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The wheel deals: Meet the international Para-Cyclists

HUNTSVILLE — International paracyclists are rolling into Cummings Research Park this weekend for the UCI Para-Cycling Road World Cup.

Held every four years with the international world finals in Paris in 2024, the para-cyclists must qualify through seasonal competitions culminating in an annual championship this summer in Glasgow, Scotland.

With more than 350 athletes representing 40 countries, the Huntsville World Cup is the largest World Cup held outside Europe and the third and final competition before Glasgow.

The Huntsville-Madison County Chamber recently had the opportunity host three of those awe-inspiring athletes by Zoom.

All paracyclists were either born with an impairment or critically injured in some way whether it was an accident of some kind or a debilitating war injury.

Tim de Vries from the Netherlands is considered one of the best in the world, having won the world championship in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Those championships earned de Vries the right to wear the distinctive rainbow-striped jersey identifying him as the reigning world champion.

“Sports was a redline in my life,” said de Vries. “I started out in gymnastics and from gymnastics, I started with the trampoline. When I was 18 years old, I landed on one leg and broke it so badly they had to amputate it that night.”

He said it took him a while to see what he could do in sports with such a disability, but he was determined to overcome the challenge.

He began para-rowing, but during that time, he went to a fair where he was introduced to paracycling in 2010.

“In 2011, I won my first World Cup in Sidney, Australia which kickstarted my para journey.”

Sam Ruddock is a paracyclist from Manchester, England.

He was trying out to play linebacker for the university football team when during combine testing, his coach noticed he was struggling to sprint from point A to point B.

“It was my cerebral palsy,” he said. “In 2011, I went to London to watch the games. I tried track and field and then shot put. In fact, I tried several sports, but I discovered paracycling when I went through the para classification process.

“I went first into track cycling and quickly moved into road cycling.”

Ruddock said he has spent some time in New York, but this week is his first trip to the “Deep South”.

“I always tell people who visit London, they are not really getting to know England,” he said. “London is a microcosm of the rest of the country and New York is the same way, so I am very excited about getting to experience that famous southern hospitality to give me a different perspective on the United States.”

Dennis Connors is a trike cyclist from Oregon.

A Marine veteran form 2003-2012, he did two tours to Iraq working in intelligence collection and interrogation.

“I was always dodging explosives and IEDs and in combat, I got my bell rung a few times,” he said. “When I got out of the Marines, I began having balance and cognitive issues.

“It turned out, I had six traumatic brain injuries.

“While entering a veterans program for PTSD and mental health issues, I started riding a 2-wheel para bike, but it was very difficult.

“I decided to tough it out when I met an amazing paracyclist in 2019 who encouraged me to get classified because the 2-wheeler may not be best for me.”

In May 2020, during the height of the pandemic, Connors had a stroke. Paralyzed on his left side, he spent nine months in rehab learning to use his left side again.

“Last year, I switched to a trike and entered my first season paracycling,” he said.

“After noticing some decline in my health, I was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, which is not uncommon considering my past diagnoses.”

All of the athletes have practiced on the CRP course this week and all three agree it is one of the best they have ever competed on. The cited its speed and room for fans and supporters.

The fans often show up on different parts of the track so the competitors are always being cheered on, no matter where they are on the course.

“Observers should station themselves where they can watch the turns on corners,” said Connors. “Most of us all have balance and stability issues so when we make a turn, you cannot lean into the bike and turn like normal bikers because it can get tippy.

“We make the turns just the opposite of what is normal. We lean into the turn because the bike tries to go to the outside of the turn when we come around the corners.”

The schedule for the UCI Para-Cycling Road World Cup in Huntsville is:

  • Friday: Partial Day – Individual Time Trials
  • Saturday: All Day – Individual Time Trials
  • Sunday: All Day – Road Races
  • Monday: All Day – Road Races & Handcycle Team Relay

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