Cycling without legs

Seth Arseneau, U.S. Army Specialist, competing on his handcycle.

Right now a group of cyclists are biking their way across America. Many of them are veterans wounded in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They left this weekend from San Francisco for what’s called the Sea to Shining Sea bike ride. The idea is for this group to prove to the world, and to themselves, that there is life after war and injury, that they can lead productive lives and accomplish things that most people only dream about. KALW's transportation reporter, Nathanael Johnson went to see the riders off.

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NATHANAEL JOHNSON: It’s one of those rare cloudless mornings at the foot of the Golden Gate bridge, and a group of cyclists in red, white and blue uniforms are making their final mechanical adjustments. Chad Jukes hops nimbly astride his bike and clips in. 

CHAD JUKES: People sometimes say that it’s amazing to see me doing stuff like this considering that I’m missing a leg, but the way I see it is – it would be amazing if I wasn’t doing something like this and I could be happy.

Jukes’ leg was shattered in Iraq when his vehicle rolled over a bomb. Then drug resistant staph infected his heel, and the doctors told him he had a choice: They could reconstruct his foot, but it would never work quite right; or they could amputate. At first Jukes was dismayed. He’d been rock climbing since he was twelve and couldn’t imagine a life that didn’t allow him to get out in the mountains. 

JUKES: I did some research and found out there was a handful of people out there climbing for a while with prostheses and … I made the decision that I would rather be an amputee than a cripple and decided to have my foot chopped off so I could continue living the active lifestyle I always have.

Now Jukes is out there pushing the boundaries himself, helping inspire others who will have to make adjustments in their own lives. For years, the group World TEAM Sports has organized challenges like this to help change the way people perceive athletes of all abilities – whether military or civilian. But in recent years there have been more and more veterans like Eric Frazier, who--without the use of his legs – peddles a recumbent hand cycle. 

ERIC FRAZIER: I do this because there are a lot of veterans laying around in a hospital bed that really haven’t gotten the acceptance that they can do something like this. So I’m happy to pave the way and tell these guys yeah, I rode across the United States and you can too.

The cyclists peddle north across the bridge, toward Sausalito, where a handful of locals have come out to join them, including one familiar-looking, mustachioed man blasting music from speakers attached to his handle bars. His name is Robin Williams, and he says he’s worried about keeping up. 

ROBIN WILLIAMS: It’s amazing to be around them because I got my ass kicked by a guy on a bike with one leg, and they fly! They’re amazing!

The team rolls in and pauses for water and orange wedges. It’s just the first few miles with some 4,000 to go, but Jukes says he feels strong – since his amputation he’s felt stronger than he’s ever felt before. 

JUKES: I think it was sort of a wake up call for me. I think I sort of looked at things and you know, life’s too short. Really I try to focus my life around that question, of is this going to be fun? It’s important I think. A lot more important than a lot of people realize, I say.

It’s been said that, in long races, the bicycle becomes a machine designed for the efficient production of pain. But for those who already live with pain as a constant companion, like retired Army helicopter pilot Stuart Contant, the bicycle seems instead to efficiently produce happiness. 

STUART CONTANT: I’ve got six fused vertebra and we’re all in a lot of pain and I feel great, I feel fantastic.

It probably won’t always be this nice. There will be mountains, and hailstorms, and endless miles of farmland to ride through. And after the journey is over there will still be wheelchair lifts, and doctors visits, and pain pills to negotiate. But that’s how life works: bad things happen, and people figure out how to get through using whatever capabilities they have.

For Crosscurrents, I’m Nathanael Johnson


If you want to support the cyclists, they'll be making their way from Sacramento up to South Lake Tahoe over the next few days.