Juan Jose ‘Juanjo’ Mendez started cycle racing when he was 14, but in 1992 a motorbike accident brought his career to a sudden stop. “I was pronounced clinically dead. I was in a coma for twenty days. When I woke up, I didn’t realise I was missing an arm and a leg. I only realised when I sat up. After a period of despair, I decided I had to accept it, period. I told myself to get on with my life.” His dark eyes shine as his face creases into an easy smile. It was two years before he was able to ride again. In the 17 years since then he has become an international cycling champion, a Paralympic hero and the leader of a cycle club called Piratas – the Pirates.
We’re no different to other cycling teams; the only thing that might set us apart is the good energy between us. We’re always joking around,” says Juanjo. But the Piratas take their riding seriously. “Motivation is most important thing,” says Juanjo, “more than anything. We train every day. Many people who have seen us riding have decided to try it themselves and now some of them are here riding with us. I hope we can motivate more people to get out of the house and onto their bikes.”
Bernat acts as a coach for Juanjo. “I have known Juanjo since I was a boy. When I was 13 he taught me how to ride a bicycle. We’ve been together all our lives. We were friends before the accident. We just wanted to ride again like anyone else, just for fun at the weekends. We never imagined we could reach a cycling competition, because of his disability. I’ve been telling Juanjo for the last four or five years, you’ve reached the top. At your age, with maximum disability, you’re not going to get any faster. But year after year, he proves me wrong. He just keeps getting faster.” Juanjo now has six Olympic medals to his name.
Elisa is another member of Piratas crew. She returned to cycling only recently, after having lost a leg in a traffic accident several years ago.One day, she was in her car waiting at a red light, sat there feeling sorry for herself, when Juanjo – one arm, one leg – raced past her. Elisa said to the friend sat beside her: “If I ever feel sorry for myself again, remind me of this moment”. Within a few weeks she had tracked down Juanjo and the Piratas and got back on two wheels. Like most of the team she races without any prosthesis. After just nine months of training she was came within a tenth of a second of winning bronze at the Spanish Cycling Championships in 2012.
The Piratas ride hard – Jaunjo will do 100km or more each day. He might need help putting his streamlined helmet on – it’s hard to adjust the strap with only one hand. But see him leaning into the first corner as he races round the velodrome, wheels a blur above the inside line, torso low to the bars, and he’s in his element.
Photography by Paulo Martelli (paolomartelli.com) / Adapted from an interview by Daria Bogdanska & Oriol Hernandez / Translation by David Corkle / Juanjo and The Piratas are the subject of a genuinely inspiring documentary called ‘Imparables’ (Unstoppables). Check it out at unstoppablesdocumentary.com