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What It Was Like to Try an Adaptive Handbike

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It was with trepidation and bated excitement that I placed on my helmet and slipped into the seat that was about the same height of a wheelchair. I situated my legs into the fiberglass trays in front of me, attaining the reclined “recumbent” position I know is helpful for my heart as well as my easily aggravated hips and knees. On both sides of my feet, just in front of the handlebars, are two wheels – giving the bike more the appearance of a backwards trike with its one wheel in the back. I tightened my seatbelt, fastening myself into the sleek yet alien vehicle below me.

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I was about to try the Nuke Offroad Recumbent Handcycle by ReActive Adaptations. Would this even work?

My hands wrapped around the crank pedals – I first pedaled backwards to check the strain on my arms and to see if my shoulders could handle the movement without ending up in a compromised and painful position. I had expected to use each hand independently in an alternating motion just like with foot pedals, so I was surprised that both hands stayed locked in tune with each other. Oh yeah, I guess this makes more sense – it’s easier to allocate more power this way.

I hadn’t gone anywhere yet, this was just a quick check-in to test if the range of motion would flare up the nerve pain that shoots down from my neck, through my shoulders, elbows, and into my fingers. Stationary, I tentatively wiggled the crank to see how I could control the steering, then slid my arms out to the side and lower to the handlebars. The seat seems to offer the right amount of support for my spine. Stunned, I realized this could actually be a feasible possibility for me. With my shoulders’ tendency to dislocate, not to mention my flimsy wrists and fingers or my neurological symptoms and heart troubles, I wasn’t sure if I would even be able to handle the range of motion required, but the bike and I have passed all of my preliminary tests.

Now the excitement is really beginning to kick in.

I take a quick look at the shifter and am pleased to see an entire 16 gears there at my disposal, in case my not-entirely-reliable muscles would experience a sudden shift in control or power. I try my hands on the brake, hoping I still have the strength in my hands to get them to engage. I released the brake and started off a bit rockily, slipping backwards a bit because I was parked on a slant. I looked at the trail ahead of me and balked – I don’t think I can do this. After a quick suggestion that I should try it on the road, I check my neck brace, shift to the lowest gear and start to toil. I reach a slight slant and am shocked that I can make it up alone, but feel the burn in my muscles and am not sure how long I’ll be able to continue.

I get up to the parking lot at the top and start heading down – slowly at first, but once I realize I feel more stable than I can ever remember feeling on a bike, I let loose – speeding down the little hill, a smile cracking my lips and giddy laughter escaping off of them to echo in the surrounding mountains. The moment I get to the bottom, I immediately start trying to figure out how the heck to turn this thing around. There’s no reverse option I’m aware of, but I manage to use a nearby slant in my favor, shift back down to the easiest gear, and slowly but surely make my way back. This time is even harder than the first – my muscles are screaming and my breaths are coming in short and labored. I have to pause and snap on my breaks a few times for a short rest, but I make it back up to the top. This time I hit the downhill with as much momentum as I trust my arms to muster.

Sheer ecstasy! I haven’t gone this fast in years – suddenly I’m 10 years old again, speeding down the neighborhood hill racing my sisters, transported back to a time where my symptoms didn’t play such a prominent role in my life. As the wind rushes past me, I can hardly believe how carefree I am: no worries that my depth perception is off and I’ll slam into a tree or parked car; no troubles with my balance, threatening to topple me onto the unforgiving concrete; no unpleasant crunch of my kneecaps slipping in and out of place. Although some of my various neuro symptoms persist (wonky vision, weakness in my left side, etc.), I don’t feel like they in any way compromise my safety in this moment, as the low center of gravity and three wheels offer a stability I’ve never experienced.

However much I love biking, and although it has at times been easier for me than standing or walking because of how being in a seated position strains my heart less, I haven’t been able to fully release myself to that jubilation for several years now. Even though I used my bike as my primary mode of transportation out and about through all kinds of Iowa weather (sun, rain, snow and ice), I was always dealing with those fears. One of those winters I was having bouts of partial paralysis each day that would last between 30 minutes and four hours, but I would still hop on my bike to get around. In the last three years or so, that’s gotten more difficult and even impossible as my joint instability and balance problems have progressed. I miss having an independent mode of transportation and a fun way to be active. My balance has declined and I have a higher baseline of full-body chronic pain, as well as more frequent dislocations of most of my joints and some spinal damage. I’ve been building myself up the last two years with physiotherapy regimens, plus time water-walking and doing exercises in the pool, as well as spiral dynamics and electrotherapy for my muscles. But no matter how healthy I can manage to get myself, any fun sporty activity I try is too much and will leave me reeling for weeks.

I grew up hiking. I love hearing the crushing of gravel, smelling the freshness of the pines and spruces, and seeing the expanse of nature stretching out before me. Hikes were never quite a walk in the park for me – my sister and I would slow as our legs got heavy and my limbs were often filled with a pounding, grainy pain that worsened with each step. As kids, we’d complain that “our legs were broke,” and our parents turned it into a game, coaxing us onward with promises of trail mix and other sweet treats if we could just make it to that next boulder, that bend in the path, the place where that squirrel is. For many years now, any trail has been as much of an ordeal as a joy. No matter which mobility aids I used or how short or flat or slow the hike, it would strain my heart, make me dizzy, raise my pain levels drastically, and require a massive recovery time, making it much harder to enjoy. But with the help of this excellent handcycle, I could finally experience all of the good stuff while keeping the bad stuff mostly under control.

Confident that I understand the physics of the bike and am capable and indeed in control of this thing, I skeptically make my way off the road and onto the trail. My dad coaches me on how to slowly make my way – offering the occasional gentle nudge up a particularly stubborn incline and helping to bail me out when I misjudge how exactly to maneuver my new rig. I’m starting to feel comfortable with my steering and the new, gravelly terrain. All right, here we go: there’s a sharp turn ahead and then a pretty good decline over a medium-sized distance. The trail is clear all the way and despite its descent, has a few small little waves that look like fun. I take off! Once I hit the first wave, I shriek joyfully, increasing my speed and cackling, suspended in an odd state of disbelief and utter glee. With only a few feet of trail left, I come to a shrieking halt – only then realizing that I’d broken the peaceful tranquility of the trail and rocketed past a couple resting on a scenic bench, who stood up to clap and tell me that was neat to watch, and then ask me a few questions about the bike.

I’m alit with excitement and tackle a large loop of the trail after that. I push myself hard, getting my heart going faster than I’ve been able to in a long time. It is just like old times, minus the unpleasantness that always eventually brought it to an abrupt and painful halt. I enjoy another rush from a practically endless descent – leaving my dad in the dust – another feeling I’m not all that familiar with anymore. I slow to a steady pace, tears filling my eyes, voice crackling with an overwhelming happiness and pride, truly acknowledging and appreciating the awesomeness of this experience.

This is an exciting new chapter – a possibility. A chance to get even stronger and perhaps healthier. A chance to feel safe on a bike or just to be on a bike in general. I found something I never imagined I would be able to do again. It also seems to have the targeted muscle-building I need to protect my spine from further damage, while also being perfect for my individual physical limitations and requirements. It’s a chance to once again be an athlete and feel my emotions fluttering as the wind rushes by me, and an opportunity to get around independently without having to rely on a bus or other transit.

Afterwards there was no paralysis. No unbearable increase in fatigue. There was some pain, swelling, and soreness, but nothing I can’t handle. I have no regrets, only excitement and impatience for the day I’ll be able to have one of these glorious contraptions myself. At about $10,000, it’s nearly triple the largest amount of money I’ve ever had at my disposal at once. I’ve looked up other more cost-effective options, but nothing else fits well with my body and disability. But I’m excited that there are many grant opportunities out there to apply to, and I’m hoping this is something I can save up for soon! I am so truly happy that something like this exists and that I’ve had the chance to try it, and will one day be able to roll on with its help – conquering new terrain and experiencing the joy it brings!

Photo by contributor.

Originally published: August 29, 2017
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