A CORK man is giving people with disabilities the chance to enjoy outdoor life again by enlisting them as cycling partners on his tandem bicycle.
Mark O’Donoghue has developed a passion for collecting bikes and adapting them to suit people with varying disabilities. The Glanmire man regularly brings people on trips through the Blackrock Walkway on the back of his bicycle.
His tandem bike partners come from all walks of life. Their disabilities range from blindness to the effects of strokes and MS. Mark came up with the idea a number of years after being told of the important role of exercise to optimise his recovery.
“As a result of my own accidents, I quite easily could have been a wheelchair user myself,” he said.
“I’ve acquired some serious injuries over the years including in a motorbike accident. Some of my injuries have resulted in a dislocated C5 and C6 vertebrae and three months in cervical traction. In 1984 my kneecap literally fell apart. In the orthopaedic hospital, I told them that I would be cycling for Christmas. The physio in the next cubicle joked that if I did she would buy me a bottle of champagne. That physiotherapist is now my wife. The next time we met was at a basketball match. I was on crutches and she took me home on her motorbike.”
He detailed how his tandem bike initiative has helped him give back.
“My own injuries mean that I have to keep moving,” she said. “This has given me the perfect opportunity to do that.
The best things about what I’m doing is the friendships I’ve made and the people I’ve met.”
Mark’s initiation with adapted bicycles started when he took up wheelchair basketball.
“As a result of my numerous injuries, I was unable to run anymore. It was at this point that I got involved in wheelchair basketball.”
It was this new chapter in his life that led him to work with people with disabilities.
“My first involvement was when I was asked to repair handcycles for rebel wheelers. One parent asked me if I could get their child into cycling. I was then asked to take a visually impaired person out on the bike. Being active isn’t all about competitive sport. With cycling, you get to feel the wind on your face and be at one with nature. I had a tandem bike for my wife and thought this would be a good use for it.”
Mark has since built up an impressive database of tandem-bike partners.
“It’s a different feeling for everyone,” he explained. “Initially, you have to build up the person’s trust. You have to let the person at the back know when you are changing gears or coming up to a turn.
A person with a visual impairment will be able to cycle perfectly, whereas someone who has experienced MS or a stroke may have a one-sided weakness. Many love the thrill of cycling and will encourage me to go faster.”
Mark confessed his bicycles can be sourced from absolutely anywhere including skips.
“One of my favourite things in the world is stripping a bike and rebuilding it,” he said.
The cyclist said he has been interested in bikes for as long as he can remember.
“I never had a child’s bike. When I was five or six years old I was cycling my father’s bike. At around 10 or 11 I was cycling to places as far away as Crosshaven. I still remember having to wheel my bike home after getting a puncture at the Anglers Rest.
We used to freewheel down the mounds of earth where the Cork University Hospital on bikes. The bikes we had back then had no breaks, but as far as we were concerned they weren’t needed.”
His hobby continued into adulthood.
“When I became a father my dad bought myself and the kids a tandem bike for Christmas. When they were small we were able to travel great distances. We’d just throw it in the camper van and go wherever we pleased.”
He explained how tandem cycling has helped his own recovery too.
“If I’m meeting someone, I’ve made a commitment that I know I can’t go back on. Dealing with people with disabilities has taught me that there’s a way around everything. The people that I deal with it tend to be very positive. I’m a positive person myself which is probably why this works so well.”
Mark’s other adapted creations, which he uses for his sessions, include tricycles, handcycles and running bikes to name just a few.
He has also honed his teaching skills to help local schoolchildren.
“In the schoolyard, I can bring out 10 children at a time,” he said.
He explained his approach to kids availing of his tandem bike.
“Sometimes I’ll stop pedalling and tell them I need help because I’m old and tired and I have to take a rest. The kid at the back will then continue to pedal. The other nine will all be clapping and cheering.”
He spoke of the satisfaction he derives from helping children cycle.
“In all the years I’ve done it there have been three children who haven’t cycled. I still believe that even these children will get there eventually.
Helping people to cycle independently is one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done. It’s so rewarding to know that child can now do the same as their friends.”
A Cork man who recovered from a devastating injury is giving something back to those less fortunate on his bicyle made for two. Mark O’Donoghue spoke to Sarah Horgan about working with people with disabilities.