The youthful exhilaration that accompanies the free feeling of riding a bike is not limited to people whose legs are functional. And in Central Oregon, new cycling opportunities for disabled youth and adults are rolling.
Oregon Adaptive Sports, a local nonprofit organization that provides outdoor recreation opportunities for disabled people, is expanding from what's always been a winter sport program to a year-round organization. OAS is piloting its first ever handcycling program this summer, and will formally launch the program next summer. Handcycling allows disabled athletes to power a cycle solely with their upper body.
“We're bringing more summer health opportunities for people with disabilities so we're fully inclusive,” said Oregon Adaptive Sports Executive Director Christine Brousseau. Eventually, the organization also plans to add adaptive water sports, golf and camping.
Oregon Adaptive Sports has a contract to borrow five adaptive bikes for the next three summers from a similar nonprofit organization in Phoenix that enables disabled people to access outdoor recreation. The Phoenix group, called River of Dreams, ends its cycling season in April when the Arizona heat gets too intense.
A volunteer recently transported the handcycles north for the summer.
The handcycles look like recumbent bikes, with two wheels behind a comfortable, padded seat and back, and one wheel out front. The disabled rider's legs extend out front, and the arms churn the crank in circles in front of the chest.
Each bike is slightly different. Some have skinny tires and some have fat, knobby tires. One is extra small, perfect for a youth. Some have brakes on the handles, others have brakes near the seat. They all move a little differently. Most are steered by the handles but one turns when the rider leans into a corner, intended for someone with good core strength. Each is suited to accommodate different strengths and weaknesses and different levels of disability, which often depends on how high one's spinal cord injury occurred.
In addition to the five loaners, OAS owns two bikes of its own. One is a deluxe mountain bike that cost $7,500 but should enable a disabled rider to compete with the able-bodied mountain bikers on local dirt trails. The other is a tandem, so a visually impaired rider could go with someone who can see.
This summer, the OAS pilot program will include some group rides, a mountain bike clinic for vets and a bike-fitting demo day where anyone can come try the bikes.
Disabled cyclists such as 44-year-old Carl Backstrom, of Redmond, a former OAS board member, will volunteer to help develop the program.
He clearly remembers how handcycling gave him a new sense of freedom and allowed him to feel like “a full person again” after a 1987 motorcycle accident left him without use of his legs at age 19. While in physical therapy in the Portland area, people from a group similar to OAS reached out to him and introduced him to handcycling.
Organizations and programs like these offer a social network, new friends and opportunities to get out and exercise, Backstrom said.
Riding gives him the euphoric feeling that comes from sports-related endorphins, he said. And he's no stranger to sports. He owns six different sport-specific types of chairs, in addition to his daily get-around wheelchair.
He has his handcycle, the equivalent of a road bike; a “mountain” chair to use on hiking trails; a tennis chair; a racing chair, for marathon-type events; a basketball chair and a sit ski, for winter skiing. With a smile, he said he has no sympathy for people who complain about having to buy multiple pairs of $100 sport-specific shoes. His chairs each run between $2,000 and $5,000.
Oregon Adaptive Sports, originally founded in 1996, is funded by private donations, some fees for service and grants, which help cover the high costs of specific adaptive equipment.
The organization has grown dramatically in recent years. OAS quadrupled the number of scholarships offered last year. The number of adaptive skier days jumped from 350 to 650 last winter. OAS drew 100 new skiers, and tripled its staff heading into last winter.
It established its first office and hired its first executive director, Brousseau, at the beginning of this year.
For some time there's been talk about creating summer programs, and when Brousseau started just months ago, it seemed like an obvious early priority, she said.
“The growth of our winter programs showed there's demand,” she said.