Many Americans ride bicycles for recreational enjoyment and some engage in competitive cycling. With choices including mountain biking, road biking or other related cycling sports, there are many levels for participation. One distinct area is handcycling. Gerard Ah-Fook is one of those individuals.
A petty officer in the Navy for four years, Ah-Fook had planned to further his military career. However, 13 years ago Ah-Fook’s life changed after a water accident involving a motorboat. His upper left leg was severely injured as a result of the incident and he lost mobility. Throughout his long recovery process, he looked for options for staying active. Physical therapists at VA encouraged him to start handcycling, a sport that had started to gain popularity. It was a brave new adventure with a very small support group, but Ah-Fook continued to stay active because of it.
Handcycling is progressing both in technology and participation. Initially, as Ah-Fook described it, it was “anybody’s game,” when it came to bike design and strategy.
The basic design is a tricycle lower to the ground than normal, hand peddles instead of foot peddles and a seat. Backyard tinkering and metal shop modifications were the best way to produce a great handcycle in the beginning. Cycles now, however, represent top technology. Handcycles and related equipment can cost thousands of dollars.
Paralyzed Veterans Racing has hundreds of cyclists involved in the sport and continues to be a leader in keeping veterans active. Ah-Fook cycles with other individuals with injuries and with other paralyzed veterans through Paralyzed Veterans Racing and other groups. He has completed an ironman triathlon and competes in about six races per season. From triathlons in New York to Hawaii; he has biked, swam and wheeled his way around the country. He has his sights set on a large race in Alaska over the summer.
Training is one of the main components of building the stamina needed to compete as a handcyclist. Ah-Fook trains in varying distances. During a peak week he will cycle about 260 miles and during a regular week about 100 to 150. Hills, he said, are a “necessary evil.” Additionally, for triathlons he has to prepare for the racing wheelchair and swimming portions of the event.
It’s a grueling sport, but one with many rewards, including the benefits of staying active and fit. Ah-Fook said he looks forward to many years of handcycling and competition.
Sean Kumnick is majoring in political science and economics at The George Washington University.