Once a bike racer, now on a different set of wheels

Former junior champion looks forward, not backward, at the Tour of Utah, almost two decades after a car accident left him paralyzed

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (VN) — From his wheelchair, Barry Wilcox watched the riders pass by after the finish at the University of Utah Research Park on Thursday.

He knows he could have been one of them, if only things had gone differently.

In 1994, VeloNews ran a picture of Barry Wilcox. He was an up-and-coming junior that had just finished high in the Best of the West stage race in Medford, Oregon. He was 15 years old.

Wilcox is 34 now and VeloNews is writing about him again, though it’s not as he would have imagined. He was a junior once full of promise, with two junior national time trial titles under his belt.

“I guess I feel like I could be one of those guys,” he said of the pros in Utah. “It’s awesome for them they’ve stuck with it. They’re doing it. But yeah, you always wish you could be someplace else. But that’s not the situation I’m in. you’ve got to pursue your own goals. New goals, new dreams.”

When he was 15, Wilcox won the national time trial title as a junior. He won again as a 16-year-old, in 1994.

He began competing in triathlons when he was 10, then a half marathon when he was 13. And then, Wilcox got the cycling bug.

“It only took me a year-and-a-half, and I won the first national title. And then I won the second one the next year,” Wilcox said. “It was pretty awesome, reaching your goals and all when you’re 15, 16 years old.”

An old issue of the Pacific Northwest’s Bicycle Paper makes mention of Wilcox:

“Barry Wilcox made his mark very quickly in the sport: in just a few years he catapulted his way to category two and won two junior national titles. No matter the terrain, Wilcox had the natural ability and desire to compete with the ‘big guns’ of the peloton.”

But in 1995, he fell asleep driving home from a concert. Wilcox woke up three weeks later, paralyzed from the chest down. He’d broken his neck and fractured his skull in six places.

Wilcox comes to the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah to watch, not to reminisce or feel sad. After Thursday’s sweltering stage, he asked about Christian Vande Velde, with whom he said he rode as a junior before his accident.

“I just came to check out the race with my buddy, Rusty,” Wilcox said.

“Rusty” is Rusty Beall, the former Prime Alliance and Health Net rider, who is also from Washington state and raced with Wilcox as a junior and later with his brother, Craig. The two have watched the race for three years now and Beall says Wilcox never gets down.

“No, man. Never, ever,” he said. “That’s the really cool thing about him… he’s always positive. We go for bike rides every once and a while. I’ll go for a ride, he’ll go on his handcycle. He’s an inspiration, really.”

Asked what he hoped for in his cycling career, Wilcox said the world championship stripes. His junior national team coaches had a young talent on their hands. Who knew what could have happened?

“But I kind of messed that up,” he said quietly.

Wilcox lives in Salt Lake City now, where he works as a clinical exercise physiologist. “I teach anatomy on the side for fun, too,” he said. There are good resources for those with physical limitations here and Wilcox wrote a Masters thesis looking at spinal cord injuries long-term. He’s not convinced his paralysis won’t be cured.

Wilcox isn’t bitter. He’s still a fan of the sport that once promised him so much. He’s come to the Tour of Utah for years now, and watches as much of the Tour de France as he can.

“I missed a lot of it this year. Work’ll get you,” he said.

Wilcox comes to the races now not to look back at what could have been, but to look forward. The sport is full of people that just missed it, though most don’t have a narrative like Wilcox.

“It kind of motivates you in a way,” he said of watching the race. “Yeah, I’ve got physical restrictions, you know, maybe permanent, who knows. There’s lots of technology going on. In 2016, if I can qualify for the handcycle division, I’d like to try to qualify for the Paralympics.”

And hopefully VeloNews will write about Barry Wilcox then, too.