New York City Marathon
Escort for Elite Wheelchair and Handcycle Athletes
November 3, 2006

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NYC Marathon
Passing through Ft Greene, Brooklyn

Pulaski Bridge
Crossing the Pulaski Bridge in Long Island City

Photos by Jessica Heyman and Zui Hanafusa.

New York Times

These Front-Row Seats Come with a Lot of Sweat

Printed November 6, 2006
by Micah Cohen

After negotiating nearly 23 miles of the New York City Marathon yesterday morning, Basil Ashmore, 51, and Herb Dershowitz, 61, veered left off the course, stopped and called it a day.

Then they got off their bicycles.

They were 2 of the 78 cyclists who volunteered to ride alongside the wheelchair and handcycle racers to prevent pedestrians and motorists from wandering onto the course and into the athletes’ way.

Kurt Fearnley of Australia followed the path that Ashmore and Dershowitz cleared and finished first in a course-record 1 hours 29 minutes 23 seconds.

“That guy was really moving,” Ashmore said. “It was not easy staying with him.”

Pedestrians and motorists seem less aware of the wheelchair and handcycle competitions, said Bob Laufer, the coordinator of the wheelchair division of the New York City Marathon. In past races, there were near misses.

“Some wheelchair racers reported afterward that they had to swerve to avoid pedestrians,” Laufer said. “We just wanted to act before anything major happened.”

After the 2003 marathon, Laufer enlisted Richard Rosenthal, 67, a former president of the New York Cycle Club, to help prevent collisions on the course with a formal cycling detail. Rosenthal had volunteered in 1991 and 1992 to guide the wheelchair racers.

“I recall all too well a school-bus driver backing up into the path of an oncoming wheelchair, utterly irrespective of my screaming and yelling,” Rosenthal wrote in an e-mail message he sent to the cyclists Saturday night.

This year, Rosenthal and Laufer provided the wheelchair and handcycle racers with more protection than ever. The 78 cyclists who volunteered yesterday were almost quadruple the total from 2004, Rosenthal said.

Rosenthal requires the volunteers he accepts to meet his criteria. He asked riders to be able to maintain a speed of 18 miles an hour, which is how fast the elite handcyclists can go. He asked the volunteers not to talk to the racers because the distraction could give some racers an unfair advantage, he said. And he did not want volunteers there for the excitement alone, he said.

There were a few accidents yesterday among the wheelchair racers — including a minor wipeout by Fearnley — but none were caused by spectator interference.

Rosenthal assigned a pair of cyclists to each of 38 disabled athletes. The cyclists rode on either side of the racer, always pedaling just a little ahead. Wearing fluorescent yellow vests and using whistles, the cyclists kept intruders at bay.

“You just blow your whistle a lot,” said Gerry Oxford, 52, a systems analyst in Manhattan.

Rosenthal’s group reflects the diversity of the city and the marathon field. There is Marten L. denBoer, 51, an associate provost at Queens College; Kurt Gustafsson, 41, a caterer; and Neal K. Fujishige, 47, a dentist. There is an orthopedic surgeon; a hedge-fund manager; the president of the municipal council in Irvington, N.J.; a chef; a conductor for New Jersey Transit; a chiropractor and five architects. Harold E. Varmus, 66, who won a Nobel Prize for medicine in 1989, was part of last year’s contingent, Rosenthal said.

Rosenthal recruited from New York-area cycling clubs. He brought in members of Fast and Fab, a gay and lesbian cycling club, and the Major Taylor Iron Riders, whose membership is predominantly African-American. Rosenthal recruited members of the Kissena Cycle Club of Queens; the Staten Island Bicycling Association; the New York Cycle Club; and others.

Rosenthal said his primary purpose was to provide the wheelchair and handcycle racers with a course free of obstacles, but he also hoped to “marshal a single voice for cycling considerations,” he said, by cobbling together people who could make unlikely connections.

Rick Jakobson, 44, acknowledged another benefit to volunteering.

“To get to ride through New York City without hitting one red light is wonderful,” he said. “I think only the president gets to do that.”

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