Florida’s Swamp Classic And Arizona’s Valley Of The Sun Provided Early Season Tests
by Paul D. Bowker
Brandon Lyons clearly passed the exam.
The Swamp Classic, a bike event that is held every February in Gainesville, Florida, carried an additional meaning this year. In a season during which Huntsville, Alabama, will host the UCI Para-cycling Road World Cup final in late May, the Swamp Classic was designated as a selection race for U.S. Para-cyclists hoping to qualify for the first two world cups in Europe.
“There’s a lot of nerves early on,” Lyons said, “but it’s a great litmus test to kind of see how you stack up not only against your competitors and your teammates but really against yourself, as well.”
Lyons, a Florida resident who made his first national team four years ago and competes in the men’s H3 category, nailed it. Lyons won the road race in 1 hour, 10.22 seconds, defeating 2020 Paralympian Ryan Pinney by more than four minutes, and also held off Pinney to win the time trial and criterium.
“I’ve been doing this race since 2018 … and (this was) the first that I was able to sweep the weekend and win the entire weekend,” he said.
Several U.S. Paralympians competed, with other winners including Alicia Dana (women’s road race, time trial and criterium), Freddie De Los Santos (men’s time trial H5) and Tom Davis (men’s time trial H4).
“A really great way just to start the season,” Lyons said. “This year was a little bit different. There was, I would say, more emphasis on the event as it was part of the selection process to be named to the first two world cups for Team USA. I think it helped spark interest and also increase the attendance in the event, as well.”
The Swamp Classic, held Feb. 4 and 5, was one of two selection races held in February. The other event, the Valley of the Sun Stage Race, took place Feb. 17-19 in Phoenix and featured wins by two-time Paralympic basketball gold medalist Travis Gaertner (men’s H4), two-time world champion Kate Brim (women’s H2) and two-time world championships medalist Dennis Connors (men’s T2).
The schedule ramps up in April and May with world cup competitions scheduled for Maniago, Italy, and Ostend, Belgium, along with a U.S. training camp in Italy between the two world cups. The first world cup is scheduled for April 20-24 in Maniago, followed by the second world cup May 4-7 in Ostend.
After that, the focus will be on Huntsville over Memorial Day weekend for the first Para-cycling road world cup to be hosted by the U.S.
“We’re super excited to have an opportunity to race here at home,” Lyons said. “As athletes, Team USA, we’re always going across the pond over to Europe year after year. We’re just waiting for an opportunity to be able to have all of our food.”
Huntsville has hosted U.S. Para-cycling events the last two years and was awarded the May 26-29 world cup final by the UCI in November.
The season’s push toward Huntsville began in Gainesville, which is located about an hour from where Lyons lives and trains in St. Augustine. A 2012 Penn State graduate and a native of Pennsylvania, Lyons is an associate director specializing in operational analytics at Ernst & Young, a global financial services firm, in Jacksonville, Florida.
Lyons turned to cycling following a diving accident in 2014. Three years after that, he was the first handcyclist to participate in the Team USA residence program at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“For the past few years, I’ve always been battling with one of my teammates, Ryan Pinney,” Lyons said. “He went to the (Paralympic) Games in 2021 in Tokyo. I knew that he was coming off of a great year last year, so it was a good opportunity for me to see where I was at against him, but really against myself, as well. I’ve been having a great offseason. You don’t know how that stacks up against your competition until you get out there and race.”
The Swamp Classic, Lyons said, is popular with handcyclists. And while the event was held in Florida, not known for dramatic hills, the course wasn’t totally flat.
“It has enough to make the course challenging and also there’s some dictating points throughout the course,” Lyons said. “I would say, more rolling hills than anything.”
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic and Paralympic sports since 1996, when he was an assistant bureau chief in Atlanta. He is a freelance contributor to USParaCycling.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.