A Long-Distance Handcycling Trek in Santa Fe

The nervous energy was palpable as hundreds of bike riders, shrink-wrapped in colorful Lycra outfits, waited for the start of the 50-mile Half-Century ride from the Santa Fe Railyard, a center for art galleries, restaurants and a weekly farmers’ market in Santa Fe, N.M. Then, at last, we were winding through town as eight police officers on motorcycles leapfrogged ahead to guard the intersections.

We rode past 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 or so miles, Santa Fe was far behind us and we were on our own, riding through rolling ranch land.

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

Handcycles allow riders to sit or lie on their backs, turn cranks with their hands and propel themselves with arm power instead of leg power. My handcycle, a lightweight Swedish model, was equipped with an electric assist motor — 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 plunged 40 feet onto the unforgiving rock. The fall burst my spine and severed my spinal cord, leaving me a paraplegic.

What I discovered after my lengthy rehab was that of all the things I could no longer do, cycling was what I missed the most. Riding had been a big part of my life before my injury, ever since my parents gave me a three-speed Raleigh when I was 12. Later I cruised the coastal mountains of Southern California, belonged to a cycling club and even tried bike racing.

Handcycling was a way to experience the freedom and adventure that were missing from my life after the accident. It was very hard at first, but with the help of an e-assist 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 the Half-Century.

The ride would take me through terrain that ranged from flat to hilly, before circling back to Santa Fe. My arms were going to feel it by the time I finished hours later.

I was cranking hard on the first miles of the ride, determined to conserve the e-assist battery for the bigger hills to come. I had been preparing for this ride for months, knowing that training arm muscles can improve power and strength on a handcycle. But they’ll never produce the power leg muscles can generate, according to Paul M. Gordon, chairman of the department of health, human performance and recreation at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, largely because of the difference in the amount of muscle mass.

But with e-assist to make up for that missing muscle power, riders with spinal cord injuries can keep pace with riders who use their legs to pedal. My three-wheeled cycle has an electric motor in the front wheel powered by a lithium battery behind my seat. Power is only added when I turn the cranks, and a switch lets me adjust the amount of assistance.

But I wasn’t ready to turn up the battery power yet, even when the faster riders passed me. I resisted the competitive urge to chase them down as we cruised past horse ranches, an old graveyard and churches that reflect the Spanish history of New Mexico.

The long line of cyclists snaked along Highway 14, the Turquoise Trail, a scenic byway between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, named after the rich history of turquoise mining in the area. Windmills turned slowly, pumping water for the cattle that dotted the pinyon and juniper woodlands.

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

We headed past the turnoff to the Lamy rail station — where 80 years ago physicists disembarked from a train from the East and headed for Los Alamos to help Robert Oppenheimer build the first atomic bomb. At this point, like a Tesla driver a long way from home, I had range anxiety and was keeping an eye on my battery. I had used up about half of its power.

Spring is typically the windiest season in New Mexico. Today was no different, and we now rode into a headwind. My arms were cranking hard, and I decided it was time to increase the e-assist to make up for the added work.

I started passing other riders, feeling more confident, knowing that I had enough battery power to help me up the hills. Still, my arms got tired on the uphills, though they recovered as we coasted on the downhills. “On your left!” I yelled to the other riders as I whizzed past them.

Five years ago, I gave handcycling a try at Craig Hospital near Denver, where Tom Carr is the director of therapeutic recreation. Handcycling is a major tool in Craig’s rehabilitation program, which specializes in helping those with spinal cord or traumatic brain injuries.

“We can get people with a spinal cord injury on a handcycle and be safe and successful very early in their stay,” Mr. Carr said. “To have the wind in your hair is something that patients don’t know that they will ever get back again.” He added that he had become a huge proponent of e-assist, “especially for those getting into it for the first time.”

But handcycles aren’t 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 two-wheeled bike can try one out before buying. For example, Bike-On, a bike shop in Rhode Island specializing in handcycles, provides tryout clinics at various locations around 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 adaptive sports equipment. Its website has links to organizations around the United States that provide handcycling experiences.

We were nearing the end of the ride, and as much as I had enjoyed the camaraderie of the group, after three and a half hours of cranking, I was ready for my biking adventure to be over. My arms were tired. My battery was running down. Still, I knew I was going to make it to the end.

The last miles of the ride followed the Old Pecos Trail and parts of the original Route 66 through the crooked streets of old Santa Fe. Long before European settlers arrived, the trail served as a route for trade between the Pueblo, Apache and Comanche tribes. Now it leads past some of the fine hotels, restaurants and art galleries that make Santa Fe a prime tourist destination. I cycled on, nearing my goal.

Then, at last, I was back in the Railyard district, and a volunteer was handing me a finisher’s medal on a ribbon. I accepted it, happy, tired, proud. I had felt the wind in my hair and recaptured that feeling of accomplishment that goes with completing a long bike ride, even though my legs no longer moved.

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