It has been called the Tour de France of handcycling.
Over seven days, July 14-21, 20 athletes will race from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Anchorage as a part of the 27th edition of the Sadler’s Alaska Challenge, a grueling competition set against the beautiful but demanding Alaskan terrain. It is the longest handcycling race in the world.
“It is definitely not a race for the timid,” said Jeff Dick, the therapeutic recreation coordinator for Challenge Alaska, the Paralympic Sport Club that operates the race every year. It is flat in some parts but can gain more than 3,500 feet in elevation in other stages.
“The level of the race far exceeds anything else on the planet,” he said.
More than 40 athletes submitted applications for the race but only 20 were accepted.
“You have to be experienced to enter the race because it is so grueling,” Dick said. “It wears on the body in the same way that a marathon wears on the body of a runner. Whoever wins the Alaska Challenge is someone that has the highest level of conditioning and training as well as endurance. To even enter, you have to prove that you are physically and mentally capable of how demanding it is.”
The application process includes the submission of a resume as well as a training plan.
“On the resume, we look to see if the rider is a novice or if they have done a race like ours before,” Dick said. “You have to prove to us that you can handle the intensity and the tempo of the race. It is very demanding. It is very physical. The level of intensity is beyond anything most of us have ever experienced. The average, able-bodied person could not handle the race.”
This year’s roster includes athletes from four nations – the United States, Poland, Germany and Austria – and boasts two Paralympic medalists. Three-time London 2012 Paralympic Games medalist Muffy Davis of the U.S. was slated to compete but recently withdrew to focus on the national championships after being injured in a crash.
Some athletes are newcomers while others have competed before. “It is a mixture of old and new but it seems like a lot of the athletes thrive on this atmosphere and want to come back again,” Dick said.
Athletes are competing in four divisions – men’s HC2, HC3 and HC4 and women’s – with a chance at prize money. The winner of each division receives $3,000 while the second and third place finishers earn $2,000 and $1,000, respectively.
“The final stage finishes at Hatcher’s State Park, which means there is a gain of 3,700 feet in elevation over 37 miles,” Dick said. “Most of it comes in the last seven or eight miles of the race. It is a hill most able-bodied athletes can’t do all at once and many of these guys come flying up the hill. They don’t just want to finish the race, they want to win.”
The race is supported by 20 volunteers as well as Challenge Alaska’s five staff members and two interns.
Race entries and volunteer positions are set for 2013.
Following the race, many of the racers will take a mentorship role at the 2013 Paralyzed Veterans Adaptive Cycling Clinic, which is July 22 in Anchorage, Alaska. It is hosted by Challenge Alaska with funding that U.S. Paralympics has provided to enrich the lives of injured veterans through sport.
“Many of the cyclists want to come out and teach others about the sport,” Dick said.
The free clinic, which includes lunch provided by a veteran service organization, is open to registration through July 21. (To register, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
“I just got a bite from a veteran who has been in our community for a while but has never tried handcycling,” said Dick, who also oversees the clinic. “He wants to ride now.”
Cycling is the perfect summertime sport in Alaska. But Challenge Alaska, which Dick estimates reaches 800 people each year, provides opportunities in other summer sports including wheelchair basketball and wheelchair soccer as well as winter sports alpine skiing, Nordic skiing, sled hockey and snowboarding.
“We’re working with the Anchorage Curling Club on an accessible facility,” Dick said. “Once that happens, we will be able to provide adaptive and wheelchair curling, so that will cover all of the winter sports.”
While the programs mainly cater to those with physical disabilities, Challenge Alaska encourages able-bodied siblings to get into sleds, wheelchairs or other adaptive equipment and play instead of watching from the sidelines.
“Kids just want to play with their able-bodied brothers and sisters or their classmates and friends,” Dick said. “Reverse inclusion is important to us so we make sure that with the exception of the Sadler race, everything we offer has some inclusion for family and friends. Anyone in the community can come out and participate even if they are not physically disabled.”
Challenge Alaska programs also help children with physical disabilities earn physical education credits for their school. “Instead of getting a waiver, they come to us and they get involved in programs that will make a difference in their lives,” Dick said.
Challenge Alaska was founded in 1980 and incorporated in 1981 by Douglas Keil and other individuals dedicated to providing sports and recreation opportunities for the disabled.
“Our programs are important because Challenge Alaska ensures that there are opportunities for physically disabled people in our community,” Dick said. “Without our programming, there would be no opportunity for them to engage in physical activity. With us, they get to play in the greatest state in the country.”