Meet the Paralympic Hopeful Who Is Paving the Way for Handcyclists

/ Photography by Geoffrey Knott, Danielle Zickl
Photo credit: Geoffrey Knott

From Bicycling

In late August, nearly 2,000 athletes gathered in Lima, Peru, for the 2019 Parapan American Games—among them was paracyclist Brandon Lyons, who was making his debut on the international stage. It was also just one of the many events that will help determine whether or not all of his hard work at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, has paid off as he eyes the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Lyons, 29, didn’t grow up cycling. Instead, he channeled his efforts into team sports like football, basketball, and lacrosse while growing up in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. But on May 24, 2014, Lyons fractured his T5 and T6 vertebrae when he accidentally dove headfirst into shallow water at a beach in Ocean City, Maryland, while on vacation during Memorial Day weekend. He was paralyzed from the chest down.

Photo credit: Geoffrey Knott
Photo credit: Geoffrey Knott
Photo credit: Geoffrey Knott

He was immediately flown to the nearest hospital—the University of Maryland’s Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore—and prepped for surgery to stabilize his spine. He spent the next month in rehab relearning how to perform normal, everyday tasks such as bathing, changing, and feeding himself.

“I was adamant about trying to get back up and continue living,” Lyons told Bicycling. And while that meant being able to cook himself dinner and drive himself, that also meant getting back to the passion that had shaped his life: sports.

During inpatient rehab in Baltimore, Lyons began handcycling to build up his strength, which got the wheels in his head spinning.

“Prior to my accident, I had signed up for the Marine Corps Marathon,” he said. “When I was introduced to the handcycle, I thought I could still do the race.” However, it took Lyons a couple of weeks to get the hang of handcycling for longer periods of time.

“The first time, it was hard to get out of my driveway—my muscles had to build up strength from laying in a hospital,” he said. “But the second time I took [the handcycle] out, I got a grasp on it. I thought, ‘This is a way to leave my wheelchair.’”

Just five months after his accident, Lyons completed the Marine Corps Marathon in 2:51:43.

Photo credit: Geoffrey Knott
Photo credit: Geoffrey Knott
Photo credit: Geoffrey Knott

In 2016, Lyons moved from his hometown of Mechanicsburg to San Diego to take part in a clinical trial that involved putting stem cells into his spinal cord in the hopes that he’d be able to walk again. He eventually withdrew from the program, but his time in San Diego wasn’t all for naught. Lyons met David Bailey, a former motocross world champion who became paralyzed after a crash and started racing Ironmans in a handcycle.

“I brought my bike back to San Diego, since I’d have someone to ride with,” Lyons said. “But the more we rode together, the more I wanted to beat this guy, and I started getting faster.”

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That same year, Lyons finished the Boston Marathon in sixth place with a time of 1:45:27. Soon after the race, he saw an ad that the USA Paralympic Cycling team was looking for new athletes to join its Residence Program and train to compete in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. With his strong showing in Boston, he reached out and made his case.


In March 2017, he received an invitation to try out, and two months later—on May 24—he was accepted. Exactly three years after becoming paralyzed, Lyons became the first handcyclist to be a full-time resident at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Photo credit: Geoffrey Knott
Photo credit: Geoffrey Knott

The dedicated training was intense, but welcome. It forced Lyons to train efficiently and use new muscle groups that could help him excel in international cycling races.

Lyons competes in four events—time trial, road race, criterium, and team relay—and trains 20 hours a week on bike and five to seven hours a week in gym. He’s on the bike seven days a week and in the gym three days a week—but this number drops down to two days per week when the season is in full swing.

When it comes to strength training, his coach, Chris Dellasega, has him focus a lot on explosive push/pull movements—such as bench presses, dips, and pull-ups—at low repetitions to help him work on his speed and power on the bike, especially when it comes to the arm strength he needs to spin his wheels on his handcycle.

Photo credit: Geoffrey Knott
Photo credit: Geoffrey Knott
Photo credit: Geoffrey Knott

Lyons still works as a supervising associate at the Denver location of accounting firm Ernst & Young while training full-time.

“I’ve learned learned time management,” he said. “[Ernst & Young] gives me a lot of flexibility, though—they’ve been so invested in this journey and also invested in developing me as an employee.”

Photo credit: Geoffrey Knott
Photo credit: Geoffrey Knott

Lyons came away from the Parapan American Games with two silver medals in both the mixed time trial H1-5 and the men’s road race H3-5, and right now he is competing at the Paracycling Road World Championships in Emmen, the Netherlands, which started on September 11. (On day one, he was part of a team relay that placed second overall.) After the Road World Championships conclude this weekend, he has nine months until the Olympic Trials in June.

“Consistency, setting goals, nutrition, recovery—all of that is a huge factor in being able to see gains,” he said. “I’ve definitely tried to soak it all in. If I’m fortunate to make it to Tokyo, I know what I want to do to improve.”

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