Handcycling – Crossing the Finish Line
The handcycle, like the bicycle, offers the rare opportunity for a person to commune with nature, commute for health, and command a greater quality of life.
I am by no means an athlete. Perhaps there was a time in my twenties when I fancied myself a Paralympic hopeful. But the speed never came, even though the 5 years of daily training never waned. After a while, I realized I would have to settle for being a weekend warrior. I had to get my doors blown off a few times before I acquiesced to the more dominant racers of the field, particularly the high schoolers who were 10 years my junior. However, I still have fond memories of weekly workouts, logging 100-plus miles, fast-paced crits, the occasional road race, and the crowded community "rides".
I matured, “coming to terms” with my disability, during the transition years, when handcycling began to surpass wheelchair racing as the top individual sport for wheelchair users. I had never been much of a basketball player, neither as a wheelchair-user nor before.
The solitude of the open road helped to relieve my tortured mind, doing more to ease the transition in the first years of paralysis than any “shrink” did in months of therapy. I started training with a racing chair, competing in numerous 5k and 10k races and one marathon. Actually, I wouldn’t really call it competing since I was either the only racer entered or the last or second-to-last to cross the finish line. After the marathon, I swore off racing for a few months in an attempt to coax my spaghetti arms back into the idea of pushing a long-distance race. During that period of racing limbo, I bought my first handcycle.
I had been living amongst the low-slung mountains of Far West Texas, near the U.S.-Mexico Border, where the altitude exceeds 4,000 feet and the rise and fall of the land pushes the limits of endurance.
I had trained with a racing wheelchair in the same terrain and had a heck of a time managing the long, sloping climbs. That’s when I learned that the only good thing about a long, slow climb is the downhill drop on the other side, where I occasionally hit speeds in excess of 40 miles per hour.
When I started pedaling the handcycle in the same area where I had been pushing the wheelchair, I appreciated immediately the existence of gears. Pushing a racing chair, the racer only has two gears: the left arm and the right arm. But saddled in a handcycle, the rider has multiple gears, including the granny gear, which offers a much-needed respite for the long climbs.
Like the racing chair, the handcycle attracted a lot of attention from passersby. Quite often, people without disabilities would try to stop me in the middle of a training session to ask about my machine. They didn’t seem to understand that I was out there working.
Handcycling is a popular sport for a number of reasons. First, pedaling and using gears is a lot easier on the shoulders than pushing a racing chair. Also, handcycles are easier to transfer onto than a racing chair, they are faster, more comfortable, and are generally much more of a joy to ride. They are also more cumbersome and more expensive than a racing chair, but to me the benefits outweigh the detriments.
I went all out. I got a trainer, a workout plan, a new diet (well, okay, that’s a lie, but you need those calories!!), some riding buddies, a race/ride schedule, and joined a local cycling club. Before too long my speeds increased, my sprints became longer, and my times started to drop. Several months into it, my cycling coach talked me into entering a 50-mile ride. Before that, the longest ride I had completed measured only about 25 miles.
I agreed, with some hesitation, seeing the opportunity as my chance to raise the bar. Little did I know how high that bar would go. The ride took place on a sunny spring day in southwest Houston. Hundreds of cyclists participated, so many that the riders had to start in small groups, a little at a time.
I had trained thoroughly for the 50-mile ride. I had completed a 40-mile trip the week before and had felt good enough afterwards to keep going another ten miles, but no more than that.
The trainer, Joe, rode alongside me during the ride so he could coach me along the way. We treated the ride as a training session since it was not a race. Riding with someone is always a good idea, whether you are in everyday training or a benefit cycling event.
Halfway through the 50 miles I felt great. I had really just begun to warm up. I even felt like participating in some speed play, much to Joe’s chagrin. I suppose I was giddy from a "runner's high", but it felt great and I enjoyed the lift.
About 14 miles later at what I believed to be the last rest station, I had gotten my second wind. The high had died and a little soreness had set in, but I had had no flat tires and no mechanical difficulties. Joe and I left the rest station to pedal out the next 10 miles at our best effort.
Five miles later Joe began to look worried.
“We should be able to see the stadium by now,” he said.
We both craned our necks to search for the stadium lights that would be seen above the tree line and they weren’t there. Instead, there were trees and vast empty fields lining the seemingly endless two-lane road.
I began to pedal a little slower.
Joe said he would ride ahead to the S.A.G. (support) vehicle in sight and find out what was going on. What he didn’t say was that we may have missed the turnoff for the 50-mile course. The ride also consisted of a 62 and 100-mile course.
Joe returned from the S.A.G. vehicle smiling. “Well,” he said, “I’ve got good news and bad news.”
“Let’s hear the bad news first,” I said, struggling to hold back any signs of exhaustion.
“Okay,” said Joe, still grinning like the Cheshire cat. “The bad news is we missed the turnoff for the 50-mile ride.”
“The good news is you’ll do your first 62-mile ride today.”
I sank in the saddle, but kept pedaling. I knew I had more than ten miles still to go. Deciding to complete the 50-mile ride had already been a stretch of my perceived endurance. I knew I had a better than even chance of finishing the 50-mile ride, but that’s still a long ride for a slightly-better-than-average athlete.
I buckled down and kept pedaling. What else could I do? The 50-mile mark came and went and I was exhausted. Our primary focus at that point became not missing the turnoff for the 62-mile course. I was definitely not up to pedaling 100 miles, even though Joe asked if I thought I could do it.
Before the 40-mile break, I had been averaging about 15 miles per hour. By the time I made the 50-mile mark, the average speed had dropped to 12. At 58 miles, I was dragging at eight miles an hour.
Every athlete, whether professional or amateur, is familiar with The Wall. When a sports enthusiast pushes the limits of his or her endurance to the edge and beyond and goes too far, they inevitably hit the wall.
The wall stops a runner, a cyclist, an athlete dead in his or her tracks. It is a total and complete shutdown of bodily functions. I don’t mean that you pee on yourself or stop breathing, but if a person hits the wall and they are five miles from home, they better find a taxi.
Three miles from the stadium, Joe pedaled ahead to get my fans (the few there were) ready for my finish and to let them know why we were so late. I coasted a lot. I would pedal ten times, counting each rotation, and coast down to two to three miles per hour. The Wall came into sight.
Fortunately, the stadium lights also came into sight. Still, I was fading fast, struggling to maintain my waning speed. I pulled to the side of the road to rest and did not feel at all bad about it. I was plumb tuckered out. A support vehicle parked behind me. I probably looked disappointed, because at this point I had hoped for an ambulance. A plump man with red suspenders hopped out and bellowed, "You need a lift to the stadium?"
“I’m fine. No thanks,” I said, pulling back onto the road.
The last three miles of the ride were the longest and most painful of any handcycling ride in which I had participated, but crossing the finish line in about four-and-a-half hours made the strenuous, extended ride worth it.
I went home, crawled in bed, and slept for twelve hours straight. I didn’t think about handcycling for a month.
It’s been five years since the monster ride, and I continue to saddle up to get the old blood pumping. Handcycling is a great activity to help stay in shape, and is something I still enjoy today. It’s also a great opportunity to set new challenges – maybe even crossing a new finish line someday.
Kerry Laird is a full-time instructor at Temple College in the English department. He resides in Houston, Texas.