I've often asked myself what it is that I love most about riding a bicycle. Perhaps it's the rhythm and flow of perfect singletrack in the Colorado high country, or hurtling down a twisting alpine road. Or maybe it's that endorphin high that carries with me for hours after a satisfyingly hard ride. Bombing down gravity trails on my park bike? Check. Executing a perfect flying mount after a set of 'cross barriers? Check, check.
But interestingly enough, I get just as much joy out of running errands on my townie or casually rolling along the bike path to meet friends out for dinner. Perhaps more so than ever, I've come to relish the feeling of simply gliding along, whether it be fast or slow, on dirt or pavement, and on virtually any sort of bike – sort of like earthbound flying. Though I certainly still crave the thrill of speed, I also embrace the slowness of merely being on a bicycle, period.
Now imagine if you no longer had that luxury.
Part of Crested Butte, Colorado's Fat Tire Bike Week is the Bridges of the Butte, a 24-hour solo or relay event, thats meandering course winds through and around the town's numerous bridges – and it's all done almost exclusively on townies (and preferably while in costume). While clearly a social highlight of the year, it also serves as a major fundraiser for the Adaptive Sports Centre – a world-recognized non-profit organization whose mission, they state, is to "improve the quality of life of people with disabilities through outdoor adventure activities".
Using a relatively meager US$1M annual budget, ASC manages to maintain a full winter and summer program of activities that includes skiing and snowboarding, hiking, rock climbing, boating, horseback riding and of course, handcycling – both downhill and uphill, and not just on the road but on the surrounding area's full-blown trails, too. Two notable handcycling standouts in this year's event included Chris Waddell and Jake O'Connell.
Last September, Waddell – who's also a champion Paralympic skier – became the first paraplegic to summit the 5,895m-tall (19,340ft) Mount Kilimanjaro, taking six days to ascend and another full day to get back down. Waddell used a custom four-wheeled all-terrain handcycle equipped with extra-low gears, a pivoting chest pad that provides steering control even while pedaling, and monstrous 26x3.7" Surly Endomorph tires to make up for the lack of suspension (off-road handcyclists say suspension adds far too much weight).
O'Connell's handcycle is similarly dexterous but of his own design, opting for a single rear drive wheel instead of Waddell's two but still retaining the prone body position (which is said to afford better maneuverability and the ability to use body weight to aid pedaling), a pivoting chest pad, and suspension-less layout. O'Connell has also settled on 24" wheels, with massive 2.4" wide Panaracer Fire FR in off-road configuration and a Schlumpf two-speed crankset – instead of O'Donnell's traditional triple – for a tidier layout, and easier shifting via the spindle-mounted push button.
Total weight for both machines is around 22kg (48.5lb) give or take – a portly figure as compared to typical trail bikes. but still worlds more manoeuverable and climbable as compared to what's currently out there for handcyclists. And as O'Connell and Waddell can attest, these machines have enabled them to fully explore the vast expanse of backcountry that their Crested Butte home-base affords.
O'Connell was gracious enough to let us test ride his handcycle for ourselves and the experience was certainly humbling. We initially had thoughts of asking if we could pilot it for a full Bridges of the Butte lap before admitting that we might not make it without succumbing to exhaustion or crashing. But it was also remarkably eye-opening for what the unique machine was capable of doing. The low centre of gravity makes for excellent stability, the gear range is remarkably wide, and the whole thing is surprisingly manoeuverable.
Most important, however, is that each of these machines give its users back that feeling that most of us take for granted, and if ASC continues to grow and expand as we hope, fewer folks will have to do without.
For more information (or to make a donation!), check out www.adaptivesports.org