Riding High

A free program imported from the United Kingdom is helping people with SCI experience the freedom and fun of riding an adapted two-wheeled motorcycle

By Lisa Nicita

Michael Mays was freezing. It was windy, and the thermometer revealed it was only about 38 degrees outside. This was Pennsylvania in October, with the weather jumping wildly from sandal season to snow boot season. And, if Mays was being honest, it was reaching the point where he was having a hard time feeling his hands from exposure. So, he ended his motorcycle ride, one he had been waiting years to do and had at one point seemed entirely out of reach.

“It was as safe as it could possibly be, being in a wheelchair and riding a motorcycle,” Mays, 38, of Indiana, says.

That ride was made possible by The Bike Experience USA, a nonprofit organization with a mission to offer paralyzed individuals a chance to feel the freedom of riding a two-wheeled motorcycle, either for the first time or as they had for years before sustaining their spinal-cord injuries (SCI). 

A Return To Riding

For Mays, the ride was a return to an activity that may as well have been imprinted in his DNA. 

“I remember the first time I ever saw a bike,” he says. “It was on TV. I was 7 years old. It was Saturday. A supercross race came on. As soon as I saw those guys on that bike, I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do with my life.’ ”

He followed through with that young promise, riding for the first time when he was 11 and deciding to “steal” his brother’s bike when he and his buddy were 13. Mays raced motocross for years until a wreck stopped him in his tracks in 2002. While coming off a 90-foot jump and sailing into a 60-foot one, Mays realized his bike throttle was stuck. He hit a retaining fence headfirst at 60 miles an hour. His bike landed on top of him. He broke his back in seven places, broke his shoulder blade in three places and sustained a number of other serious injuries, including a T9/10 SCI.

“I just barely made it,” he says.

In the months and years that followed his injury, Mays learned about an organization that offered adaptive motorcycle riding in the United Kingdom. A man named Michael Petrosini brought the program to the United States, and in a roundabout way, Mays connected with Travis Snow, the vice president of that imported program, The Bike Experience USA. Snow, a former Army Ranger, sustained a SCI while riding motocross six days after his four years of service ended in 1999.

Michael Mays, on motorcycle, receives some help setting up for a ride during last year’s The Bike Experience USA event.

“Timing has never really been my friend,” he says, lamenting the fact that his health insurance had lapsed at the time of his accident.

Snow, 40, of Colorado, went in search of an activity that could replace the joy and freedom he felt while riding a bike. It wasn’t easy. He discovered monoskiing, and it held his attention for some time, so much so that he had trained for several years to compete at the Paralympic level. 

“I could go a little bit crazy on my monoski,” he says. “And it got me away from my wheelchair.”

But injuries sidelined him, and he kept romanticizing a return to riding. Snow began adapting four-wheelers but still felt the call back to two wheels. Then, he stumbled upon a man named Ted Kilroy, a disabled rider who had been working to adapt two-wheeled bikes in New Mexico. He went to see him.

A Critical Experience

They worked together to adapt a sport bike, eventually connected with Petrosini, and now they collectively work to give others the opportunity to experience the rush that comes with riding on two wheels. The adaptations include a transition to automatic transmissions, increased hand controls and the addition of “landing gear,” which essentially acts in a similar way that training wheels do on pint-sized pedal bikes. Snow says the prevalence of SCIs, particularly among younger male veterans, makes this type of experience so critical. The adaptations are essentially priceless because they give the riders moments of life they didn’t think they would ever experience again.

“There are a lot of younger, gung-ho guys who want their lives back,” Snow says. “They’re trying to figure out how to do it.”

Statistics compiled by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reveal that 80% of people who sustain a SCI are male, most commonly between ages 16 and 30. As many as 12,500 people sustain a new SCI each year, while the VA estimates it cares for more than 27,000 veterans with SCI every year. Knowing that, The Bike Experience USA is getting off the ground, or hitting the track, as it is. Snow, Kilroy and Petrosini are working tirelessly to raise awareness about the program, which is an approved 501(c)3 nonprofit group. They’re hoping to connect with big-brand sponsors that might be able to donate bikes or provide financial support, and they’re hoping they can successfully organize a series of events in different parts of the country this year.

Disabilities Vanish

They’ve made it through a number of obstacles already, such as securing proper insurance for this type of venture. That wasn’t easy.

“It’s kind of hard when you get guys with disabilities on motorcycles,” Snow says. “Riding a motorcycle, period, can be dangerous. Add a disability to it, and people can get nervous.”

But the nerves seem to dissipate once a rider is actually on the bike. Once riders get going, the bike balances itself, according to Snow, who has lived 18 years with his injury.

“When you feel that freedom, your disability literally vanishes,” Snow says. “You’re just free. It’s the most amazing feeling. You feel like you’re your old self again.”

Mays can absolutely relate. He only needed 5 feet of track to feel secure in what he was doing, despite the wind and freezing air. It really was just like riding a bike.

“It was fantastic. It felt so good,” he says of the ride, which ends with eight to 10 volunteers catching the bike and bringing it to a stable stop. 

That ride, which came after a long, overnight drive from Indiana to Pennsylvania, was somewhat of a culmination for him. The whirlwind trip brought his love of bikes, his profession and his physical ability full circle. Mays owns his own motorcycle shop. For years, he’s worked on other people’s bikes. He watched other people get up and go ride. And he finds satisfaction in helping others do that. But he’s never the one who gets to ride away.

“We were freezing and the wind was blowing so hard, it was ridiculous,” he says of that day in Pennsylvania. “But I just had the time of my life. I picked it up right away. It was like I didn’t miss a beat.”

And now he’s adapting his own bike. He hopes to be back on the track within the next few months — when it’s warmer.

“I have intentions of racing again,” Mays says. “I’ve never given up on riding again or even walking again. I just need to be patient and put the work in.”

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Lisa Nicita is a public relations professional and freelance writer living in Gilbert, Ariz.

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