While many racing drivers use cycling as a way to stay in shape, it never really had huge appeal for double Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) series champion Alex Zanardi.
Although he had a bicycle for training back when he was racing in CART and Formula One, it was always more of a chore than anything else. But that feeling changed when he got his first ride on a hand-cycle.
“The very first time that I push the cranks of a hand-cycle I loved it,” said the 45-year-old Italian who lost both his legs in a terrifying crash during the 2001 CART event at Germany’s EuroSpeedway.
“Cycling is a great passion of mine now that I am using my hands. I started to use the hand-cycle to keep myself fit and then I decide to do it a bit more, and then on and on and on.”
In fact, he was so enthralled with his new ride that he decided to give up motor racing and go for the gold – literally.
Three years after taking up the sport, Zanardi heads to London in September to represent Italy in the 2012 Paralympic Games. He will compete in two individual events – the road race and the time trial, and likely be a member of Italy’s relay team, too.
A hand-cycle has the chassis inverted so the pedals are positioned at the top of the bike. The low sitting rider uses his hands to turn the pedals rather than his feet.
While the two sports are vastly different, Zanardi insisted his motor racing background does help him on the bike.
“At the end of the day, everything you have to do in order to reach what you are aiming for is very similar,” he said.
“I am a very curious person and this has helped throughout my entire career – one of the best things for me is to go to my garage and look at my bicycle and think about all the modifications that I could do. There’s no doubt that I have wasted time, but I have also definitely made gains that my competitors have never tried.”
The Italian was CART champion in 1997 and 1998, racking up 14 wins in 51 starts driving for the Target Chip Ganassi Team in three seasons beginning in 1996. Zanardi also raced in F1 from 1991 to 1994 and again in 1999.
He was making a comeback with the Mo Nunn outfit in 2001 after a year away from racing when his accident happened.
The fact that the affable Italian is even around to compete in the games is nothing short of a miracle. With 13 laps to go in the 2001 Memorial 500 on the German oval in Lausitz, Zanardi’s Mo Nunn racer spun exiting the pit lane and ended up sideways on track with cars approaching at about 320 km/h. He was broadsided by Canadian Alex Tagliani with the impact cutting Zanardi’s car in two and slicing off both of his legs above the knee.
He survived despite the loss of all but one litre of blood – something that is supposed to be medically impossible – and several cardiac arrests in the helicopter on the way to hospital. Looking back, his implausible survival only foreshadowed what was to come.
In the 11 years since his accident, Zanardi returned to top level competitive racing and won four World Touring Car Series races driving a hand-controlled BMW, he became the first person with a disability to test a Formula One car, he broke the winner’s tape in several marathons in the hand-cycling class, including the 2011 New York City Marathon, and he took his first International Cycling Union World Cup gold medals earlier this year in Rome.
Nineteen months after his crash, Zanardi drove a specially modified 2002 Champ Car around the EuroSpeedway to complete the remaining 13 laps of the race he suffered his accident. His best effort of 37.487 seconds, or 314.26 km/h, in a year-old car would have put him in fifth on the grid for the 2003 race.
While he has spent much of the past decade being an inspiration to many and astonishing most with his accomplishments, the ever-modest Zanardi insisted he never set out to be anything but himself.
“Amazing people was not my plan,” he said laughing when asked when he’d stop doing astounding things.
“My plan is to do what I like and if along the way somebody says, ‘Alex what you are doing is great,’ the only thing I can do is raise my hat and say, ‘Thank you.’ But I wouldn’t succeed in amazing anyone if I did it for only this reason.”
Like with many things Zanardi has accomplished, he beat the odds in getting onto the Italian Paralympic team. Not only did he come to the sport late, he also started hand-cycling in his early 40s. That fact alone had his wife Daniela tell him he was crazy for even considering an attempt to qualify for the 2012 games.
Then again, she likely should have known better than most that Zanardi isn’t usually dissuaded by slim chances.
His hand-cycle events go in early September at the Brands Hatch circuit, about an hour outside London where he raced previously in cars. Early in his career, he took second in his only F3000 championship start at the circuit in 1991 and later raced there eight times in his BMW touring car, with a best result of third in 2008. The course for his race will use the circuit as well as local roads.
Although Zanardi feels he’s well-prepared as the games approach and hopes to bring home some hardware, he also knows there’s a tough road ahead.
“I have great respect for my opponents and I am going to London thinking that I can do well. I would be lying if I said, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll see, I don’t know.’ I believe that I can win one or two medals and if it happens I will be very happy and if it doesn’t, life will go on anyway,” he said.
“Sometimes, because I am doing para-cycling, people may believe that the field is not as competitive in terms of quality as the races I used to do in motorsport but, believe me, I would not have dumped it in favour of this had it been easy for me.”
And once the Paralympics is done, Zanardi will start looking for a new challenge, perhaps the triathlon in the 2016 Paralympics.
His preference would be to adapt an IndyCar so he can finally get a shot at driving in the Indianapolis 500, which never happened in his time in CART due to the split in North American open wheel racing between 1996 and 2008.
While he has “maximum respect” for IndyCar drivers, Zanardi feels it would be easier to take a hand-controlled open wheel car to the limit on 2.5-mile oval like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway than it was to push in his BMW touring car at Italy’s famed Monza circuit.
“On an oval, most of the time you drive around with the throttle wide open, so as long as you have a good throttle control, you could be really fast if you know how to steer the wheel. You still have to brake, especially for pit stops, but I think I could manage that,” he said.
“In a perfect world, Chip Ganassi would call me and ask if I wanted to do the Indy 500. That would be cool. Let me do this first and then we will see.”
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