It could be a huge year for the U.S. Paralympics Cycling National Team.
The American squad is loaded with talent and will be riding the momentum from a number of impressive recent showings on the world stage that have the cyclists atop the world rankings heading into the 2016 season.
Team USA is the top-ranked nation in track, road and the overall International Cycling Union standings after a strong 2015 that included a 12-medal haul from the UCI Para-cycling Track World Championships in Apeldoorn, Netherlands, and an 18-medal performance at July’s road world championships in Nottwil, Switzerland.
Jamie Whitmore of Mount Aukum, California, won three world medals on the track and then proceeded to sweep the time trial and road race in the women’s C3 class as she defended her gold medals and served notice that she will be a major contender at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games.
On the men’s side, Paralympic gold medalist and track world champion Joe Berenyi of Oswego, Illinois, leads a talented and hungry group and enters 2016 after winning four medals — three on the track and one on the road — at the Toronto 2015 Parapan American Games. Berenyi, 47, is a veteran who is no stranger to competing at the highest levels, and he feels good about his status heading into the season.
“As long as I stay healthy, every time I line up, I’ve got a good chance of doing well,” said Berenyi, who won gold at the London 2012 Paralympic Games with a world-record time in the individual pursuit. “The main goal is going to Rio, and I’d like to defend my world championships — at least one of them, if not both.”
Berenyi was an accomplished amateur cyclist before losing his right arm and left kneecap in a construction accident in 1994. He put his bike away for nearly 13 years before returning to the sport, first for fun, and then to train to be a top-level Paralympian.
He recently returned from participating in a weeklong training camp in Buellton, California, and liked what he saw there.
“Everyone was riding well, and from what I saw, we looked good,” Berenyi said. “Everyone’s training real hard. It’s a really good group, and you don’t get to be ranked No. 1 without having a couple of good people — it’s a team thing.”
Top to bottom, this year’s U.S. squad is stacked: There are nine Paralympians and five reigning world champions on the 27-athlete roster.
“The national team is an extremely well-rounded group with numerous world champions, world cup medalists, Paralympians and classes represented,” Ian Lawless, high performance director of U.S. Paralympics Cycling, said when the team was announced in mid-December. “Our focus is on Rio and looking at this experienced roster, I fully expect to see several of these athletes on the Paralympic podium in 2016.”
First though, the athletes must qualify for Rio, so they are spending this season fine-tuning their training regimens and carefully selecting the competitions they will enter. The U.S. Paralympics Track Cycling Open runs Feb. 5-7 in Carson, California, and will be a good early season measuring stick for the cyclists.
Berenyi has already mapped out his 2016 schedule.
“We have a plan, and it’ll start with that selection race and roll that into worlds,” said Berenyi, who also won a silver and bronze medal at the 2012 Games. “We have a world cup in Belgium in May, and I’m also focused on that. Other than that, it’s just a lot of training.”
Team USA will have to be at the top of its game in Rio if it wants to match its record-setting performance in London four years ago. That squad collected 17 medals — 12 in road cycling and five in track cycling — to tie Germany for the most medals of any country at the Games.
A total of 50 sets of medals will be up for grabs in Rio: 28 men’s, 20 women’s and two mixed.
Former professional cyclist Michael Creed was named coach of the U.S. team in November and brings a wealth of experience to his post. A 25-time titlist during his career from 1999-2013, Creed led the U.S.-based UCI Continental Pro cycling team Smartstop to multiple victories — including the USA Pro Road Race national title and the UCI America’s Tour title — in the last two years.
He brings a contagious enthusiasm to the American squad.
“I can’t describe how excited and happy I am to take on this role,” Creed said in November. “I’m excited to learn as much as I can and hopefully give back as much knowledge as I gain. I want to thank the USOC and Ian Lawless for their faith, and I hope to pay it back tenfold.”
The track world championships are also just around the corner, taking place March 12-21 in Montichiari, Italy, while the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials will be held in Charlotte in July. By the time Independence Day arrives, the U.S. team that will travel to Rio will largely have taken shape.
An ocean of potential awaits Team USA this season, and the Americans should be making headlines on a regular basis as they ride toward glory in Rio.
“We’ve added 11 or 12 athletes since 2012 who have proven themselves with world championships,” Berenyi said. “I think we’ve got a great talent pool that’s been coming up.”
Neal Reid is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, who has been published for more than 20 years in outlets including USA Today and Newsday. Reid is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.