The Santa Fe Handbike Tour

The Santa Fe Handbike Tour
The Santa Fe Handbike Tour
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The nervous energy was palpable as hundreds of cyclists, dressed in colorful Lycra suits, awaited the start of the 50-mile ride known as Medio Siglo from the Santa Fe Railyard, a hub of art galleries, restaurants, and a farmers market in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Finally, we began pedaling through town with eight motorcycle cops clearing the road and guarding intersections.

We passed the Roundhouse, where the New Mexico Legislature meets. We passed Museum Hill, home to four museums exploring the Native American Southwest, the Spanish colonial past, and more. After about twelve miles, Santa Fe was behind us and we were on our own, rolling through rolling ranchland.

It was the second day of a two-day cycling event that each spring draws more than 1,500 participants, who come for the camaraderie and challenge of pedaling together through a desert landscape rich in history, art, and indigenous traditions. Of everyone who showed up for the Medio Siglo ride, I was the only one on a handbike.

Handbikes allow riders to sit or lie down, turn the pedals with their hands, and move forward using their arms instead of their legs. My handbike, a lightweight Swedish model, had an electric motor assist, essential for people like me who can’t move their legs.

My arms would feel it

Twelve years ago, while leading a climb in Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, I made a costly mistake and fell 40 feet onto an unyielding rock. The fall shattered my spine and severed my spinal cord, leaving me a paraplegic.

What I discovered after my long rehabilitation was that of all the things I could no longer do, cycling was the thing I missed the most. Cycling had been a big part of my life before my injury, ever since my parents bought me a three-speed Raleigh when I was 12. I later rode in the coastal mountains of Southern California, joined a cycling club, and even tried racing.

Handcycling was a way to experience the freedom and adventure that I had been missing in my life since my accident. It was very difficult at first, but with the help of an electric motor, I found I could keep up with my friends who didn’t have disabilities. Still needing to prove to myself that I could do a long ride, I signed up for Medio Siglo.

The ride would take me over terrain that varied from flat to rolling, before returning to Santa Fe. My arms would feel it when I finished hours later.

‘On your left!’

I pedaled hard for the first few miles of the ride, determined to conserve the electric-assist battery for the steeper climbs that lay ahead. I had been training for this ride for months, knowing that working the muscles in my arms can increase my power and strength on a handbike. But they will never produce the power that my leg muscles can, according to Paul M. Gordon, chair of the department of health, human performance, and recreation at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, largely because of differences in muscle mass.

But with electric assistance to compensate for the lack of muscle power, cyclists with spinal cord injuries can keep up with cyclists who use their legs to pedal. My three-wheeled bike has an electric motor on the front wheel powered by a lithium battery behind the seat. Power is added only when I turn the pedals, and a switch lets me adjust the amount of assistance.

But I wasn’t ready to crank up the battery power just yet, even as faster riders passed me. I resisted the competitive urge to chase them as we passed horse ranches, an ancient cemetery, and churches that reflect New Mexico’s Spanish history.

The long line of cyclists wound along Highway 14, the Turquoise Trail, a scenic route between Santa Fe and Albuquerque that takes its name from the area’s rich history of turquoise mining. Windmills turned slowly, pumping water for cattle scattered among the pines and juniper trees.

After about 22 miles, I stopped to wolf down peanut butter sandwiches and drink Gatorade at a rest area staffed by friendly volunteers. Then we continued on, passing signs for a pottery studio and craft breweries. This area, including the village of Galisteo, has long been a favorite of artists, drawn by the bright desert light and the intersection of Spanish, Native American, and Anglo cultures.

We passed the turnoff for the Lamy train station, where physicists 80 years ago stepped off a train from the East and headed to Los Alamos to help Robert Oppenheimer build the first atomic bomb. By this time, like a Tesla driver far from home, I was anxious about range and battery life. I was halfway there.

Spring is usually the windiest season in New Mexico. Today was no different, and now we were riding into the wind. My arms were flailing, and I decided it was time to increase the electric assist to compensate for the extra work.

I began passing other cyclists, feeling more confident, knowing I had enough battery to help me get up the hills. My arms were getting tired on the climbs, though, although they recovered on the descents. “Left!” I yelled at other cyclists as I passed them.

Handcycling as therapy

Five years ago, I tried handcycling at Craig Hospital near Denver, where Tom Carr is the director of the therapeutic recreation center. Handcycling is an important tool in Craig’s rehabilitation program, which specializes in helping those with spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injuries.

“We can put people with spinal cord injuries on a handbike and have them feel good and successful very early in their stay,” Mr. Carr said. “Having the wind in their hair is something patients don’t know they can have again.” He added that he has become a big advocate for electric assistance, “especially for those who are new to this.”

But handbikes aren’t cheap. They can cost $10,000 to $15,000 or more. Fortunately, people with spinal cord injuries or medical conditions that prevent them from riding a conventional bike can try one before buying. For example, Bike-On, a Rhode Island bike shop that specializes in handbikes, offers trial classes at several locations across the country. And the Vermont-based Kelly Brush Foundation, founded by an athlete injured in a skiing accident, offers grants to help cover the cost of adaptive exercise equipment. Its website has links to organizations across the United States that offer handbike experiences.

An adventure completed

We were nearing the end of the ride, and while I enjoyed the company of the group, after three and a half hours of riding I was ready to call it a day. My arms were tired. My battery was running low. However, I knew I could make it to the end.

The last few miles of the route followed the Old Pecos Trail and parts of the original Route 66 through the winding streets of old Santa Fe. Long before European settlers arrived, the trail served as a trade route between the Pueblo, Apache, and Comanche tribes. It now passes some of the luxury hotels, restaurants, and art galleries that make Santa Fe a world-class tourist destination. I kept pedaling, getting closer and closer to my goal.

Finally, I was back at the Railyard, and a volunteer handed me a finisher’s medal on a ribbon. I accepted it, happy, tired, proud. I felt the wind in my hair and regained that sense of accomplishment that comes from finishing a long run, even though my legs were no longer moving.

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Jonas P. Jones

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