The Santa Fe handcycle tour

The Santa Fe handcycle tour
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Nervous energy was palpable as hundreds of cyclists, dressed in colorful lycra outfits, waited for the start of the 50-mile ride known as the 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 the town with eight motorcycle police officers clearing the way and watching the intersections.

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

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 the challenge of riding together through a desert landscape rich in history, art, and Indigenous traditions. Of all who showed up for the Medio Siglo ride, I was the only one on a handcycle.

Handcycles allow riders to sit or recline, turn the pedals with their hands, and move forward using their arms instead of their legs. My handcycle, a lightweight Swedish model, had an electric-assist motor, essential for people like me who cannot 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 unyielding rock. The fall shattered my spine and severed my spinal cord, leaving me paraplegic.

What I discovered after my long rehabilitation was that of all the things I could no longer do, cycling was what 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. Later I 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 missed in my life since my accident. It was very hard at first, but with the help of an electric motor, I found I could keep up with my friends who did not have disabilities. Still needing to prove to myself that I could do a long ride, I signed up for the Medio Siglo.

The ride would take me through 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 during the first miles of the ride, determined to conserve the electric-assist battery for the steeper climbs to come. I had been training for this ride for months, knowing that exercising the arm muscles can enhance your power and strength on a handcycle. But they will never produce the power that 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 electric assist to compensate for the lack of muscle strength, cyclists with spinal cord injuries can keep up with cyclists who use their legs to pedal. My three-wheeled cycle 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 assist.

But I was not ready to increase the battery power yet, even as faster riders passed me. I resisted the competitive urge to chase them as we rode past 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 named for the area’s rich history of turquoise mining. Windmills turned slowly, pumping water for cattle scattered among the piñon and juniper trees.

After about 22 miles, I stopped to devour peanut butter sandwiches and drink Gatorade at a rest stop staffed by friendly volunteers. Then we continued, 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 to the Lamy train station, where 80 years ago physicists 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 watching the battery. I was halfway there.

Spring is usually the windiest season in New Mexico. Today was no different, and we were now riding into the wind. My arms were churning, 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 up the hills. My arms tired on the climbs, however, though they recovered while coasting the downhills. “On your left!” I shouted to other cyclists as I overtook 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 handcycle and get them well and successful very early in their stay,” Mr. Carr said. “Having the wind in their hair is something patients don’t know they will get to have again.” He added that he has become a big advocate of electric assist, “especially for those who are new to this.”

But handcycles are not cheap. They can cost $10,000 to $15,000 or more. Fortunately, people with spinal cord injuries or medical conditions that keep them from riding a conventional bike can try one before buying. For example, Bike-On, a bicycle store in Rhode Island that specializes in handcycles, offers test-ride clinics at locations around the country. And the Kelly Brush Foundation, based in Vermont, founded by an athlete injured in a skiing accident, offers grants to help with the cost of adaptive exercise equipment. Its website has links to organizations around the United States that offer handcycling experiences.

An adventure completed

We were approaching the end of the ride, and although I enjoyed the company of the group, after three and a half hours of pedaling, I was ready to finish the day. My arms were tired. My battery was getting low. Still, I knew I could make it all the way.

The last miles of the route followed 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 trading route among 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 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 with finishing a long ride, even if my legs no longer moved.

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