Nfld. & Labrador

Do handcycles belong in the Tely 10?

Handcycles are becoming popular in the world of parasport. Now the controversy over their inclusion in traditional athletic road races has come to St. John’s.

Disabled athletes with physical limitations claim discrimination after handcycles blocked from Tely 10

Mel Fitzgerald and Dean Butler are pushing for the inclusion of handcycles in road races like The Tely 10. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Dean Butler may be sitting down, but he's still working up a sweat.

Butler is an athlete with a physical disability who uses a handcycle — a racing chair similar to a bicycle, but propelled by a hand crank instead of foot pedals. Butler says he uses the handcycle for serious training, not just casual exercise.

"This is designed for people that are challenged to take on road races," said Butler.

The devices are becoming popular in the world of parasport, but there's a growing controversy over their inclusion in traditional athletic road races. Now, that controversy has come to St. John's.

Butler is claiming discrimination after organizers of the Tely 10 blocked him from participating in the race using a handcycle.

A handcycle is a racing chair, similar in design to a bicycle, but with a hand-crank in place of foot pedals. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

"The Tely 10 doesn't want it." Butler said. "It should be no different. If people walk, run, bike or wheelchair, it shouldn't matter. It should be all equal."

Butler is being supported by friend and training partner Mel Fitzgerald, a member of the Canadian Wheelchair Sports Association Hall of Fame and a multiple Paralympic medal winner.

Fitzgerald used to compete using a push-rim wheelchair, but now uses a handcycle to stay in shape.

The 92nd running of the Tely 10 is scheduled for July 28, 2019. The race has a category for competitors in pushrim wheelchairs, but handcycles are not permitted. (CBC)

"This is about inclusion." said Fitzgerald. "The Tely 10 is a bit more than a foot race. All kinds of people take part in it for all kinds of reasons. I think we can find a way to allow handbikes in."

Where the rubber meets the road

Organizers of the Tely 10 say this is a sensitive and complex issue, but their decision to prohibit handcycles comes down to safety and liability.

Rosemary Ryan is president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Athletics Association, which oversees the race. She's also a longtime volunteer with the Special Olympics, and coaches wheelchair athletes in other parasports.

"Hand-crank [devices] are actually a bicycle race. And that is not our sport," Ryan said.

Rosemary Ryan is the President of the Newfoundland & Labrador Athletics Association, which administers the Tely 10. Ryan is a longtime volunteer and coach in several sports. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

The Tely 10 has long allowed participation by wheelchair athletes, but the rules clearly state that handcycles are not allowed. To be eligible for awards, participants must use hand-operated, push-rim chairs. "No mechanical gears or levers are allowed to propel the wheelchair." 

Ryan says it's not an arbitrary distinction.

A handcycle can travel much faster than the average runner or push-rim wheelchair.

"It would certainly become a safety issue," said Ryan. "As well as the fact that our insurance would be null and void for anybody coming into the race with any kind of gears."

Not just the Tely

Other major athletic road races are also grappling with the question of whether to allow handbikes.

The Boston Marathon came under heavy criticism in 2017 when it attempted to prohibit handcycles. A vocal group of racers that included victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing attack were eventually successful in pushing for a limited handcycle category.

The Boston Marathon is among the many major road races grappling with the question of whether and how to include handcycles. (Gretchen Ertl /Action Images / Reuters)

The New York Marathon has similarly introduced a small, non-competitive handcycle category. The Toronto Waterfront Marathon does not permit handcycles.

For some racers, it's not about inclusion, it's about the integrity of the sport.

During the Boston Marathon controversy, American Paralympic medalist Amanda McGroy wrote an impassioned blog post defending the prohibition of handcycles in athletics competitions.

"The issue is straightforward," McGroy wrote. "Handcycles are bikes with gears, and any athlete who chooses to use a handcycle in a running event does not deserve the same recognition as an athlete using a pushrim chair."

Looking for a middle lane

Tely 10 organisers say inclusion is an important principal of the race, and they've tried to find a compromise with Butler.

The NLAA has offered Butler the use of a push-rim wheelchair, but he says that using a new piece of equipment in a 10-mile race would be too hard on his body.

"You can't just jump into a racing chair out of the gate and do a road race. You gotta be prepared for it." Butler said.

"They're totally different. You gotta put training in. Meantime, you can't use them on streets, in traffic. It's not safe. And you can't use them on trails, because it's not designed for it."

Mel Fitzgerald supports allowing handcycles in athletics competitions. Fitzgerald is a member of the Canadian Wheelchair Sports Hall of Fame, and a multiple Paralympic medal winner. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

Mel Fitzgerald says that if the Boston Marathon and other major athletics competitions can find a way to accommodate handcycles, then the Tely 10 could do the same.

"I think the thing is, how can we include these people? Let's look at other jurisdictions and see how they do it." 

The 92nd annual Tely 10 Road Race is scheduled for July 28th, but the prohibition on handcycles applies to all NLAA-sanctioned road races. Meanwhile, Bicycle NL is starting to include a handcycle category in some bicycle races.

Butler and Fitzgerald both competed in the Pouch Cove Classic using handcycles.

But Butler says he's determined to keep pushing; in his training and for handcycles in races like the Tely 10.

"This is our equipment." said Butler.

Handcycles may be controversial in traditional athletics competitions, but many bicycle races have begun allowing them. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

About the Author

Zach Goudie is a journalist and video producer with CBC in St. John's, NL.

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