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New York win puts zest back into Zanardi

8 November 2011

Former F1 and Champ Car star Alex Zanardi has revealed how winning the handbike category at the New York City Marathon at the weekend allowed him to bounce back from the news of Marco Simoncelli's death.

The Italian, who raced unsuccessfully with Williams and Lotus in F1 but found considerably more highs in the USA after switching to Chip Ganassi Racing, has been competing in handbike competitions since finding new direction in the wake of his near-fatal CART accident at the Lausitzring in 2001. Aged just 35, Zanardi lost both legs in the incident, which came when he emerged from the pits while leading the race, forcing him to look elsewhere for his competitive thrills.

However, competing in the Venice marathon coincided with a black weekend at Sepang, where young MotoGP charger Simoncelli was killed in a freak accident, forcing the normally ebullient Italian to tone down his celebrations.

"On Sunday 23 October, I lived an unforgettable experience with Francesco Canali at the Venice Marathon, the nicest birthday gift I could do to myself," Zanardi wrote in his latest press communiqué, "Unfortunately, once crossed the finish line, I was told the terrible news of Marco Simoncelli passing away and, honestly, I lost all the enthusiasm to tell you this memorable experience in the way it deserved. I will do this in the right time, I promise but today it is not that moment yet."

Instead, Zanardi headed back to his happiest hunting ground, looking for success in New York to bolster his bid for a place at the London Paralympics in 2012, coming away with handbike in a time of 1hr 13mins 58secs, despite a few fraught moments along the way.

"Something else happened last weekend that I want to talk about: the New York Marathon," he enthused, "I travelled to States with my family and a bunch of my dearest and nicest friends and we had a lot of fun, despite a very tight schedule. We managed to do all the things that have to be done in the 'Big Apple' [but] what is there to say if, before coming back home, you manage to win a marathon - 'the Marathon' - in front of your friends and of thousands of people packed around the course?

"It has not been a walk in the park though. On Friday, when I got my number I also had a look at the entry list and it immediately seemed to be an 'easy' one. In reality, despite the absence of some strong athletes that usually run the race, I did not see the name of Dane Pilon, a strong American athlete on my same category that already won this marathon twice. I realised I had not seen Rafal Wilk's name either, an athlete that is not as strong as Pilon in sprints but that, on the distance, would have not been an easy one.

"The sun and temperature were excellent and I started the race pushing but in a controlled way. The start was uphill - on Verrazzano bridge the course was climbing for more than two kilometres with a slope ranging from 4-6%. I set my pace finding myself in front [and], as foreseeable, three of us were left on top of the bridge, the three main contenders. Without pushing too hard in descents and climbing up again on ascending plateaux (the slope of the course is never constant), I warmed the 'car' up as best as I could and I admit that I tested several time the resistance of my rivals using nearly all my resources.

"I tried to do this on the ascending bits of overpasses, on bridges like the Pulaski that marks halfway, or on the Queensboro taking [the course] down to First Avenue.
[There is] no way, without excessive efforts, I would have not managed to get to Central Park alone and therefore I decided to stay put and to control the race waiting for the final sprint.

"This is how it went, if I had given everything I would have probably paid the toll of the recent inconstant work when I could not train as I wanted due to the thousand commitments. However, the sprint is one of the things I do better and reaching the finish line relatively fresh I could have probably played my best cards. Drama hit while getting to Central Park from Columbus Circle at less than 700 meters to the finish line... on the access ramp a bump made my chain get off the gear! Fortunately, Dane Pilon, who was following me, realised this just a little bit too late [and], when he sprinted to take advantage of this, I already had managed to put the chain back at its right place and, sprinting in turn, I got back on to him.

"It was still too early for the final sprint and he eased down to check my intentions. From a certain view-point, this little contingency turned out to be a resource: thanks to this random event we found each other side by side and he could not place himself in my slipstream that was already occupied.... We kept on going studying each other until the sign of the 26th mile and, despite being a bit early, he sprinted. I kept close to him, then, at 200 yards from the line, I pushed hard, overtaking him strongly.

"When I knew I was at the finish line, we passed over some plastic cable bearers that were quite high that were probably serving the chrono system and behind myself I heard a odd noise! Pilon must have touched one of these protections with the handles and left the control on his handbike hitting the barriers. Obviously, I am sorry for this and now that I am writing I am unaware of his conditions; hopefully he did just ended up with a few bruises and a race that did not finish in the way he hoped for.

"Things went well for me instead and I am really happy for the result, for triumphing in a country that gave me a lot and that did not forget what I have done in the past at a sporting level, judging from how many times my name was shouted from people along the course: this really warms my heart."


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