Jennifer Schuble competes In the 2016 U.S. Paralympics Cycling Team Trials. (Photo: Casey Gibson)
Normally, when star Paralympic gold medal-winning cyclist Jennifer Schuble heads to a major race, her checklist is long. She has to make sure her competition bikes are disassembled and shipped, figure out her flights and assorted transportation, and then hope everything goes well.
Travel delays, reassembling her bikes right, and the hassles of time changes and life on the road all add levels of stress.
Which is why Schuble has such joy in her voice for the upcoming U.S. Paralympics Cycling Open, which will be held April 17-18 in Huntsville, Alabama. That’s only a quick 90-minute drive from her home in Birmingham. It will be the first time racing in a year for many of the world’s best, as competition has been put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I can’t even tell you how happy I am to be able to get out there and be so close to home,” said Schuble, who took gold in the track time trial at the Paralympic Games Beijing 2008. “For me, it’s going to be special because this will be my first time doing time trials since 2018. I was injured in 2019, and then 2020 we were all shut down.
“So, for me, to get to drive just up I-65 North, have my bikes with me, and get to compete with things being so easy —it’s a huge relief. I am already smiling about it.”
Schuble brings up a reality that most do not recognize: that travel, even to some parts of the U.S., can be challenging for all athletes, but especially for para-athletes. She recalled one race in Bend, Oregon. The travel time to Bend took longer, due to multiple flights through smaller airports, than flying to a competition in Manchester, England.
The Open will feature time trials and road races, all held at Cummings Research Park. The road events will include team and individual time trials and a handcycling team relay. Organizers are expecting around 100 para-cyclists to compete.
Schuble is helping with promotion and media interviews around Huntsville, hoping that the strong effort by the local organizers to get the word out will result in bigger crowds. She wants cycling of all types, and Paralympic athletes in particular, to get more respect in this country. Increasing exposure to high-level races could bring new fans to the sport.
“I don’t think enough in this country really understand the sport of cycling, and certainly don’t at all get the Paralympics,” Schuble said. “And in Alabama, we don’t get many Paralympic events like this — I think this is the first for cycling. The public (just) needs to see it, know who we are, and they will be amazed. We need to break through, and this is a huge opportunity for people to come out and experience what we do. I am really impressed with the promotions from Huntsville. They are really working hard to get people excited about the Open.”
Schuble, 44, will benefit from being able to stick to her body clock, which is tuned to the Central time zone. She wakes up early to accommodate her job as a quality control engineer at a Mercedes-Benz factory. Checking in with the night crew before the day shift kicks in, plus keeping communication open with company headquarters in Germany, means Schuble usually wakes up around 4 a.m. and gets to work by 6:15 a.m.
“Put me on West Coast time, and I feel like it is 2 a.m., like I am teenager with night owl hours,” Schuble said. “But count that as one more thing I don’t have to think about — my clock will not be changing for this.”
Schuble relishes the prospect of being able to sleep in her own bed before taking on world-class competition with an eye toward making the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 team. She has participated in three consecutive Paralympic Games, winning one gold, three silver and one bronze medal.
This will be a key check-in for many cyclists, helping them see where the past year has left them in relation to their goals for 2021. Schuble said her training is going well, benefitting from the favorable Alabama weather for year-round outdoor training and her multiple sclerosis being stable. The true test will come in Huntsville for Schuble and many other para-cyclists hoping to kick off an important season.
“Even though we still have to be really careful because of COVID, it is going to be great to be out there, see other cyclists and do it for real,” she said. “Training is great, but we need to get racing. You need to compete for that edge. There is only so much you can do by yourself.”