PDX Handcycling Series — Putting More People on Bikes
By Cailey Nickerson
Portland International Raceway featured a new sport on its track this summer, catching the attention of locals and professional athletes alike. With an encouraging push from nonprofits Incight and Oregon Disability Sports (ODS), handcycling has made its stake in the Portland community.
An initiative of Oregon Disability Sports and Incight the eight-week series enjoyed tremendous success and should return in 2013.
Every Tuesday night from July 10 to August 28, Oregon Bicycle Racing Association (OBRA) subleased one of their scheduled hours on the track to the PDX Summer Handcycling Series to help promote the use of handcycles. Jennifer Wilde of Incight, an organization that helps people with disabilities live more independently, says sharing the track made for an all-inclusive, community-oriented experience. Paralympians Craig Blanchette and Will Groulx were also present every week, pedaling the two-mile loop alongside first timers and the recently hooked.
Blanchette, a two-time national handcycling champion, holds 21 wheelchair racing world records, while Groulx is a member of the Paralympic Wheelchair Rugby Team and recently took home his second medal in the 2012 London Paralympics. He cross-trains with handcycling.
Guidance from these pros and participation was free of charge; the only requirement for attendance was having a properly fitted helmet. ODS supplied the majority of the handcycles, which ranged in models to fit varying needs. Though the series was put on with the novice in mind, Trisha Suhr, executive director of ODS, notes that quite a few attendees brought their own handcycles, making it apparent that people were not only excited about trying this new sport, but many in the disabled community were already hip to it.
The initial goal of the series was to introduce handcycling to the area and give an opportunity for those with varying degrees of mobility the chance to try a new sport. What Incight and ODS weren’t expecting, and what the series somewhat became, was a platform for trained handcyclists to connect with each other and share their experiences.
Wilde says the initial turnout started with 15 people on the first day and reached 50 during week seven when Drew Carney of KGW Portland covered the series. Neither Suhr nor Wilde expected such a successful turnout.
“We weren’t sure what kind of turn out to expect when we first started, but we were pleasantly surprised by the growing enthusiasm and adoption by the community each week,” Wilde says.
As word spread, each Tuesday saw more people attend and age, gender and abilities ranged from adults to children, the able-bodied and to those with various mobile disabilities. The mixed demographic, Wilde says, helped tremendously in regards to teaching and inspiring people new to the sport.
The Summer Handcycling Series provided the experts as well as the novices with an opportunity to train or to try the sport of handcycling for the first time.
She recalls one family trying handcycling together. “The PDX series,” she says, “gave the father of a girl with a disability a chance to ride a handcycle next to her for the first time, and gave her family a chance to share a perspective and experience they might not have had otherwise.”
According to LiveStrong.com, handcycling didn’t surface as a recreational activity until 1980. At first, models were not designed with the disabled rider in mind. This has changed over the years as more people of all abilities bring attention to the sport. So much so that in 1998, handcycling was added to the World Cycling Championships for the Disabled, and in 2004 debuted as an official Paralympic sport in Athens, Greece.
While riding a bike is something of a right of passage for most of us, the opportunity to learn handcycling is not quite as easy to come by, and their rarity is a contributing factor to steep costs. Suhr says handcycles generally start at $3,000 and can reach into the $7,000 to $15,000 range: quite an investment for someone unsure of what they’re getting themselves into.
“There isn’t really a place to try out a handcycle ... the PDX series allowed people to try something that they normally wouldn’t be able to, or at least might be discouraged to for economical reasons or lack of support,” Suhr states.
Certain websites such as sitski.com, a database specializing in adaptive ski equipment, offers lists of handcycling manufacturers, however, there is not a lot of information or reviews on varying models. Finding a store or retailer that carries them is not a common occurrence either.
That said, the U.S. Paralympics website, Findaclub.Paralympics.org, has a search engine that allows users to find programs for certain adaptive sports, which is filtered by activity or location. Likewise, disaboom.com provides resources and information on adaptive sports, and features an article titled “Choosing a Handcycle That’s Right for Your Disability,” by Jeff Buckley. The article lists handcycle manufacturers and highlights the compatibility of each with certain disabilities. Like bicycles, models are made for road, off-road, touring and tandem cycling. Positions and sizes vary based on the individual and his or her needs. While the technology is still developing and expanding, manufacturers like Varna, Freedom Ryder, Invacare, Quickie, Schmicking and Alois Praschberger custom build handcycles.
Yet another resource for custom fitting and finding the right handcycle is bike-on.com. The website has an online tailoring page that allows users to fill in details about their abilities, handcycling goals, expected road conditions and price range. They have models starting at around $1,600 and carry both new and used.
Suhr says the majority of handcycles used at the series were recumbent road bikes, as they go the fastest while requiring the least amount of effort. These lower-seated models are generally used for road racing. Other models featured at the series included upright, seated positions (ideal for novice riders) as well as leaning forward positions, which use similar gear and brake systems as bicycles. Recumbents have both leaned back and kneeling forward, or “trunk powered,” seat options, with the latter ideal for those with double amputations or lower spinal cord injuries.
Now that the series has concluded, ODS is making handcycles available to their members at their Portland facility. Membership for an individual is $30 per year, with 50 percent reductions offered to those who join between April and September, as well as discounts for families and teams. The organization also hosts other adaptive sports programs and competitions for wheelchair basketball, rugby and goalball for the blind.
Handcycling is fairly new to ODS’ program, however, the organization has already started facilitating summer tutorials on top of the PDX Series. The demand, as made evident this last summer, is there.
When asked if the PDX Summer Handcycling Series would return in 2013, both Wilde and Suhr answered with a very enthusiastic, “yes.” Suhr says races and formal tutorials are possibilities, although funding, volunteers and sponsors are necessary in order to develop the series further. Extended periods of time on the track is also on their wish list for next season, which Suhr says would allow the participants to better tailor their training. To donate, volunteer, see photos and get excited for next year, visit their Facebook page at facebook.com/PDXHandcycling.
Other Programs in the Northwest that Offer Handcycling
- Outdoors for All Foundation, Seattle; outdoorsforall.org
- Northwest Association for Blind Athletes, Vancouver; nwaba.org
- Team St. Luke’s Paralympic Sport Spokane; st-lukes.org
- Oregon Disability Sports, Portland; Oregondisabilitysports.net
- Adaptive Recreation Services, Eugene; Eugene-org.gov/recadaptive
- Wood River Ability Program — Paralympic Sport Sun Valley, Ketchum; woodriverabilityprogram.org
- Inland Northwest Disabled Veterans Sports Association/Spokane VA Medical Center, Couer d’Alene; indvsa.org
- Paracycling BC - branch of Cycling BC; cyclingbc.net/para-cycling
- Sports Abilities, Vancouver, BC; sportabilitybc.ca
- Whistler Adaptive Sports, Whistler, BC; whistleradaptive.com
- Community Recreational Initiatives Society Adaptive Adventures, Kelowna, BC; adaptiveadventures.ca