The Sportable Road Warriors train in the parking lot of the Double-A Richmond Flying Squurrels' stadium.
The weekly practice for the Sportable Road Warriors Para-cycling group is quite a sight to behold. The group of 10 cyclists, ranging from teens to senior citizens, work out in the parking lot of the Double-A Richmond (Va.) Flying Squirrels’ baseball stadium.
The parking lights are on for the late fall evening practices, and the Road Warriors — many in their signature racing jerseys with a running cheetah on the back — zip around the six-tenths of a mile course staged on the outside lanes of the lot. In the inside of the parking lot, the Sportable power soccer and rugby teams are also practicing.
Some of the cyclists are working very hard, with others going at a slower pace. But all are having fun and enjoying being part of the new competitive road racing team.
This is the fulfilled vision of Sportable coach Lucille O’Neil, who wanted to create more opportunity for community Para-cyclists in the Richmond area.
“It’s been a slow build, but the momentum is clearly moving now,” said O’Neil, who is a long-time physical therapist working in rehabilitation for adults and children with spinal injuries. “It’s going well. We’ve been in process for the last couple years, I’d say, this has been my vision since 2016. I wanted to do a competitive team, I just needed to figure out how to make it happen.”
O’Neil’s persistence, coupled with the power of the Sportable rec cycling program as a feeder, made the Road Warriors concept come alive. Her team development checklist was long: she needed to get trained and certified by USA Cycling to be a coach; recruit interested riders; and also get sponsors and grants to purchase equipment and uniforms.
Each Road Warrior has their own competitive equipment, thanks to Sportable’s funding, tailored to best fit their needs and impairment. The rec program, which has youth and adult groups, typically uses Sportable’s stash of available loaner bikes.
The Road Warriors, in order to be truly competitive, needed their own bikes. So Program Manager Kyle Hitzelberg and O’Neil made sure that was in place from the start.
But not everything went as planned to launch the Road Warriors in 2020. The group was scheduled to compete this year, but the COVID-19 pandemic canceled their race schedule in Richmond and the Mid-Atlantic region.
It was a tough reality to accept — to build the team and then see its racing debut delayed by the pandemic. Hitzelberg said the Road Warriors still found ways to build community and make a statement, even without their race schedule.
They had a jersey hand-out ceremony in June, kicking off the team’s founding. He said it was emotional, as the socially distanced affair made the cyclists official.
“We had just gotten back to practicing, outside, and like 3-4 of them came,” he said. “We handed them their jersey and said, ‘This is for you. We acknowledge your hard work, we see your dedication. This is for you. You wanted this, you asked for this.’ We had two other teams out there practicing, and they stopped and watched and hung out with us. It was a really powerful moment of what the Road Warriors meant to all of us.”
He said the Road Warriors are so proud of their team that many wear their jerseys to practice.
And Hitzelberg was plain about the force that drives the Road Warriors to be a team.
“It is all her and the athletes who were asking to do this,” he said, referring to O’Neil. “We needed to make this happen for them, they are all so super committed. And Lucille is the best. She has been there every step of the way for them.”
The Road Warriors are getting together for a group practice once per week right now, as it is hard to find time with work and family schedules. O’Neil designs training programs for each participant, helping them reach the goals they set with her. Some want to race and win; others just want to be part of the group and enjoy the camaraderie.
O’Neil sees the Road Warriors team growing next year and beyond, as the team hopefully can start competing and getting more attention. This is the start of something that could lead to the development of the next Paralympian or Team USA member. And it is the start of a group that welcomes all who want to compete and reach their potential on a bike.
“We’re like the Bad News Bears — a group of very diverse athletes in terms of disabilities, motivations and lives,” O’Neil said. “But we have so much in common, and we motivate each other and have a good time. Where else can you see a 17-year-old working out with a 60-year-old, pushing each other to be better on a hand-cycle and a recumbent cycle? They love competition. They love sports. And they love being together. You can’t ask for anything better than that.”