When David Berling and his private plane crashed in an open field in 2007 near Los Angeles, first responders were surprised to find him alive, hanging upside down in his aircraft.
Berling suffered injuries requiring two amputations, 28 surgeries and a hospital stay of more than two months. Since then the double amputee, now a retired civilian contracting officer at Luke Air Force Base, started hand-cycling and racing, and this weekend compete for the Paralyzed Veterans Racing team at Valley of the Sun.
The three-day stage race has been designated as a U.S. Paralympic Cycling Series event and a USA Hand Bike Circuit North American Para-Cycling Points Series event in just its second year of hosting this type of category.
“All the promoters and volunteers are honored to have VOS chosen as a host for a 2016 U.S. Paralympics Cycling Series,” said Brian Lemke, VOS promoter. “Giving these world class athletes the opportunity to compete at VOS has been a very rewarding experience for everyone involved.”
VOS will also play host to a Learn to Ride Clinic that is free and will be conducted by a U.S. Paralympics Cycling coach, Lemke said. The clinic focuses on people with spinal cord injuries and is open to veterans and the public, for novice to experienced hand cyclists.
VOS began including hand cycling last year thanks in large part to former Phoenix resident and hand cyclist Darol Kubacz. Kubacz played a pivotal role in getting VOS added to the two national calendars, Berling said.
“Darol is a great ambassador for the sport of hand cycling and I think he saw an opportunity to start an awesome race and he took it,” Berling said. “Arizona is beautiful during the winter and Arizona is a great venue to add a race on the west side of the country to the schedule.”
Clipped In talked to Berling about hand cycling, its similarities to able-bodied bicycle racing and his outlook for VOS this year.
CI: How competitive are the racers/fields for hand cycling?
DB: Competition varies by person and by classification. However, for the most competitive athletes in a given classification, the time difference over a 30-mile road race or 12-mile time trial may only be a few seconds. Athletes will adapt and change equipment on their bikes to drop just a few grams in hopes that it will increase their speed at races. When someone gets cut off during a race or even get crashed by a competitor, arguments have been known to break out. It is very comparable to able-bodied cycling.
CI: What does it take to get fast/strong at hand cycling?
DB: There are many schools of thought to what it takes to get fast. Coaches will train and rely on these principles, which are the same for able-bodied cyclists. But, no matter what strategy they implore, putting in the miles and training is the only way to get faster. The best cyclists can go fast on any bike, no matter what. I started on a Top End Force G, which was a racing bike back in its day, and I got pretty good with it. I could maybe average 15-17 mph. However, the technology has advanced since the Force G’s inception and I had to upgrade my bike to a Force K (kneeler/H5 classification) in order to be competitive. Through a lot of training, a strict diet, and the help and guidance of my teammates (Paralyzed Veterans Racing), I have significantly improved my speed and results. I average 20-22 mph now.
CI: What is it like racing in a hand cycling crit?
DB: Riding a crit on a hand cycle is very fun, very fast, very exciting, and sometimes very dangerous. My wife compares it to Nascar with hand cycles. There is a lot of bumping, drafting, and technical corners when riding a crit. While the center of gravity is very low for most handcycles, they still flip when cornered too fast. Therefore, the athletes on kneelers (H5 Classification) try to get very low and lean into the corners. And the athletes on the long seat bikes (H1-H4) go into corners wide and then cut the edge of the corner very close to the curb, only to swing back out wide after making the turn. Crits usually involve all the classes and abilities at once, so there is also a lot of passing involved. Tempers can flare, athletes make mistakes, and there is often a good rub between bikes and can be a crash or flipped bike. Also, because the course is usually very technical and maxes out the ability of the bikes, there are often shifting issues or dropped chains during the event. I think it is a very exciting race.
CI: What is it it like climbing and descending a hill like the one at the VOS road race?
DB: The hill climb at VOS depends on the classification of the athlete. H5 kneeler bikes like mine are great on hills, and this is where we excel. We can use our entire core to power up the hill. However, the long seat riders (H1-H4) have to keep a consistent cadence and grind up the hill. After cresting the hill, the fun really begins. I rode about 35 mph down the hill on my Force G last year, and I’ll admit it was a little scary to go that fast only being four inches off the ground. I expect to be above 40 mph this year on my kneeler, but the long seat bikes have a definite aerodynamic advantage down hills. They will pull away, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they get up to 45+ mph.
CI: What are your goals for VOS this year?
DB: [Last year] was my first USA Cycling race and by the crit, I was recruited by Darol and Jody Shiflett to the Paralyzed Veterans Racing team. I was immediately hooked. My goals for VOS this year are the same as I have for every race. Have fun and hopefully do as well as I can. My wife’s rule is, “finish and find your wife.” There are many individuals to watch this year, as many of the athletes are looking to race well in hopes of possibly getting invited to world competitions and ultimately the Paralympics in September, being held in Brazil. The ones to watch will be up front immediately and will be fighting it out from the start of the time trial to the finish of the crit.
CI: What is the most common misconception about hand cyclists?
CI: Where do you train in Arizona and what is your favorite ride in the state?
DB: I train in the Avondale area and am a part of the West Valley Cycling Club. I like to compete in the El Tour de Tucson every year and have added the race in Duncan along with the El Tour de Mesa and Tour de Scottsdale to my yearly schedule. The races in Arizona always have friendly competitors and great courses, so I enjoy racing in the state as much as possible.
CI: Where do you see the future of hand cycling going?
DB: The sky is the limit for handcycling. It is a great cardiovascular sport and allows riders the freedom to experience the road and nature in ways they never thought would be possible again. Racing in the sport renews athletes sense of competition and can provide them with a camaraderie they haven’t had since before getting injured/hurt. However, handcycling isn’t a cheap sport and most athletes rely on grants through organizations like the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) or Independence Fund for equipment, and teams like Paralyzed Veterans Racing or Achilles to offset some of their travel and competition costs. Without this support, most athletes cannot afford the costs associate with the sport.
CI: Anything to add?
DB: Because the sport of handcycling is relatively small, the community of athletes is more like a large family. When we arrive at races, it is as much about catching up with our fellow athlete as it is about racing well and having good results. The majority of us work to help each other out to repair damaged equipment and even to get each other to and from the races. Even if there is a good chance the guy you just helped will probably beat you. The friendships made and the camaraderie we share cannot be equaled.