Huntsville Welcomes Team USA’s Top Para-Cyclists Again For U.S. Paralympics Cycling Open
by Bob Reinert
Ryan Pinney competes at the 2021 U.S. Paralympics Cycling Open in Huntsville. (Photo: Casey Gibson)
Prepare for launch.
The countdown for liftoff is on as Huntsville, Alabama — long known as America’s “Rocket City” — prepares to host the U.S. Paralympics Cycling Open, presented by Toyota, for the second straight year this weekend.
Racing will take place Friday through Sunday at a pair of locations in Huntsville. As many as 200 Para-cyclists will take part in the event, the first big race of the 2022 competitive season.
“Huntsville is honored that these athletes are returning after a thrilling event last year,” said Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle. “They are incredible competitors. We enjoyed hosting them and cheering them on, and we look forward to having them back for another world-class event.”
Action will begin with hand-cycle relays Friday evening at Big Spring International Park in downtown Huntsville. The event then moves to Cummings Research Park, where time trials will be held Saturday and road races will take place Sunday.
A year ago, the pandemic limited the Open. This year, athletes, families and spectators are expected to turn out in full force.
“We are so excited to return to Huntsville,” said Ian Lawless, director of U.S. Paralympics Cycling. “Last April, the entire community welcomed Team USA with open arms and rallied around us as we prepared for the Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
“This year, we will be eyeing the 2022 World Para-cycling Road World Championships, and the U.S. Paralympics Cycling Open in Huntsville — this time with an international flair — will again be a key part of that journey.”
Because technology is so important in Para-cycling, it’s fitting that the Open returns to the city that developed rockets that put men on the moon.
“We heard several times from the athletes about how friendly Huntsville was,” said Erin Koshut, Cummings Research Park’s executive director. “They said we rolled out the welcome mat. They loved the weather and seeing the ‘green’ in the springtime, because many traveled from colder climates. They also loved the race route in (Cummings Research Park). They said it was challenging and well put together by the race planners.
“We do know that the top athletes for Para-cycling will be here and that everyone coming in are elite athletes in this field. So, we look forward to hosting them. Huntsville is a welcoming and inclusive community that recognizes and honors people of all abilities and their inspiring stories, and we are thrilled to be the host of such a group and to showcase that next weekend.”
Two-time Paralympian and three-time Paralympic medalist Jill Walsh of Syracuse, New York, recalled being embraced in 2021 by the Huntsville community.
“Last year was a great event in Huntsville,” Walsh said. “It was very well organized. Everything went so smoothly. I’m hoping for the same thing this year, which I’m sure it will.”
U.S. teammate Ryan Pinney of Phoenix, who won a bronze medal in his Paralympic debut last year in Tokyo, was equally impressed with the 2021 Open.
“I’ve never been to Alabama before last year,” Pinney said. “The welcoming nature of everybody in Huntsville just blew me away.
“We had a pandemic, and not a lot of people were there, but those that were there, you can definitely see the heart of the city come out from them. That’s the biggest thing that I remember.”
Walsh and Pinney agreed that the park’s course was a difficult but fair test of their abilities.
“It was an amazing course,” Walsh, who rides a trike, said. “It’s a good course, a fair course. I’m really looking forward to seeing if I can improve on my time from last year. It’s kind of exciting to go to the same place again because you get to compare how you’re doing and how you were, so it’s good.”
Pinney, a hand-cyclist, said he was a bit leery when he first saw the course.
“There was a lot of turns,” Pinney said. “Once I rode it the very first time … I was impressed. I was more than impressed. I was excited to really ride it.
“I’m really excited that it’s here for a second year and get the opportunity to do it again. Especially now that I have more understanding and more of a feel for the course, I can hit it a little bit harder.”
As Walsh pointed out, Huntsville is a Team USA selection event for the season’s first two world cups in Europe.
“Those who do well will get to go to the first two world cups, so it kind of sets you up for the rest of your season,” Walsh said. “It’s important to us. It’s very important to us.”
Pinney said the U.S. Para-cyclists won’t be holding anything back in Rocket City.
“We have to go out there and absolutely perform,” Pinney said. “So, you’re going to see all the athletes give it their all.”
Bob Reinert spent 17 years writing sports for The Boston Globe. He also served as a sports information director at Saint Anselm College and Phillips Exeter Academy. He is a contributor to USParaCycling.org on behalf ofRed Line Editorial, Inc.