Matthew Williams was snowboarding down Hyland Hills slopes when he overshot a jump, fell and severed his spinal cord.
In the seven years after the injury that left his legs partly paralyzed, Williams, 43, struggled to find an adaptive sport that stuck or felt safe. Then, last summer, he heard about Twin Cities Adaptive Cycling (TCAC) — and he was hooked.
“Cycling was my thing when I was young, but I didn’t get on a bicycle again until last summer,” he said, “and it was amazing.”
The south Minneapolis nonprofit with a fleet of adapted bicycles is in its second summer offering people with disabilities a chance to gain confidence, get some exercise and find new ways to get around. In a metro area known for its enthusiasm for biking and boasting more than 200 miles of on-street and protected bikeways, the group’s founders see a place where adaptive cycling can continue to grow.
“We’re reaching a lot of people who didn’t have this before,” said Caito Bowles-Roth, a co-founder of TCAC. “Some people will say, ‘There’s no way. I can’t walk. I can’t ride a bike.’ And then they find that freedom.”
The Twin Cities has had some adapted cycling opportunities for years, including at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute. But Bowles-Roth, an occupational therapist with Minnesota roots and a background working in adaptive cycling in California, noticed there was no one making the equipment available to the general public. So she moved to Minneapolis and started the nonprofit in 2017.
The group had 10 adapted cycles and provided rides to 42 people during the first summer. So far this summer, they’ve served 40 riders, attracted 23 new people, and now have 27 bikes.
“I was super excited to hear about Caito’s program and to have another option,” said Megan Welty, program coordinator for adaptive sports and recreation department at the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute.
Michelle Kiefer works for the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, where she manages and coordinates a program for communities and schools to implement safe routes to schools. When speaking with schools, she has heard from teachers about how to get students with special needs on a bike. But until TCAC, Kiefer couldn’t find a local group for those students.
“It was eye opening that this isn’t something we offer in the metro area or statewide,” Kiefer said. “I didn’t find a program like this at all in Minnesota that offers adaptive bikes for adults and children with special needs until Caito’s.”
Look for the blue container
The nonprofit’s base is a bright blue shipping container in a parking lot that it shares with the Urban Ventures soccer fields near the Midtown Greenway.
Three days a week — Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays — TCAC blocks off the parking lot with orange cones and Bowles-Roth, co-founder Tommy Dixon and other volunteers pull the bicycles out of the shipping container. There are dozens of them, allowing the group to cater to people with different abilities: hand cycles, recumbent tricycles and tandem bicycles.
Riders can sign up in advance or show up to see what’s available. Volunteers help people get settled and practice maneuvering around the parking lot. Once they’re comfortable, riders can venture out onto the greenway, accompanied by another rider.
There isn’t a set fee for riders, but TCAC suggests a donation of $10 per ride or $50 for a season pass.
The group keeps the cost low because the expense of owning and storing an adapted bicycle can be a barrier to people, Bowles-Roth said. A new no-frills recumbent cycle, which allows the rider to recline, can cost $1,100. Plus, most adaptive bikes are a challenge to transport as they don’t fold up easily or fit on a standard bicycle rack.
Many of TCAC’s bike have been paid for with grant money or donated by volunteers, such as Dale Hammerschmidt and Mary Arneson, retired physicians who began adapting recumbent tricycles for patients and people they knew.
Hammerschmidt said adaptive cycling is “terrific medically.”
This type of activity “retains muscular strength and it’s fun, so people stay with it,” Hammerschmidt said.
Participants come from around the metro to ride with TCAC and along Minneapolis’ network of trails. That’s partly why the group meets where they do.
“Integration along the greenway is important,” Bowles-Roth said.
‘Everybody can ride a bike’
At Courage Kenny, adaptive cycling is one of the rehabilitation services offered for people with short- and long-term medical conditions, injuries and disabilities. The institute based in Golden Valley uses handcycles and trikes for weekly group rides. This year, Welty said, they have averaged 15 to 20 riders each week, which is a jump from four years ago when they had about 5 to 10 people participating.
“A lot of it is educating people that there are bike options for them,” Welty said. “Everybody can ride a bike. It’s an incredibly accessible sport if you have the right equipment.”
Amy Ward, a TCAC rider who has multiple sclerosis and is visually impaired, uses a recumbent tricycle linked behind another tricycle ridden by a volunteer. But at first, she was intimidated.
“I’m thinking, ‘I can’t do that,’ ” said Ward, 53. “But then after I saw it and sat down, I could do it.”
On a warm evening in late May, Williams settled in on a recumbent tricycle with the help of Bowles-Roth and Hammerschmidt. He said he wants to keep up his strength, but finds physical therapy treatments mundane. “I can get on a bicycle and it’s fun,” Williams said. “It seems like I’m getting stronger.”
He pedaled off along the Midtown Greenway with his parents — on their own bicycles nearby — headed toward the lake Bde Maka Ska.