Touring by Handcycle: Oregon, Ireland and Life on the Road

By Seth McBride

Two years after a skiing accident left me with C7 quadriplegia, during summer break after my freshman year at the University of Oregon, I bought a used Top End XLT Pro handcycle and had it shipped to my family home in Juneau, Alaska. It was my first foray back into the world of outdoor adventure, and every ride was an expedition into unknown territory.

My first ride I managed less than a mile before exhaustion set in. I was slower than a jogger on the flats. It took an immense effort to claw my way up a shallow hill not more than 100 meters long. But on the way back down I felt a tiny rush while, for a short time, gravity worked in my favor.  I picked up enough speed for the wind to rustle my pant legs and blow my hair back, and as I glided to my house I felt I’d just caught a glimpse of a long lost friend.

From that first ride on, I began seeking speed. Back then, still in the process of turning my arms into locomotive appendages, I would slog my way up any hill I could find, just to rush back down as fast as I could.

In Juneau, the only real hills are mountains, rising steeply from the sea like giants soaking their legs. The road to Eaglecrest Ski Area snakes its way up the stomach of one of these giants. It climbs nearly 1,200 feet in five miles. The road undulates from flat to gradual to soul-crushingly steep, and the first time I tried it, I barely made it to the top of the first rise before I gave up. My only consolation was my speedometer clocking 40 on the descent.

For the rest of the summer I continued riding from my house: eight miles out to the Mendenhall Glacier and back; 10 miles to Auk Bay Harbor, Lena Beach and back. Every few weeks I would make another attempt at Eaglecrest, climbing slightly higher each time before giving in to exhaustion and rewarding myself with the descent. I’m not sure exactly how many times it took, but I still remember the feeling as I topped the last rise and made my way into the ski area parking lot with snow-covered peaks looming over me. Looking around at the deserted playground of my youth, I felt none of the sentimentality and self-pity that usually attached itself to remnants of my previous life. In their place was an exhausted contentment bolstered by the excitement of the ride to come.

Ireland’s beautiful countryside is perhaps best enjoyed at cycle-speed.

Ireland’s beautiful countryside is perhaps best enjoyed at cycle-speed.

The Dream Begins
At the university in Eugene, Ore., I majored in international studies and dreamed of travel. In 2002 I flew to Europe over spring break to visit my sister who was living in Amsterdam. We took a side trip to Ireland and spent a week touring churches and castles, and drinking stout. The back roads of Ireland were sleepy, relatively flat and rarely ran more than 10 miles between pubs. Somewhere in the back of my head, the dream of handcycling around Ireland began to take root.

But for the moment, handcycling took a back seat to other passions. I had started playing wheelchair rugby, and after a season or two I realized that I had the potential to be really good at it. In 2005 I made a developmental team and in 2006 I was selected to my first national team for the world championships in Christchurch, New Zealand. At this point, handcycling became cross-training, a means of developing and maintaining aerobic fitness for my rugby career.

After I graduated in the spring of 2006, I spent the summer getting into the best shape of my life. Two-a-day workouts for six days a week, brutal rugby training camps and competitions every month: eat, train, eat, train, sleep, repeat. The reward for my ascetic summer was an undefeated romp through the best wheelchair rugby teams in the world, a world championship final win against New Zealand and a home crowd of 4,000 raving Kiwis.

When world championships were over, I was physically and emotionally depleted and didn’t want to do anything remotely resembling physical activity. I spent a month wandering around New Zealand with my sister.  As exhausted as I was, a little voice in the back of my head kept saying: I bet it would be a lot more fun seeing this country from the seat of my handcycle.

First Tour: Columbia Gorge
It was another year and a half before I finally attempted a multi-day bike ride. I had begun dating a woman, Kelly, who loved cycling as much as I did.  In June 2008, flush with bravado born of my rugby fitness, I decided to do a two-day, 60-mile ride from our home in Portland, Ore., out the beautiful Columbia River Gorge to Hood River.

When Kelly got off work on a Friday afternoon, we wedged, strapped and bungeed everything to our bikes. Mine weighed nearly 70 pounds; Kelly’s was well past 100.

Getting out of Portland was a slow, traffic-packed slog. By the time we got past the lights of the city and on to the old scenic highway, night was making a quick entrance. The sky turned dark as we wound along the stretch of historic Highway 30 that hugs the banks of the Sandy River.  As the road swung up into the hills, I realized that I was not ready for the weight strapped to the back of my handcycle. My arms were mutinous to the point of treason.

Past the small town of Corbett there were few lights, the houses were spaced at lonely distances and often set far back off the road. I stopped and watched as Kelly climbed slowly ahead of me. Her shadow wobbled left, corrected right, then she toppled and hit the asphalt. The highway was pitch black, and by the time I reached her, she was seated on the pavement, inspecting a bloody scuff on her knee. The overpowering headlights of a car came around a bend at our backs. I shone my headlamp toward the car, waving my hands in the air. The car veered into the outside lane and sped by without a brake light of recognition.

Exhaustion clouded Kelly’s eyes. A few tears rolled down her cheeks as she told me she was scared to keep going. Our only options were to keep riding or to camp in a random field. We pitched our tent between a few conifers just back from the road. After a dinner of Cliff Bars and bananas, we slipped into our sleeping bags — our first ever night on the road.

Morning dawned damp as we packed up our makeshift camp. With the help of a night’s rest and the light of day, we made steady, slow progress towards the summit at Crown Point. We rode for 30 minutes, and as we finally began descending, the skies opened full force in a steady downpour. We coasted down to the Crown Point observatory and donned our rain jackets in the parking lot. Far below, the Columbia River lay blanketed by low clouds, dark and moist all the way to Cascade Locks.  Back on the road, we descended through the forest toward Multnomah Falls, past hidden waterfalls and over moss-covered bridges. We stopped for a second at one bridge, Kelly snapped a few pictures of the swollen stream cascading below it, and then she turned the camera back at me. I remember scowling with grumpy intensity.

Fully soaked, I was already exhausted when we entered some rolling hills. We were nearing Multnomah Falls late morning of our second day, not even halfway to our intended destination.

I don’t like to think of myself as a quitter, but I don’t like to think of myself as stupid, either. By the time we pulled up to the stately old lodge at Multnomah Falls, with its stone walls and steep, moss-covered roof, weather and exhaustion had stripped away my brash stubbornness. The trip had already crossed the line into stupidity. We called the friends we were going to visit in Hood River and had them bring a pickup to cart us away.

Learning from Failure
Although that first trip was a soggy failure, it taught us a number of lessons. First, rugby fitness does not necessarily translate into handcycling strength. Second, if we were going to ride together, Kelly would have to shoulder more of the gear weight.

Normally, when Kelly and I go for a bike ride together, we don’t even bother trying to keep the same speed. Kelly gets annoyed that I’m getting a good workout and she’s not, and I get pissed that I’m fighting exhaustion while she’s coasting along, enjoying the scenery. It’s the same reason I’d never get in my racing chair and try to slow down to her running speed: For two people as competitive as we are, it’s just patronizing. But if we were going to tour for any length, we would have to ride together. Gear distribution was the easiest way of handicapping things so we’d be closer to each other’s pace. In practical terms this meant that if we loaded Kelly down with 95 percent of our gear, her natural pace would be similar to mine.

It would be a full year before we were able to make use of these lessons.  After our first attempt at touring, I was wholly consumed by the run-up to the Beijing Paralympics. For three months I didn’t even get into my handcycle. After the games, I spent two months traveling with friends in Southeast Asia. It was late fall of 2008 when the idea of a long cycling journey found its way to the front of my brain.

I took the next summer off from rugby. With only our previous failure for a guide, Kelly and I reasoned that, with better planning and training, an extended bike tour was feasible. We brashly decided to make an attempt at a month-long international handcycle/bike-touring trip.

Due to Kelly’s work schedule, the only time we’d be able to get out of the country for a full month was in September, but there are very few places outside of the U.S. that have good cycling weather in September. Finally, we decided on Ireland, which is wet, hilly and expensive, betting our trip on the theory that sitting in a cozy Irish pub with a freshly poured pint of Guinness would drown out any of the problems associated with these potential obstacles.

Columbia Gorge: Take Two
In June 2009, in preparation for our upcoming Ireland trip, Kelly and I made a second attempt at touring the Columbia River Gorge. Another lesson from our first trip was that there’s no need to kill ourselves the first day. Bike touring can take some easing into, and with this in mind we planned on starting the trip at 3,200 feet, riding down from Lost Lake on the slopes of Mount Hood to near sea-level elevation at the town of Hood River. We’d camp there for a night before heading across the Columbia and riding east 20 miles to Horsethief Lake, where we’d camp another night before looping back around to Hood River.

At this part of the gorge, the hills sweep down from Mount Hood and stack up tight against the south side of the river before plunging swiftly to the water. From downriver it looks midway between a steep river valley and a full-fledged canyon, split and expanded at bottom by the mile-wide Columbia. During the course of our three-day, 75-mile ride, we traveled from Mount Hood’s forests to the Mediterranean orchard climes of Hood River to the arid, wind-swept fields of The Dalles.

The tour was successful, beautiful and fun, but not particularly interesting. We didn’t see a drop of rain, the riding was tough but manageable, and camp went up and down without issue. The trip went exactly as we were hoping, and at the end we were confident that with a summer of training, a month-long tour was doable. A few weeks later we bought our tickets to Ireland.

Tough Going in the Emerald Isle
The most time-consuming part of the Ireland trip was the planning — coming up with a route, finding possible sleeping locations, figuring what was going to be necessary in the way of gear and what could be left behind. It’s easy to over-pack for a long trip. A month seems like a really long time, and when one heads into an outdoors store to buy supplies, the line between necessary and frivolous blurs easily. Faced with choices such as $30 titanium mugs, collapsible laundry basins and portable espresso makers, you start to say, well, that might be kind of nice. In the end we decided to make a list of everything we’d want to bring, then pare that down to what we couldn’t do without. I hadn’t realized this before the trip, but you really don’t need any more gear for a month than you do for a long weekend.

Camping on the road is easier once McBride and his girlfriend, Kelly, settle into a routine.

Camping on the road is easier once McBride and his girlfriend, Kelly, settle into a routine.

By the time Kelly and I arrived at Portland International Airport, we had managed to fit our bikes, trailer, camping gear, and everything else into Continental’s two-bag, two-carry-on luggage limit.

Some 12 hours later we arrived outside Dublin at 9 a.m. on a redeye from Newark. With bewildered somnolence we piled our gear onto a luggage cart, made it through customs and headed out into a cool, but sunny Irish morning. We spent the next five hours on the sidewalk in front of the parking garage reassembling our bikes and converting our pile of plane luggage into a setup capable of transporting us around Ireland. It wasn’t until we stopped to take a picture of our freshly assembled kit that it finally hit me: I’m about to start riding my handcycle around Ireland!

We giddily rode out through a maze of construction surrounding the airport and found the road that our maps said would take us into Dublin.  Five miles later, when I saw a sign indicating mileage to Belfast, we realized we’d been pedaling in the wrong direction. Another wrong turn or three later, we made it into downtown Dublin, navigated the bike/taxi/bus lanes in rush hour traffic, got lost twice more, and as the sun was setting on our first day in Ireland, finally found our hotel.

We spent two days decompressing, buying last minute supplies (maps, stove fuel, etc.), and sampling as many pints of Guinness as possible. From Dublin we embarked on the heart of our trip, riding south through the industrial harbor in the direction of the Wicklow Mountains. After so many months of planning, it was a little surreal to be finally riding, but the novelty was quickly quashed by the reality of having to navigate the maze of Dublin in morning traffic. It was midday before we breached the ring of suburbs that surround the city.

Shortly after we had found our main road south, which allowed us to stop navigating and focus on pedaling, my brake cable snapped. And so began our first week on the road: a potentially noxious mélange of rain, wind, ridiculous hills and mechanical problems. Kelly’s bike had toppled on the first day and bent the back axle. Whenever she hit a bump, the axle would come askew, throwing her back wheel into the bike frame to provide an unexpected brake. My shift cable was in the process of unraveling, leaving me without my lowest hill-climbing gears and crippled to a greater extent than usual.

We woke in Wexford one morning floating on our Therm-a-Rests as a tempest raged outside and an impromptu river of water ran under our tents. The whipping wind and rain were coloring the normally quaint Irish countryside a gloomy hue.

It felt like Ireland was throwing everything it had at us. When we rolled into the Southern coastal city of Waterford after 120 miles and four days of riding, we were near our breaking point. Feeling slightly defeated, we decided to take a bus to the west coast town of Glengarriff so that we would have more leeway in our schedule to take a day or two off from riding if the weather demanded.

Settling Into Touring
I knew our decision to bus to Glengarriff was a good one as soon as Kelly and I rolled into the campground near town. The stout old woman who managed the campsite informed Kelly as she paid for a night’s space that she was also the bartender at the attached pub, and she’d be opening the place up around 7 p.m. That’s right, the campground had its own pub!

Bike maintenance is crucial during long trips.

Bike maintenance is crucial during long trips.

That night we branched out from our normal diet of Guinness, goaded by our camp manager/bartender: “Guinness is Dublin beer, Murphy’s and Beamish are Cork beer. You’re in Cork now, you drink Cork beer.”
In the morning we packed up camp and began cycling along the southern coast of the Beara Peninsula, which juts sharply into the Atlantic from Ireland’s west coast. Just a few miles away from the mainland the scenery began to change. Most of Ireland is rolling hills and fertile looking pasture, but out here things were different. The hills were steeper, the slopes more barren, the houses few and far between. The Caha Mountains speak to a harder version of life than I know: dark hills, grey rock, narrow rings of deep green that look like moss from a distance, but are really hardy shrubs, close cropped by spray-painted sheep that cling to the hillsides.

A little more than a week into the trip and it finally felt like we had settled into a routine: We’d wake up and get dressed in the tent. Kelly would go out to start coffee while I packed up the sleeping bags and pads and got everything inside the tent ready to go back in the waterproof bags. We’d drink our morning coffee and eat some form of breakfast, cooking eggs if we had time or shoveling down a peanut butter sandwich if not.  While I went to the bathroom and cleaned up myself and the camp dishes, Kelly would repack her panniers and trailer bag. When we were all packed up, I’d transfer out of my chair, onto the ground, and begin disassembling my everyday chair while Kelly loaded her bike up. When she was done, she’d grab a bungee cord and cinch my everyday chair frame to the back axle of my bike while I held it in place. I’d then pull my bike back and hop in while Kelly tightened everything on her bike, and we’d head off, gypsy-style — towing home and all — towards whatever town was our destination for the night.

It wasn’t until the freshness and wonder of traveling by bike every day had worn off and the days began to feel normal that I really began to appreciate our trip. Sure, it was hard work — every day there were times I turned myself inside-out just trying to keep a pace that would get us to our destination by nightfall. There were days where it rained and kept raining, and I would sit shivering in my dripping rain gear as Kelly worked on finding a place to spend the night. But it was all the innumerable hard times that made us giddy with excitement at the simple comforts of a hot shower, a hair dryer, or a dry patch of grass to pitch our tent. I’ve never seen a sight as beautiful as the tiny village of Allihies, planted bright and cheerful between the Atlantic and the tortuous mountains we had just climbed to reach it.

We planned on passing through the village of Allihies in a day and ended up staying for four. Ready to dry out for more than a few hours at a time, we splurged and booked two beds in the local hostel. For three full days we let our bikes rest, cooked meals in the hostel’s kitchen, and wandered the roads around Allihies.

That week Kelly and I spent on the Beara remains etched in my memory: the windswept shrubs and the hungry grey rock, the humble humanity of eking out one’s life in a place dominated by the elements. The Beara helped crystallize the reasoning that led me to attempt a trip like this. When one engages the world in a strenuous, purposeful way — even if that purpose is as contrived as handcycling from one town to another — pleasure and contentment are given a meaning that comfort cannot equal.

The Road Home
After prying ourselves away from the Beara, we rode over the high mountains of MacGillicuddy’s Reeks into the ancient forests of Killarney, then headed north to the strange, lunar beauty of the Burren. Some three-and-a-half weeks after we left Dublin, we rode into Galway city — with more than 400 miles of pedaling under our belts — and took a train back to Dublin, then flew home to Portland.

The problem with successfully completing and enjoying a cycle tour is that it leaves you wanting more. When we returned from Ireland, it had been a little more than seven years since I first began riding from my home in Juneau. Handcycling had given me much more than I could ever have hoped for. It gave me a fresh way of experiencing the world.

Back in Portland it took only a few months before the comfort of home began feeding that little voice of adventure: I bet you’d be enjoying yourself more if you were traveling on your handcycle. Kelly and I are currently in preliminary planning stages for a yearlong expedition.

This time maybe we’ll start in Portland and see how far the road takes us.

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