Words: Tom Wheeler, Not Broken
The day I lost the use of my right arm my world got turned upside down, in a strange way it felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I’ve been racing mountain bikes since the age of three and I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t racing.
The off time lasted about six months, the idea of relaxing and recovering soon turned into a want to learn to ride again but this time one handed. It started with basic cycle routes with my Dad, the loop was around four miles and I found it tough. Learning to use both brakes and all the controls on the left hand side was completely alien and then came the climbing, the first two outings ended with me getting off and pushing and I can assure it was only a small incline. These challenges were both discouraging and mentally hard, overcoming the injury was also emotionally tough and learning to deal with the constant phantom pains was wearing.
Then in no time at all I was pedalling the climb, then I started sessioning corners off road and was surprised to find I could still ride at a reasonably high level. A few mishaps down the line and I stopped feeling restricted, it felt like I was thirteen again pushing myself to try things. Hitting corners faster and learning new techniques. Then I started hitting the deck hard; much harder than I was comfortable with. Then I knocked myself out and that’s when I decided things had to change, aiming high is great and progressing is a buzz but when you crash and scare yourself it sucks, but when it affects those people around you that you care about like your family and girlfriend you know something has to give.
I wasn’t willing to progress if it wasn’t going to be safe, this is where the arm brace came into play. The arm brace was a game changer, it gave me stability and allowed me to ride faster and safer. I didn’t have any serious accidents within the first year of wearing the brace naturally and in my own time I began to get quicker.
I’ve always made use of timing as a way to monitor my riding and training, way before the phrase KOM existed I made use of an iPhone app called Map my ride, I had all my local routes on it and I would keep an eye on my times to make sure I was always moving forward. With the use of Strava I have began doing the same, my Five 29 had allowed me to get comfortable with going quick again and every now and then I would have my hero moments and get the odd top twenty segment. No doubt Strava isn’t the most accurate tool and you can easily modify your rides but it gave me small goals and allowed me to progress in my own time.
Now three years on since losing the use of my arm I’ve regained a small amount of control and sensation has creeped down the arm and I feel more connected allowing me to further improve my balance and riding technique, this has inevitably brought my riding on. The arm brace has progressed and been modified as well and the whole set-up is nearing perfection and is constantly evolving.
This summer I decided it was time to move away from the safety wheels, I felt like I had outgrown the 29er and it was limiting my movement on the bike. Joe at Mojo had a prototype Orange Alpine hanging around in the warehouse so I asked if I could try it out. This bike was a completely different beast to my Five 29, long wheelbase, stretched top tube and a super short 35mm stemâ€¦and not to forget 27.5″ wheels. I was eager to try it out and also slightly nervous. I took the Alpine home on a Friday night after work and spent an evening building it up one handed! I was so keen to ride come Saturday morning. I headed out at 8:00am and went to a trail I built way back; I was having difficulty moving the big wheeler around and never felt comfortable on this trail, it is tight and natural and requires pinpoint accuracy on all levels to generate speed and keep the momentum going. I reached the top of the climb and took a breather, made sure the brace was done up correctly and then decided to drop in. I was riding alone so didn’t go in like a bull at a gate, I instantly felt more comfortable; hoping around and positioning the bike. I felt way more like my old self picking up the lines I used to and all of a sudden I was flying but fully in control. I reached the bottom and couldn’t help but grin; I went straight back up and did another three runs! I couldn’t believe how good I felt, it honestly didn’t feel real. I got back to the car and did the classic upload to Strava, I couldn’t believe it, I was third fastest on the top segment. I checked to see if it was a one off but to my surprise all three times were within a couple of seconds. Seeing my name up there next to my old racing and riding buddies blew my mind.
I decided to set myself a challenge, racing wasn’t realistic and the chances of crashing and hurting myself were high. I wanted to compete with myself but in my own time and in a safe manner. So this summer I set myself the challenge to get top hundred times on all the downhill segments on the new trail at Cwmcarn the Cafall.
It’s been the best summer ever with my riding progressing past a level I never thought was possible with a paralysed arm. I’m able to manual through sections, gap holes and pull some pretty tasty lines! All one step at a time and in a safe manner! I didn’t just reach my goal over the summer but I far exceeded my expectations, I’m top fifty on most segments and I’ve even got the odd top twenty. It’s satisfying to see my name ranked so highly out of nearly three thousand riders. But honestly the best feeling is being able to ride smooth and how I remember it was before my accident. I often find myself smirking as I manual through a hole or roosting a turn. A part of me says I shouldn’t be able to do this and then I realise how lucky I am to still be able to enjoy these elements of riding after such a serious injury!