I was on the front end of a sinus infection, just the first couple of days, dreading the wracking hacking and sticky post-nasal drip on the way. But I had volunteered my time for the UCI Para-Cycling Track World Championships at the velodrome in Carson, so I sucked it up, got dressed in the volunteer garb of a white polo shirt over beige slacks, and headed out. Driving to the Cal State campus where the indoor track is located, I couldn’t believe how agonizingly slow the traffic was on 190th through Torrance, and I had to stop to buy some Ricola green tea lozenges for my starting-to-ache throat. Woe was me. Why do I keep letting myself volunteer time and effort when I should be resting horizontally on my cushy couch under a plaid micro-fleece blanket, sipping warm cups of Emergen-C and watching Big Bang Theory re-runs?
I arrived at the velodrome, checked in at the volunteer desk in the lobby, and walked into the arena. Oh that familiar sound of high pressure tires rumbling over the pine planks and the feel of air flowing counter-clockwise around the track. I had not investigated what “para-cycling” was all about when I volunteered, just had some vague notion of people with disabilities racing on bikes. I walked to the top edge of turn 1 and looked down on the track to see many fixed-gear tandems speeding high on the track, and lots of singles down lower. At first glance I thought maybe I was wrong about what I thought para-cycling is. These folks were really moving, they did not look to be very disabled. Then I started looking closer at the singles and saw what it’s all about.
There were riders with prosthetic limbs, arms or legs, some missing limbs and not bothering with prosthetics. One fellow was missing his right arm and leg, riding exclusively with his left side. And he was fast! I was assigned to work sponges during the tandem races. The tandem teams typically consist of a stoker with some manner of disability, blindness or visual impairment, maybe something like cerebral palsy, matched with a captain who does not have a disability. Working sponges means you are right down there on the track as the bikes come around, keeping track of the vinyl-covered foam blocks that are placed at intervals along the inside of the turns. The purpose of the sponges is to provide a reminder to the racers not to drop too low in the turns, otherwise they will hit a sponge and lose precious fractions of a second. The sponge goes flying and the sponge-minders need to recover and replace. Just watch out for the tandems coming around – if you get hit by one you will be visiting the ER.
The tandems were scary fast when standing that close to them. My friend Steve Whitsitt, another volunteer and a past president of the South Bay Wheelmen cycling club, told me that there is a serious competition among former top-flight racers to be captains for para-cycling tandem teams. It’s an opportunity to extend their careers after they might have lost the edge to be in the pro-peleton.
During a later session I was working with a 3-man team handling a starting gate. This is an electro-pneumatic contraption that gets rolled out to the starting line, and the rear wheel of a bike is inserted into it with a clamp holding on to the seat post. The purpose is to keep the bike upright and stationary before a race start. When the clock counts down to go, the bike is released and the racer flies away. The 3-man team then pulls the device off of the track. I was handling the pneumatic hose that snakes up from the infield to the gate, stretching it out and laying it down for a start, then picking it up and pulling it back after a start. That put me right there among the racers and coaches on the start line, and I could see close up the various injuries these folks were living with, and amazingly, racing with. Imagine having suffered some sort of calamity that took both of your arms above the elbow. Two of the members of the Chinese men’s team time trial group were just like that, and the third appeared to have some sort of full-body nerve disorder. These two armless racers did not bother with prosthetics, they just leaned way forward into some braces mounted on their handlebars. And they were FAST.
After my sessions, I just blew my nose a few times, popped another lozenge, and smiled at my good fortune.
Click on any of the pictures to enlarge them.