U.S. veterans will show up strong during cycling’s Paralympic selection trial series
Cyclists representing the Paralyzed Veterans of America Racing (PVAR) Team have been steadily increasing their cadences by cranking on home trainers and cross-training on outdoor trails, but two of its newcomers are more than ready to hit the road during the U.S. Paralympics Cycling Open.
The two-day event, April 17-18, will send riders spinning around the curves of the Cummings Research Park in Huntsville, Ala.
Twenty military veterans will ride in time trials and road racing among approximately 100 athletes competing for final slots to represent Team USA at this summer’s Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
Navy veteran Jackie Jones, 52, of North Carolina, along with teammate and Marine Corps veteran Antonio Del Rio, 62, of Chicago, each started their cycling careers during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and are still learning the limits of both the bike and their bodies.
Del Rio (level L1 spinal-cord injury and H4 classification) didn’t participate in adaptive sports after an accident during his service paralyzed him at age 19. Now, a great-grandfather, “COVID was a perfect time for me to start doing something with my time,” he said.
Jones is provisionally classified as H4 and will be powering his TOPEND Force-R bike in the 9.3-mile time trial and the 7.5-mile road race, which was motivation for the former 5K runner and a wheelchair basketball player to get the miles in.
“This sport is creating a monster in me. I am going to make it up the hills or go backwards,” he said.
A Virtual Start
Limiting contact with one another meant PVAR members met with coaches and each other over Zoom video conferencing for two hours, six days per-week. Using a virtual reality simulator called RGT Cycling, plus the Zwift cycling app, athletes uploaded a GPS map of the Huntsville course and challenged themselves and others. Jones even completed his first virtual Great American Ride, logging a total of 5,548 miles in 2020.
The pandemic also forced the team to take its mission of mentorship to a new level.
“This year has opened up a whole new genre of adaptive cycling that will remain for us even after COVID-19 is in our rear-view mirror,” said team director Jody Shiflett.
Shiflett also met the challenges of obtaining bikes from local Department of Veterans Affairs rehab centers and made sure each participant had a smart interactive turbo trainer that keeps up with a cyclist’s wattage, power and heart rate and helps them improve via Garmin.
“I was totally confused with this technology at first and I did not want to be like the kids getting frustrated with video games, but I got hooked,” said Del Rio, who will be using a Top End Force G-style handcycle he’s had for six months.
Jason Puckett is one of the event’s sponsor representatives and president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama, Inc. Puckett found cycling by competing in Iron Man competitions and lost a brother who was a paraplegic.
“I was always amazed at what [my brother] was able to accomplish independently,” he said. “I know how hard it is to train every day, and that reminds me we are more capable than we think we are.”
“We come from all different walks of life and branches [of the military] and we’ve all got different injuries, but the whole group inspires me,” Jones said. “I want to be a ray of sunshine so that other people push themselves, too.”
In addition to opportunities to participate within the USA Cycling and US Handcycling Federation’s sanctioned events, PVAR holds two high-performance camps each year. Most recently, members, including Del Rio, got their first chance to get outside and grease their wheels in an off-road setting in Pocahontas, Va.
“I was nervous thinking I was going to ride with a bunch of crazy cyclers because I’ve seen videos of crashes, but I didn’t know I was going to enjoy this as much as I have,” Del Rio said.
About riding in Huntsville, he added, “Maybe if I’d have done this 30 years ago, I would be one of those guys going to the Olympics, but I guess it is never too late to surprise myself.”
Executive Director of Cummings Research Park Erin Koshut is confident this event will go smoothly for all athletes involved.
“Huntsville is known for its ability to work together and be part of the solution,” Koshut said. “After all, we built the Saturn V and can’t wait to give athletes a big Rocket City welcome.”
Spectator information and schedules can be found at http://cummingsresearchpark.com/USParalympicsCycling/.
Learn more about PVA Racing by visiting https://pva.org/adaptive-sports/meet-the-racing-team/