To a spectator, the racing at the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials – Cycling was top notch.
Riding under bright blue skies with temperatures rising into the low 80s, more than 50 Para-cyclists took to the course on West River Parkway for a scenic journey through south Minneapolis, one peppered with a healthy mix of hills and flat terrain to really get the wheels turning.
“I loved the course,” said Tom Davis, a who made his Paralympic debut in Rio. “It was probably perfect for me. It’s got a little bit of rolling, punching hills, some flat ground, beautiful scenery, there people out on the course cheering us on. It was great.”
A long day of racing on Saturday led to the announcement of the 16 Para-cyclists who will represent Team USA in Tokyo, where the track competition runs Aug. 25-28 and the road competition Aug 31-Sept. 3.
Following a mostly lost 2020 season, with some cyclists going more than a year without racing, U.S Paralympics Cycling Director Ian Lawless was motivated by what he saw in Minneapolis.
“In every event in which we have an athlete entered, we have a medal chance,” he said. “We have an opportunity to hopefully win the overall medal count. That’s going to be our goal.”
Among the standouts was Davis, competing in the MH4 class.
At the trials, in order to create comparisons among the different classifications, cyclists were ranked based on their time relative to the Tokyo standard for their classification. A score of 100 percent meant they hit the Tokyo standard, and anything below meant they were under.
Davis, at 90.65 percent vs the standard, was the top U.S. man at trials, helping him secure a spot on his second Paralympic Team. After finishing fourth in the road race and sixth in the time trial in Rio, the former Army staff sergeant “I’ve been waiting for this for almost five years now,” and it showed.
On the women’s side, fellow WC4 cyclists and 2016 Paralympic medalists Samantha Bosco and Shawn Morelli recorded the top percentages vs the Tokyo standard, with Bosco coming in at 90.24 percent and Morelli at 92.36. Morelli won trial and track individual pursuit gold in Rio, while Bosco won bronze medals in the same events.
“They are both veterans and they are two of the best in the world in that class,” Lawless said. “It gives us a huge opportunity, I think, for putting both of them of the podium in multiple medal events in Tokyo, which I couldn’t be with that.”
Among the 14 initial qualifiers, eight have previous Paralympic experience, accounting for 19 career medals. In addition to Bosco and Morelli, other returning 2016 medalists include Will Groulx (MH2) and Alicia Dana (WH3). Paralympic medalists Joe Berenyi and Jill Walsh were later invited to compete in Tokyo via the Bipartite Invitation Allocation, bringing the total number of Team USA cyclists to 16.
That means Team USA also includes six newcomers, including some with serious medal hopes.
Two of the newcomers, Cody Jung (MC4) and Matt Rodriguez (MT1-2), arrived in Minneapolis just days after winning silver medals at the road cycling world championships in Portugal. Ryan Pinney (MH3), meanwhile, followed up a big spring with another strong performance to earn his first Paralympic nod as well. His percentage of 93.5 ranked second only to Davis among men. And then there’s Clara Brown (WC1-3), who heads to Tokyo with six world championships medals, including two gold, between the road and track competitions.
The other newcomers are Aaron Keith (MC1) and Monica (WT2).
That depth, however, can also be bittersweet.
“The great thing about our program and about U.S. Paralympics Cycling these days is that we have a lot of depth and a lot of talented people. That’s fantastic,” Lawless said. “There are so few spots for the Paralympic team, Team USA is really one of the hardest teams in the world to make, and so like I said it’s a good problem to have.
“But we absolutely are in a position where we may leave medal contenders at home, and that’s a tough pill to swallow but it shows we have the best athletes in the world.”
Among those left off the team were three-time Paralympian and six-time medalist Oz Sanchez (MH5), as well as 2016 road race gold medalist Jamie Whitmore (WC1-3) and Ryan Boyle (MT1-2).
One point of consternation among some athletes was that Team USA is sending fewer athletes to Tokyo than went to Rio. That, Lawless said, is simply the new reality as continues to grow.
“We actually qualified more spots than any other nation in the world for the Games, but it was three fewer spots than we qualified for Rio,” Lawless said. “The reason was, in my opinion, worldwide there are more countries who are funding and supporting Paralympic cycling, and so the pool of competitors — not just athletes but nations that we’re competing against — is much deeper, so the slots are spread out across more nations.
“ the days of five nations claiming 90 percent of the quota spots for the Games is kind of over. That just shows how much the sport has grown, and how much it’s being supported by National Paralympic Committees and national governing bodies.”