Disabled athletes compete in 267-mile wheelchair race

Posted: Thursday, July 26, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Michel Bond isn't above trash-talking to try and psyche out the competition in the longest, hardest wheelchair race in the world.

''I'll tell him he's old,'' the 34-year-old Bond said of 46-year-old training partner Scott McNeice. ''He knows his place, right after me.''

Bond and McNeice are among 14 racers competing in the 16th Midnight Sun Ultra Challenge -- a 267-mile stage race from Fairbanks to Anchorage. The racers, who average about 50 miles a day, left Fairbanks on Saturday and are expected to cross the finish line Thursday.

With one day of racing to go, Alejandro Albor, 37, of Elk Grove, Calif., was in the lead in the handcycle division with a 4 minute, 52 second advantage over McNeice. Bond was in third place, 15 minutes and 35 seconds behind the leader.

''They have been trying to lose me from the first day,'' Albor said. ''I feel like I'm in the driver's seat.''

Albor's legs were crushed when he was 18 and drove his car into a moving train while trying to commit suicide. Both his legs were amputated.

''I was pretty depressed and I made a wrong choice. Luckily, I didn't die,'' he said.

The racers liken the Ultra Challenge to their own Tour de France. On Day 1 outside Fairbanks they churn more than 1,000 feet uphill. Day 3 from Healy is notorious for strong headwinds that require pumping going down hill. The last day is an 8 1/2 mile sprint into Anchorage.

Fourteen athletes are competing this year -- eight men's handcyclists, three women's handcyclists and three wheelchair racers. The racers are competing for $21,000 in prize money which will be awarded to the top three finishers in each of the three divisions. The first-place prize is $4,000, second-place $2,000 and third-place $1,000.

Bond and McNeice, who live a few blocks from each other in sunny St. Petersburg, Fla., are running the race for the second time, as is Albor.

''The worst part is the initial dose of wetness, just getting wet,'' Bond said. ''You don't dare stop pedaling because you would freeze.''

The first Ultra Challenge was held July 27, 1984, and was 367 miles. Organizers last year shaved 100 miles and three days from the race to save money. It costs about $22,000 a day to hold the race, said Beth Edmands, race executive director.

Organizers added a handcycle division in 1999 to accommodate the growing number of athletes switching from racing wheelchairs to handcycles, arm-powered bicycles with three wheels.

Kevin Jackson, a 37-year-old civil engineer from Anchorage who was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident in 1985, isn't in it for the prize money. He placed tenth in the men's handcycle division last year.

''If you can do this race, you feel like you can do any physical challenge,'' he said.

McNeice's legs were crushed by oil field equipment during an accident in Grand Isle, La. One of his legs was amputated at the thigh, the other at the calf.

''Do I just sit around? What do I do? You make a decision,'' he said of becoming a racer.

Bond was paralyzed when he was hit by a drunk driver while riding his motorcycle. He said he realized the more he sat around thinking about the things he couldn't do anymore, the less time he had to enjoy the things he could. McNeice introduced Bond to the sport.

McNeice and Bond like to race as a team, drafting off each other whenever possible. But when it comes to the finish, it is each man for himself. In July, Bond won the National Road Race Championships in Elgin, Ill., defeating McNeice by two seconds.

''Twelve, that's our lucky number,'' Bond says. ''One and two.''

Their game plan got messed up this year when Bond got a flat tire while leading the race on Day 3. While the flat was quickly fixed, he said his spirits got down and he lost 15 minutes. Albor took the lead and McNeice, who lost time on Day 2, settled into second.

Bond and McNeice said unless Albor gets a flat or careens off the road, the race is his this year. It was supposed to be Bond's.

Is the Ultra Challenge worth it? Is it still fun?

''Oh yeah, I always have fun,'' Bond said.

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