The A82 - disability, ability and cycling
by Ian Tallach
This piece was first released on the Highland cycle campaign website, and sent to Scottish Government ministers and Highland councillors. Written by one of our regular contributors, it deserves a wider readership.
Behind us there’s a revving-up, a rising-falling, growling sound. I recognise the man’s exasperation. It’s familiar to me now; these days I know the smell of it, the sickly breath of it. I am inured. Neck-hairs don’t bristle anymore. How did it come to this? When did it happen? Frustration must have come in the back door - when I was sleeping, maybe. And the rhythm of it is the same – air passing through my lungs -in-out-in-out - the driver’s foot on the accelerator – down-up-down-up, the snarl of city traffic. Ha! You have to laugh.
As kids, we’d do some stupid things. Counter-productive, self-defeating, wasteful things. Lunchtime at school, the older boys would make up football teams. I used to be the last one picked. The goalmouth often had scuff-marks from my shoes the day before. Jamie was the first one picked. Always. And when he passed the last defender, he would look up at the net behind me, like I wasn’t there at all. He’d practically scored already. At times like that, the urge was just to fall. Better if you hurt your knee. And better still if you had blood to show for it. Never mind being sidelined for the rest of the game. Never mind if your team lost because they had less players. Never mind the pointlessness of it. You’d taught them all a lesson. You’d communicated something – all the world’s injustices at once, impotent rage. The wretched of the earth had spoken. Ha! You have to laugh.
Impotent rage - I know that one as well. I wonder if that’s what the driver feels. I imagine him looking at us from the lofty cabin of his 18-wheeler, blowing out his cheeks, shaking his head. I feel a kinship with him. I want to say to him ‘I’m just like you. I feel your frustration - every day. Let’s talk about it over coffee.’ And I imagine, too, what’s going through his head right now. ‘That idiot in front! He thinks he owns the road. He’s with two others, yeah, but they can ride: he can’t. No effort to speed up or go along the curb. Swaying side-to-side, just like a parrot in a cage. Ridiculous! And that contraption – is it even legal?!’
Of course, there’s more than one take on this situation. What if the lorry driver were to be informed of several facts?
- That idiot in front is quite delirious with happiness right now. He’s on the road for the first time in many years.
- That-there eejit has only just discovered something life-changing - cycling is possible for someone with no power whatsoever in one leg. He’s grinning ear-to-ear.
- Said contraption is a Jorvik 250 Odin electric trike, designed to give disabled people access to the wonderful world of getting-about.
- The ridiculous man in question has M.S.
- There’s actually no need to rush; the delivery’s been cancelled.
I love these guys! They’ve opened up a whole new range of possibilities for me. Fiona Johnson (Cycling Development officer for ‘WheelNess’, a Cycling UK - funded initiative) is up front on her gravel bike. She sets a steady pace; she’s very understanding. And right behind me is Mick Heath MBE (Co-founder of Cycling Without Age, Inverness, and secretary of the Highland Cycle Campaign). He’s riding ‘the Beast’, a sort of glorified rickshaw, four feet wide, with two seats at the back. I’m very safe indeed, so long as he stays in the saddle. We’re riding along the A82, from B & Q carpark, almost as far as Longman Roundabout, then doubling back, via the Harbour Road Roundabout, to Friar’s Bridge. From there we make our way, a bit more leisurely this time, along Shore Street, stopping at café V8 on Henderson Road. We sit and talk over coffee and what’s just happened. (Mick, who’s MBE was awarded in 1980 for bomb-disposal, is a bundle of charisma. His metabolic rate demands a fry-up, in addition.)
‘Did you manage to sort the problem with your leg?’ Fiona’s asking me.
‘Yeah. My foot kept falling off the pedal. But I upped the gears and it stayed on,’ I tell her.
‘I took some decent video footage,’ Mick is saying.
‘Oh, great! Thank you both so much for this, by the way.’ I’m sounding like a stuck record.
Truth is, I can’t stop thanking them. They’ve become important to me – much more than their modesty allows them to believe. I try to articulate why I’m so grateful. But after a while, hyperbole just sounds too much like sycophancy, so I stop. (The words are true, though – every one of them.)
Afterwards, Mick sent us the video record of our adventure. In it, several hazards are clearly shown. There evidently can’t be any real intention for this section of the A82 to be used by any cyclist, never mind a newbie with a disability. Although our jaunt was at mid-day on Monday – one of the least busy times – I was aware of jeopardy, throughout. I wouldn’t have dared to ride a yard without the other two. Mick eloquently shows the dangers on his video, so I won’t list them here. My all-consuming anxiety was around not knowing when to use the road and when it was acceptable to use the pavement. It seemed very counter-intuitive to me, how the pavement/cycle track would stop exactly where most needed, from a cyclist’s point of view. Riding the section from the mouth of Seafield Road to the BP garage felt like running the gauntlet. It must be said that drivers were considerate, for the most part, particularly on the roundabout. It only takes one, though.
I met those two on May 14th. Someone at the ‘Oxygen Works’, where I go for hyperbarric-oxygen treatment, had told me about ‘WheelNess’, a project led by Cycling UK ‘to improve health and wellbeing by getting people cycling in Inverness.’ It has a particular focus on people unable to access cycling, under normal circumstances, whether due to financial constraints or disability. There is an emphasis on benefits to mental health. And they were holding an open-day (the first of several) on UHI campus.
Did I say I love those people?! They’ve given me a lease of life. Even before I rode the e-trike, I already felt much happier to be around so many ‘can-do’, pro-active, energetic folk. (And unpretentious with it.) They were, for me, an antidote to drudgery – the fatigue and down-drag that so often make the task of getting through each day seem insurmountable. I have quite severe physical limitations, but this was not a case of me having to change – it was a matter of finding an adapted cycle, tailored to my needs. What I’d long-since consigned to childhood memories, became reality again! With a slight push, I was off. I turned the little turbo-booster up and found that it kicked in to compensate for the dead-weight of my right leg. I went around the miniature loch at the back of UHI campus twice. Others passed me on hand-powered cycles, some on rickshaws. Those who could rode bicycles. The sky was smiling down, ducks in the water, children giggling. And I was thinking to myself - ‘this really is something beautiful.’
Mick gave me a lift to the bus-stop, on ‘the Beast.’ He cycled up-front and I faced backwards, watching the picture recede - a scene already redolent of new beginnings. I promised I’d be back. Mick, as mentioned earlier, is co-founder of ‘Cycling Without Age, Inverness’. He tells me that the charity was started by one Ole Kassow, from Denmark, with the motto - ‘everyone has the right to wind in their hair.’
‘Yes! You’re speaking my language!’ I turned my neck and shouted. ‘That’s what this IS – wind in my hair, for the first time in years!’
I cannot overstate the importance of what people like Mick and Fiona do, along with like-minded individuals from the Velocity Café and Blazing saddles. For me, they overcome inertia - physical and mental. The turbo on the trike helps with that too!
I still have down-days, but they’re not as down. ‘I’m here to steal your energy!’ I say to them. They laugh, because they think it’s just a joke. And I laugh too because it’s hard not to join in. We laugh together; it feels good. I wasn’t joking, though.