Throwback Thursday: Four Wheels Better Than None.

This week’s Throwback Thursday comes from Issue 60, which is available free in our app.

FOUR WHEELS ARE BETTER THAN NONE

Words and pics by Benji Haworth and Louise Bush

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The riders you see in these photos are not wacky off-road recumbent-riding, attention seekers. They are physically disabled. They have lost the use of their legs. Their inspirational story is a testament, not just to the human spirit and all that clichéd stuff, it’s a testament to the sheer addictive allure of riding dirt. That overwhelming compulsion that cannot be stopped no matter how big the obstacle. No matter what the cost.

I met up with Phil, Dave and Paula from the Rough Riderz club at Ae Forest, just over the border in Scotland. Rough Riderz is a club set up to give wheelchair users the opportunity to enjoy the thrills of off-road four-wheel mountain bike riding. They want to spread the knowledge and different experiences of the various people involved. Through their website they also share information on things such as recommended UK trails, the opening of new trails, recommended foreign locations and holidays.

Phil is the main man behind Rough Riderz. Phil used to be able-bodied. He used to take part in all kinds of extreme sports. Then he was involved in a motorbike accident.

After leaving hospital he tried his hand at a few different extreme sports tailored for disabled people over the next few years. Things like jetskiing for example. But nothing was giving him the same sort of feeling as riding wheels on dirt. Then he heard rumours of guys on the other side of the Atlantic who were hurling themselves downhill on four-wheeled mountain bikes in places like Whistler and Colorado. Phil says “I heard rumours of four-wheeled mountain bikes after leaving the spinal unit in February 2004. Then I saw a poster of it at a disabled activity centre in the Lakes in 2005. The only clue was a web address in small print in the corner of the poster, so I decided to investigate further. I was very excited and intrigued at the possibility of doing an extreme sport again, especially downhill biking.”

Without much delay he got on a plane and headed out there to see it and, more importantly, try it himself. He returned to the UK a couple of weeks later with a £6000 four-wheeled mountain bike among his luggage. And a mission. Phil: “After an amazing week of mountain biking on four wheels in Colorado, it was during the flight back to the UK that I decided I wanted to increase the awareness and participation in this sport. Starting a club just seemed like the easiest and most obvious way to do this.”

Ae Forest is one of the Rough Riderz’ favourite places to ride. Phil: “The Shredder and Omega Man trails [at Ae] are perfect for our bikes. They provide an exciting, challenging and sometimes scary venue to test our skills”. Now I like climbs as much as the next man, but I never refuse an uplift. Thanks some generous folk at the Forestry Commission, the Rough Riderz often get permission to take their van to the top of the trails using the fireroads.

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Best foot in mouth.

We quickly reached the top of The Shredder and after I committed a few (kindly ignored or unnoticed) Alan Patridge-isms such as proclaiming “let’s saddle up” or complaining about my aching legs, we were off and rolling; me on two wheels, them on four. The trail starts on a flattish section with a few small, 6in step-downs. I was following Phil and Dave and, to be brutally frank, they were slow. Patronising thoughts such as “good on them though for trying” passed through my brain (thankfully I’d stopped Partridge-ing out loud by this point). And then something genuinely shocking happened. The trail tipped down, curved around and became very loose. And Phil and Dave left me for dead. They four wheel drifted around the bend, exiting the corner just as fast – maybe faster – as when they entered it. I was skittering my way down behind them much, much slower and sketchily. As I exited the corner, much slower than the speed I entered it, I just about caught a glimpse of Phil and Dave sling-shotting around the next hairpin and dropping down into the treeline and out of my sight. It took me a good while to catch up with them (God bless flat bits). I could see why they liked coming to Ae.

After the Shredder we joined on to the Omega Man trail. The final section of the Omega Man has a few tabletops and kicker jumps in it. Although the way Phil and Dave hit these jumps wasn’t as immediately startling as how fast they rode the upper sections of The Shredder, the consequences of them getting a jump wrong were much more serious than occurred to me at first. Just think about it; if you get a jump wrong, not only are you inevitably going to get a 35kg lump of metal land on you, you’re also quite likely to damage your shoulders. Wheelchair users need their shoulders. Paula explained to me during the next uplift in the van how she once knew someone who cased a jump and broke their collar bone. That person is back on four wheels again doing jumps. Some people would call them stupid. Cyclists wouldn’t.

Inspirational is what I’d call them. But not in an airy fairy blah blah way. Inspirational in a very effective, practical way. After riding with the Rough Riderz I want to ride my bike more than ever. And I want to ride it harder than ever. I’m going to conquer that thing that I’ve always bailed out on before. Nothing worthwhile is easy. One payoff is worth a hundred penalties.

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The only way is up!

So what does Phil want to happen in the future with four wheeled mountain bikes?

Phil: “I would hope that there are more clubs, more bikes, and more riders to make four-wheeled mountain biking a familiar sight at various venues around the country. My long term goal is to create a Rough Riderz team, to represent Great Britain at racing events hosted in the US and Canada each year. Personally, Fort William is somewhere I would love to ride. To experience the same level of thrills as the world’s best riders get during competitions. The gondola station would also mean we can reach the summit easily and ride there without the need for a private uplift service.”

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IT’S NOT ABOUT THE BIKE. WELL IT IS, A BIT.

As we all know, it’s not about the bike. But all cyclists are kit geeks. So here’s a rundown of what these machines are…

The most popular bike is made by a company called R-ONE. Confusingly the model name is “Fourcross”. R-ONE is co-owned by a Canadian called Stacy Kohut. Stacy was a professional skateboarder and also had a successful career in BMX and motocross. After a crash in 1992 left him paralysed from the waist down, he first tried sit-skiing – and promptly won the World Championship title. Since 1997 he’s been manufacturing R-ONE bikes in the Winter and competing on American and Canadian downhill MTB circuits in the Summer.

The Fourcross is a full suspension design. The travel varies from between 6in and 8in. Each wheel is independently suspended and is controlled by its own shock (Fox Vanilla Rs with piggybacks are common choices). The main frame is made of cromoly steel. There have been aluminium versions made but the weight saving has been negligible. An average bike weighs a whopping 35kg (77 lbs). The bikes are primarily designed to be gravity powered on downhill trails. In order to be able to control the bikes users need to have use of the arms and hands (the bikes have no drivetrain). They can be self-propelled up shallow gradients in the same way as a normal manually propelled wheelchair.

Each Fourcross has a custom-built frame, custom sized seat and safety harness, adjustable seat and footplate and custom-built hubs (the wheels are only held on one side, like a Cannondale Lefty fork). The brakes are Hayes hydraulic discs with two brakes on each side of the bars (ie. four in total) so that each wheel has a brake. The ‘brake pairings’ have their levers welded together, so the rider only has to squeeze one of the brake pairing’s levers to actuate both of the front wheels’ brakes (for example). The wheels are 20in at the front and usually 26in at the back. Some people run 24in wheels on the back for a lower centre of gravity at the expense of rolling momentum

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WHAT TYPE OF PERSON CAN THE ROUGH RIDERZ HELP?

Louise Bush is the person who put us in touch with Rough Riderz in the early stages of putting this feature together. Here’s her story…

About a year ago my husband and I started to wonder if our son Joel would ever be able to experience riding in the way we did. We knew that with effort and practice he could master an adapted bike, of which there is a great choice. I came to realise that the bike Joel would ride would never be able to handle anything more than a smooth level surface and that didn’t seem fair. I wanted him to know the magic of riding full pelt through an ancient forest, the smell of soft pine and staring through the tress into what seems an endless carpet of moss and fallen leaves. To feel the anticipation and excitement of the uncharted track before you and wanting to discover its secrets. The more you ride that track the more you get to know it and your knowledge increases. You feel its every curve, drop, root, rock and your heart beats fast because it makes you feel alive. I want Joel to know this but it just seemed impossible or perhaps impractical. Either way the outlook seemed bleak. But if there is one thing I have learned in having a child with a disability it’s that you don’t give up.

I started to do some research; I wanted to know what the future held for young people like Joel. What the possibilities were for seeing this dream realised. It didn’t take me long before I came across ‘Rough Riderz’. It wasn’t long before I called Phil, the club secretary. I immediately warmed to him as we talked at great length about Rough Riderz. We discussed our ‘stories’, how he had come to ride four wheel mountain bikes and why I wanted to know about them.

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I can’t describe the feeling of discovering a solution to a problem that has caused great heartache. I remember when we bought Joel’s first bike; it was from a work colleague of Dan’s. I think Dan was more excited than me, being able to teach his son to cycle is a kind of rite of passage for dads. Raising Joel to love the freedom a bike brings, long hours ‘fettling’ with bikes in the shed and pawing of OS maps together. We had no idea what we were about to come up against. Joel had gone from being a carefree happy little boy developing normally until he was about two years old and I realised things weren’t quite right. Joel stopped talking, playing with toys, responding to his name and couldn’t even look at Dan or I. It was so painful. It was like our son was gradually being stolen from us. His physical skills were also affected, he couldn’t walk any kind of distance without laying or sitting on pavements. He needed to be held and restrained at all times in public, he would run in front of cars, climb out of windows or if given the chance throw him self into freezing cold water. Later on when Joel was five the wheelchair service gave us an amazing adapted push chair to keep him safe.

Joel is profoundly autistic, he receives his diagnoses in September and he will be nearly six. Our Paediatrician first mentioned Joel being autistic at age two. I can’t believe it’s taken four years to get a diagnosis. Without a diagnoses Joel has been unable to access specialist programs in our city to do a basic thing like learning to ride a bike. We have been unable to teach Joel ourselves, I imagine that Joel speaks a very complicated language and we only understand a tiny part of it. Joel is still unable to speak or use sign language, he uses small photos. Currently he has mastered asking for a drink or piece of fruit by handing an adult a picture. He is very bright boy but autism affects language and social skills. Now you can understand what a huge challenge learning to ride a mountain bike will be. The good news is that Joel will now sit on an adapted cycle; it’s taken three years, but he will happily sit on the bike. When we first started placing him on a saddle he would become distressed and start screaming and thrashing around. It’s small steps, but by the time Joel is 16 I know he will be sitting on a four-wheel mountain bike and we hope going rather fast! It can all be made possible by the hard work and dedication of people like Phil.

Rough Riderz website – www.roughriderz.co.uk

R-One Bikes website – www.r-onefourcross.com

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