published Sunday, May 25th, 2014

Para power in Chattanooga: Handcyclists compete today in USA Pro Cycling National Championships

Racers in the the Handcycle USA Cycling Professional Road National Championships take off from the starting line in downtown Chattanooga in this 2013 photo.
Racers in the the Handcycle USA Cycling Professional Road National Championships take off from the starting line in downtown Chattanooga in this 2013 photo.
Photo by Doug Strickland.
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Hats off for hands-on cyclists.

As pro cyclists race through the streets of Chattanooga today, U.S. Paralympics is continuing a collaboration with USA Cycling that began in 2010, when it included handcycling in the national pro championships.

"There really is no difference from our perspective, in the sense that it is bike racing; it just happens to be a different type of equipment that they're using," said Ian Lawless, director of high performance paralympic cycling with the U.S. Olympics Committee.

And USA Cycling is treating the handcyclists the same as any of the other athletes, running their competition at the same time in front of the same crowds as the pro riders, Lawless said, which helps showcase the disabled athletes and helps raise awareness for paracycling.

"It's a great opportunity for us to help people rebuild their lives through sport, whether they're disabled veterans or civilians, but it's been a particularly great partnership with various military organizations in this country to where we can help disabled men and women who've been injured in combat, or through their service, and paracycling is a great way for us to work with them," Lawless said.

"I'd say about 20 percent of the athletes participating at the events this weekend are military."

And Lawless said he expects about half of the criterium field to be military guys.

According to Outdoor Chattanooga, close to 100 handcyclists signed up for the Saturday time trial or the handcycling criterium national championships. That event is today at 12:30 p.m., between the USA Cycling women's road race, which starts at 9 a.m., and the men's road race at 1:30.

The handcyclists in town this weekend are competing for qualifying points to take part in the 2016 Paralympic Games and the 2014 Paracycling World Championships, which will be Aug. 28 through Sept. 1 in Greenville, S.C.

The Paralympic Games are "the second-largest sporting event in the world, behind the Olympic games," Lawless said. "It takes place three weeks after the Olympic Games, by the same organizing committee at the same venue."

About 35 handcyclists will compete in the criterium that begins at the pro cycling start/finish line at 12:30 p.m., Lawless said.

The handcyclists will race on a one-mile loop for 30 minutes, and will end on the winner's final lap, Lawless said. In order to determine the winner, lap times are averaged, and once the judges have an average lap time, they can figure out when the final laps are coming up and who the winner is.

"It's a race designed to be kind of a crowd-pleasing event on a short course, generally speaking in a downtown area," Lawless said. "It's not an Olympic or Paralympic event, and that's why I say it's kind of an American form of bike racing that's very popular, where it's fast, it's quick, and it's easy to watch and it's easy to understand. You know, first one across the line wins."

Within paracycling there are four "impairment groups," Lawless said. This includes the wheelchair athletes who ride handcycles, cerebral palsy and brain injured athletes who ride upright tricycles, visually impaired athletes who act as "stokers" on the back of a tandem bike and locomotor athletes who ride a standard two-wheeled bike, usually with some adaptation to support their disability.

Lawless said that while many people may view cycling as something that's "nice, but not necessary," for his paracyclists, the sport is "an absolute necessity."

"It improves their overall health, fitness, cardiovascular health and really improves morale. Particularly if you've suffered some sort of traumatic injury, cycling is a great way to just keep your life moving forward in a positive way," Lawless said.

"And I think what ends up happening for a lot of our athletes who have disabilities is that they start cycling as a form of rehabilitation, and then they get that competitive bug, and then they want to be a bike racer just like any able-bodied person would."

Contact staff writer Alex Harris at aharris@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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