Holzman writes on science for Insight Magazine in Washington, D.C

Last summer, Bob Weiland cycled from Los Angeles to Savannah, Ga., in 30 days. It is not unheard of for someone to pedal across the United States, not even if that someone is, like Weiland, 44 years old and someone who managed to average more than 100 miles a day. But Bob Weiland is a double-leg amputee.

He made his journey pedaling a specially designed tricycle, called Freedom Ryder, with his hands. "I think the name symbolizes it. It's a vehicle that I had been looking for for 20 years, ever since I got injured in '69. It is absolutely fantastic to ride the Santa Monica bike path, from Pacific Palisades all the way down to Torrance, for a 50-mile tour of sun, sand and beach."

Weiland had been considering a career in baseball when a shell took his legs in Vietnam. In the mid-'80s, he walked across the United States on his hands. But one doesn't have to be a world-class athlete to ride a hand-powered three-wheeler. John Scott, whose cerebral palsy makes walking a chore, glides through the streets of Boston at 7 or 8 m.p.h. on his New England Handcycle. "I love it," Scott says.

The newly developed hand-powered cycles are designed and built by a few backyard craftsmen and tiny companies across the country. Although Weiland and others have taken some on a few rather ambitious journeys--Rory McCarthy of Bath, Me., covered 500 miles one summer in England and Wales and has seen parts of China from the seat of his Handcycle--just riding them down the street is liberating for those confined to wheelchairs. Hand-powered cycles have the potential to make cardiovascular exercise and new mobility available for individuals with a variety of disabilities such as polio, spina bifida, bad knees, spinal and head injuries, and amputees, says Chris Hager, a partner in the Weston, Mass.-based New England Handcycle Co.

"People with limited mobility don't have ready access to cardiac conditioning," says Dr. Sheldon Barroll, associate clinical professor of rehabilitation at UC San Francisco. Ralph Hotchkiss, a wheelchair rider and designer and MacArthur Foundation award winner, says: A hand-powered vehicle is one of the best forms of exercise, and the most convenient I've seen. In fact, it's doubly convenient because you can go somewhere while you work out."

"Bicycling is the only aerobic exercise I get, and it's the one that exercises the most muscle groups at one time," says Bob Sadowski, a paraplegic who rides a Chinook, a tricycle designed by Kelvin Tellinghuisen in Sioux Falls, S.D. "I can get my heart rate almost to 160. That's pretty good for an old man (he is 51). On a racing wheelchair I've only gotten it to 140." Swimming is much less convenient than cycling and offers less of an aerobic workout, he says.

The psychological benefits of exercise are also important, says Peter W. Axelson, a rehabilitation engineer who designs recreational equipment for the disabled at Beneficial Designs, Inc. of Santa Cruz. "People strike a balance in their lives between the time they spend in recreational activity, in work and in daily living activities. If someone has an injury, this can get all out of balance. In a rehabilitation institute, you may spend 100% of your time on daily living skills." Equipment that makes exercise easier, he adds, can help return a healthier balance to an injured person's life.

And people with disabilities "are getting integrated into just about every sporting activity out there," Axelson says. "There is adaptive equipment being made for surfing, kayaking, scuba diving, sailing and skiing."

In choosing an activity, he adds, it is important to look at how independent a person wants to be and how well he or she can do with family and friends who are not disabled.

Both of these considerations point to hand-powered cycling as one of the most versatile sports. The key to independence in cycling "is whether you live in an area where you can ride, so that you can just get out and go, or if you can get the cycle into the back of your car or on its roof," Axelson says.

McCarthy has pedaled himself into the airport en route to his foreign cycling vacations. With difficulty, Sadowski can load the Chinook on the back of his car himself.

The average hand-cyclist may travel slightly slower than a bicyclist, but in a subtle way, the tricycles put people with disabilities on a more equal footing with the rest of the world. "People who have taken test rides say that people relate to you differently when you are on a piece of sporting equipment, instead of in a wheelchair," Hager says. In fact, they often don't notice the disability. Says Dave Hanson, a Handcycle owner in Boston: "When people see me on this trike, they say, 'Can you ride that with your feet as well?' overlooking the fact that my legs are impaired."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World