The people of Cambridge probably do a double-take when they see Hannah van Kampen riding through town on a tandem bicycle, with one saddle empty.

“I do look a bit lonely,” van Kampen admits, chuckling.

What the Waikato townsfolk might not realise is that she’s off to pick up the “engine” of the bike – Emma Foy. And when they’re on the bike together, they are the fastest visually-impaired track cycling combination in the world.

Foy, who’s partially sighted, is a four-time world cycling champion. Van Kampen, the sighted pilot of the pair, won her maiden world title with Foy in the 3000m individual pursuit at the world Para cycling track champs, in the Netherlands in March.

What made their victory in Apeldoorn so remarkable was that they had been riding together, pedalling in synchronicity, for less than a year. And they did it at blistering speed – setting a new world record at sea level.

Now 30-year-old Foy and van Kampen, 25, want to do it all again, but on the Paralympic track in Tokyo next year – and bring home a gold medal that neither of them yet own.

At the last Paralympics, in Rio three years ago, Foy and her long-term pilot Laura Thompson won silver in the women’s B individual pursuit (B represents the blind/visually impaired classification), and bronze in the women’s road race.

But after three consecutive world title victories together, Thompson decided it was time to retire. Without a pilot guiding the way, Foy realised it was a good time to take a break from the bike.

So she spent 18 months studying law at the University of Waikato, and keeping up her fitness – any way other than on two wheels. Always a fitness fiend, Foy was a gym instructor when she first discovered tandem cycling six years ago.

“But the longer I was away from the bike, the more I wanted to go back to it,” Foy says. “I realised I really needed to do something competitive. And it made my comeback even better; I was refreshed and ready to go.”

On her return to international Para cycling last year, Foy finished fifth in the world in the pursuit; it was her pilot Nina Wollaston’s very first race on a tandem.

At a training camp back in Cambridge, Foy and van Kampen were teamed up – and the combo clicked immediately. It may have helped that they were already good mates.

As the stoker on the back, Emma Foy is the “engine” of the tandem, while pilot Hannah van Kampen controls the bike. Photo:

Van Kampen, who grew up in Hawke’s Bay, is a talented rider in her own right. She’s competed for New Zealand in overseas tours, and last year finished fourth in the time trial at the national road champs.

In 2016, she was invited to try out as a back-up tandem pilot for Foy, and ended up riding at the Rio Olympics with Amanda Cameron. They finished fourth in the individual pursuit, two places behind their Kiwi team-mates.

“Originally I thought I’d use tandem riding as a development for my own big races,” van Kampen says. “But it was way too much fun, so I stayed. I think I really like working closely with someone else, and sharing those experiences.”

Getting along when you’re working as one, to propel a bike at speeds of 70kmph around a track, must surely be an advantage?

“Well, we train together all day, and when we travel, we’re rooming together for weeks at a time. So it’s a lot easier if you like the person,” Foy says.

“I’ve been really lucky that every pilot I’ve worked with has been awesome. But it’s a professional relationship, and you don’t have to be best friends to make it work. Hannah and I are lucky we have a good friendship as well. It means there’s more chat when we’re out training on the road.”

Foy was born with albinism, which affects her eyesight. She loved sport at school in Dargaville, and excelled in karate. In 2013, when she was instructing a spin class at an Auckland gym, one of the gym members suggested she try Para cycling.

Within months of her first ride, she won a bronze medal in the time trial at the world Para cycling championships, with pilot Gabrielle Vermunt.

Now she has four world titles – and each one of them has had different challenges and a “different flavour”, Foy says.  

“Winning this one with Hannah was awesome, because we were a new pairing.” They were also working with a new coach, sports scientist Damian Wiseman. “Those were huge challenges for us to overcome, which made our success really satisfying. Plus our time was really fast.”

That time – 3m 25.787s – was the fastest ever recorded at sea level by a blind/visually impaired tandem. But Foy and Thompson still hold the official world record of 3m 23.328s – set at altitude, in Mexico five years ago.

Foy and van Kampen also won a bronze medal in the kilo time trial in Apeldoorn. 

Van Kampen admits she was blown away the first time she rode with Foy. “I remember I almost didn’t pedal, I was so shocked at how fast we were going. She has so much gas. It’s pretty special riding with her,” she says.

As the ‘stoker’ on the back, it’s Foy’s job to pedal hard and match the pace of van Kampen, who’s also changing gears and steering the bike. Foy can feel a change of pace through her pedals.

Emma Foy and Hannah van Kampen sign the world champion winners’ jersey after their 3km individual pursuit victory in March. Photo:

As soon as the cyclists returned home from the worlds, they switched their attention to the road season. Last weekend, Foy and van Kampen won both the 24km time trial and the road race in their classification at the road nationals in Timaru.

They head to Belgium next week for a Para cycling World Cup, building up to the world road champs back in the Netherlands in September, and ultimately the Paralympics a year later – where they hope to ride four events on both the track and the road.

Foy knows she’s capable of adding a world road title to her collection. In 2015, she and Thompson were a gut-wrenching 0.03s short of the gold medal in the women’s time trial.

And van Kampen prefers riding on the road. “It’s more fun,” she says. “We do a lot more talking.”

On the track, van Kampen speaks just one word to Foy – “sit” – when they are on the start-line. But in a road race, they talk to each other all the time.

“Hannah is relaying what’s happening, like if there’s an attack, And I’m relaying how I’m feeling,” Foy says. “You get a lot of information from listening too – I can hear what the other riders are saying, what gears they’re choosing.

“When they’re struggling, Hannah might look over and see them hurting, where I can hear how hard they’re breathing.”

Together, they’ve worked out how to discreetly decide when it’s their time to make a break from the peloton. They’re not revealing how.

Cycling is virtually a full-time job for Foy and van Kampen, who train at the Avantidrome and on Cambridge’s cycling-friendly roads. Both women are doing a university paper or two to keep busy in the down times; van Kampen hopes to eventually become a primary school teacher.

“We get funding depending on our results at the world championships each year, so we’re okay for the moment. But we know we have to keep performing,” Foy says.

“At the moment, we’re living the dream.”

* New Zealand’s 209 Paralympians are being celebrated with the presentation of their team numbers for the first time. The first Paralympic pins were presented to Auckland-based athletes last night; Foy and van Kampen will receive theirs in a ceremony in Hamilton next month. 

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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