Jack Carlson fixes bikes with his hands, but he moves mountains with his heart.
At Strauss Skates and Bikes in Maplewood, Carlson has made it his personal mission to remove barriers that keep kids with special needs from riding bikes.
“There’s nothing better than seeing a kid experience the freedom of riding a bike for the first time,” he said.
Inspiration came a decade ago while he was working with a man whose daughter with special needs couldn’t ride a standard bicycle. As word spread throughout the community, he got more requests from customers with special needs, each presenting unique challenges and opportunities for solutions.
He was faced with the ultimate challenge when a young girl with 8-inch legs came to him with a dream of riding a bike. He made it happen.
“Jack has never given up on anyone,” said owner Shaun Hastings. “He’s never said no to anyone.”
When a customer without arms wanted to ride a bike, Carlson pondered, puttered and pounded, piecing together a three-wheeled bike so the girl could perform all functions — pedaling, braking, turning, gear-shifting — with her legs.
“If there’s a will, there’s a way,” he said. “The best part is making something happen for someone who never thought it was possible.”
In his 30 years of working at Strauss Skates and Bikes, Carlson, 56, has earned the reputation around the shop for being a jack-of-all-trades.
He works quietly, shying away from the spotlight and unaware of his impact. In the local special-needs community, he’s simply called “Jack the bike guy.”
In a Facebook forum for Minnesota parents of special-needs children, one mother said Jack “saved me $2,000. … he truly seems to care.” Another mom said, “We will never forget Jack.”
That reputation sends customers from around the state to his door. Heather Kainz drove from Virginia, Minn., to get her 4-year-old son, Parker, a bike that would provide adequate support. Parker uses a wheelchair and a walker for mobility, but wanted a bike to cruise around with his older sisters and cousins.
“A bike is something every single child should be able to experience, regardless of ability,” Kainz said.
Individually adapted bicycles, like the kind Parker needs, come with a hefty price tag, often more than $3,500.
“Figuring how to adapt a bike isn’t the biggest challenge,” Carlson said. “Funding is.”
He works with several distributors of adaptive bikes, but when cost makes getting a new bike prohibitive, he comes up with creative low-cost solutions.
It’s not unusual for him to use parts from used bikes in the shop to create a custom bike. Instead of ordering new foot pedal attachments for one customer, he cut down a pair of plastic Rollerblade boots to bolt to the pedals.
“All it takes a little creativity,” he said. “Every kid should be able to ride a bike without it costing a fortune.”
Minnspirations is a regular column about Minnesotans who inspire and move us.