First steps to getting back on the bike

Bicycling has been in my blood ever since I was a kid, but I became more serious about it in my college days at Indiana University, home of the Little 500 annual bicycle race and the fantastic movie Breaking Away, filmed while I attended IU.  Although I never came close to finishing on a podium, I did dabble in both mountain bike and road racing from time to time during my Emergency Medicine career.  When I was struck in 2004, beyond commuting by bicycle, I had been doing frequent training rides and a bit of racing; logging around 4000 miles in the twelve months prior to my injury.

When asked by a counselor while laying nearly paralyzed in my hospital bed what I loved about cycling, I remember saying it was feeling the wind in my face, the tension of the crankarms pulling on the chain, the sound and feel of the road underneath me, all the while spinning with my heart rate around 160-165.  Speed.  Efficiency.  It just all felt so right, a sweet spot in a complex life, a break from the chaos of the ER, a sort of Chariots of Fire experience, such that when I rode I felt God's pleasure.

What follows then is the story of how I came to get back on the bike....

  • My first attempt at turning some crankarms 6 weeks after injury did not go so well.  I was in my wheelchair with my feet velcro'd to some free spinning (that is no resistance) cranks.  After a few minutes of satisfaction, my feet slipped off the pedals twisting one of my ankles.  Though barely feeling my feet, this precipitated a moderate episode of Autonomic Dysreflexia which can occur with painful stimulus below the level of one's spinal cord injury - with myself feeling immediately dizzy, faint, and sweaty such that I needed to be laid down.  I did not try spinning or turning cranks after that until my discharge home some 6-8 weeks later.


  • Once home in mid-December 2004, my physical therapist worked with me on a recumbent trainer in his office.  One in which my heart rate and cadence could be monitored, my watt output measured and various programed training profiles set to challenge me.  Initially I did this 5 days per week, traveling each time to Keith Heinzelman's office to work on the Sci-Fit trainer.  Since I do not feel my feet very well, and particularly do not know their position (lack of proprioception), it was immediately obvious that I needed to use clipless pedals with cleats on the Sci-Fit.  This worked beautifully!  I could focus on spinning circles, not just mashing out watts.  Improving watt output and some evidence of potential for fitness, lead my PT to consider getting me onto a bike.


  • I will never forget the day Keith asked me how I might feel about getting back on a bike.  He had checked into us borrowing a recumbent tandem from one of the Washington state ferry boat captains who ever so kindly made his custom 'bent available to us.  So beginning in early January 2005 we began riding together on the recumbent, Keith and I.  I was the stoker with responsibility to provide some power over hills; Keith steering, shifting, braking and providing most of the wattage.  That first ride for the two of us already written about in the section covering The Trauma, did include two low speed spills with no injuries, many laughs from me, and a few quietly muttered expletives from Keith.  Yet we persisted, each outing gaining strength and confidence such that we signed up for the Chilly Hilly, 33 miles, 2500 feet of climbing on the last Sunday of February 2005.  More on that next....