more out of curiosity. At the time, I was really naive about anything that limited my cycling. But Aidan Hammond advised me to put wedges on my left shoe to compensate for my difference in leg length. I wore shoes of the same size. He advised me to wear different shoe sizes and adjusted my cleat positions. My left foot is size 6 and my right foot is size 9. I would have had an 18mm plastic wedge between the cleats and the sole of my left shoe originally, but over time through conditioning and to stretch I have a new insole in my left shoe which makes up for a lot of the difference now so I have the shim at 9mm.
“If you look, my left foot would be toe down and my right foot would be heel down. Because my legs are different lengths, I tried to pick a saddle height that’s not too low for the right or too high for the left but if you look at me from the right my saddle looks too low and if you look at me from the left it looks too high A lot of effort has been put into trying to compensate for this much as possible the gaps between my legs over the years.
Until then, Grimes admits he never thought about parasport.
“I remember the Paralympic Games were on TV when I was in Dungarvan. My roommate mentioned it to me but that’s the first time I realized what it was. At the time Aidan told me I should try para-cycling and while I was there he contacted Cathal Millar – who had competed in the London Paralympics and I went out for a ride with him. This sowed the seeds for eventually joining the para team. I had made a few friends at Orwell, but when I told them I was on the Paralympic team a few years later, they thought I was kidding.
“I think most people see Paralympic sports as people missing a leg or an arm, but it’s a graduated system and there are categories for everyone. C1 is for people with the most severe disability while C5 is very minor. In C5, all the top guys race at continental level. The guys are racing the Tour of Colombia, the Tour of Hungary… all the top ten would be racing at a very high level.
“At C5, Paralympic champion Kevin Le Cunff achieved top 10 results in Tro-Bro Leon and Paris-Camembert, true Coupe de France races. He is a very strong able-bodied rider and only if you know what you are looking for you might notice his handicap.
“C4 is the category I’m in, which is probably A1 or A2 level at home. I was A2 here for the last five years, but moved up to A1 this year.
“C2 and C1 are probably the ‘posters’ of para-cycling – guys you wonder how they can ride a bike with. They are missing two arms and a leg but they are still flying around the track at 45 km/h in pursuit.
“I think the visibility of the Paralympics is really important. I’m sure there are a lot of young people out there where there is a sport for them, but because of their disability or impairment they think there isn’t and they give it up. A lot of people like me give up sports when they’re younger and never get back into it. I guess I was lucky to get back to it.
“I had tried cycling and wanted to be competitive before I even discovered para-cycling, so I guess I always had the mentality of not seeing my clubfoot as a handicap or an impairment, but you would hope, if there was more awareness about it, that the younger generation will realize that there are sports out there for them. Hopefully that will keep someone in the sport a bit longer. I constantly watch the guys in the peloton when I run home. A lot of people don’t realize they have the right to do that. I’m sure I’m not the only one in the country.
Finding the courage to reach out to parasports is often the hardest part for those who may be eligible to get involved at any level, but Grimes says there’s no need to be afraid.
“You might think it’s an intimidating environment, but in the Paralympic community, everyone just wants to see people playing their sport and enjoying what they’re doing. Paracycling Ireland have a time trial league and you get people coming in and it’s their first time cycling. There is a level for everyone. You get people who just come over to meet like-minded people, have a cup of tea, and have a little fun. Whether it’s their first day on a bike or trying out for a national team. Do not be shy. People will help you. Try it. It is better to try to do something than not to do it.
Joining the Paralympic team has seen Grimes represent Ireland around the world and 2022 has been one of his best years yet, with European and World titles coming down the road. “I had a good base in the winter and did Rás Múmhan. I won the European Time Trial Championships in May, went home and did my first Rás Tailteann with Orwell I wasn’t hosting the race in any way but I think knowing that you can go deep into those races gives you the confidence for the para races that you have the strength to host those races at that time .
“I had some good races in July and then went to Canada where I finished second in a Para World Cup in Quebec the week before winning the world road race. not a great sprinter, but the worlds was a tough race and it came down to a long sprint, so I think a bit of general fitness and a bit of power came through.
Tomorrow, Grimes tackles the Para-cycling Track World Championships in Paris, where he hopes to get a feel for the velodrome ahead of the 2024 Paralympic Games.
“It will be nice to get to grips with the pits, the banks and to have a good power file of the track that you will hopefully be chasing on in two years. I have a flying 200m in the morning and qualifying for the pursuit in the afternoon. On the track, the pursuit is probably my best test. I’m not particularly the best at any of them, but I’m fine with all of them. In para-cycling there is an omnium where there is an overall ranking for all the events you can participate in, so I will do all of them with a view to getting a decent result in the omnium.
The Irish in action at this week’s Para-cycling Track World Championships in France.
WC3 Omnium – 200m Flying Start – Richael Timothy
MC4 Omnium – 200m Flying Start – Ronan Grimes
MC2 Omnium – 200m Flying Start – Chris Burns
MB 750m Team Sprint Qualifying – Martin Gordon and Eoin Mullen
WC3 500m time trial qualification – Richael Timothy
MC4 4km Individual Pursuit Qualifications – Ronan Grimes
MC2 1km Time Trial – Chris Burns
MB 1km time trial qualification – Martin Gordon and Eoin Mullen | Damien Vereker and Marcin Mizgajski
WB 3km individual pursuit qualifier – Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal
15k MC4 Scratch Race – Ronan Grimes
WC3 10k Scratch Race – Richael Timothy
WC3 3km Individual Pursuit Qualifying – Richael Timothy
MB 4km Individual Pursuit Qualifications – Damien Vereker and Marcin Mizgajski
MC2 3km Individual Pursuit Qualifying – Chris Burns
MC4 1km Time Trial Qualification – Ronan Grimes
MB Sprint qualifying – Martin Gordon and Eoin Mullen
MC2 15k Scratch Race – Chris Burns
Don’t miss ICycle in Wednesday’s Irish Independent and on Independent.ie