Up to the challenge | PostIndependent.com

Up to the challenge

Dale Shrull
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Submitted photoSteve Ackerman has his photo taken at the top of Independence Pass on June 18 during the 24th annual Ride the Rockies.

It was a long day. A lot of climbing. Anyone who’s ever pedaled a bicycle up a mountain knows that pain comes with the climb.

Lance Armstrong feels pain, I feel pain – uphill equals pain. But it’s what must be done to get to the top.

The lungs burn, the legs ache and your heart rate begs you to stop.

The pain threshold is something all cyclists must battle. Pain equals gain. At the top awaits the ultimate satisfaction for a cyclist.

Steve Ackerman knows pain and agony, and torment. He also knows an awful lot about overcoming hardships and not quitting.

He’s very familiar with the satisfaction of getting to the top of a mountain.

Ackerman, 55, is from Fort Collins, and his parents and siblings live in the Carbondale area.

The first day of Ride the Rockies, McClure Pass punished Steve and the rest of the riders. The next day was 80 miles with plenty of torturing uphill. Then came Monarch Pass and nine miles of continuous climbing. Then Independence Pass, where cyclists topped out at 12,095 feet.

For most cyclists, the legs were punished. Ackerman didn’t feel a thing in his legs. But he suffered like every cyclist on those climbs. He used to be a bicyclist but now he’s a cyclist. He hasn’t felt anything in his legs since Feb. 20, 1987.

Steve is paralyzed from the chest down. He rides what is called a handcycle. His pain is in his arms, shoulders and upper back. Just like when an able-bodied cyclist like me churns away on the climb pumping the thighs, he does the same with his upper body. The motion isn’t like a traditional pedal stroke. He pumps the handles of his handcycle in a circular motion, both arms rotating at the same time.

“I suffer just like everyone else,” Steve says.

And he conquers mountains.

Lots of mountains. He’s ridden every paved mountain pass in Colorado and one unpaved one.

This was his 17th Ride the Rockies. The cycling tour completed its 24th annual ride last Friday.

He missed the 1995 ride to do something a little more daunting. He was part of a team that rode around the world: eight months, 16 counties and 13,000 miles.

Slow going uphill

On any climb, the handcyclists are usually some of the slowest-moving people on the climb.

“When it starts going uphill, it really slows me down,” Steve says. “We actually de-accelerate. On those long climbs we hear ‘on your left’ a lot.”

For regular bicyclists, acceleration comes with standing up on the pedals.

Steve hasn’t been able to stand up since Feb. 20, 1987.

He remembers that date very well. Who wouldn’t he? It was the day when his life changed.

Steve has always been active. And, on Feb. 20, 1987, he was heading up to Steamboat Springs for a day on the slopes.

A horrible snowstorm with blizzard-like conditions blew into the region, and Ackerman slid off the road. It was a wicked car crash. Broken back, spinal cord injury and a changed life on that fateful day.

He was paralyzed. His back was broken, his spirit was not.

“The day I got out of the hospital, I got a call from a trainer. I learned how to swim, dog paddle, then freestyle. That’s what got me going. Within the first week or so, I just knew I needed to carry on.”

But everyone eventually gets slapped with a harsh dose of reality after that kind of an accident.

“Everyone grieves, but for me it took a while. It was two years after the accident and I just broke down. Then I said, ‘Now I’m grieving, this really sucks, I’m in a wheelchair.'”

Then he moved on. He went to California to attend a trade show featuring sports equipment for disabled people. He met a man who was embarking on a cross-country cycling trip with a handcycle.

Steve wasn’t that interested and went back home.

Then he was having dinner with some friends who just participated in Ride the Rockies and they were talking about how much fun they had. Steve was intrigued.

“I thought that sounded like it would be fun and something I would do if I wasn’t stuck in this wheelchair,” he says.

Suddenly that guy in California with the handcycle popped back onto Steve’s radar.

In 1991, Steve was the first person to ever participate in Ride the Rockies on a handcycle. In 1992, he was the second person. Then, in 1993, he was joined by one other person. This year, there was a group of more than 10.

Physical and mental strain

Watching them creep up a mountain, it’s impossible to comprehend the kind of pain they are enduring in their upper body.

“It’s hard to not let pain start taking over. You can concentrate on using different muscle combinations,” he says.

Making slight adjustments helps move the pain to different parts of the arms, shoulders or upper back, he says.

For the regular cyclists, we simply stand up to give our thighs a different feel.

The physical demand is one thing for Ackerman, but the pummeling mental strain can be just as draining.

“The whole thing about climbing those passes is get up and over them by noon,” he says.

That means a very early start. On long rides (80-plus miles) with lots of climbing, he will sometimes be on the road for 10, 11, even 12 hours. And that means more chances to get caught in bad weather, or riding in the scorching afternoon heat.

“Your brain really gets fried on some of those long rides,” he says. “There’s a lot of anticipation in the morning, you want to beat the heat, you want to beat the weather.”

The handcycle is a three-wheel contraption that can zip downhill at speeds up to 50 mph. But Steve says three wheels can be dangerous and he’s had some mishaps when sparks were flying.

“Rumble strips are my nemesis,” he says with a laugh, but he’s not joking.

The asphalt grooves can throw his balance off. Anything with a groove, notch or hole can lead to a crash. One of the most harrowing situations is when the road narrows onto a bridge.

Even though he’s paralyzed from the chest down, he’s completely self-sufficient when riding. Once he gets into the handcycle, the ride and any problems on the road are up to him to handle, including changing the occasional flat tire.

Dirt roads are OK, too. On the Independence Pass ride, there was a three-mile dirt stretch that Steve said he didn’t mind at all.

It seems like the only thing that really slows Steve down are the uphills.

Starting this weekend, he will be in Eagle County as part of an Adventure Sport combined team, made up of able-bodied and disabled athletes.

Among some of the things he will be doing are mountain biking, kayak paddling and using a zip line.

He grabs challenges and seizes the day with tremendous gusto. He loves taking on challenges head on and leaving them in his rearview mirror.

“After the accident, I thought I’d never get to do a lot of these things. But now, 22 years later, I’m doing everything I want, I’m just doing them differently.”

And next year he will likely be tackling the Rocky Mountains in Ride the Rockies once again.

Yes, Steve Ackerman knows pain, agony and torment – more than most of us.

He also knows a lot about mountains and what it’s like to get to the top.

Steve Ackerman is paralyzed from the chest down, but the Rocky Mountains are not an obstacle. They are simply another challenge, and he’s always up to the challenge.

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