June 16, 1997 12:00 PM

JOE MONTGOMERY STILL GETS frustrated when he remembers seeing his son’s first wheelchair six years ago. “It cost a fortune, and it was a piece of junk,” he says. But it was also a necessity for Michael, then 4 years old, who suffers from cerebral palsy. After fixing parts of the chair he figured were certain to break, Montgomery, chief executive of the Cannondale bicycle company in Georgetown, Conn., realized something. “It was pretty obvious,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Wow, we could do this better.’ ”

And so he has. Inspired by his son, now 10, the 57-year-old entrepreneur is putting the finishing touches on a new line of Cannondale products—high-performance sports wheelchairs. Made from the same strong lightweight aluminum that goes into Cannondale’s bikes, the chairs are set to debut in September. Montgomery hopes his company will not only win a chunk of the worldwide $400 million sport and lightweight nonsport wheelchair market but spur the rest of the industry to meet the high-performance needs of its athletes. “We’re not just disabled athletes having fun,” says wheelchair marathon champ and Cannondale employee Jim Knaub. “We’re a sport to be reckoned with.”

Not that Joe Montgomery had ever spent much time reckoning with wheelchairs. A dedicated runner and cyclist and a hands-on boss, Montgomery didn’t like to slow down for anything. But in 1987, when he and wife Celia noticed their 7-month-old son could neither sit up or roll over, he encountered a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Celia took Michael for tests, and when they learned he had cerebral palsy and might never walk or talk, the preternaturally positive Montgomery refused to accept the prognosis. “Call back,” he told the doctors, “when you’ve got something good to say.”

Happily, Michael’s case proved less debilitating than his doctors originally thought. Though he is unable to walk or stand alone, Michael is a bright, active boy who likes to ski as fast as possible with a special bi-ski—an enclosed seat mounted atop two skis—and play goalie in his family’s backyard hockey games. Riding a slowpoke horse during a trip to a dude ranch last summer, Michael didn’t hesitate to move him along with an encouraging kick. “He loves roller coasters,” says sister Lauren, 13. “He loves speed.”

As a result, Cannondale’s line of sporting wheelchairs will include models designed for everything from basketball to casual sports to, eventually, equipment for downhill skiing. All the chairs—which will retail for $1,500-$4,500 versus $2,000-$5,000 for traditional sports chairs—will be custom-fitted for each athlete, then handmade from Cannondale’s specially treated aluminum tubing. These are improvements, Montgomery says, that are sorely needed by active wheelchair-bound people like his son. “It’s an emotional thing for me,” he says. “And it’s second nature for me to see solutions to mechanical problems.”

Raised in Coshocton, Ohio, by his father, Edward, who owned a glove-manufacturing plant, and his mother, Frances, who ran the family peach farm, Montgomery first brought his innovator’s eye to bear on the camping gear his father bought him as a boy. “He used to say, ‘I’m not giving you anything anymore because you’ll just tear it apart,’ ” Montgomery recalls. Sent to a Massachusetts prep school, the ever-restless Montgomery went on to drop out of several colleges. After briefly attending New York City’s Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting and working as a deckhand on a Caribbean sailboat and as a financial analyst on Wall Street, Montgomery started Cannondale in 1971. The company’s fortunes waxed and waned, but by 1983 Montgomery started producing affordable aluminum-framed bikes. Last year Cannondale sold $145 million worth of gear; this year sales are projected to reach $175 million. “It’s not about money anymore,” insists Montgomery. “I love what I do.”

Married since 1982 to Celia, whom he met at a bar during the mid-’70s and who now raises their children, Montgomery still jets to Cannondale’s two Pennsylvania factories twice a week. But he also spends lots of time with Michael, Lauren, Lucas, 8, and John, 6. (A brief first marriage produced Scott, 35, Cannondale’s vice president of marketing.) And while Michael attends a special school and requires physical therapy, medication and a live-in nanny, his father has given him, along with a penchant for speed and a new, faster wheelchair, something of his indomitable spirit. “He doesn’t think there’s anything he can’t do,” Celia observes. Which Michael, playing Frisbee with his brothers on the lawn, is only too happy to confirm with a happy shout: “I can do anything!”

PETER AMES CARLIN

JENNIFER LONGLEY in Redding

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