By Martin Cleary
PARALYMPICS BOUND: We’re all familiar with the bicycle – the loveable, sleek structure of metal and rubber has provided great childhood memories and now a form of environmentally-friendly transportation.
We marvel at the two wheels, which can be sleek or fat; the seats, which can be narrow or cushy; the handlebars, which can be straight or curved; and the gears, which can range from zero to almost as many as you want.
Standing at the side of the bike, you lift one leg over the seat or step through to reach the opposite pedal. You sit up straight and your body is perpendicular to the ground. You’re lifted high, ready to ride your moving throne.
Well, not everyone would agree with that. Joey Desjardins of Hawkesbury, ON., might politely say: “You’re doing it all wrong.” That’s because he’s a handcyclist and ready to debut at the Tokyo Paralympic Summer Games, Aug. 24-Sept. 5.
A dirt bike crash more than a decade ago left Desjardins with a spinal cord injury and he became a paraplegic. But he loved moving on wheels and handcycling “levelled the playing field for me.”
For Desjardins, 35, handcycling is the complete opposite of riding a traditional bike. Since he has no nerve sensation from the mid-chest down, he must ride his bike in a fully stretched out, horizontal position.
For proper balance, he has a large wheel at the front and two slightly smaller wheels at the back. With his legs resting on a bar and the front wheel in between, he moves his arms together in a circular fashion to power the bike.
“It’s the opposite (of a regular bike),” Desjardins explained, while attending a recent training camp in Bromont, Que. “I have a super, big upper body and small legs. It’s mostly all bike, cardio and endurance.”
The first time you see Desjardins and his two Canadian Paralympic handcycling (HC classification) teammates Charles Moreau of Victoriaville, Que., and Alex Hyndman of Morpeth, ON., you may think of a winter sport.
They actually look like luge athletes, who lean way back and also propel themselves with their powerful arms and upper bodies. The luge athlete has a sleek sled and uses hands and arms to control directional changes.
“We have the same shoes as the luge athletes,” he added. “The boots allow us to get more aerodynamic with our toes. It’s a fun bike to be on. You get speed going down hills. I’m used to it now.”
Desjardins has reached a top speed of 95 kilometres an hour. At a Bromont training session last week with Moreau, a double bronze medallist at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, and Hyndman, he hit 75 km/h on his expensive bike.
A handcycle for a high-performance athlete can cost between $15,000 and $25,000, depending on the level of equipment, wheels and gadgets that go into it.
“I’ve been fortunate with a group of people who have put the money together for my first two bikes. I’ve had a lot of community help from Hawkesbury and Vankleek Hill,” said Desjardins, who is married with two daughters.
Before he left for Bromont, the final stop prior to the Tokyo Paralympics, he went for an evening ride at home and was greeted by 60 people at the end of the road. They wanted to wish him well.
“They surprised me. They made banners and signs, had whistles and pom-poms. We chatted and I answered some questions,” he said, adding the Rotary Club of Hawkesbury had a drive-thru fundraiser for him in May, collecting $4,000.
At his first Paralympic Games, Desjardins will have a challenging schedule as he competes in his two races on back-to-back days: Aug. 31, time trial, 26 kilometres; and Sept. 1, road race, 79.6 kilometres.
How his races will develop and play out is an obvious mystery to Desjardins, especially since he hasn’t raced in two years, when he was at the 2019 world championships in The Netherlands.
Desjardins, who has competed in three world championships (2017-19), had his first top-10 result at The Netherlands’ worlds, when he was ninth in the time trial. He also was 11th in the road race.
“It’s hard to describe,” said Desjardins, the only member of Cycling Canada’s NextGen squad to make the Paralympic team, when asked about going to the Games. “There’s a lot of unknowns. I’ll take it day by day.
“[No racing] has been tough. That’s what we train for. We’ve tried to keep our fitness up. Last year, I was riding more for myself. We were told there was a competition on the horizon in Portugal.
“It was 1 1/2 months ago and I pushed it aside. I wanted to prepare for the Games. It wasn’t super important or part of the selection criteria. Now, it’s paying off. When we train in Bromont, we hammer each other on a daily basis.
“I will try to do my best (at the Games) and see what the body wants to produce that day.”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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