COVID restrictions have been devastating to many parts of our lives, including one of my favorite things, adaptive sports. My main sport is sled hockey (as you’ve heard 1000 times). I’m a late bloomer when it comes to sports, having started sled hockey 6 years ago when I was 42. There weren’t adaptive sports around when I was growing up but now thankfully there are tons of them. Last year I tried wheelchair curling, and last week I tried adaptive mountain biking.

As I mentioned, COVID restrictions are having a terrible effect on some sports. The major sponsor of our sled hockey team is the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab in Chicago, which is one of the biggest hospitals in the country for people rehabbing from major injuries. Right now they don’t have the funds to support our team, and in the name of COVID safety they are not sanctioning any games or tournaments, so effectively most adaptive sports are on hold. Which means we can practice now, but we won’t be playing any games until at least January.

One thing they can do is take people mountain biking. They already have the bikes and it doesn’t cost anything to ride the trails in Illinois. And so my hockey coach (who is also the head of adaptive sports at Shirley Ryan) invited me to join a group and ride some trails. I took a day off work one Friday and headed to Illinois. 

I arrived at Willow Springs well before our 9:30am start time. It was about 60 degrees and sunny, just the right kind of day for a ride. The nature preserve was hilly with lots of trees and small lakes, and a nature center that was closed due to COVID, of course. Everyone else arrived and I met my group, which consisted of me, one of my hockey teammates, another disabled guy who looked to be about 20, my coach, and two others from Shirley Ryan. The three able bodied people would ride fat tire bikes, and the rest of us would use hand cycles. 

The Other Kevin, attempting The Other Adaptive Sport

They brought two types of hand cycles. Both versions had two wheels in front and one in the back. My teammate rode one where you sat up upright and the pedals were in front. In my version, I leaned forward in a crouched position, sitting on a seat with supports for my shins. I also had a pad to rest my chest. The pedals were directly under the chest support, but the bike also had handlebars that had brakes and gear shifters. I could steer using the handle bars when coasting, but I could also steer when pedaling by leaning side to side on the chest support. 

I took a test drive around the parking lot. It was difficult to steer using the chest support, and I struggled with that a little the entire day. But I found that on the pavement, I could pedal with one arm and steer with the other. After a quick spin we headed to one of the trails. Things were going smoothly until we hit a few hills. Flat ground was fine, but this was suddenly work! I am in pretty decent shape so I was able to keep up with the group, but I will confess there were times when my heart felt ready to explode. It was easiest to pedal on hard dirt, but there were areas of gravel and grass that took extra work. Downhill was a blast, of course, and there were some nice long hills with turns at the bottom that were a lot of fun. 

Like most things that are “adaptive”, there are lots of things going on at the same time and it takes coordination to make it all work. In this case, pedaling and turning at the same time were challenging, and switching quickly from steering to pedaling wasn’t very smooth. The pedals had a specific “up” and a “down” orientation, but were not weighted, so I was looking down too often to make sure the pedals were oriented correctly. Timing my shifting as I went up a hill also turned out to be an art form that I’d need more time to master. 

We rode for about 90 minutes that day. The last 20 minutes were definitely the toughest. I was running out of gas, and the last few hills seemed like mountains. But I was able to finish them all on my own power. In the end I didn’t die or injure myself, and I had a good time, so I decided I’ll do it again.

The group goes out every Friday, and I’m planning on bringing Mrs. TOK to join them at least one more time before the weather gets bad. It was a great workout, and what I saw of the scenery was beautiful. It was one of the few times this year that I spent so much time outside, aside from doing yard work. 

A few days after my ride, we had some friends over for brunch. One of them asked me about the hand cycle. How much did it cost? I looked it up, and it was in the $3000-$9000 range. He was shocked at the price, and was convinced we could make our own version with old bike parts and a frame he could weld in his shop. With winter coming on, that would be a nice indoor project. I’m not committed enough to buy and store my own bike, but if we could build one for a fraction of the cost, I could be persuaded. We’ll see how that works out.