Next month, Clark Rachfal will race his bicycle 40 mph on a meandering highway course as part of a U.S. team in international competition.
Impressive enough, but then consider Rachfal, 30, has been legally blind since birth.
“It was kind of cool to get on a bike,” the Annapolis resident said. “I like to get, out go fast and be active.”
On Aug 29 and 31, Rachfal and his partner, Dave Swanson, 37, of Tucson, Ariz., will compete in tandem events for the International Cycling Union Para-cycling Road World Championships in Greenville, S.C.
Rachfal works as the stoker, pedaling in the back at an even speed. Swanson, the pilot, sits at the front, steers and directs Rachfal to navigate the obstacles ahead.
In the past eight years, the pair has won 18 national titles and several world championship medals.
Swanson was introduced to competitive tandem biking through a supervisor at work, but Rachfal first discovered the sport on a dare while studying abroad in Canberra, Australia, in 2004. A few friends suggested he go riding with them.
“I didn’t think there was any chance of them finding a tandem bike, so I agreed,” Rachfal said. “Two weeks later they found one, so I had to go.”
Rachfal learned to ride a bike as a child but quit because of diminishing vision. However, riding in tandem opened up new possibilities.
“It turned out to be a lot of fun. It was awesome to get out there for three days, camping out and just getting fresh air.”
Rachfal has a history of athleticism. He wrestled in high school and took up martial arts in college. In addition to cycling, he enjoys stand-up paddle boarding, golfing and surfing.
He met his cycling partner in 2006. Rachfal contacted the U.S. Association for Blind Athletes, which was holding an introductory racing camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Swanson had been competing as a solo cyclist since 2002 but was captivated by the cooperative aspect of tandem biking.
“It’s different in how it moves, how you need to coordinate with other people, and it’s fast,” he said. “You really need to be in sync with your partner. If you don’t have a common goal and approach, at some point you’ll have issues.”
Rachfal learned from Swanson, and both improved enough as a team to take silver in a national championship in 2007.
To his family, Rachfal is an inspiration.
“How many people get to live with their hero?” said his father, Ken. “I derive so much strength from him. I couldn’t do what he does in a million years.”
In South Carolina, Rachfal and Swanson will compete as one of two pairs representing America against 450 athletes from over 45 countries.
Rachfal and Swanson hope to qualify for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Rachfal plans to retire after that competition. Then again, plans could change.
“The 2020 games are in Tokyo, and I’d really like to visit Japan.”