A Long Distance Handcycling Trek in Santa Fe

The nervous energy was palpable as hundreds of cyclists, clad in brightly colored Lycra, awaited the start of the 50-mile ride known as the Half-Century from the Santa Fe Railyard, a hub of art galleries, restaurants, and a weekly farmers market in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Then, finally, we were riding through town with eight motorcycle cops ahead of us, patrolling the intersections.

We passed the Roundhouse, where the New Mexico Legislature meets. We passed Museum Hill, where four museums explore the Native American Southwest, the Spanish colonial past, and more. Then, finally, after a dozen miles or so, Santa Fe was far away and we were alone, riding through rolling ranchland.

It was the second day of a two-day cycling event that each spring attracts more than 1,500 participants, who come for the companionship and challenge of pedaling together through a desert landscape rich in history, art, and indigenous traditions. Of all those who showed up for the Half-Century trek, I was the only one on a handbike.

Handbikes allow riders to sit or lie on their backs, turn the cranks with their hands, and push themselves with their arms rather than their legs. My handbike, a lightweight Swedish model, had an electric-assist motor, which is essential for people like me who can’t move their legs.

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 unforgiving rock. The fall broke 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 got me a three-speed Raleigh when I was 12. I later rode the coastal mountains of Southern California, joined a cycling club, and even tried my hand at racing.

Handcycling was a way to experience the freedom and adventure I had been missing from 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 able-bodied friends. Still needing to prove to myself that I could do a long ride, I signed up for Half-Century.

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

I pedaled hard for the first few miles of the ride, determined to conserve the e-assist’s battery for the steeper climbs that lay ahead. I’d been preparing for this ride for months, knowing that working out your arm muscles can improve your power and strength on a handbike. But they’ll never produce the power your 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 the difference in muscle mass.

But with e-assist to make up for the missing 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 in the front wheel powered by a lithium battery behind the seat. Power is added only when I turn the cranks, and a switch lets me adjust the amount of assist.

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 sped past horse ranches, an old cemetery, and churches that reflect New Mexico’s Spanish history.

The long line of cyclists snaked along Highway 14, the Turquoise Trail, a scenic route between Santa Fe and Albuquerque named for the area’s rich history of turquoise mining. Windmills slowly turned, pumping water for the cattle that dotted the pine and juniper groves.

After about 22 miles, I stopped to devour peanut butter sandwiches and guzzle Gatorade at a rest stop 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 high desert light and the intersection of Spanish, Native American, and Anglo cultures.

We passed the turnoff for the Lamy train station, where physicists stepped off a train from the East 80 years ago 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 keeping an eye on the battery. I was about halfway down.

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

I began to pass other cyclists, feeling more confident, knowing I had enough battery to help me get up the hills. However, my arms were getting tired on the climbs, though they recovered as we slid down the hills. “Left!” I yelled at the other cyclists as I sped past them.

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 get people with spinal cord injuries on a handbike and get them well and successfully very early in their stay,” Mr Carr said. “Having the wind in their hair is something patients don’t know they’ll ever have again.” He added that he has become a big advocate for e-assist, “especially for those who are new to it.”

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 two-wheeled bike can try one before buying. For example, Bike-On, a Rhode Island bike shop that specializes in handbikes, offers test clinics at locations across the country. And the Vermont-based Kelly Brush Foundation, founded by an athlete injured in a skiing accident, provides grants to help with the cost of adapted exercise equipment. Its website has links to organizations across the United States that provide handbike experiences.

We were nearing the end of the ride, and as much as I enjoyed the company of the group, after three and a half hours of pedaling I was ready to call it a day. My arms were tired. My battery was running low. Yet, 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. Now it passes some of the upscale hotels, restaurants, and art galleries that make Santa Fe a world-class tourist destination. I kept pedaling, getting closer to my goal.

Then, finally, I was back in the Railyard, and a volunteer was handing me a finisher's medal on a ribbon. I accepted it, happy, tired, proud. I felt the wind in my hair and I had regained that feeling of accomplishment that accompanies the completion of a long ride, even if my legs were no longer moving.

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