Para-Cycling - Where athleticism and inspiration meet
Fighting back tears of joy, but not succeeding, a rider told me, “I’m happy for my victory. My victory is for my mom, sister, my family, and my president. They gave me my power.”
He went on to tell me how in the final meters of the race there was some contact between him and another rider, which almost knocked him down. However he remained upright and sprinted to the win.
Another rider who lives in the Greenville area and has the advantage of knowing the parcours talked about how the course suited a rider who could generate a lot of power. “I’m more of a climber,” explained the slightly-built rider.
I heard stories of tactics and alliances. Technology was all over the place from aero-helmets to wheels, carbon fiber designed machines to electronic shifting. One rider told me how his equipment via an onboard computer was constantly making calculations so he could perform at his optimum.
Racers and coaches in matching team kits huddled together in post-race briefings figuring out what went right or wrong during the race.
In the background announcers called the action letting the crowd know who was crossing the finish line as well as giving time splits. A famous and recently retired professional cyclist dropped by to show his appreciation.
Competing were one hundred riders from eight different countries - each with their own story.
I was doing my usual job at a finish line of a UCI bike race, gathering post-race riders’ interviews, taking photos, and sleuthing out stories. But this wasn’t Liège-Bastogne-Liège. I was in my hometown of Greenville, South Carolina at the UCI Para-Cycling Open.
This event was the only UCI para-cycling race on the American racing calendar and the first time since 2009 that there had been a UCI para-cycling race in the States. The race is open to anyone with defined disabilities such as blind or visually impaired, cerebral palsy, amputees, and wheelchair athletes. Some rode tandems as a stoker, handcycles which they propelled with their arms, or adapted bicycles which would allow them to shift and brake with one hand. The athletes competed against others who have the same type of disability.
Throughout the weekend on the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (known to us locals as ICAR) the athletes competed in the time trial and the next day in a road race. If “ICAR” seems somewhat familiar, for the past seven years the US Professional Time Trial Championships have been held on at this location. The para-cycling organization utilized much of the same course for their time trial and road race.
The Greenville UCI Open event was a test race for the 2014 Para-Cycling World Championships that are going to use the same course. During the past weekend over one hundred athletes from eight different countries came to South Carolina to compete. Among the medals and flowers were examples of people who faced physical challenges and didn’t let that define them. Instead they conquered and overcame.
Much like their professional able-bodied counterparts these riders have Olympic aspirations. Venezuelan racer Victor Hugo Garrido, who became emotional as he recalled his victory and its significance, is aiming for the 2016 Para-Olympics in Brazil.
For others, Olympics aren’t on the radar, but they were on the start line because they enjoy the competitive nature of sport.
American and South Carolinian Aaron Trent and spent two years at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado chasing the dream. Now he’s back in the Southeast, working, but still racing and dropping people on the local training rides.
The constant theme I heard from spectators was how awe inspiring the riders were - from the first place finisher to the lanterne rouge. Each one had overcome so much which puts problems into perspective.
My Irish grandfather had lost his right forearm while serving as a captain in the merchant marine. My fondest memories are of him using his pincher claw to point out on a map where he’d sailed. When we went out he had a more “formal” gloved hand that he’d screw onto his stub. As an eight-year old, I thought it was cool.
So here I was full circle; I’m looking at the technological advances in some of these prosthetic devices (full disclosure: I’m a total tech nerd) blown away at what is possible and how they work.
Racer Bryant Young told me how a lot of the technology was “home grown.” Sure his prosthetic leg was the Shimano Di2 of limbs with the capacity to make on the fly adjustments to his gait. However, as that leg doesn’t supply any power he concocted a handmade stationary carbon fiber mount in the triangle of his bike that he attached his leg to using a clipless pedal cleat. You know what they say about ingenuity - it’s the birthplace of invention.
I was also taken back with jaw dropping admiration of the athleticism: full-out sprints by riders with one leg, a tandem with a blind stoker taking a turn at over 40 miles per hour. Once again - witnessing this can only make you realize that some problems in the grand scheme of things are insignificant.
While the US Pro road race and time trial have relocated to Chattanooga, Tennessee for the next couple of years, I’m glad to see that championship cycling hasn’t completely abandoned South Carolina. It was a successful weekend of racing and in 2014 the para-cycling world championships will bring fierce cycling competition to back to Greenville.
I left the course with a new appreciation of what these athletes accomplish. I expected to focus more of my column on snarky Liège-Bastogne-Liège running-panda comments, or how Omega Pharma - Quick Step and BMC Racing Team, both squads for the early season, have had an embarrassing spring campaign. Hell, I was ready to rail against Thor Hushovd and how he’s gone from world champion and Tour de France stage winner to pack filler. I was even going to insinuate in my column that Levi Leipheimer had put a voodoo hex on his old team as revenge for being fired late last year.
No, I’m going to stay away from that snarkiness and say that watching these amazing athletes was inspirational. It was a great weekend watching them compete. However, I really do think Leipheimer has cursed Omega Pharma-Quick Step...