Last year at the 2022 Sea Otter Classic, as I was walking through a parking lot near the Expo I came across a pair of athletes with the most incredible bicycles I’d ever seen. They were rugged, heavily-built trikes with two mountain bike wheels in the front and a massive single fat mountain bike tire in the back, and an electric drivetrain was apparent on each. Both athletes were in wheelchairs. Later that weekend I’d see them, and other para-cyclists, compete in both the Downhill and Dual-Slalom events. It was the first time para-cyclists had been given their own separate classes in any Sea Otter event. I was flabbergasted and, honestly, in awe of not just the bikes but by the para-cyclists and how hard they were sending it on every single run. I came back to Sea Otter this year to talk with and document a few of these athletes.
Three para-cyclists watch the Dual Slalom races.
For the first time in Sea Otter’s 32 year history every single race—the Downhill and Dual Slalom, along with Road and XC—had para-cyclist categories. “Sixteen percent of the world’s population has a physical disability. It only makes sense for race organizations to include us,” Hannah Raymond told me while we were talking at the Cadex booth. Hannah started racing bicycles by way of the Redhook Crits in Brooklyn in 2016. She was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) a year later. Undeterred, Hannah continues to race off-road and gravel events as a para-cyclist.
In the interim since my initial (albeit, belated) introduction to this side of cycling, I’ve been fortunate enough to have met several para-cyclists, such as Leo Rodgers, Megan Fisher and Josie Fouts, to name a few. With each of them I’ve realized many things but, significantly, I’ve come to understand that I know absolutely nothing about para-athletes, their experiences, or their lives. So when it came time to interview them at Sea Otter, there was only a single, simple question I could really ask them:
“What is the one thing you wish people knew or what do you want them to know about para-athletes?”
The following are their answers, all to that same question. I hope you find them as interesting and enlightening as I did.
Alex Duff— MTB Gravity; Dual Slalom & Downhill
“It’s a tough one. I know what I want them to know but I don’t know how to put it. It’s like we’re just normal people. Being a para-athlete, you’re not that much different than anyone else.”
Sean Kent—MTB Gravity; Dual Slalom & Downhill
“I guess this applies more to just paralyzed people in general, but we’re just people. We’re not out here trying to be inspiring or live this amazing life. We’re just trying to do what we like to do and you know there’s an element of people really wanting to [help], they’re either too helpful, or I don’t know.
Just treat us like humans. We’re just people. Getting hurt doesn’t really change who you are at the core, you know? It just changes how you move around, basically.”
Seth McBride—MTB Gravity; Dual Slalom & Downhill
“Oh man, I guess we’re just like any other athletes. We’re super diverse, we come from all sorts of backgrounds, and have different goals when we’re coming into stuff like this, how competitive we are, but we’re all just out to have a good time and go biking.”
Ryan Porteus—MTB Gravity; Dual Slalom & Downhill
“I’ll say everyone’s got a different disability. I think for me at least, and some of the other higher level disabilities here, we have to figure out unique adaptations to allow us to ride the bike. For example, my fingers don’t work at all. So figuring out a way to be able to get on the brakes is pretty crucial.
I think a lot of people hear ‘para’ and they think someone without movement from the waist down, but a lot of the time people have injuries that affect them more than just that. Using technology to get us out here racing is what’s pretty awesome.”
Matt Tychsen—MTB Gravity; Dual Slalom & Downhill
“How much fun it actually is. People look at it (being disabled), they’re like, ‘I’m sorry you’re having to go through that.’
I was like, ‘I don’t know, I’m having a shitload of fun. I’m having a good-ass time.’ It’s not as bad as people think it is.”
Jack Neff—MTB Gravity; Dual Slalom & Downhill
“I just wish people knew how cool we are and really what the bikes are capable of so they don’t turn us down and they just give us the chance that everyone else gets, to compete and have fun out here.”
Hannah Raymond—MTB Endurance; Fuego XL
“I think that para-athletes are really cool because it’s a diverse group of people, and pretty much all of them have had to overcome some sort of adversity, which is pretty inspiring.”
Steven Wilke—MTB Endurance; Fuego XL
“I guess I want people to know that we’re out there enjoying the trails just like you are. We’re out there racing, we’re out there competing just as hard. You know, we might not be as fast, but we’re out there doing our thing just like you are and we want to be included. And races like this, this is the first time they’ve had a para category in this race. So I want them to know that this is what we want to do and having races start like this with a para class, it’s been amazing.”
Meg Fisher—MTB Endurance; Fuego XL
“Well, not just para-athletes, but [all] humans. We’re all more capable than we know.”
More Moments From Sea Otter
“Wufky Crosby gets sideways in the Men’s Para-Cyclist Dual-Slalom. Wufky was a crowd favorite for his highly aggressive, fast style.”
Para-cyclists representing High Fives and Bowhead watch the Dual Slalom races in between their heats. In the Downhill and Dual Slalom categories Bowhead’s assisted and hand powered bicycles are the predominant rigs. High Fives Foundation provides programs for athletes and Veterans with life-altering injuries to access outdoor sports.
Steven Wilke’s one sided hand controls. “My left hand doesn’t work, so all my controls have to be on the right side. Front and rear derailleur, dropper seat post, front and rear brakes, they’re all right here.”
Meg Fisher racing the Fuego XL (left) and showing off the the bottom of her self-customized race prosthetic (right).
Two Men’s Dual Slalom para-cycling competitors.
About The Images:
All of the para-cyclist portraits were taken with a hand made 4×5”, large format box camera and a 7” f/7.7 lens made by Kodak in 1913 using Ilford Ortho+ 80asa film. I built the camera itself during the first phase of the COVID Pandemic lockdown as a project to occupy myself during those dark, uncertain times. This is the first time I’ve used it on an assignment. All other images were made with a Fuji GFX50R medium format digital camera using Nikon F mount lenses (a 35-70mm f/3.5 macro zoom and a 105mm f/2.5 telephoto).