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Adaptive cycling offers athletes a sense of liberation

A person rides a recumbent bike along a tree-lined gravel trail.
Handcycling came about in the 1980s as people tried creating alternative ways to bike, according to Move United, an affiliate of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee. (File photo: Courtesy Dennis Dempsey)

Military veteran Preston Curry is in the middle of moving his body from his wheelchair onto a three-wheeled Lasher all terrain handcycle. He experienced a spinal cord injury in an automobile accident while stationed at Georgia’s Fort Stewart 28 years ago. 

First, he places both feet inside the footrests, and then he secures them with Velcro. 

“After I do that, I’ll secure myself with a seat belt,” said Curry. “And then I’m going to be ready to roll.” 

His Lasher bike is low to the ground, but it has enough clearance to go over gravel-studded trails at places like Pocahontas State Park. The bike’s got 27 gears and a power-assist battery to help him up and down the hills that non-disabled mountain bikers regularly ride.  

Handcycling came about in the 1980s as people tried creating alternative ways to bike, according to Move United, an affiliate of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee. There are two types of handcycles: upright, which is good for basic recreation; and recumbent, which is geared toward competitive athletes.  

Other names for this type of biking include paracycling and adaptive cycling. 

“The right side is where I change my gears. The left side is the throttle,” Curry said. “The throttle is used in case of emergency, [in case I’m] dog tired or climbing steep hills. It's still a cycle, it’s still about exercise.” 

Curry frequently rides at Pocahontas — and when inclement weather strikes, he heads to Rockwood Park in Chesterfield County since it’s also close to home. However, Rockwood has smoother roads — perfect for his road bike, as opposed to his mountain bike.  

The 52-year-old said it’s important for localities to provide safe places to ride.  

“There aren't any places outside of Pocahontas, that we can ride these off-road hand cycles,” he said. “And I think for me, the parks and recreation community, recognize us as persons with disabilities that want to do something outside of being inactive.” 

Recently, Pocahontas opened a seventh adaptive cycling trail: They range from easy to challenging and roll on for about 12 miles. With all the fire roads weaving through the park, there are even more trails available to hand cyclists. 

"It’s liberating to be able to travel on those trails,” said military veteran Jody Shiflett, who broke his back because of a faulty parachute. “There's over 40 miles of riding that you can do there. And it's very diverse for the types of terrain that you can cross. If you're not paying attention, having [a] good focus, you can actually leave the trail surface because you're going too fast or the inertia of going through a turn. There's a lot of thrill with it.” 

Adapting the trails at Pocahontas to accommodate hand cyclists started back in 2015 when Richmond hosted the UCI Road World Championships, said Pocahontas State Park Manager Nathan Clark. 

“Knowing that the race was coming to town, several local partners and the cycling community wanted a 'legacy' project that would honor the race and the local cycling interest,” said Clark. 

Over the years, Pocahontas State Park expanded its inventory and added new mountain-bike trails that would suit all kinds of cyclists in conjunction with the International Mountain Bike Association, the James River Park System and Richmond city parks. 

The park recently posted signs on trails designating that it’s OK for this type of cycling, too. These let other riders know to be on the lookout for adaptive cyclists. 

Clark said the park worked with Paralyzed Veterans of America and adaptive cyclists to accommodate hand cycles. Pocahontas State Park also has a “bike barn” with about 40 adaptive cycles that PVA lends out to riders who don’t have one. And the group holds racing events inside the park twice a year that include athletes coming from other states to compete. Both Curry and Shiflett have competed. 

“From a park perspective, this has been a great partnership,” said Clark about working with Paralyzed Veterans of America and adaptive cyclists. “It's very rewarding and impactful to meet and talk with them while they're here, and to see how much they enjoy the park and getting out on trails.” 

Having options

Curry, who grew up in Virginia Beach, came to Richmond for his rehabilitation at the Veterans Affairs hospital and decided to stay. 

As part of his recovery, he was reintroduced to exercise and adaptive sports — which are activities geared toward people with disabilities as a way to stay healthy. But Curry said he wasn’t really into sports as a kid, and it took his accident to see how vital exercise is to maintaining his health. 

“I learned early on in my injury, that being active helps to keep your numbers a certain way,” he said. "Numbers are important for cholesterol and blood sugar. Being active is definitely part of the process.” 

One of the most important things for people who are disabled who want to exercise, Curry said, is to have choices of places to go and things to do.  

“Richmond is a tremendous resource in terms of adaptive sports. We have a very active and robust sports and recreation program, with the VA hospital,” said Curry. “[But] it hasn't always been that way here in Richmond. It's been a progressive evolution in terms of sports and variety.” 

Curry said when he first was introduced to sports at the VA hospital more than two decades ago, the exercise choices that involved physical movement were limited. 

“At the VA hospital here in Richmond, when I look at the sports that I was introduced to, it was sports like downhill skiing, bowling, trap shooting,” said Curry. “Sports like that didn't require a bunch of movement.” 

Hunter Leemon is the executive director of Sportable, a Richmond membership club that offers 16 competitive and recreational adaptive sports programs to more than 400 athletes each year.  

“Our youngest athlete is 3 years old; our oldest athlete is 87,” Leemon said. “But over the course of the year, we'll have over 500 [athletes and] various programming events where we're providing programming for individuals with disability profiles of some kind.” 

At Sportable’s warehouse in Scott’s Addition, recumbent and hand-cycle bikes can be seen hanging from the ceiling or stored up high on wooden bookshelves. 

“It's kind of divided into certain sections,” said Leemon, who points out kayaks and multifunctional wheelchairs used for basketball, tennis, lacrosse and rugby that he affectionately calls “tanks.” 

Leemon said when people join Sportable, which has been open since 2005, they can choose whatever program they’d like. Programs last from six weeks to a year. He said those who join are helped with one of the biggest issues disabled athletes face: equipment. 

“Equipment is one of the biggest barriers to participating,” said Leemon, “because it's expensive. It's just really hard to get, [and] the cost is very cost-prohibitive.” 

According to Move United, new handcycles generally range in price from $1,500 to $7,000. 

“Most of the reasons why they're expensive as they are is because they're not mass produced,” said Shiflett, the cyclist. “You'll probably be surprised to know that they can cost as much as $10,000 or $20,000, depending on the features that you get.” 

Building a community

Leemon said it's important people with disabilities be included when it comes to having exercise spaces, because it means everything to be part of a larger group going through similar issues. 

“We live in a community that is really focused on sports,” said Leemon. “There are thousands of people that run up and down Monument Avenue, that go and utilize our park system. That sense of community, I think, is so important — and to be able to re-create and to have the opportunities that you and I take for granted. Because, if we're going to be a sports community and we're going to be a community where people can participate, then we need to represent that for everyone.” 

For Curry, having places to ride his handcycle, like on trails at Pocahontas State Park or on the Virginia Capital Trail is a way to connect with other riders. 

"I've met so many different people — and not just people in my shoes who are disabled,” said Curry. “I met a lot of able-bodied riders who I've connected with. I think the more people see us using the trails, I think that brings more of an awareness to not only veterans, but persons with disabilities in general.”  

Though he’s tried many sports over the years to stay fit and meet people, Curry said he’s always looking for more challenging sports to play. 

“I think I'll pick up the pickleball racquet soon enough,” he said. “I'm definitely looking forward to that.” 


Ian M. Stewart is the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.