The City of Rome, Ga. hosted world class handcycle racing in late April at the 5th Annual Clocktower Classic. This year's event is part of the U.S. Handcycling Series, and also a received a P1 designation on the UCI's international calendar - making it the only U.S. event for 2009 where participants could earn UCI points.
The Greater Rome Convention and Visitor's bureau, with help from Coosa Valley Credit Union, BID, Harbin Clinic, U.S. Handcycling, and UCI, rolled out the red carpet for three days of racing that included a 13-kilometer time trial, 50 kilometer road race, and 40 minute downtown criterium. All three races delivered challenging courses to an elite field of 28 athletes, who thrilled the local community with world class racing.
Although most of the participants were racers hailing from the USA, athletes from South Africa and Canada gave the event an international flair. With the added designation as a UCI race, athletes were exposed to the new international racing rules for the first time, and all bikes were inspected by UCI officials. The verdict: There is a lot of work to be done by handcycle manufacturers to bring equipment in to compliance per the new UCI rules.
The week started with Wednesday's time trial, where current U.S. Handcycling Series leaders David Randall (Paralyzed Veterans) and Monica Bascio (USHF / Invacare) continued their early season form with wins in the Men's HCB and Women's HCC categories, respectively. Kansas City's Brian Mitchell looked sharp in the Men's HCC race as did Carlos Moleda - making an impressive return to racing this year. In the kneeling category, Alejandro Albor showed he is back on form (perhaps benefiting from a recent move to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs) with the best overall time on the day: 22:33 (35 kph). Canada's Mark Beggs took an impressive 2nd place in the Men's HCB race, while the biggest kneeling field in history was very tight, with 2-5 place all finishing within the same minute. Tom Kahler proudly showed off his new HCA classification with a win in that category, and the 55+ field of David Swaim, Joe Dowling, and Dennis Clark raced for bragging rights.
The results sheet for Friday's 50km road race (29km for HCA) looked very different from the previous day, which means only one thing: Competition in the US is getting better every year! While Bascio cruised to another women's win, all other categories were closely contested with sprint finishes. Krige Schabort (Invacare / Top End) broke away early with Albor, and narrowely missed victory in a sprint finish....followed not too far behind by Invacare / Top End's Chris Peterson and Scott McNeice, who just edged out Dane Pilon (Achilles) to round out the top 3 in the kneeling class. The big man, Brian Mitchell, showed more dominance in the HCC longseat race by outsprinting Moleda and Rafael Ibarra (Quickie) for his 2nd win in as many days, and Leon Bostick bested Kahler for a trade in wins in the HCA race. But no finish was more exciting - and rewarding - than the men's HCB race where a hotly contested sprint between Beggs, Randall, and Todd Richardson (CSH / Invacare) produced a surprise result. Following a miscalculation by Randall who began sprinting at the 1 kilometer to go sign, Todd Richardson remained patient and outfoxed Randall and Beggs at 100 meters for his first-ever win! Richardson has been racing for 9 years, and the victory was welcomed: "I've been feeling good this year, and I'm glad to finally reap some reward for all the hard work." he said following the race. Finishing towards the back end of the field were newcomers Michael Parker (North Carolina) and Ryan Barnett (Duluth, GA). Parker, a triathlete, was happy with his performance: "I'm glad I got to see what the fast guys are doing these days...now I know what to work on." Barnett - a former professional bike racer -- had a similarly positive attitude in his first serious handcycle race, considering he has been injured less than one year: "That course was tough, and I have a ton of respect for these guys...hills that seemed small and insignificant on my road bike seem like mountains in a handcycle....this is a tough sport!"
Friday night's criterium featured the handcycling race as the main event in front of a great local crowd. The race was also "integrated" and featured two categories for able-bodied racers as well....but it was the handcycle race that produced one of the most thrilling sprint finishes in the history of bicycle racing: Krige Schabort had been lurking near the front of the pack all week, but had yet to reach the top of the podium. After a huge lead group that still included 6 racers on the final lap, Schabort came out of the final turn in the best position, shifted in to his highest gear and looked poised for a solid win. Unbeknownst to the South African - racing on the inside line - Alejandro Albor was winding up his 56 x 11 with about 250 meters to go...and he was on the outside. It takes Albor a while to get such a huge gear up to speed, and Schabort had no idea there was anyone near as he crossed the line and began to raise his arms for the victory salute...but it was not to be...as Albor blasted by him with just centimeters to spare, and won the day in front of the amazed fans. In the HCB race, Mark Beggs decided he was ready for the top step of the podium, and took no chances, breaking away from Randall, Richarson and 2008 Paralympian, Matt Updike of Denver (Invacare / Top End). The Canadian used lapped traffic to put away a lot of distance every lap and won by over minute over the Americans. Meanwhile, Carlos Moleda (CAF) bested Mitchell in the HCC longseat race, firmly planting himself atop the series leaderboard in that category. Along with Rafael Ibarra, Moleda and Mitchell should show us some great racing during the remainder of the season. With the overall sealed up, Monica Bascio raced the first half of the criterium with Tennessee's Carly Waugh. Waugh is new to handcycle racing and competed on a borrowed bike last week, but learned a lot. "I think Carly is very motivated, and I expect I will see her very cloase in my mirror later this season" said Bascio following the race. Note: There is a new UCI rule requiring that all handcyclists race with mirrors. Touted as the "geek rule" by many U.S. racers, it is nonetheless required - and probably much safer - so look for it at future events.
Following the event, Richardson was awarded the "Warren Strickland Spirit of Inspiration Award" for his nice-guy attitude and of course his first victory. Strickland was a handcycle racer who previously competed in Rome, and was tragically killed while training 3 years ago. The award is a testament to the dedication and genuine support of the sport by the community of Rome.
Three days of exciting racing, incredible hospitality, great food, and social events make the Clocktower Classic an incredible event for racers, friends, family, and spectators. We expect that the 2010 Clocktower Classic will include even more excitement for everyone!