Bicycling up an Italian hillside, as if pedaling through the pages of Condé Nast magazine, Aaron Keith crossed the finish line to capture his first gold medal of the season.
The 42-year-old Woodinville resident represented the United States last month in Merano, Italy, in the World Cup Championships for para-cycling.
It’s one of three World Cups held throughout the year. The event Keith won was the men’s C2 time trial.
"All the athletes are broken up into five different classifications," Keith explained. "C1 is the most disabled, and C5 is the least. I qualify in the C2 category because I have paralysis below both my knees."
For the time trials event, each rider started individually. And as Keith prepared to pedal, the idyllic beauty of his surroundings didn’t go unnoticed.
"The time trial course itself was inside a private vineyard on paved roads," he said. "The finish line went uphill out of the vineyard into the small town of Merano, to a 600-year-old church that overlooks the valley. The peaks around the vineyards are around 10,000 feet so the valley itself sits in a picturesque bowl. The snow-capped alpine peaks that sit above the valley are amazingly beautiful."
But as Keith came down the stretch, intensely focused on the finish line, he could’ve been pedaling through a Burien landfill for all he cared.
"The last mile of climbing, pushing to catch the other riders, I knew that if I caught them I had a better chance of taking the time trial win. I was trying to dig deep as hard as possible to pull out the win. My coach and wife were both there, and they were excited to see that I had the best time coming through. All those emotions were running through my head. Elation about maybe winning, and also very tired, peeling myself off the pavement at the end of that race."
He had in fact won gold. But the next day brought another event: A 5-kilometer road race through the city of Merano. As Keith explained, a different dynamic took place.
"In the road race, three categories race together," he said. "C1, C2 and C3 categories. Even though they qualify and finish separately, they still race together. The U.S. team and Italian team played tactics against one another, to see who would burn up a lot more energy trying to see who would chase down riders. So it was tactically very difficult. Unfortunately we didn’t do as well in the road race as we did in the time trial events."
Part of the problem stemmed from many tight corners which led to high speed crashes.
"I actually crashed in the last corner coming into the finish," he said. "I fractured a bone in my wrist. My bike was broken but I walked my bike across the line there and finished sixth."
Keith may have returned home to Woodinville with gold, but he remains focused on the next World Cup Championship event, which is next month in Quebec.
"We all compete hard against each other," he said. "But there’s also the realization that we’re all injured and a part of a movement of disabled people who are trying to make a name for ourselves and make awareness for other disabled athletes to come out and participate."