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Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Learning to cycle can take you anywhere

Twelve months ago Maria Strong couldn’t ride a bike. Now, the Melbournian is training for the Australian Paratriathlon National Championships, held in Sydney next year.

As a cerebral palsy sufferer, Maria wasn’t sure she would be able to ride a standard bicycle. Despite this, she enrolled in an AustCycle ‘Bike Handling Skills’ course and just two months after attending her final lesson, she entered her first triathlon – and even passed people on the bike leg.

“I always wanted to be able to ride a regular bike but I just didn’t know if it would happen,” Maria told AustCycle. “I’d ridden a tricycle before but being able to ride a trike and balance on a bicycle are two completely different things. There was absolutely no chance I would be able to teach myself how to ride, so I signed up for an AustCycle course through Bikes@Work”.

“I told them upfront that I didn’t know whether I’d be able to ride a bike,” Maria added. “I just wasn’t sure. I didn’t even own a bike because I didn’t want to spend money on one unless I knew I could ride it, so I actually had to borrow one to start off with”.

Despite falling off “more than most people ever would”, Maria stuck with it and developed a love for the sport.

“Once I got the hang of riding it was really exciting and I kept coming up with bigger and bigger challenges for myself like, ‘hey let’s enter a triathlon’,” she told AustCycle. “Then on the day of the triathlon I walked out of my house and saw that it was absolutely pouring with rain and I realised that I’ve never actually ridden in rain before. But I went out there and did it anyway and not only did I finish it, I was passing a stack of people!”

Maria’s disability means that she has to ride a slightly modified road bike because she can’t shift gears with her more affected left hand. It also affects her ability to ride at high speeds.

“When the muscles in your legs are tight it won’t affect you riding down to the shops or around the city,” Maria said. “But I can’t push the heel right down on my left foot which really makes a difference to me when I’m wanting to go at high speed”.

“Would it affect me if what I was wanting to do with my riding was just ride to the shops quite slowly and not change gears? Probably not. But it really depends on what reasons you are riding for”.

Drinking water while riding is also not possible due to her cerebral palsy, and learning some of the bike skills, such as clipping in and out of pedals took extra time, but Maria is nothing if not determined.

“You do not want to know how many times I fell over learning this skill. I was doing it on grass for a very long time!” Maria said. “I also can’t drink on my bike without stopping because to get water out of your bottle requires a reasonable level of coordination, balance and the use of two hands that work well. I don’t have any of these things. But unless it’s a really hot day I can work around it”.

Maria was recently invited to the ‘Road to Rio’ Paralympic Development Camp at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra as a paratriathlete. This invitation is a huge achievement for Maria and is just another step on her way to the National Championships next year.

“It still boggles my mind [that I can cycle]. I think it’s possible that I could make it to the Paralympics in 2016, but for now I’m just setting my sights on the Australian National Championships”.

And, she hopes she can inspire others with a disability to get out there and cycle.

“There a so many different ways you can modify bikes to suit people with needs,” she said. “Mine’s modified to suit me and for some people a recumbent trike or hand cycle will work better for them than a standard bicycle”.

Whether you have a bike or not, contact AustCycle on 02 9339 5842 or visit out website, and get the skills and confidence to start riding. 

Watch a video of Maria riding here

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