OCBC Cycle: Tan Hun Boon moves from accident victim to para-cycling champion

In September, Tan Hun Boon made his debut at the Asean Para Games in Kuala Lumpur and created history by becoming the first Singaporean to clinch a medal in the men's kilometre (C1, C2, C3) race.
In September, Tan Hun Boon made his debut at the Asean Para Games in Kuala Lumpur and created history by becoming the first Singaporean to clinch a medal in the men's kilometre (C1, C2, C3) race.ST PHOTO: BENJAMIN SEETOR

SINGAPORE - It was the day of his first race, but para-cyclist Tan Hun Boon was struggling to put on his jersey and barely knew the names of his bicycle parts.

The 41-year-old's goal was just to complete the National Para Cycling Road Race & Intl Invitational (C) in March last year.

But Tan, who had his left leg amputated after a road accident in 2011, surpassed his own expectations to claim the gold.

"I was quite surprised because I had just started out," said Tan, who had picked up single-bike cycling only a month before his race. "This win gave me motivation to train harder because I thought I could actually get somewhere with cycling."

He went on to win an individual time trial title at the National Road Championships & ITT (C) two months later.

In September, he made his debut at the Asean Para Games (APG) in Kuala Lumpur and created history by becoming the first Singaporean to clinch a medal in the men's kilometre (C1, C2, C3) race. He clocked 1min 48.672sec to win bronze in the C2 class.

The events are classified according to disability levels: A lower number represents a more severe disability.

After his APG success, Tan was invited to be one of the guests of honour at the OCBC Cycle in November, flagging off the first wave of The Sportive Ride.

He later joined the 2,600 people who participated in the sold-out 23km The Straits Times Ride and said: "It was quite fun, but there were so many people so I needed to be careful and take it easy."

He hopes to be back for this year's edition on the May 5-6 weekend and make new friends as "cycling is a very friendly community".

Tan's bronze-medal feat in Malaysia also landed him considerable media attention, giving him the courage to open up about the accident. He started giving talks and conducting motivational workshops for schools, private companies and even the Singapore Armed Forces.

"When the media picked up my story after the win, it was the first time I had shared about my condition," said Tan, who conducts average of two sessions per month. "People were sending me encouraging messages, telling me they were inspired by my story and it made me realise this is something that can help others."

A former para-canoeist, Tan's brush with cycling was "purely by chance". After the accident, he picked up para-canoeing in 2012 and was involved in the sport for a few years.

In early 2016, he bumped into Para Cycling Federation of Singapore president Christian Stauffer after a training session at MacRitchie Reservoir, and the para-cycling team coach encouraged him to join the team for the APG.

"The first thing he asked me was if I could cycle, and I wondered, 'How can I cycle with just one leg?'" Tan recalled. "He told me it was possible and showed me some videos, but I didn't think much about it back then."

A few months later, Tan did hand-cycling as a form of cross-training to gain upper body strength for canoeing. But he soon fell in love with the new sport and decided to compete at the APG.

He switched to single-bike cycling in February last year as there were fewer competitors in that category, increasing his chances of a podium finish.

Although he has remained active after the accident, relying solely on his right leg to pedal posed a tough challenge initially. "When I tried it for the first time, I cycled for 30 seconds and told myself I was done," he said.

He had no difficulties balancing on the bike but struggled to get used to the pedalling motion. Said Tan: "When you pull up with your right leg, usually you will push down with your left, but I didn't have that. I needed to pull up and push down with the same leg and it really exhausted my muscle.

"It took a lot of training to build up my stamina and strength."

There were also several psychological barriers he had to overcome, such as the fear of falling and the dangers of cycling on the road.

"When I saw them (other para-cyclists) fall, I also felt uncertain and started to question if I could really do this," he said. "And when it came to training on the road, there was this mental barrier. I wasn't comfortable cycling with all these heavy vehicles surrounding me. It took awhile."

Tan is training for the Singapore International Para-cycling Cup next month and aims to compete at the next APG in 2019. While he enjoys competitive cycling as it gives him concrete goals to work towards, the sport is also an avenue for him to meet fellow para-athletes.

Said Tan: "I enjoy cycling because it forces me to get out of the house, to go out and socialise with other people. It was the same reason why I joined para-canoeing and also one of the reasons why I left in the end, because I was the only para-canoeist training back then so I felt quite lonely."

All slots for the 23km The Straits Times Ride have been sold out. Those who have missed out can still join the 42km The Sportive Ride. Registration closes on April 16.