Break the Boundary: meet the team making mountain biking more accessible
© Photo Courtesy of Break the Boundary
For Andrew Liddawi and his team at adaptive-cycling not-for-profit, Break the Boundary, "mountain biking" is about so much more than technical climbs and radical descents.
Andrew Liddawi has competed in one of the world’s most punishing mountain bike endurance races. He loves technical climbs, rocks, drops and logs, just like a lot of mountain bikers do. Yet Andrew hesitates to call himself a mountain biker or what he does mountain biking.
Why? The founder of adaptive-cycling not-for-profit Break the Boundary thinks that mountain biking’s extreme reputation may have inadvertently dabbed the brakes on the development of its adaptive equivalent in Australia.
“If you say ‘mountain biking’, the perception is that we’re all jumping off cliffs and flying between trees; which is only about two per cent of us. There’s some conflict between what we do as a charity and the more extreme-sporting side of it. When we put in a grant application, we’ll use ‘off-road hand cycling’ [instead of mountain biking].”
Andrew became a paraplegic after “landing badly” and severing his spine (at t10-t11) on a recreational mountain bike ride back in 2008. Eventually, after extensive rehabilitation, he became curious about how he could get back out on the trails again, but the digital tumble weeds rolled past when he searched for adaptive cycling information in Australia.
“The little information that was available online was from the States, UK and Canada – there was no information specifically relating to Australia. I wanted to centralise information, build a bit more knowledge of equipment, resources and trails here.”
In 2012, Break the Boundary began as a website doing just that, but it soon evolved into a hands-on, entirely volunteer-run association which aims to “help people with all kinds of disabilities and impairments access off-road trails”.
It’s all about community participation and engagement and entry-level, grass-roots participation.
The West-Australian-based charity has nine MTBA-qualified coaches (including Andrew), three mechanics and a physiotherapist on board. Its free beginner clinics began in south-west Western Australia in 2017 and have so far travelled to Queensland and Victoria.
Make no mistake though, getting just a single person onto on a bike – whether they’re returning from serious injury or just wanting to try adaptive off-road cycling for the first time – is a complicated process with nuanced metaphorical mountains to climb before you can get your tyres dirty.
“For people early on in their recovery process there’s a lot of medical stuff that still needs to be sorted out post-discharge,” he says. “One of the most basic challenges is transport: just getting people to [riding] facilities. Usually anything more than an hour’s drive can be a little difficult, for a whole range of medical and disability-related reasons.”
There’s no one-style-fits all adaptive mountain bike either. They’re not the kind of thing you’ll usually find in your garden-variety mountain bike shop. Because “sitting upright is not a good posture for me”, Andrew’s weapon-of-choice is a kneeling cross-country bike, which is suitable for many paraplegics.
The bikes don’t come cheap, costing between $16,000 and $24,000 (AUD), and forget about try-before-you-buy, which is why Break the Boundary’s clinics are such a natural entry-point for many.
Funding is available in Australia through the NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme) to offset costs, but you might not want to mention your latent penchant for extreme on any official document.
“You see all these videos of guys dropping off table tops, and smashing it around wall-rides and eight-foot-tall berms – that’s a bit hard to explain to them,” says Andrew. “The NDIS hates the words ‘sports’ and ‘competition’ because they’re not covered within the legislation. It’s all about community participation and engagement and entry-level, grass-roots participation.”
Power-assist (costing up to $3,000 per bike) is becoming a must-have for novice cross-country riders. “We’ve run camps using bikes without power-assist and people lose interest quite quickly because they can’t keep up,” says Andrew. “You get off your bike, then you have to push your wheelchair around, then cook yourself a meal – so you’re just constantly using upper body.”
You’re always going to have your 20 per cent of independent people who’ll find their way into the sport. We focus on the other 80 per cent. It’s about getting a message out to the disability sector.
“Even if people do have use of their legs, there’s usually some kind of impairment, loss in one side or partial loss of strength on both sides, so the power-assist definitely helps. It also helps over here with WA’s infamous ‘pea gravel’, which is slippery as hell, wet or dry.”
Post-rehab from his 2008 accident, Andrew represented his state and country at wheelchair basketball. Once the trails called, they called loudly, and it soon became clear that Andrew had a point to prove to himself.
He hand-cycled Western Australia’s Cape to Cape endurance race, working up to completing all four stages three years in a row. That’s around 200 rugged kilometres over four days, without power-assist, with only “a couple of support people limited to where they could assist me”.
“The first couple of years, I wanted to make the point to myself that I could still ride alongside mountain bikers,” he says. “After that, it became more of a showcase for the capacities of this equipment. And, if you’ve got the right attitude and team together, that it is possible.”
“There were a few points towards the end of stage four where all that’s running through your mind is ‘to hell with this, let’s just go home’. But with the team there, you just keep going. We were slagging each other off and getting frustrated with each other, but you pull through.”
Andrew is more focused on raising awareness of adaptive cycling these days, scouting out people that “don’t even realise it is a thing” who could benefit from it like he has. “You’re always going to have your 20 per cent of fit, quite independent people who’ll find their way into the sport,” he says. “We focus on the other 80 per cent who aren’t connected to the community. It’s about getting a message out to the disability sector.”
Is mountain biking’s extreme reputation a deterrent for potential adaptive cyclists?
“It’s as dangerous as you want it to be. Driving your car can be extremely dangerous – depends on how you drive, right? We deal with a range of capacities and impairments, but have a very strong risk-management process. The aim is to help people that don’t really understand their own capacity and how far can they push things.”
We’re getting into ABIs (acquired brain injuries); people with a range of neurological impairments that affect their cognition and moto-neuron output. No one really wants to deal with those, but we take that challenge on board.
Andrew envisages off-road hand-cycling becoming part of the regular mountain-biking scene one day in the not-too distant future, even if the competition side still needs much development because of the convolutions of disability classification.
“There are complex groups, disability variations but equipment as well,” he says. "A kneeling downhill bike does not generate the same output as a recumbent cross-country bike, for example, but it depends on what you’re racing and the ability of the person racing.”
For Andrew and his fellow Break the Boundary volunteers, the next challenge is bringing an ever-wider range of disabilities into the adaptive-cycling fold.
“Spinal cord injuries are as easy as pie now we’ve done them back to front. Now we’re getting into ABIs (acquired brain injuries); people with a range of neurological impairments that affect their cognition and moto-neuron output. No one really wants to deal with those, but we take that challenge on board, as safely as possible, and slowly graduate people into it.”
And that’s how adaptive sports grow, by taking on the tough challenges one by one, becoming even more inclusive, quite literally adapting in ways that no-one could dream of during the depths of their rehab.
And to think, in the beginning, Andrew was just a bloke looking for a solution to his own sporting conundrum.