Hand cycling has given me my freedom back

1 month ago 16

Fast Legal Services in Dubai

By Angie Brown
BBC Scotland News

Image source, Neil Russell

Image caption,

Neil Russell loves the thrill of hand cycling on trails

When Neil Russell discovered handbikes, he felt like he had found a way of getting his "freedom and independence back".

The 36-year-old was born with spina bifida and walked with a bad limp until he had his right leg removed below the knee at the age of 18.

But encountering the cycle inspired him to think about the adventures he could have and the places he could reach by his own power.

Now he is planning to travel around Scotland and the islands, handbike packing - pulling a trailer which contains his gear and tent.

Neil, a community participation officer, plans to set off from Edinburgh in May for the two-month challenge.

Image source, Neil Russell

Image caption,

Neil Russell carries his tent on the back of his hand bike

"The drive for me is pushing myself to see what I can do," he said.

"I want to to do the things able-bodied people find much easier to do."

Neil, who was born in Fife but now lives in Stirling, had to undergo surgery on many occasions while he was growing up.

One of his legs was shorter than the other, and the sores and infections from the operations caused him a lot of pain.

"Most people don't have their leg amputated, but I wanted to so I spoke to my family to get their opinion.

"My mum has been blind from the age of five so I'm well understood and they supported my decision."

Image source, Jess Paul

Image caption,

Neil Russell with his parents Ken and Hilary after graduating from Edinburgh University for the second time

The Edinburgh University graduate had a kidney removed when he was 21, and had a heart attack five years ago.

"It made me realise what I value the most is my love for the great outdoors, family and friends," he said.

"You have to follow the things you enjoy."

Neil first encountered handcycling when a friend asked him to take part in a paratriathlon.

"You can't buy them here, you have to get them from America.

"I tried one and loved it, and thought where can it take me, what can I do with this? I felt emotional."

Spina bifida

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Spina bifida is when a baby's spine and spinal cord does not develop properly in the womb

Spina bifida is when a baby's spine and spinal cord does not develop properly in the womb, causing a gap in the spine.

Most people with spina bifida are able to have surgery to close the opening in the spine.

But the nervous system will usually already have been damaged, which can lead to problems such as:

  • weakness or total paralysis of the legs
  • bowel incontinence and urinary incontinence
  • loss of skin sensation in the legs and around the bottom - the child is unable to feel hot or cold, which can lead to accidental injury

He bought a bike and started riding around Edinburgh, but found it was "scary" because he was so low to the ground in heavy traffic and lorries could not see him.

Neil then discovered off-road handcycles and started practicing on the trails near his house.

He holds on to levers and powers them using his arms to turn the chain, which propels the bike forward.

He believes that his journey around Scotland will be the first of its kind.

After handcycling across to the west of the country, he will visit Arran before cycling up the west coast to the Outer Hebrides.

He will then travel along the top of Scotland and on to Orkney and Shetland, then back down the east coast to Edinburgh.

Image source, Jess Paul

Image caption,

Neil goes on adventures with his girlfriend, Jess Paul

Neil will be supported by his girlfriend, Jess Paul, 34, who will follow him in a van - although in some sections he will be on his own.

Neil, who uses a wheelchair when he is not riding his bike, said mobility would be his biggest challenge.

"I'll probably set up the tent on my knees and shuffle around on the ground."

During the journey he will be pulling a trailer and will sometimes have to carry his wheelchair.

He will also be carrying a prothesis so he can travel very short distances when he is not on his bike, although this causes him pain.

Image source, Jess Paul

Image caption,

Neil Russell sometimes rides with his girlfriend's dog Buster

Neil said hand cycling for more than 10 miles is very painful, so he will use an e-handbike.

He said: "I want to show that with a bit of time and planning and 'go for it' attitude you can do it.

"I want to inspire others to get out and do whatever adventure they dream of, even if it's not the same type of one as me.

"I was never that person who sat there feeling sorry for myself or depressed. I've always had the mindset where I think that looks fun how do I find a way to make it happen, I've problem-solved and adapted."

And he added: "I've always wanted to go around Scotland but driving you miss a lot.

"Hand cycling I can take my time and enjoy it, it's not a race."

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