From Handlebar to Joystick

Friday, July 7, 2017

Pedaling to the trail I feel a sense of electric energy run down my spine into my legs. The smell of pine fills my senses and my sweat drips down to the tip of my goatee before it falls and splashes on my handlebars. Adrenaline pumps when I accelerate out of the first turn. My front tire bounces from rock to root, and my arms flex and adjust to the contours of the dirt. This is where I'm in my element, my happy place…

All this I had taken for granted, never thinking these experiences would be taken from me. Many of you knew me as one the mechanical support technicians at various events, and at the shop spinning pedals, lubing chains, fixing flats on your bikes, or as one of your fellow riders at a group ride riding alongside you. In March 6, 2010 I left Boston to expand on those skills and experiences to explore a new career. During that time I got to ride some pretty cool places internationally and work on some amazing bikes.

Saturday, March 5th 2011, I set out for an epic, unplanned ride through the countryside on the outskirts of Girona, Spain. It was a beautiful day and I was ready to get lost. I saw beautiful medieval ruins, waterfalls, sheep, llama, cattle, and so much more. By the time I safely returned back to the Trek Travel (TT) warehouse I had ridden 35 kilometers. I was wonderfully roasted, both from the ride and the sun. I wiped my bike down and headed back to my hotel to get some rest for the next day of tuning bikes for TT's newest cycling trip on the island of Majorca, Spain. When I laid my head down on my pillow I had no idea that my life is about to take a serious turn in just a few hours.

Sunday morning March 6th, I woke up like any of the other seven days I was there. Rolled out of bed, brushed my teeth, slipped my feet in my clipless shoes and threw my leg over my bike to spin to the warehouse.  I was ready for tuning bikes. I was there for about six or seven hours before I slipped on my clipless shoes again to head back to the hotel. On my ride home I saw people enjoying the sun and fresh air, as I was….. it was a glorious day. I bunny hopped the curb to start on the dirt path that led to my hotel. This particular dirt path was hard pack with very few obstacles. Child's Play compared to what I rode the previous day. I had ridden this path each day before and was comfortable on it now. Comfortable enough that I took my eyes off the path and was enjoying how the sun shimmered off of the river that I was riding along. Little did I know my life would change drastically within the next few minutes…..all of a sudden I hit something big enough to stop my front wheel short, throwing me through the air and landing me directly on my neck, approximately 15 feet away from my bike. The damage was instantaneous. As I hit the ground I heard a loud crack coming from my neck and my body responded…...I didn't feel my feet hit the ground.

Fast forward 24 hours: My surgery was done in Barcelona. The doctors came in and gave me their prognosis. I can still hear the words I had never, in my wildest dreams thought I would hear: “You are a quadriplegic”. They then told me that there was no hope for me to gain function or feeling from my chest down. No hopes of ever riding again never mind walk again. I felt defeated. I was no longer invincible. I would never feel that adrenaline rush again. I would never stand, roll out of bed, brush my teeth and swing my leg over the top tube of a bike….. ever again.

At the time, this is what I heard the doctors say…...but I will tell you that It is not what I believed. The doctors telling me this only made me more motivated to be the athletic, independent person I was only hours before. News like this takes time to sink in, and I was still holding out hope that my wounds would heal. I was waiting to spring up from the bed and wheelie away from the hospital.

Weeks later I made it to Spaulding Rehab in Boston where my Physical Therapist (Cara), and Occupational Therapists (Kelly) learned very quickly of what my motivations were and who I was and what I was made of. They suggested that part of my therapy should be getting back onto the bike. Actually they wanted me on the bike that I had my accident on. They had me on a stationary trainer, with a harness to keep me upright while they pedaled for me. The theory was that I rode so much before my injury they felt that my neuro connections must be super strong. Getting back onto the bike was so emotionally painful, but joyous at the same time. Here is where my healing process begins.

It was not long before we found out they were right. After doing this exercise my legs started to really respond. I was able to move the pedals independently, but not complete revolutions without their assistance. I knew this was going to be a really long road but made easier because Cara, Kelly, and my friends continued to guide and support me even after I was discharged from the hospital and we continued to “ride” at my apartment for about a year. For me, the progress was too slow, and I was itching to get back into the woods.

Approximately one year after my injury, Kelly asked me to be a participant in the summer program called Empower Spinal Cord Injury (SCI). Which is a non-profit residential rehab program located in Long Island, New York. The Empower program focuses on bringing people with spinal cord injury back to life and happiness. A part of the curriculum is introducing the attendees to a “bike day” where they have the opportunity to experience using a variety of adaptive bikes and wheelchairs. Of course my favorite day while at the camp! This is when I was introduced to the Hase Recumbent bike. To my amazement and relief I was actually able to pedal a couple of strokes. Of course this made me very excited and started my gears turning. From that day on it was my personal mission to get back on a bike, however that was defined,  and ride the trails like I once did before.

Soon after that experience at Empower my therapists, now friends,  Kelly, Carrie (the President of Empower) Zoe (adaptive sports guru), and Cara,  as well as Kelly's husband Tom, brought me out to Sheepfold at the Fells Reservation in Medford. They put me onto a Terra Trek, which is a modified manual wheelchair for off-road use. I was ecstatic to be back on one of my home based trail networks. But there was still something missing from the experience, I wasn't in control, I couldn’t take the lines that I really wanted to take, and I was dependent on my five friends to get me through the trail. Post hike we talked about the gear that is available and easy to access. Unfortunately we didn't have many answers, but it was helpful to brainstorm. There is gear out there... it does exist.

The problem was that there was no one singular place to rent, or demo the product like we could at Empower SCI’s bike day. You had to rely on friends that might own something like it, or organizations that have a very limited number to offer a trial. You can order it online, but does it fit? Does it work with my limited function? Can I return it after test riding it? We figured out that there was a disconnect with gaining access to this type of product and how to get something like it that will fit your needs.

This was the beginning of the idea of having an event specifically for those with a physical disability where they could go and try out modified Wheelchairs and bicycles that will enable them to get out onto the trails. After a couple of  brainstorming sessions, and a few beers….The Knobby Tire Ride and Roll fundraiser was born!

It was not long after all of this that I found a special bike made for quadriplegics. The Boma 7. It has 4 bicycle wheels 20 into the front 24 in the back with independent suspension, super strong steel frame, an 850 watt motor and drives with a joystick just like my power wheelchair. I was back! The smell of pine, and dirt once again fills my senses. The feeling of the rocks and roots are once again a reality for me.

On September of 2015 we kicked off the first annual Knobby Tire Fundraiser at Russell Mill in Chelmsford, MA to support Empower SCI. We had a couple of vendors and organizations attend who rent, or loan various equipment that allow disabled people to get back to the trails. It was a great turnout with about 10 wheelchair users attending, as well as around 40 mountain bikers. Our 2nd Annual Knobby Tire was held at Great Brook Farm in Carlisle, MA which was a perfect spot? Many of the trails are accessible and easy to navigate with an adapted chair, and best of all they have an ice cream stand! At this event we had an even better turnout with more vendors and some amazing raffles from Cannondale, Cycle Loft, and Pedro's to name a few, and homemade food.

It is now planning time for the Third Knobby Tire Ride and Roll. I am enjoying taking part in being a riding advocate for universal access.  I am back at events talking shop and geeking out regarding bikes, parts and trails and of course riding with friends. I am in my element again.

I would like to invite mountain bikers of all abilities to Empower SCI’s Third Annual Knobby Tire Ride and Roll which is scheduled for September 24th, 2017 at Great Brook Farm and being held in the main parking lot. There will be raffles, food and some pretty awesome people to ride with. It's a great day to learn about inclusive trail use. Please come out and support this great cause.

You can register for the event here: https://knobby-tire.squarespace.com/

Happy trails!!

~ Ryan DeRoche