Staying Active: Riding a handcycle feels almost like old times

This article was published in 2022, in Magazine 154.

Nearly nine years ago, I suffered an injury to my spinal cord, which resulted in permanent paralysis from the waist down. Since then, I’ve been a full-time wheelchair user and become a bit of an expert on things I rarely noticed before, such as dropped kerbs and the width of the shopping aisles in my local Co-op. I am fortunate enough to live less than two miles from the centre of Cambridge and I try to ‘push’ into town as much as possible to get the exercise, helping me to maintain fitness and upper body strength.

Seasons make a difference to accessibility: muddy country tracks make tarmac surfaced paths feel even more welcoming.

The various cycle and pedestrian routes, such as the Busway path, the West Cambridge and Eddington trails, and the recently opened phase 1 of the Chisholm Trail, are great for wheelchair users – flat, smooth and wide with no stiles or gates. In spite of my wheels, where there is demarcation I use the pedestrian rather than the cycle lane, although I don’t really belong in either – a bit too fast for one, too slow for the other, not to mention my extra width when someone is trying to overtake. I feel lucky – Cambridge is flat and has an ever-increasing number of good cycle paths which pass through some beautiful green spaces. I can also travel outside the city to Histon, Fen Ditton, Milton Country Park, Grantchester or Coton, all in a morning’s push.

This is pleasure leisure; I’m not aiming to cover massive distances or beat my PB, I just enjoy being outside along the towpath, on the commons or simply bumping into friends. The seasons do make a difference; the biggest drawback in winter is the wet, soft, slushy, and often muddy country tracks, making the tarmac surfaced cycle paths feel even more welcoming. I save rural outings for the warmer and drier months, although the new accessible Wimpole circular trail is a great all-season 10km path, perfect for walkers, pushchairs, cyclists and wheelchairs.

Recently, I invested in a hand-cycle, which attaches to my wheelchair. I can now cycle into town, wheel over Coldham’s Common for a swim at the Abbey Pool, or go for a meander along the Busway path. It feels almost like old times and – unlike the recumbent hand cycles for proper athletes – I can disconnect the bike bit from my chair, lock it up, and go off to do other things. The other bonus is the electrical assistance, which I use at just the right level, so that cycling is still energising but not too exhausting.

Rosie using her handcycle on the Abbey-Chesterton bridge

I try to avoid driving in Cambridge, but wheelchairs are not designed to carry heavy bags of shopping. As a Blue Badge holder, I can park right next to the market and go from stall to stall, putting a bag at a time into the car. It works perfectly. During Covid-19, the City Council restricted parking in the market place to allow for socially distanced queuing; this reduced the number of places for disabled parking to less than a handful. Something similar has happened at Addenbrooke’s Hospital where a whole row of Blue Badge parking spaces has been replaced by the vaccination hub. These changes send the message that those less able to adapt are the ones required to do so. I don’t believe that anyone is deliberately trying to make our lives more difficult; I think it is down to a lack of awareness. People with disabilities need to share their stories, not just among their friends but by having conversations with city councils and other development and planning organisations, so that we can have direct influence on the way our environment is designed.

Rosie Tween