Chester Triplett could choose to dwell on the rare eye disease that’s causing him to lose his vision. He’d rather focus on the unlikely circumstances that led to a productive and unusual pairing.
“It’s really cool how it happened,” said the 35-year-old cycling enthusiast from Mooresville.
Last March, “I was supposed to go to a world championship selection race in Carson, California, but it didn’t work out. That Saturday we had inclement weather here, so I went to the studio to train with my coach and some good friends I train with.”
Before long, he found himself competing against a stranger – Reuben Howden of Huntersville, who’s been racing for about 30 years. “We were pretty competitive that day in the studio on single bikes,” Triplett said. “You know how competitive athletes are. I think he did beat me up that climb that day, but he didn’t beat me by much.”
Howden laughed at the memory. “I remember asking someone after we were done, ‘Who is that Chester guy?’”
A year later, they make up a dynamic cycling tandem called R-5 Para Racing that may be more improbable than the series of events that put them together. Triplett can’t read books, recognize faces or drive.
About 12 years ago while serving in the Army at Fort Sill, Okla., he began experiencing symptoms of Stargardt’s disease, an incurable genetic eye disorder that’s a form of macular degeneration. “I don’t have any central vision,” he said. “Central vision is where we get our visual acuity, like reading textbooks – anything that requires fine detail.”
But Howden saw something special in Triplett the day they met – a power and determination that could make for a championship-level team. The two have placed high in a couple of national events and won a few regional ones.
“It’s rewarding,” said Howden, an associate professor in the department of kinesiology at UNC Charlotte. “To be honest, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking, ‘Isn’t this great that I’m helping a visually impaired person?’ It’s just me and Chester going out and riding. He’s a great guy. We’ve become great friends.”
Both are low-key about the unusual challenges they face as a team on the track.
“The tandem team is a bit like a marriage,” said the 44-year-old Howden, who had some tandem experience in the United Kingdom 20 years ago. “It’s either going to work or it’s not. Your personalities have to fit, and you have to be two people who are willing to compromise on what they would normally do on a single bike.”
Triplett’s impairment makes trust even more important for a tandem: “Chester’s life is in my hands a lot of the time,” Howden said. “It’s a big responsibility for me as the tandem pilot. So the person in the back, the stoker, has to have a lot of trust in the pilot.
“The stoker doesn’t necessarily know what’s going on, so I need to be able to communicate that. Otherwise, we’ll be running into the backs of people. … If I need to go faster, I say, ‘Push on,’ and I’ll get more power from Chester – and then I say ‘OK,’ and we’re done.”
Triplett said: “I have some sight, so I can provide some feedback. But it’s largely up to him to see where our competitors are. In terms of driving the bike, it does require a lot of coordination because we have to get out of the saddle quite a bit.”
Howden said the two “are very much equal athletes on that bike. Just because I have control of the steering and the brakes on the tandem doesn’t make me the boss. He will give me instructions sometimes, which really helps me. We talk to each other.”
They train 10 to 12 hours a week on the bike and two to three hours a week doing strength training. Their first event of 2015 will be April’s World Cup selection race in Montreal, followed by the Paralympic Road National Championships in Chattanooga, Tenn., in May.
Part of their schedule also involves giving back. They recently raised $800 for the Central Association for the Blind & Visually Impaired during a “lap challenge” at the Rock Hill Giordana Velodrome: “You do as many laps as you can on a 250-meter track in 21/2 hours,” Howden said. “We did just over 700 laps.”
Triplett said the pair hope to race together through next year. “I’m trying to return to grad school to finish my master’s degree so I can have some kind of normalcy in my life,” he said.
With the help of friends and the duo’s coach, Sarah Matchett, he is very much enjoying the ride. “This eye disease has changed my life forever, but through education and racing the tandem, I’ve been able to rebuild my life.”
Reid Creager is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Reid? Email him at email@example.com.
On a roll
Here are the 2014 results from the R-5 Para Racing tandem team of Reuben Howden and Chester Triplett:
▪ Third place in time trials, fourth place in race at the USA Cycling Para-cycling Road National Championships in Madison, Wisc.
▪ Silver medals in the 4k pursuit competition and 1k time trials at the National Paralympic Cycling Track Championships in Carson, Calif.
▪ Series gold medal winners in the tandem category at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
▪ Won the SC/NC Track State Championships at the Rock Hill Giordana Velodrome.
▪ Won the N.C. state time trials championship in Lexington.