Matt Feeney came careening around a corner, his wheelchair tipping perilously on two wheels as he hurtled toward the finish line. It was the slalom, the final event of last October's National Off-Road Wheelchair Championships—the first mountain-bike races exclusively for disabled athletes—and Feeney, who was paralyzed below the abdomen in a 1988 diving accident, was in the lead.
Earlier in the day he had finished fourth among 22 competitors in the downhill—a race that Feeney says "was scarier than you can ever imagine." Speeds of 50 miles per hour were common on the three-quarter-mile course in General Butler State Park in Carrollton, Ky. And, as in most mountain-bike events, there were a few wheel-bending, blood-drawing wipeouts (though no serious injuries). Feeney had prevailed in the previous afternoon's cross-country race, winning by more than a minute, and as he skidded around the last gate in the slalom and across the finish line, his time was again the fastest. The inaugural off-road wheelchair title was his.
Feeney, 31, a ski instructor at the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, Colo., and a world-class disabled ski racer, had been waiting for years to take up mountain biking. The problem was that nobody had figured out a way for a wheelchair-bound athlete to compete seriously. So last August Feeney was delighted when a friend who worked in a bike shop told him of the Enduro All-Terrain Chair (ATC), a wheelchair rumored to be the equivalent of a top of the line mountain bike. He decided he had to participate in the national off-road championships, sponsored by the chair's manufacturer, Wheel Ring.
"As soon as I found out about the championships, I called Wheel Ring and begged them to lend me a chair to race in," says Feeney. "They agreed. So I drove from Colorado to Kentucky in 18 hours. I just had to see this chair."
The ATC looks like a go-kart that has rolled off the set of a Star Trek flick. The frame is made of titanium and rides on four knobby mountain-bike tires—two enormous ones in the back, two small ones up front. The rig comes with twin independent rear drum brakes, mag wheels, anodized rims, dual front-suspension forks, sealed bearings, alloy headsets, a self-aligning steering system and a multi-position seat. In less technical terms: The ATC is mighty impressive.
The chair is the brainchild of Patrick Summers, an engineer who founded Wheel Ring in 1984. He considers his company an alternative to the two manufacturers that sell about 80% of all wheelchairs in the U.S. "We're always looking for niches the big two aren't interested in—kids' chairs, lightweight chairs, athletes' chairs," says Summers. Wheel Ring chairs are built from scratch in the company headquarters, a turn-of-the-century former silk factory in Manchester, Conn.
Work began on the ATC in early 1992. After dozens of experiments with chassis designs and frame materials, production started a year later. "We're pouring most of our money into this chair," says Summers. So far roughly 300 ATCs have been sold, for about $2,500 each. According to U.S. Department of Health statistics, 307,000 Americans under age 44 use wheelchairs; Summers sees them all as future customers. "The ATC is also for fishermen and farmers and people who simply want to stroll in the woods," he says. "For hunters, we even offer camouflage-colored upholstery."
But mountain biking is where Summers is placing the biggest emphasis. This fall, Wheel Ring will sponsor six qualifying races and the championships. The ambitious schedule stems from the success of the first championships. The rules were the same as for mountain-bike races, and so was the action. In the slalom and downhill even the times were similar (they were slower in the cross-country race), and the chair's handling won raves.
The National Off-Road Bicycle Association, mountain biking's governing body, has allowed the ATC in its races this season. Feeney, whose prize for winning the wheelchair championships was a new ATC, plans to enter a few events. "I can't wait to race against the two-wheelers," he says, "and thrash some of 'em."
Michael Finkel, who lives in Bozeman, Mont., writes often for Sports Illustrated.