This article was published in 2020, in Magazine 146.
On 23 September 2016, Steve Streets was critically injured, resulting in complete spinal paralysis. Here, he talks to us about his journey from hospital bed to wheelchair to serious handcycle training.
I remember the night. I was out on my bike. In those days, I rode a motorbike. My father had been a traffic officer so I was a careful rider, mindful of speed and hazards. There was heavy traffic on the Papworth bypass and I was slowly filtering onto and over a roundabout. Out of nowhere, one of the cars ahead of me executed a sudden sharp turn, swinging left towards the side of the road and my course in order to widen their turning circle. At around 30mph, the impact was enough to throw me skywards and land me with a complete spinal injury, paralysed from the chest down.
There was a lot to come to terms with: life would never be the same again. I couldn’t move. I had no stomach muscles, my legs weren’t working. Having been active all my life, I was looking at a static future with what they call a ‘tetra-tum’ – a fat tummy owing to lack of movement. It was devastating.
Over the following months, I learnt to use a wheelchair. Getting around was a huge hurdle to overcome, so I started to feel more hopeful. While still in hospital, I booked myself on an outward bound course in Exmouth. Looking back, it was a crazily ambitious thing to have done. I was nowhere near strong enough for the kayaking, abseiling and other activities we did. But it gave me confidence and motivation to keep challenging myself physically.
Soon after, I considered the challenge of reaching Snowdon’s summit. I’d climbed it a number of times before the accident and knew how hard it would be. I asked around, and a team of friends said they’d come. After many hours of pushing, pulling and lifting, they got me to the top. It was a gorgeous day and, yet again, my latest physical challenge spurred me on to get fitter and stronger and to be even more ambitious.
Around that time, I met someone else with similar injuries. He had been paralysed a few years before me and was further down the road to strength and fitness and used a handcycle. Inspired, I visited Draft Wheelchairs, a shop in Godmanchester which specialises in active and sports chairs. They have a showroom full of day chairs, handcycles and sports equipment, they talk with customers about requirements and have a full workshop on site where they ensure the required component parts work well together. I was measured up for a Quickie Attitude Hybrid e-cycle attachment which could be connected to and removed from my chair by me.
Learning to cycle my bike has been a process of trial and error. The first thing to get used to is the fact that all my weight is at the back of the bike.
This means that I can’t get traction on the front wheel when cycling uphill or on certain surfaces. Of course, it also means that I’m not evenly balanced so have to be very careful which inclines I attempt. If I start to fall backwards, I’ll tip out of the chair and can’t get back in unaided.
I avoid roads where I can as I don’t feel safe on them – often there isn’t sufficient space
Over time, I have found ways of overcoming problems. I’ve fitted panniers over the front of my cycle and fill them with bottles of water to add weight. I’ve also learnt to be careful about where I go. Around Grafham Water, for example, the cycling terrain is chalky and stony, in places with a slight gradient, which makes me vulnerable on the bike. One time at Rutland, a passing bicyclist stopped and pushed me up a hill I was struggling with. Without help, I could have been in real trouble, so I always make sure I’ve got quick access to my mobile phone. Even cycling off-road, I’ve seen numerous accidents so am vigilant about being visible, choosing to use high-viz and have lights on my helmet.
The road to fitness
Living as healthy a life as I can is really important for me. Every week, I complete four hours of physiotherapy and the team push me hard to keep fit. At home, I have a functional electrical stimulation (FES) machine which moves my legs in a cycling motion, electrically stimulating my muscles and improving blood flow in my lower body. It’s critical to ensure that I have good muscular cushioning because I sit in the chair all day and cannot feel discomfort which would indicate a blood flow- or skin-related issue.
I also attend a gym where my personal trainer is an endurance cyclist. This has no doubt spurred me on to keep cycling for fitness and I am out on the bike every week. I avoid roads wherever I can as I don’t feel safe on them. Often there isn’t sufficient space for cyclists on the roads and if I were to tip over, I’d be helpless in the path of motor traffic. Because I have to bear routes in mind, I’m nervous about trialling the various cycle routes around Cambridge because I can’t always see if they will avoid mounting high kerbs, be wide enough for my chair or be too muddy to push through. I have a regular, safe route along the Busway to Cambridge North or St Ives. Recently, I cycled on to Cherry Hinton, though mounting the Green Dragon bridge was pretty nerve-wracking! I did it in the lowest gear, on low power, ready to put my brakes on and wait for help if necessary. Fortunately, I made it and it felt good to have tried a new route. I always have to factor in where to stop and rest, because it’s difficult to keep the hand cycle attachment secure: it can’t be locked to things in the same way traditional bikes can.
As well as physical health, cycling brings massive benefits to my mental health. It’s easy to get stuck in the house; I can get tired and lazy, at which point I think that I need a change of scenery. Getting out on the bike is critical at these times – having fresh air and just moving quickly. It’s really enjoyable – so much easier than training in the chair alone as the cycle has gears so I can choose resistance and assistance depending on what I want to target. It’s also faster than pushing so allows me to cover many more miles than I otherwise could – thus is great for improving my base level fitness. Of course, there’s a real sense of achievement when I’ve completed a new route or covered a lot of miles. Cycling out with friends is also beneficial: if one of us starts to tire or show weakness, the other will start to increase pace and encourage us to dig deep.
As with any fitness regime, it’s helpful to have goals. Last year, I did the Snetterton half marathon – pushing my chair, not cycling. It was great to take part in such an event and I’m hoping to do the Cambridge half marathon this year. Over the next few months, I’m facing my greatest challenge yet: I’m going to compete in the Roth triathlon in Germany. Sponsored by the Rooprai Spinal Trust, there’s a team of us from my physio group, each with spinal injuries but differing physical abilities. One’s completing the swim, another the cycle (using legs) and I’m doing the marathon run (pushing myself in my chair).
Twenty-six miles on a tough course is going to push me to the extreme. I’m excited as well as nervous: my upper body will do all the work and shoulders are not designed to do this kind of work. I have to be so careful to make sure my shoulders remain in good working condition. I need them to survive the test! Cycling the hand bike will be central to my training.
With cycling, my fitness regime is fast, fun, sociable and an enabler as well as an end it itself
It allows me to cover the miles I need for stamina, it strengthens my upper body and is easier on my hands than pushing. Doing the marathon will undoubtedly take its toll but I’m determined to enjoy it. I’ve booked a trip to Lanzarote where the paths and warm weather will be conducive to pleasant training – I’m hoping it’ll give me a good start to the year!
Living a normal life
Thinking back to the start of my new phase of life, I can’t believe how normal an existence I feel I have. I’m mobile and active with serious fitness goals. I’m mentally engaged with my sports, thinking about pace, terrain and gradients and how to optimise my use of technical equipment. There’s no doubt that cycling has been key to my path. Before getting my handcycle, I was just doing my physiotherapy training; now, my fitness regime is fast, fun, sociable and an enabler as well as an end in itself.
The Rise of Handcycling
In 2012, London’s successful Olympic and Paralympic Games gave handcycling the exposure it needed to start growing in popularity. It wasn’t until 2008 in the Summer Paralympics that handcycling classifications were fully recognised, and four years later the 2012 Paralympics saw over 200 competitors compete in road and track cycling competitions.
For many people, this was the first time that they had seen elite handbikes being used competitively. Part of the Olympic and Paralympic legacy was to encourage Britons to try new sports and to get active doing something new.
Thanks to its similarity to cycling and its accommodating design, handcycling is popular with both fully able-bodied people and less ablebodied people. Handcycles are often built to meet particular requirements, meaning there are many variations in style. The bounds of what is possible on a handcycle are constantly being stretched – from being used as a vehicle for daily commutes through to long-distance touring, off-road adventures and even downhill racing on tarmac, dirt or snow! With the inclusion of hybrid and fully electric standalone or add-on models (which attach to a day wheelchair), there is potential for almost anyone to take part in handcycling.
Handcycling provides very similar health benefits to regular cycling, subject to a few key differences in the major muscle groups being used. Cardiovascular fitness, increased endurance, faster recovery rates and increased strength (especially around core, shoulders and arm muscle groups) are all well reported – as are the social opportunities around the sport.
Find out more:
- Handcycling.co.uk is a dedicated website set up to celebrate and promote the leisure side of this sport with information about different handcycle models, testimonials from those enjoying the sport and how to buy.
- You Can Bike Too is a local all-ability cycling project which offers trials and hire of handcycles. Find out more at miltoncountrypark.org/youcanbiketoo