Darren Hicks could hardly hide his disappointment after his first ever Paralympics race on Thursday. The 36-year-old, who competes in the C2 3000 individual pursuit, just missed out on qualifying for the gold medal race, despite riding what would have been a world record time.
Instead, he qualified third behind Frenchman Alexandre Léauté, who broke the world record in the same heat as Hicks, and Belgium’s Ewoud Vromant, who went on to smash it in the final ride of qualifying.
“I pushed a bit too much on the back straight, probably just used a little bit too much juice down the back there,” Hicks said. “I knew I was in a little bit of strife. Just a miscalculation.”
But two hours later, after Vromant was disqualified over the use of his saddle, Hicks learned he would be riding for gold after all. It was yet another twist in a career – and a life – of brutal lows and unexpected highs.
From the age of 10, Hicks was a committed BMX rider. He loved the sport dearly. A horror road accident at 29 changed all of that.
In 2014, Hicks was behind the wheel of a sewerage truck and on his third day on the job when the brakes failed. The rig smashed into cars at the traffic lights, killing two people.
Hicks broke his C2 vertebra and had his right leg amputated above the knee. “After my accident, my wife was the only person that could make the decision as to whether we would amputate or not amputate,” Hicks told Channel 7. “Knowing that my life had always revolved around BMX in particular since I was 10, it was a huge decision, because to her that was sort of crushing my dreams.
“Getting to the Paralympic Games and competing is my way of showing that she made 100% the right decision.”
To make matters worse, Hicks was initially charged over the crash. As he began the road to recovery, he used a prosthetic leg to jump on a bike for first time once again.
He took up para-cycling, but struggled to be competitive in his first two races and initially gave up on competition. Six months later, a local cycling coach suggested he try riding with only his left leg. He did so, and by 2017 he won his first national title.
Yet Hicks’s burgeoning career was being hampered by the crash charges, which prevented him from riding for Australia. Things turned again. Jann Spiess, who lost her husband in the crash, surprised many in their home city of Adelaide by publicly backing Hicks, saying the charges against him should be thrown out.
Crucially, she wrote to Cycling Australia, telling the sporting body it should also back its fledgling para-athlete. In late 2018, the charges against Hicks were dropped.
And on Thursday afternoon – after frustration over that “miscalculation” in the heats was dissolved by a stroke of luck – Hicks was hunched over his bike, about to race for a Paralympic gold medal.
Sure, it wasn’t quite the storybook ending he might have hoped for.
Like he did in their opening round duel, Léauté started out ahead and with each lap, his lead just got bigger, until it reached about three seconds. Hicks held it at that, but he just could not reel in the Frenchman.
Léauté, 20, came away with the gold and a new world record, besting the blistering time he set in the heats. It was a stunning performance. Still, Hicks’s silver was one better than what he thought was possible only hours earlier.
Post-race, the cocktail of emotions were written on his face. He mopped up the sweat in between deep sighs. He was smiling, just.
“I feel for Ewoud,” Hicks said of the disqualified Belgian. “He rode an incredible ride, and deserved to be in that gold medal ride-off. I guess rules are rules.”
After the dust had settled on the qualifiers, Hicks said he had been “very satisfied” when he thought he would be racing for bronze.
The chance at gold, and the silver he won, was truly something extra. “I’ll take the gift, that’s for sure,” he said. “As far as it goes, I gave as much as I had to give… It’s not quite what I wanted but it’s also not so bad.”
Not so bad at all. Hicks will ride again on Saturday in the Mixed C1-5 750m team sprint, before the Men’s C2 road time trial on Tuesday. “That’s my happy place – 25-27km of hurt,” he said. “Bring it on.”