HATCHER PASS -- Rafal Wilk used his right hand to briefly wave to a modest group of cheering onlookers Sunday under a blue sky at Independence Mine.
The hand quickly returned to working in tandem with the left to churn out the final rotations of victory in the Hatcher Pass Road Race, the seventh and final stage of the Sadler's Alaska Challenge handcycling race.
Sunday's 30-mile jaunt concluded with a brutal 22.5-mile climb up Hatcher Pass, which comes with an elevation change of more than 3,500 feet. Wilk, who finished the stage in 2 hours, four minutes, 46 seconds, was fresh enough to hoot and whistle to his fans as he made the last turn and crossed the finish line to the playing of "Eye of the Tiger" over the loudspeakers. The victory also clinched the overall men's title.
"I am so very happy," said the 38-year-old from Rzeszow, Poland. "My first time in Alaska. Beautiful place, here."
Also visiting Alaska for the first time was California's Thea Rosa, the overall winner of the women's division. The 45-year-old labored through the final turn to finish Sunday's stage in 3:27:57 and battled through the tough stretches with the help of a special motivator.
"I had my three children on my mind the whole entire time," she said. "Every time I was pushing really hard, I yelled out their names: Stephanie, Ryan, Matthew. They're going to get a nice birthday surprise with my winnings."
The overall winners of each division won $3,000, and Rosa earned her money by completing the 267-mile race in 12:27:57. Walter Ablinger won the men's H2 division in 11:14:53, and Alfredo de los Santos won the men's H4 division in 11:24:53.
Wilk won the men's H3 division with the fastest overall total time of 11:04:46, nearly 50 minutes faster than H3 runner-up Carlos Moleda (11:54:35).
"I am in awe," said Moleda, a four-time Challenge participant and 1999 champ. "To be able to spend a whole week here, watching him, racing with him and talking to him, I'm humbled."
Wilk, who sustained a spinal cord injury in 2006, didn't start training full time for handcycling until 2010. His career highlight is winning two gold medals in the 2012 Summer Paralympic Games. Moleda, 50, has followed Wilk's achievements closely and was thrilled to have a chance to glean a few racing tips from him.
"I asked a lot of questions about his bike," said Moleda, of South Carolina. "That's the good thing about a race like this. You get to share and learn a lot from other people."
Most of the competitors' bikes have a wheel in the front and two in the back. On most bikes, the wheels are all the same size, but Wilk's rear wheels are about half the size in diameter of his front wheel.
Handcycling is a relatively new sport with all sorts of innovations taking place, Moleda said. If there is an advantage to having smaller rear wheels, Moleda isn't sure exactly what it is.
"It makes the frame a little shorter, maybe a little more stable around corners, because the whole center of gravity is lower," Moleda said. "But it's a rougher ride, 'cause the wheels are smaller, so we are still trying to figure out if that's the future of handcycling or just something that's unique to his bike."
After handcyclists finished the climb to Hatcher Pass, they refueled their exhausted bodies with a paper plate full of food and gathered around the edge of the parking lot at Independence Mine to cheer for those still finishing.
"There's a real sense of camaraderie," Rosa said. "Everybody is helping to get each other there, because we all want to get there."
When Rosa was grinding out the final meters of her journey, she said she heard everyone cheering. "I started to tear up," she said. "All the blood, sweat and tears are definitely worth it. It's just amazing."
Reach Jeremy Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.