|Limitless potential for special bicyclists
Elaine McHugh’s camp helps give confidence, sense of belonging to children with special needs
On a hard, wooden court normally reserved for the Sonoma State University basketball team, dozens of children glided across the floor on a series of specially designed bicycles.
Throughout the week, riders as young as five, and one college-bound, participated in the five-day Cycle Without Limits Summer Bike/Swim Camp, which assists children with special needs to ride conventional, two-wheeled bicycles.
“We got to do stuff that we didn’t think we’d ever do. We really didn’t think it was going to be this easy and here we are doing it,” says camper J.J. “We can meet so many different people that have the same things as you.”
“This is one skill, if they learn it, that will completely put them on par with their peers,” Elaine McHugh, camp director and kinesiology professor at SSU, said.
The overall goal of the camp is to get children riding conventional two-wheeled bicycles with their families and friends. The children are occasionally excluded from activities for not being able to ride a bike, and socialization opportunities are missed according to McHugh.
“If they can ride a bike, they can be like everybody else…and that’s huge. They want to be like other kids. This eliminates that difference,” says McHugh. “That’s a life-changing experience.”
“The people here are always very supportive. I’m hoping to learn to ride my BMX bike,” says returning camper Jake Tanny. “I might come back…you can always improve.”
Sarah Ponsford and her daughter, Ella, are thankful they discovered the camp. Families from across the North Bay area attend the highly specialized camp.
“I’ve been trying to get a modified bike for a long time. She (Ella) had a long ways to go before she could get to training wheels. This opportunity to move through the different adaptive bikes has been incredible. The kids are making friendships, and it’s not always easy to find that environment,” an emotional Sarah Ponsford said. “It’s been amazing. The volunteers and everyone involved.”
Newly designed bikes
Dennis Blong, United Cerebral Palsy North Bay associate, President of Business Operations for Gone For Good and mechanical designer, constructed the new “pneumatic-based outrigger” bikes last year. Aluminum plating recycled from old United States post office sorting machines is used as a raw material for the pneumatic bikes.
“We now have our own bikes,” said a grateful McHugh.
The specialized training bicycle uses air cylinders to gently cushion the rider while keeping the rider safely upright. As the rider's skill develops over the course of the camp, the air pressure is adjusted until the rider is riding on his or her own.
“You want to incrementally increase the give so the kids learn to steer the bike and keep it balanced,” McHugh explained.
When the rider leans to one side, the opposite wheel stays close to the floor, adding stability. Necessary adjustments are made by a camp counselor who is at the rider’s side and can make adjustments to the air pressure as they gain confidence riding.
“This one is pretty simple compared to ones that we used to use that had a lot of specialty things,” says Walt Custer, who maintains the fleet of bikes.
Custer, a bicycle specialist, is the daily guru of maintenance for the unique bicycles for the camp. Custer, a life-long bicycle enthusiast, also designed and constructed a special tandem bicycle. The person who is learning rides on the front, instead of the back, compared to a traditional tandem.
“They feel like they’re doing the riding when the person in the back has the control,” McHugh said. “It teaches the kids to lean.”
“I collect tandems. I own 11 tandems,” Custer said.
The third style of bikes only have a special handle attached on the back for the trainers and are more “kid friendly” and “learner friendly.” The pedal crankshaft is also shorter and higher making it easier to ride.
The United Cerebral Palsy of the North Bay has been a committed sponsor and partner of the camps. “They are the financial and spiritual sponsor,” stated McHugh, also a board member of the U.C.P.
Volunteer instructors include adaptive physical education instructors, SSU and local high school students. Swimming lessons are also provided for the participants.
The idea for adaptive cycling and creating a camp came after McHugh saw a presentation by Richard Klein, a mechanical engineer from Illinois who originally designed the first bicycles. From there, the two created the original camp. Now into the 18th year of running the camps, McHugh claims the exceptional camp is the longest running of its kind in the country.
“This is my baby. I just love it,” McHugh said about the camp.