All hands at high speed

Ramesh Ferris didn’t learn to ride a bike until he was well into his 20s, and not because he was lazy or afraid. His body kept him from it.

Ramesh Ferris didn’t learn to ride a bike until he was well into his 20s, and not because he was lazy or afraid.

His body kept him from it.

Ferris has walked with braces his whole life, after suffering from polio as an infant.

But when he climbs into his hand cycle, he’s as quick as anyone on two (or three) wheels. 

“I can get up to 48 kilometres an hour on Mountainview,” said Ferris, who admits he’s still developing the necessary arm and shoulder muscles to power his machine.

“But I can only do four kilometres an hour up the South Access.

“But the thing is, I can make it up.”

Ferris is the president of Yukon STARS (Society Toward Accessible Recreation and Sports).

He’s hoping to spread the word about hand cycling, now that Yukon STARS has six 27-speed Quickie Sharks for public use in its fleet.

Despite the cold wind, a small but hearty crew showed up Wednesday at the FH Collins Secondary School track to give the new bikes, and their arms, a workout.

As part of the introduction the Canadian Paralympic cycling coach, Whitehorse’s own Steven Burke, came up from Calgary to help newbies get a grip on things.

“Everything is controlled with the hands — pedaling, steering, shifting — it takes a bit of getting used to,” said Burke.

He’s hoping the availabity of the cycles will bring potential athletes into the sport.

“The national team only has two hand cyclists, and if Whitehorse has six of them, then maybe one or two could be future Olympians,” said Burke.

“Ramesh fits that class. He’s 27, 28. A lot of paralympic sports are later in life. The age targets are broad.”

Burke hopes this new program may bring some unknown athletes out of the woodwork.

“There’s got to be a young person in the Yukon with cerebral palsy, visually impaired or an amputee, that sees this and thinks, ‘I can do that too.’

“Just because you’re in the Yukon doesn’t mean you can’t.

“There’s tons of potential.”

Paralympic cycling is divided into several categories.

Visually impaired cyclists use tandem bikes with a seeing partner on road and track, while cerebral palsy athletes use bicycles or tricycles.

Amputees use modified bikes in all kinds of races.

And athletes with spinal cord injuries use hand cycles.

Although new to the sport, Ferris travelled to Montreal at the end of April to compete in the Defi Sportif, a multi-sport event for athletes with disabilities.

It was an eye-opener.

“I thought I had a pretty fast bike, but I ended up calling it the Mother Ship, it’s so big,” he laughed.

“I was competing against paralympic champions. That was quite intimidating.

“But I learned so much and gained so much, I would definitely go back again if I could.”

Growing up in Whitehorse was tough for Ferris, especially during physical education classes.

“There were many times that I sat on the sideline, because the school system wasn’t accommodating me,” he said.

“It usually meant giving me a book or sending me to the library, or sending me home early.”

Ferris’ long-term goal is to build a more inclusive sports culture in the territory through the Yukon STARS programs.

Wheelchair basketball and inclusive dance are other STARS programs, but they aren’t limited to people with disabilities.

“We have 20 sport wheelchairs at Vanier, and it’s open to anybody,” said Ferris.

“It’s a great program that really breaks down a lot of barriers.”

However, the Yukon has a lot of work to do before it can be called an inclusive community, he said.

“As far as creating barrier-free access to a lot of businesses, restaurants and services, especially in the communities, it’s horrible.

“It’s my hope that by investing money in these programs, and continuing to expand, that we’ll create a better environment for people with mobility loss, and a more well-rounded and holistic community.

“Sport and recreation should be there for everyone, not just the elite groups or people with money.”

Some form of mobility loss affects everyone at some point in life, added Ferris.

All kinds of people are in rehabilitation, physiotherapy or getting knee surgery — “It’s not just people with disability,” he said.

A culture of inclusiveness would benefit everyone, and if it happens, “the baby boomers will thank our organization in five to ten years,” he said.

In the meantime, Ferris and Yukon STARS will continue to lay the groundwork for a system that will ultimately attract people to train in Whitehorse, and hold competitions here.

The first test could be the wheelchair basketball event at the Canada Winter Games next year.

“A lot of people don’t even know about that event,” said Ferris.

“But there will be over 70 wheelchair athletes here for that.”

Yukon STARS will hold it’s next hand cycling clinic on May 24, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the FH Collins track.