The 1st Annual Off-Road Handcycling World Championships are over; here is a report on the action
Handcyclists expand horizons to
Crank it up a notch
By Jason Blevins
Denver Post Staff Writer
Mt. Crested Butte - "Whoa, hey, be careful!"
Steve Ackerman is about to tip over and the lady watching his hand-cranking ascent of a steep rocky pitch is quite worried. He's not.
"What, you don't like carnage?" said the 52-year-old Fort Collins handcycling legend, as he leaned over his pedals with powerful strokes. "I'm all about carnage."
Ackerman's huge arms propel his handcrafted machine up and over a pile of rocks without any bloodshed. He's followed by a dozen other athletes, each testing the boundaries of their abilities and disabilities on unique three-wheeled machines as part of last weekend's inaugural off-road World Handcycling Championships on Crested Butte's steep ski hill.
They cranked up the mountain's muddy hills. Over rocks and through impossible-at-first- glance terrain. Down boulder-choked, narrow singletrack. Up and down for miles, without a single crank on pavement.
"I've never pushed as hard as I did today," said Daewon Mickelson, a 24-year-old Durango local whose relatively recent loss of leg power from a ski accident did nothing to slow his lung-bursting arm cranking in Saturday's soggy 2-mile hill climb, a race in which the handcycling newcomer placed third. "That was so hardcore. When I ride with my friends in Durango, they kind of baby me. These guys out here are like: 'You better keep up or you're getting left behind."'
The band of handcyclists - some 10 men and Evergreen's world champion handcycling powerhouse Monica Bascio who gathered in Crested Butte for the world's first off-road rally - are pioneers of a nascent sport. Disabled athletes have been handcycling on pavement for more than two decades, reaching their pinnacle in Athens as part of the 2004 Paralympics. Anytime they traveled off-road, they could only roll downhill in four-wheeled rigs, not unlike a go-cart.
Back to nature
But for the many athletes who were tragically disabled while frolicking in the woods, the lure of road racing never quite matched the more remote thrills they once knew: skiing in the trees, biking down singletrack, grinding gears up mountains, searing lungs with mountain air, escaping from civilization for a spell.
"Ever since I broke my back, I just always wanted to get back on the trail in the summer you know," said Nick Catanzarite, a 29-year-old Olympic mono-skier from Winter Park whose One-Off handcycle has delivered the dirty taste of hard-earned singletrack he has craved since a 1995 ski accident robbed him of his legs. "It's not the easiest thing to ride, but it gets me to places I typically can't go. It's a lot of work, but for me, it's so worth it."
One-Off handcycles are the creation of Mike Augspurger, an able-bodied Massachusetts machinist and titanium tinkerer who has spent the past decade toiling in his barn, perfecting his design and handcrafting his freedom-ferrying bikes for riders across the globe. It has not been an easy 10 years.
His idea for leaning the rider forward over the cranks differs from every other recumbent handcycle on the market. His design for a single wheel in the back and two in the front reverses the tried-and-true designs for road handcycles. Ditto for the rear-wheel drive, which is opposite of front-wheel-powered pavement handcycles.
One-Off riders steer with their torso as they spin through 20-plus gears, their chins hovering above their cranks. The handlebar between the two front wheels turns just like a traditional mountain bike, not like the lean-to-turn steering systems of road handcycles. Since 1996, he has built 70 of the $5,000 bikes, spending countless hours convincing reticent athletes that his One-Off, while contrary to what they know, is the true gateway to off-road adrenaline.
"All the other designs are either purely downhill or purely pavement. I've always said I made a tool for arm-powered mountain biking - a sport that didn't exist; a sport no one even thought could exist," he said, beaming as he watches racers rip down a daunting face of mud and rocks. "Today, I can't say that anymore."
A new playground
Today, Augspurger ranks as the father of off-road handcycling. Each arm-powered rotation up and down Crested Butte ski area confirmed Augspurger's dream and cemented the presence of a new sport and a new playground for disabled athletes.
"It's opened a door to a whole new world; this muddy and rocky stuff," said Bascio, a reigning world champion of handcycling who proved a quick learner, placing fifth in the grueling 2-mile cross country race Sunday, just her third day handcycling off-road.
For Seth Arseneau, his One-Off provides a technical challenge that far outweighs road racing. The Albuquerque athlete, who is internationally ranked as one of the world's top road handcyclists, absolutely dominated the off-road competition, finishing first in the hill climb and cross country race.
"This is for sure the most fun you can have on three wheels," the 27-year-old said. "It's seriously grueling. These are 50-pound bikes with 20-inch wheels. It's like bench pressing 60 pounds for two or three hours. There's no way to make it easy. You go to road races and you see some people aren't in that good of shape. For off-road you have to be strong or you won't survive."
That's the idea, said Ackerman, whose passion for challenge led him to handcycle around the world in 246 days in 1995 and is one of the first athletes to crank one of Augspurger's One-Off handcycles. In October 2003, he and two paraplegic buddies cranked the entire 105-mile White Rim trail in Utah unassisted, making a point to never accept any able-bodied assistance during their six-day feat.
"It's kind of a cliché, but I've found the things that are most rewarding are the things that hurt the most," said Ackerman, who finished second in the hill climb and cross country race. "Sometimes you just have dig really, really deep to find your reward."
Learn more -- Find more info about handcycling at the U.S. Handcycling Federation website www.ushf.org or at www.adaptivesports.org or at Augspurger's website www.titaniumarts.com
Staff writer Jason Blevins can be reached at 303-954-1374 or firstname.lastname@example.org
You can see a One-Off handcycle in action at www.pushinghigher.com -
Mike Augspurger at Titanium Arts has always said that he made the One-Off handcycle for a sport that doesn't exist i.e. arm-powered mountain bike racing. So now he won't be saying that anymore. There will be about 10 to 15 competitors. The hope is that the weather is clear and that the course will be rideable by almost anyone on a One-Off, but to the best of the promoters knowledge, there isn't any other vehicle that will be able to negotiate the course. There are lots of prizes to go with the $5000 purse, great hand made trophies and a free dinner for everyone.
Anything else you want to know, just contact Mike Augspurger email@example.com
You can learn more at the United States Handcycling Federation: www.ushf.org