“I haven’t found the ends of my ability yet”: a conversation with the forces behind gravel para-cycling
We are all used to seeing photos of mass starts like a marathon. A few professionals lined up in front, and a few minutes later another thousand people crossed the start line. Most of them are here for a personal challenge, being pulled along and encouraged by thousands of bodies to do the same.
gravel bike offered this experience to people who prefer to pedal instead of running. Some events like loose gravelattract as many as 4,000 participants.
In marathons, it is not uncommon to see people running with a prosthetic leg or running with a guide if they are visually impaired. The fields for parasportsmen are not large, but there is certainly room for people with various disabilities. Likewise, a Paralympic field now appears in gravel racing, led by Paralympian Dr. Meg Fisher.
As gravel struggles with its identity, format, and rules, the creation of these new categories plays a major role in not only creating a more diverse pool of competitors, but also in the lives of these individual athletes. We spoke to three Paralympic athletes who returned to competition thanks to gravel biking. I am FisherAndrey “BernieBernstein and Johanna Albrigtsen — each of them at different stages of their journey into the world of para racing.
Gravel racing + paracycling
One of the biggest proponents of bringing the para-community to cycling. Dr. Meg Fisher. Fischer uses a below-the-knee prosthesis and has spent years competing alongside her able-bodied peers for gravel racing promoters to open the para category. Since gravel is also a mass start event, unlike many cycling events, the idea seemed ripe. In the upcoming season, Fischer was able to run over a dozen races that added a para category, thanks in large part to her advocacy work.
Fisher lives in Missoula, Montana, where he works as a physical therapist when not racing. As an athlete, Fischer has a truly impressive record of accolades, ranging from competing as a D1 collegiate tennis player to 11 world titles in para-cycling and a para-triathlon with the US national team. Aside from her many medals, Fischer is known for her infectious combination of kindness and determination.
Fisher is quick to point out that 15% of the world’s people live with a handicap, but adequate representation in athletics is still a long way off. Fischer says that one of the first steps to bring people with disabilities to organized events is to create a special category for skydivers.
As if to confirm Fischer’s point, off-road cyclist Johanna Albrigtsen says she was drawn to gravel cycling precisely because it had a para category.
Albrigtsen was born with a clubfoot and went through college despite it, earning student national MTB medals along with her non-disabled peers. In 2019, Olbrigtsen broke her already smaller and weaker leg in a climbing accident, greatly reducing her range of motion and further limiting the strength of her right leg.
Before the injury, Olbrigtsen took a step back from competition as the intensity increased and it no longer fueled her joy. During this break, she began to defend her doctoral dissertation. in hydrology at the University of Nevada, Reno. Albrigtsen spends several months of the year doing demanding field work in Denali National Park, often dog sledding, skiing or biking, and carrying a hundred pounds of technical equipment to remote areas for weeks.
In 2022 Albrigtsen was invited to Grinduro with a last minute entry. She tended to lean towards a party-to-race ratio, simply enjoying a long day on a bike with friends.
However, the organizers of Grinduro turned out to be one of those people who followed Fischer’s advice and created a para-category. While Albrigtsen was racing with her age group as she was accustomed to, she started noticing para athletes on the track. Albrigtsen says, “I started to confront some of the ideas I had about myself and see them in a new light.”
Over the course of 70 miles of rough gravel at Albrigtsen, a slow spark re-ignited. What if she could race alongside other disabled people? Albrigtsen says: “It seems like this trauma and traumatic event really spurred my energy to get back into the community that I thought I wanted to leave behind. It’s a really special feeling to be back in that space.”
Andrew Bernstein also benefited from the path Fischer laid out for paraathletes.
Bernstein proudly won the SBT GRVL para category in 2022. Bernstein’s role in cycling changed dramatically in 2019 after he was involved in an accident while cycling home from a velodrome in the Boulder Valley. Bernstein has just returned from competing at the Elite National Track championship. He was an elite athlete with trophies to prove it.
Bernstein, Fischer and Albrigtsen joked that they have one functioning leg and one leg that is involved in movement to varying degrees. “It’s here and now, and it carries a lot of weight and contributes little,” says Bernstein.
While each of these three athletes lives with a difference in their legs, the world of paracycling actually includes a wide range of body differences: upper/lower limb amputations, cerebral palsy, spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, strokes or visual impairments. to name a few.
The purpose of the parabike is to allow people with a huge range of body differences to participate.
Bernstein, who has previously advertised cycling competitions, says: “I appreciate the difficulty of including non-standard categories in events. I understand that it is not mandatory for a promoter to include paracycling categories.”
Bernstein is in an interesting position because he uses Electric bike ride. After his injury, his e-bike is perfect for climbing hills, riding with friends, and riding long distances. Some races allow e-bikes in the steam category, some races have a separate e-bike category, and others do not allow e-bikes at all. These inconsistent rules mean that the number of races Bernstein can enter is greatly limited; however, he expressed optimism that its options will be expanded as more promoters work to figure out how to include e-bikes in their events for both disabled and able-bodied cyclists.
When promoters really work, it pays off. It’s clear from the growing number of gravel racing paras that these efforts offer people access to the general sense of joy that is palpable at gravel events.
While there are certainly benefits to successfully adding paracategories to events and seeing attendance grow, there are complex considerations.
For example, in sanctioned parachute cycling, there are many categories that distinguish between, say, someone who uses a hand bike and someone who rides in tandem with a guide because of a visual impairment. Fischer notes that even with these differences, some races, such as the Paralympic Games, are shrinking and merging categories. It is a constant process of coming to terms with what makes sport fair.
Fisher believes that it would be unwise to attempt to introduce many para-categories into gravel racing at this time. She recommends that gravel race organizers start with three para-categories: one for women, one for men, and one for non-binary people. Fisher notes that this absolutely unites people with completely different abilities. Her recommendation to promoters: As the number grows, consider dividing it up, but don’t make it harder for now.
I share my joy
Bernstein, Fischer and Albrigtsen can show care and compassion. Bernstein volunteers to spend time with Kelly Brush Foundation which supports Paralympic athletes. Fisher offers comprehensive support to event organizers. Both Bernstien and Fischer are excited to connect with people when they receive Instagram posts from athletes asking them to share their experiences across different platforms. Albrigtsen is relatively new to the field, but is already thinking about ways to support curious athletes.
While the vast majority of interactions are positive, Bernstein and Fischer sometimes felt that race organizers were asking too much for too little compensation. Fisher says: “It’s a fine line in this relatively new space. I don’t think anyone wants to be tokenized. We want to be seen as valuable and equal.”
Albrigtsen noted that this idea is prevalent in various groups of cyclists. As promoters work to open up the race to more and more athletes from all walks of life, it is essential to seek help from people in those communities. It is important to remember that when professional athletes are asked to help support an event, it is often part of their job and they are compensated by the event. Asking other athletes to fulfill the same role should mean that they receive comparable remuneration.
Given the explosive growth of gravel and the need to quickly adapt to such massive events, race directors are adapting quickly. Gravel is a useful, sandy and inspiring place. Much of this is due to people who show up with different needs, abilities, and experiences. Races that will thrive will have race organizers who are willing to keep learning how they can better include an ever wider range of people.
The future of gravel
Fischer, Bernstein and Albrigtsen have brilliant visions for the future of gravel paracycling. As for Fischer, she finds that people around her are often inspired by her athletic exploits, especially given her visible physical differences. This gives them the opportunity to look inside themselves and continue…