It’s time for the best Para-cyclists in the country to get back to racing for real — finally.
The U.S. Paralympics Cycling Open presented by Toyota on April 17-18 marks a big national return to competition after more than a year away due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The field for the road races and time trials in Huntsville, Alabama, is stocked with Paralympic medalists, rising Team USA stars, and newcomers to the national stage. The event, which is free and open to the public, will be held at the Cummings Research Park complex.
The individual time trials at 15K and 30K distances will be staged on Saturday. The slate on Sunday will feature the road races, consisting of laps on a 12.1-kilometer course.
Two-time Paralympic bronze medalist Sam Bosco is ready to go, and hopes to show that she ready to go after the year off.
“It’s weird not to have a had a race in over 13 months,” Bosco said. “So for me, racing this upcoming week, I’ll be honest, is kind of nerve-wracking. Just because I haven’t done it in a while. I just feel a little rusty because I really haven’t turned a corner with a group of people, I haven’t seen how far I can go on the road.”
Travis Gaertner, a two-time Paralympic gold medalist in wheelchair basketball, is looking to reach his third Games — and his first as a Para hand-cyclist. He sees Huntsville as an important test of his progress against live competition.
“It’s just really exciting,” Gaertner said, about getting back to competition. “There is less opportunity in disabled sports to compete in general, and then add a pandemic to that. We’ve all been training hard all year; we’re trying to add new skill sets.
“This is an opportunity for us to go out and show how we’re new cyclists. I am looking at this as the new me gets to go and test myself. While there are some nerves, there’s just a whole heck of a lot of excitement. And I am really grateful for the event.”
Two-time Paralympic medalist Jamie Whitmore said the pandemic lockdowns in her home state of California have complicated her training. Whitmore, who won gold in the road race and silver in the individual pursuit at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016, wants to get back to a more normal competition and training lifestyle.
“It’s been hard to see on social media, some of our competitors in places that are smaller, so they haven’t had to be on total lockdown like us,” Whitmore said. “They are still being able to compete, Still being able to gather as teams. (I’m) just desiring the same thing.”
Whitmore sees the U.S. Paralympics Cycling Open as the first of many important races this spring and summer, hopefully honing Team USA for bigger things.
“We need to get the cobwebs out, we need to make all the mistakes along the way, so when we show up to Tokyo, we are polished and have it dialed in,” she said. “It’s going to be different, but it’s going to be exciting.
“I am always about reinventing myself,” she added. “Cancer kind of taught me that — you’ve just got to learn to be flexible and go with the flow.”
Bosco discussed how she worked through 2020’s impact on her riding and life, as she too felt the loss of competition and camaraderie.
“You get together with a big group and go for a group ride together, same spot, you see the same people week after week after week. And then all of a sudden, you don’t have it,” she said. “So then, you don’t have racing, you don’t have group rides — it’s a little bit like you also have to slow down.
“But at the same time, you can’t slow down too much. You don’t want to be at your highest level of fitness. You have to do one more year because the Games are postponed. But at the same time, you don’t want to lose that much because you are an athlete, you are super-competitive, and you want to do well. It definitely has been a juggling of having fun on the bike, making sure you are maintaining some level of fitness, maintaining some mental health.”
Gaertner mentioned an additional highlight he’s looking forward to in Huntsville — something that was lost in 2020: gathering with his cycling competitors and friends.
“A big part of this is being together and being a team. Even though it is an individual sport, we still are Team USA,” he said. “And I miss my fellow teammates, and it will be great to see them, see what they have been doing, and where they are.”