Worcester, Mass.
September 1, 1996

O'Neil powers upright to human-powered title

By Lynne Tolman

    Mike O'Neil of North Brookfield , a mechanic at Bicycle Alley in Worcester, went to Las Vegas last month to watch the World Human Powered Vehicle Championships. The offbeat races for land, water and air craft involve many variations of recumbent bicycles -- long, low-slung two-wheelers with seats like beach chairs -- and O'Neil wanted to try some out before shopping for his own.

    "I've biked across the country three times," said O'Neil, 29, "and I figure it's about time I went across on a lawn chair and had some comfort."

    O'Neil took his Bianchi TSX, a standard upright road bike with Campagnolo Ergopower shifting, planning a side trip to Hoover Dam. At the races, a competitor named Sam Whittingham from Victoria, British Colombia, asked to use the Bianchi in the one-eighth mile drag race, since a teammate was using his recumbent. O'Neil figured if someone else could race the bike, he could, too.

    It was a spur-of-the-moment decision that resulted in two world championship trophies for O'Neil.

    Many of the fastest human-powered vehicles have fairings, sleek windshields that reduce wind drag. But this year's championships included races for non-faired machines as well, and O'Neil's was not the only upright.

    O'Neil's bike was too big for Whittingham, even with the seat as low as it could go, but the drag race is a stand-up sprint, so they took the seat post right out. Whittingham had the fastest time in the qualifying round, and O'Neil was second fastest. They progressed through a series of heats, and it came down to the two of them. Whittingham won by a substantial margin, in 16.766 seconds, to O'Neil's 18.125. O'Neil got the silver-medal trophy, and decided to enter some more races there.

    In the one-hour time trial on a banked oval speedway, 17 entrants -- men and women of all ages, some on tandems -- started at once in 110-degree heat. "Nearly everyone was on recumbents. That's why it was such a surprise that I won," O'Neil said. "Recumbents have such an aerodynamic advantage."

    O'Neil lapped everyone early on, except a Dutch woman named Anya Van Der Hulst on a yellow recumbent who, it would turn out, won all her events. About 45 minutes into the race, she was still half a lap ahead of O'Neil, "so I just picked it up a little bit, and with about seven minutes to go, I caught her," he said. "We played cat and mouse for a while, and by the end I had half a lap on her." The gold was his, for a ride of about 24 miles.

    His final race, called Last Man Out, was "the hardest thing I've ever done on a bicycle," O'Neil said. Riders start together on the same track, three-eighths of a mile long, and each lap the last rider to cross the line is eliminated. The Dutch woman got permission to enter the men's race "just for fun, with no effect on the medal standings," O'Neil said, so "it was a grudge match."

    Sure enough, it came down to Van Der Hulst and O'Neil. Officials waved a flag to signal the final lap. "I just sat on her until we came into turn 4, and then I gunned it. I beat her to the line, and I raised my hands, and I'm coasting into the bank to slow down, when everyone starts yelling at me: "One more lap!' They'd waved the wrong flag. Well, she'd kept her line, and I couldn't catch up. But then the judges rescinded the second flag, so I got the gold."

    O'Neil's success on an off-the-shelf upright caused some grumbling, as the idea of the International Human Powered Vehicle Association is to encourage innovation. "Up until now I always thought it was more of a bike than I needed," O'Neil said.

   O'Neil still wants a recumbent -- Van Der Hulst let him try hers after the race -- but his victories reinforce a cycling adage: It's not the machine, it's the motor.
    Joseph Bucciaglia had to wait three years to defend his title in the Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb, because bad weather canceled the race last September and the September before. Organizers moved the race up to Aug. 24 this year, and the weather was better: 63 degrees at the base of the mountain, and 45 at the summit -- with a 25-mph wind bringing the wind chill to 23 degrees.

    Bucciaglia, a mechanical engineer from Willow Grove, Pa., won the eight-mile climb in 1 hour, 30 seconds. That was two minutes faster than his 1993 winning time. The 26-year-old WPI graduate said a headwind hit him at the five-mile turn, and "I knew then there would be little chance of breaking any record." Olympian Dale Stetina set the record of 57 minutes, 41 seconds, in 1980.

    Second place went to John Funk of Putney, Vt. (1:03:01), and third was Robert Baiguy of Portland, Maine (1:04:38).

   Marilyn Ruscekas of Warren, Vt., won the women's race with a record time of 1:14:19. Amy Regan of Brookline, N.H., was the next woman, 10 minutes behind.

    Of some 300 starters, more than 270 made it to the top. Finishers from Central Massachusetts included John David of Worcester, who placed sixth among men in the 55-64 age group with a time of 1:46:12; and Milford Bicycle employee Eric Cournoyer of Uxbridge, 66th overall at 1:20:41.
    TIP OF THE HELMET -- To Ed Kross of Framingham, fastest rider in the 750-mile Boston-Montreal-Boston randonee last weekend. Kross, 37, went the distance in 51 hours, 52 minutes, just 16 minutes slower than his record-setting time in 1993. He only stopped to sleep for 15 minutes on the way up and an hour on the return trip.

    Melinda Lyon of Boxford regained the women's record from Lindy King of Boston with a time of 57 hours, 58 minutes.
    Frank McCormack's racing faltered after his standout performance in the Olympic trials failed to win him a spot on the U.S. team, but he's back at the top of his game. The Saturn rider from Leicester won the national professional criterium championship two weeks ago in Downers Grove, Ill., becoming the first rider to win the title two years in a row. McCormack also won the opening prologue and the final stage of the five-day Tour de 'Toona in Altoona, Pa., last weekend.

    The defending champion of the five-day Killington Stage Race in Vermont, McCormack won the prologue time trial Thursday and placed third in yesterday's road race. The race continues with the 45-mile Pepsi-Rutland Criterium today and the 98-mile Saab Road Race tomorrow.
    The United States won 13 cycling medals in the Paralympic Games in Atlanta last month, more than any other country. Two bronze medals belong to Massachusetts riders: Pam Fernandes, 34, of Needham, blind from diabetes, riding a tandem with Mike Rosenberg of Eugene, Ore., finished third in the 3-kilometer pursuit; and Corey Huntley, 22, of Springfield, who has cerebral palsy, was a medalist in the 5,000-meter tricycle time trial.

    The United States got two gold medals in cycling, compared to France's five. Dory Selinger, 24, of Oakland, Calif., who rides with an artificial leg made of carbon fiber, broke his own world records in the kilo and pursuit and won the 200-meter sprint as well to clinch the gold in the omnium. And 25-year-old Dan Nicholson of Richmond, Va., who has cerebral palsy, dropped world champion Thomas Evans of Great Britain to win the 20-kilometer road race. Nicholson also won a silver medal in the time trial.

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