About 10 minutes before the wheelchair racers start the Boston Marathon tomorrow, a dozen
other wheels will head down the road. Four handcyclists, riding arm-powered
three-wheelers that look like recumbent tricycles, will ride the course in an
exhibition. Lynne Tolman's bicycling column archives
The marathon handcyclists are renegades in the athletes-with-disabilities establishment, which is working to include the emerging sport in sanctioned bicycle competition.
"We think cycling is the appropriate venue for handcycling, not running," said Paul DePace, chairman of the board of Wheelchair Sports USA. Handcycles have a chain drive and gears, like bikes, while racing wheelchairs are push-driven one-speeds.
Twelve handcyclists are signed up for next month's U.S. Disabled Sports Team cycling camp in Colorado, and handcyclists will ride an exhibition at the World Cycling Championships for the Disabled in Colorado Springs in September. Last summer the U.S. Cycling Federation sanctioned a hancycling exhibition race at the Masters National Road Championships in Tallahassee, Fla.
But some handcyclists want to run with the wheelchair crowd. In San Francisco last year, three handcyclists sued to get in to the marathon and won a temporary restraining order allowing it. The lawsuit is pending.
"We're going the same speed as the racing wheelchairs, who are already in the race, and we're the same kind of people who use racing wheelchairs -- people whose legs don't work," said paraplegic Robert DiGiulio of Redding, Calif., head of the 125-member Crank Chair Racing Association and a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "In the races that exist now, this is where we fit best."
DiGiulio will be cranking in tomorrow's event, along with handcyclists David Cornelson from Pennsylvania, Bill Shea from Illinois and John Frank from California.
Guy Morse, race director of the Boston Marathon, watched the handcycling exhibition in the Los Angeles Marathon this year and said he is "not convinced it belongs with running."
However, when handcyclists asked to be in the Boston race, "we tried to be as inclusive as we could," Morse said, "so the people in the federations can see and can decide where this sport belongs."
Ultimately, the governing body of the sport decided upon will have to decide the rules of handcycling (is drafting allowed?), who is eligible (do you have to be physically unable to pedal with your legs, or just someone who'd rather use arm power?) and how to classify riders (by severity of disability, like amputee bicyclists? by age, skill and experience, like able-boded bicyclists?).
DePace reports Wheelchair Sports USA is making progress in talks with the USCF on issues such as these, and Morse hopes answers will be worked out before the San Francisco case goes to trial. Neither Wheelchair Sports USA nor the American Handcycle Association is a party to the San Francisco lawsuit.
"I don't believe handcycling ultimately does belong in a marathon," said John Gardner, founder of the American Handcycle Association, which has about 220 members. However, marathon courses offer good terrain for cycling, "and the infrastructure is already there" for competition, he said.
Peter Paulding of Plymouth, head of the International Paralympic Committee's cycling subcommittee, foresees handcycling's integration with bicycling worldwide. "I'm hopeful we could have medal status in the 1999 USA championships, and I'm confident we could have it by the 2002 Worlds (for the disabled) and the 2004 Paralympics," he said.
Bike racing's willingness to integrate handcycling is great, DiGiulio said, but he predicts it will be difficult and will end up serving only elite athletes. "We're going about half the speed of bike racers, so they'd have to have separate heats and separate divisions for small numbers," he said. "I'm looking at how you allow greater participation. (Running competition) is where people can go in their own towns."
Spectator-friendly marathons like Boston's provide terrific exposure for the abilities of the physically impaired, but a cycling vs. running division in the small pool of handcyclists "could actually be negative for handcycling," said Paul Curley of Taunton, director of cycling programs for World TEAM, a promoter of athletics for people with disabilities.
"In my opinion, if you can ride a handcycle, you can ride a wheelchair," Curley said. So for handcyclists to demand to participate in running events "is like someone who can run saying 'I'd rather ride a bicycle,' " he said.
DiGiulio argues that the bent-forward wheelchair position is painful for him, while reclining in his "crank chair" is not, so handcycling is the way to accommodate his disability and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Rory McCarthy, a handcyclist from Bath, Maine, doesn't buy that argument. If you have a knee problem and can't take the pounding of running, he asks, should you be allowed to do the marathon on Rollerblades? "I don't think so," McCarthy concludes.
DiGiulio also says "exhibition" status isn't good enough. "ADA requires (wheelchair) access to restaurants, so they have a ramp," he explains. "But what these marathons are doing is like a restaurant saying, 'You can eat on the patio, and maybe we'll build a ramp next year.' We want to eat in the dining room with the big boys."
The best handcycling time in the LA Marathon was about 1 hour, 30 minutes, and no one knows what the speeds will be on the hillier course here. The handcyclists start at 11:35 a.m.
The New England Mountain Bike Association has two new chapters in Central Massachusetts. Wachusett NEMBA is focusing on Leominster State Forest, the Midstate Trail and the Fitchburg and Gardner areas. The contact is Rich Donoghue (978-840-3269). A trail maintenance day is scheduled for May 3 in Leominster State Forest.
MetroWest NEMBA (contact Jeff Gallo, 508-877-2028) covers areas from Douglas to Boylston to Medfield, including the popular mountain biking trails at Upton State Forest, Callahan State Park in Marlboro and Framingham, and "Vietnam" in Milford and Holliston.
"Vietnam" is bikers' nickname for the Upper Charles Headwaters Area, a mosaic of public and private land with miles of challenging trails. The nonprofit Upper Charles Conservation Inc. (PO Box 5823, Holliston, MA 01746) is working to protect recreational access as development encroaches.
Callahan in particular gets a lot of use, and "we want to give back more," said NEMBA president Philip Keyes, in the way of trail maintenance and rider education. For more information about NEMBA events and programs throughout New England, call 800-57-NEMBA or visit the Web site, http://www.nemba.org/.
Looking for a good used bike? The Big Event, a biannual bicycle and sporting goods tag sale run by several Massachusetts bike clubs, takes place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
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