Flying My Flag | First Person

An outdoor adventurer refuses to give in to disability.

By Todd Balf

Apr 28 2021


Flying My Flag

Photo Credit : Sally Deng
Flying My Flag
Photo Credit : Sally Deng

When I ride my bike around the North Shore of Massachusetts, I draw looks. Car passengers often stick their camera phones out the window to record me. Children stare. Dogs, all of them (but fortunately leashed), stop and glare. People wonder what in heaven’s name I’m doing on the road. I sometimes wonder myself.

I lie nearly supine and just inches from the paved ground. My bike isn’t a normal bike, but rather a “trike” with a single 10-speed-size wheel in front and two in the back. A sledlike deck is in between. Footrests laced with strapping keep my legs extended and off the ground. My helmeted head is slightly raised, about level with drainage pipes and roadkill. I propel myself with hand pedals poised in front of me; I steer by gently shifting my body weight like a skier on a cruiser run.

I have a tall, bright-colored flag, of course, and a couple of rear strobe lights, and yet I’m still reason for those behind me to give a wide berth—even my cycling brethren. “I haven’t ridden my bike on the road for two years,” a friend warned me, choosing to avoid distracted drivers and ride in the woods. “But if it is the only way to keep riding, I get it.”

He didn’t get it.

But it is the only way. My partially paralyzed legs, injured in a spinal surgery six years ago and further diminished by a 2019 stroke, are too weak now. I resisted my public adaptation as concession, as weird. I had once raced a mountain bike and toured long trails in foreign countries. I hated the orange flag behind me, announcing my vulnerability, my difference.

After my stroke, in order to participate in the Pan-Mass Challenge charity bike ride, I decided to trike it. I won’t lie: My team and the roadside support made a difference. The guy in Falmouth who yelled, “Go, mad dog, go!” made a difference.

Now I go out in rain. I’ve tried pond trails, bombing through waist-soaking puddles. I’ve ridden many miles for charity, many miles with friends. I’ve been graced with Good Samaritans helping to fix flats. I rode during this pandemic sharing largely car-free streets with parents pushing baby carriages and neophyte bike riders looking for some normalcy. Last fall I rode a rail trail in the aftermath of a damaging nor’easter, able to pedal-limbo beneath giant fallen tree limbs.

On the road, I often meet the eyes of oncoming motorcyclists, one or more of them invariably jutting an upraised Keep on keepin’ on fist in the air. Explaining my comfort in being a local eccentric is simple: I no longer feel like one.

The joys compare to when I was a 6-year-old triumphantly riding to the next town over with my best friend, Kip. I feel the inner sensations that make me forget the outer ones that my lower half no longer registers. I am a kayaker skimming the surface, the ground racing away and autumn leaves crackling and stirring in my wake. The grace of sweet speed is an old friend improbably found.

I walk slowly now, with forearm crutches and braces. I need a thoughtful motorist’s pardon to cross a busy street. But this bike has 27 speeds, a light aluminum frame, and the athleticism of a whippet. When I descend the long hill into downtown Manchester by the Sea, my straining arms whir the pedals around, my eyes watchful for the traffic sign at the bottom and whether I trigger the flashing 20 mph speed limit lights.

I have had a few bumps and bruises, a couple of close calls. Having been through what I have in the past few years, I know I should be risk-averse, happy to be alive. More in than out. More still than fast-moving. But I have my flag, and I no longer mind flying it.