“I was in town just wanted to help out, maybe sweep the streets or something,” Bell said.
But not every volunteer working Saturday’s Sunny King Criterium, which anchors the annual Noble Street Festival in Anniston, or Sunday’s Cheaha Challenge and Foothills Classic in Piedmont has trained with Lance Armstrong.
Not every volunteer has raced in the Olympic Trials, competed or trained in 33 countries or built a second act in life after a crash that left him in a coma.
Not every volunteer has sold a business and moved back to the place of his roots, with a five-year plan to earn advanced degrees and help Jacksonville State University become a Paralympic training hub.
So, if one sees Bart Bell at this weekend’s races, shake the hand of a man who’s following the call to give back, nearly 21 years after the dreadful crash that nearly ended his life, let alone his cycling career.
Oh, and forgive his amazement at what the area’s cycling enterprise has become. He spent a lot of years in Colorado Springs, while folks here were building one of Alabama’s top tourism events.
It’s been a while since 1993, when Bell stood on a truck bed and said some of sports’ most famous words to start the inaugural Cheaha Challenge.
“Start your engines,” he remembers telling cyclists less than a year after his accident, “watch the road and go!”
Bell has been back in Calhoun County since March 28, when he returned to begin work toward his new venture. He hopes to devote his life to a program that, he hopes, JSU will start.
“Jacksonville State is trying to put together a plan to find out the feasibility of making Jacksonville State kind of a training center hub for Paralympic athletes,” he said.
The desire to become involved in such a program comes from the heart of a man who made a three-month comeback attempt in track cycling, after his accident.
Initial steps in Bell’s new venture include the Jacksonville native returning to his alma mater to earn a Master’s degree, then Ph.D. He has also had discussions with John Hammett, dean of the college of education and professional studies and Bell’s former instructor in exercise science.
The idea for the Paralympic hub arose from discussions about Bell’s graduate program.
“He and I got to talking, and I said, ‘Bart, with your connections, we can potentially do this,’” Hammett said. “He and I have been talking.”
Hammett has taken the idea to JSU president Bill Meehan, who seemed receptive.
“He’s supportive of it,” Hammett said. “Of course, at this point, JSU could not donate any funding, other than in-kind, like use of facilities.”
Bell sees the idea as a niche enhancer for JSU.
“Alabama and Auburn are top tier in football and baseball,” he said. “Jacksonville State, they have had success in other areas, and this can be something else that we’re good at.”
Bell played football at Jacksonville High School but readily admits he didn’t have long-term potential in the sport. He was strong enough academically to graduate at 17, however, and pursue another dream.
It started when he was 16 and watching sprint cyclists on TV, during the 1984 Olympics.
“I told my dad then, ‘I can do that,’” he said.
Within a year, he pedaled his way into the U.S. Junior National developmental program, along with the likes of Armstrong, George Hincapie and others now so well known in and beyond the cycling community. Armstrong and Hincapie raced on the road and Bell in the velodrome.
From age 17 to 24, Bell raced around the world, chasing a dream that led him to the Olympic Trials on June 28, 1992, in Blaine, Minn. He was steering a tandem bike with partner Tom Brinker in the first of the best-of-three championship races.
On the final lap, Bell attempted to shoot the inside lane and pass when he saw another tandem move toward the outside. The rest, he knows only because he has seen video shot by an aunt.
His front wheel collapsed when it appeared to brush against a pedal on the other bike, and Bell hit the ground hard enough to push his brain back in his head.
He would spend two months in hospitals and another year in rehab. He has no memory of a span between June 24 and Aug. 5 of 1992.
Bell said he was in a coma for two weeks and then in a state between coma and full consciousness for another three. When he was back to full consciousness, doctors told him he would likely be wheelchair-bound for eight to nine months.
“I said, ‘No way,’” he said. “When I’m out of hospitals, I’m walking out.”
With determined rehab work, he walked out.
Today, he shows no evidence of lasting effects from the accident at first glance. If tired, he might limp noticeably. His balance wanes at times.
His solution? Jog, don’t run.
Not wanting his cycling career to end in a crash, he attempted a comeback with the U.S. National team. He tried for three months, but no one had to tell him to end his comeback.
“After about three months, I was like, ‘I know, I know, I know’,” he said. “Thank you very much, and I came back home and went to school.”
Business and back
After graduating from JSU, Bell settled back out in Colorado Springs, where Olympic training operations are based, in 1997. He started a family and went into business.
He and his wife Carri would eventually own rights to 19 Pit Stop Grill franchises, and Bell has consulted other franchise startups.
Now, Bell wants to redirect back to the exercise science path, with an eye toward helping wounded military veterans and others who want to transition into Paralympic sports.
“I’ve worked and been around a lot of really great people,” he said. “I’m very fortunate. I’ve traveled a lot, and I want to help those who really need it.”
He’s pursuing a master’s in human performance, which will take two years. Then he’ll work toward his Ph.D.
Hammett said Bell will work as a graduate assistant initially then research assistant.
The Paralympic training hub project is in the “fact-finding phase,” Hammett said, but “it’s a legitimate effort to move toward this. The fact that we have degrees in exercise science, lends itself to work here.”
Hammett calls Bell one of his “top five” students and expresses no doubt that Bell can help make the project a reality.
“Bart can back it up,” he said. “When he sets his mind to something, he can do it.”
Bell’s return to Calhoun County also came just in time for this year’s annual cycling weekend. He met principal organizer Mike Poe through a mutual friend and offered to volunteer.
Bell said he didn’t expect any fanfare around his history in cycling and considers racing a long-gone chapter in his life. He is impressed, however, with the growth of the local cycling community since he got the first Cheaha Challenge started in 1993.
Poe and others have grown the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association and the scope of its signature events, reviving the Sunny King Criterium races in 2003 and adding the Foothills Classic Road Race in 2010. The races and Noble Street Festival have grown so much that representatives from the NEABA are looking at outside groups, like Georgia’s Medalist Sports, that have experience running such events.
Bell, who helped stuff 700 race packets at a volunteer pizza party this week, remembers the local cycling community as “a small, tight-knit group” in the early 1990s.
“Everyone was serious about it, wanted to be a part of it, but no one knew what to do,” he said. “They’ve done great.”
Now, the cycling community has a former Olympic-class racer back home, looking to do great things of his own.
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.