The NYC Marathon from a Bicycle

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This year I was one of the bicycle escorts for the elite wheelchair and handcycle racers who competed in the New York City marathon. It was one of the most humbling, inspiring, and exciting things I’ve ever done. The bicycle escorts are supposed to act like bodyguards for the athletes, making sure the roads are clear and that no one crosses their path. There were seventy three of us on bicycles, fourteen of us women. I don’t know why there were so few women—it may have resulted from the organizer’s desire to pair women escorts with women racers. As in most competitive sports, the women’s fields are much smaller than the men’s fields.

My teammate and I were told to go with the last group starting, the women handcyclists. The organizer explained that these would be the fastest women, and we were two of the few women racing cyclists in the group, who are accustomed to keeping a fast pace. How fast can it be? I thought, prepared for a nice, easy, slow ride around the five boroughs.

We picked up the racers coming off the Verranzano Bridge. At that point they had been racing for one mile, and had already climbed one of the most difficult uphills on the course. So the fields (male wheelchair racers, followed by female wheelchair racers, followed by male handcyclists, followed by female handcyclists) had already gotten mixed and stretched out, with the fastest ahead by a significant gap.

I should explain here that there is quite a divide, both technologically and emotionally, between the wheelchair racers and the handcyclists. There are many wheelchair racers who believe handcyclists should not be in their races at all, but should do separate races, or perhaps form a division in bicycle races. The tension arises from the advantage that handcycles give the athletes. Handcycles are propelled with the arms circling in front of the body, rather than at the side of the body, which means that handcyclists can use the large muscles in their cores as well as their body weight leveraging their arms to generate speed. Wheelchair racers use their core too, but not to the same degree; and they can’t leverage their body weight in the same fashion. Handcycles are easier to learn to race, and are easier on the shoulder joints. Oh, and handcyclists have gears, which make all the difference, as any cyclist can tell you. Wheelchairs don’t. Whether unfair or not, handcycles can go much faster than wheelchairs.

When I saw the first wheelchair racer come tearing down off the bridge at around 9am, he was moving so fast I thought he must be a handcyclist. Understand, I’ve never seen elite racing of this type before, so I had only my preconceptions of disabled athletes to prepare me for what I was about to see. I think all the bicycle escorts, even those who had previously supported the marathon, were caught off guard. After a moment, some cyclists took off after the first racer, as more and more wheelchairs began to pour off the bridge.

When the women wheelchair racers started coming through, there was the same momentary delay. Finally, the organizer started yelling, “Go! Go! Go!” to the women cyclists, who were bunched in a group. I didn’t move, since I was waiting for the handcycles. I did tell my teammate, “Let’s be ready and catch the first woman handcyclist coming off the bridge.”

When I saw a blonde ponytail coming down the ramp, I thought it was a woman, but I couldn’t be sure. When she turned the corner off the ramp and into the flat stretch, I was pretty sure. I said to Marie, “That’s ours! Let’s go.” I heard her say something like, “Are you sure?” But I was already starting to roll, yelling, “Now! Come on! I’m going.”

We had to sprint for several blocks to catch her, she was moving so fast. We did catch her (having the advantage of legs) but it’s not easy to sprint on cold legs from a standstill. That was one of the first moments it sank in that I wasn’t in for a slow, easy ride.

The rest of the hour and fifteen minutes was a bit of a blur, literally. The handcycles were slower than bicycles going uphill (thank God, because I’m not good, going uphill) but faster than us going downhill. What technology! The aerodynamics of their rigs were exceptional. They were all running carbon wheels and what looked like titanium or aluminum frames.

My teammate and I worked together well; since I was the sprinter, I would sprint ahead every time I saw a turn coming up, and clear with plenty of room for our racer; Marie would protect our flank. Our lady worked with one of the men the entire race (drafting is legal); and they worked together seamlessly. Bicycle escorts are asked to speak as little as possible during the race; I think Marie and I only spoke twice. We each spoke once to our racer. She told us we were doing a good job.

It was thrilling to go through each of the boroughs with people lining both sides of the street, cheering. It was equally thrilling to cruise down the city’s major avenues with no cars and no stopping for lights. But the most thrilling thing of all was to see the athlete we accompanied, who could only walk with great difficulty, take flight like a soaring bird—and then take flight with her—speeding through the city, the streets, the air with a few feet separating us, but our minds and spirits in the same ecstatic, elevated space.

We were not allowed to cross the finish line with our athlete. I looked up the results later, and although handcyclists are not officially acknowledged in the division winners’ section (due to the aforementioned controversy) I know that our lady was the first woman handcyclist across the line.

I also know now that her name is Monique van der Vorst, that she is a twenty one year old Dutch university student, and that she has been in a wheelchair since 1998. She is also a three- time world champion and six-time European champion, who has set a world record of 1:15:24 for handcycles in marathons.

But knowing all these facts will never bring closer to her than the feeling I had when I was racing with her.


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