The road to inclusion: Adaptive biking brings locals and visitors to Rochester-area trails
Kadie Tower of Henrietta reached a personal milestone this summer.
The 36-year-old traveled 90 miles along the Erie Canal by bike and kayak. Not in a single trip, but a few miles at a time, whenever she had the chance.
"I love the canal trail," she said. "I also love the Auburn Trail. That's one of my favorites. There's a lot of old history that you can read along the way there, so it's fascinating."
Tower, who is deaf, spoke through a translator. She also has a rare condition called sacral agenesis, which impairs the development of the spinal cord and legs.
On a recent morning along the Erie Canal in Pittsford at Great Embankment Park, she showed off the $4,000 adaptive bike she bought a few months ago with the help of various grants.
"It wasn't a simple process, that's for sure, but I definitely love it a lot," she said. "I have so much fun."
It's a recumbent hand tricycle powered by the arms. Tower holds on to the hand grips and pumps the hand crank in a circular motion, propelling the wheels forward. She makes it look easy, but hilly terrain is challenging.
"It's a really tough ride for me," she said. "I get tired really easily with my arms."
Tower seems willing to explore any sport she can. She enjoys bowling and soccer. She tried wheelchair fencing but didn't continue with that because she got overheated in the protective gear.
Adaptive biking is the sport she gravitates to the most because it's the one she feels most confident in.
With that adventurous spirit, Tower recently took a spin on an adaptive mountain bike that riders can borrow from the town of Victor's parks and recreation department. For now, during a pilot period, there is no rental fee.
Like Tower's bike, this is a recumbent three-wheeler that uses a hand crank. But that's where the similarities end.
"It's very different from mine," Tower said."The handle bars are wider, so you have to get used to that in your arms and shoulders."
The $10,000 bike also has an electronic motor that the rider can use for backup if they want an extra boost.
Including Kadie, only about 10 people have tried the mountain bike so far. One of those riders, 15-year-old Mather Ling, traveled three hours just for the experience.
Last week, Mather and his father, Peter Ling, made the trip from the Binghamton area where they live. They said there aren't many inclusive recreational options there, so it is well worth the round trip to Rochester to find activities they can do together. In a previous visit to the area, Mather rented a hand cycle to ride along the Erie Canal path in the village of Fairport.
Mather uses a wheelchair. He has spina bifida and has limited use of his legs because his spine did not fully develop before he was born.
At Dryer Road Park in Victor, which has about 18 miles of multi-use trails for bikers and hikers with a variety of skill levels and abilities, Mather was eager to get back on the mountain bike. He did a trial run in an earlier visit to Victor's parks and recreation department building.
"I definitely think I'm still getting the feel of it," he said. "Turning is definitely a little scary, but I think I'm getting really good at it."
Like any cyclist who wants to use the town’s adaptive mountain bike, Mather got a personal lesson from Adam Reitz, Victor's trails manager. Hired about a year and a half ago from the International Mountain Biking Association, Reitz believes he is the first person in a municipal position in western New York who is dedicated to trail maintenance and development.
"Our department has a strong commitment to inclusive recreation. It's very important to us that everyone has the same opportunities to enjoy recreation, especially outdoor recreation," Reitz said, crediting parks and recreation director Brian Emelson for his leadership on the issue.
Emelson's daughter, Maeve, has disabilities.
"(She) inspires me every day to try and find ways to reach beyond what I think are my limits," Emelson said.
Adaptive mountain bikers must work with Reitz at least three times before venturing out on their own.
"It's analogous in some ways to downhill skiing," he explained. "You don't just go for it. You want to be somewhat informed; you want to make sure your equipment is working properly. That's going to maximize your safety and your fun."
As Reitz used a wrench to adjust the bike seat, Mather Ling got ready for his first ride on Hog Hollow, a multi-use, adaptive trail that Reitz both designed and built less than a year ago. The pathway is wider, and its tilts and contours are built to ensure both stability and an authentic mountain biking experience for the rider.
Peter Ling will ride his own mountain bike on the trail behind Mather and Reitz. It was obvious he couldn't wait to share this with his son.
"I've been mountain biking for more than 15 years and being able to have him experience the same is amazing," he said.
First, Mather and Reitz did a few turns in a nearby field so Mather could get reacquainted with the bike. Then they entered the wooded trail, navigating the hills and dips and wide curves. A few minutes later, the squeal of brakes resonated through the trees. Mather was speeding down a hill when he rolled over some rocks and his shoe flew off his foot.
He declared the ride "a little scary but definitely thrilling" and vowed to come back to Victor as soon as he can.
"This is amazing," he said. "I've never experienced this before."
Reitz said the town of Victor is evaluating its existing trails system to identify potential future projects. One goal, he said, is to create an infrastructure and culture that will help it grow into a regional destination.
This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk.