Change Maker - The Kiwi charity helping people with disabilities get onto mountain bikes

  • 06/08/2021
  • Sponsored by - Dell
AdaptMTB supports people with disabilities to get into adaptive mountain biking.
AdaptMTB supports people with disabilities to get into adaptive mountain biking. Photo credit: Dell

When James Littlejohn lost the full use of his legs in a dirt bike accident more than 20 years ago he never thought he'd ride any kind of bike again. Now, not only is he regularly riding mountain bikes, he's also helping others with disabilities do the same.

James and his wife Kim founded AdaptMTB, a charity supporting people with disabilities to get into adaptive mountain biking.

In general terms, an adaptive rider is someone who typically cannot ride a standard mountain bike due to their physical, intellectual or neurological ability and requires some adaptations to their equipment.

AdaptMTR not only advocates for adaptive mountain biking to be included in events and competitions alongside regular mountain biking, it also helps people get into the sport in the first place.

The charity is this month's Dell Change Maker. Dell and The Project have been recognising New Zealanders who have made a positive social impact in the community through the Change Maker campaign.

An adaptive rider taking part in an AdaptMTB mountain biking event.
AdaptMTB is this month's Dell Change Maker. Photo credit: Dell

Although many Kiwis take for granted the fact they can get on a mountain bike and head out into nature, for many people with disabilities that's simply not an option. After James had his accident in 1999, the idea of jumping on a mountain bike again was inconceivable.

Although he had been a keen cyclist before suffering a spinal injury and becoming a partial paraplegic, he knew that losing full use of his legs would mean he would have to give up the sport he loved.

James is able to walk, which he normally does with the help of crutches, but he has limited strength in his legs. That means the act of peddling, as well as coming to a stop on a bike, is almost impossible under most conditions - especially on challenging mountain biking terrain.

"I've got certain sensations that I can feel, and certainly some that I can't," he says. "I've got no feeling in my feet, or very limited feeling in my feet, and limited strength as well."

But the advent of technology and the development of electric mountain bikes in recent years has been a game-changer for James.

James in hospital in 1999 with family and friends after suffering a spinal injury.
James in hospital in 1999 after suffering a spinal injury. Photo credit: Dell

"When I had my injury 20 years ago, those were not an option," he says. And it's not only people with injuries like James' that adaptive mountain biking caters for - AdaptMTB has worked to get people with cerebral palsy and visual impairment onto bikes, as well as those who have suffered strokes or had limbs amputated.

And though improved technology means it's now possible for more Kiwis to try mountain biking, James says there is still a long way to go.

"People with disabilities are vastly underrepresented in this recreational activity. And that is something that we think is quite easy to change, because the technology has come along. If we can share the know-how we'll be able to increase the participation in this sport, which will have positive outcomes on people's wellbeing."

He says the "prohibitive price" of bikes can often be a barrier for people entering the sport.

That's why, as well as embracing the competitive aspect of adaptive mountain biking - which it does by advocating for the inclusion and needs of adaptive mountain bikers at bike parks and events around the country - the charity also concentrates on helping newbies get involved, something it does by organising events such as a "give it a go" day recently held in Rotorua.

AdaptMTB's event called "give it a go" day recently held in Rotorua.
AdaptMTB's recent event in Rotorua. Photo credit: Dell

The goal is to create a thriving community for lovers of the sport where participants can share their knowledge and experience with one another as well as encourage others to get involved too.

They also want to test and implement an adaptive mountain biking trail rating system for bike parks across the country.

James and Kim say some of the people they have introduced to the sport so far were keen mountain bikers before having an accident, while others are just trying it for the first time.

One highlight of discovering adaptive mountain biking, says Kim, has been the fact that the family can spend time together while enjoying the pastime.

"It's allowing us to give our child the lifestyle that we grew up with, which was getting into the outdoors and going into the forest - so our son's not missing out on that element because his dad can now get out in the outdoors and take him bike riding," she says.

"We just want every other family to realise that too."

An adaptive rider taking part in the recent AdaptMTB mountain biking event in Rotorua.
An adaptive rider taking part in the recent AdaptMTB mountain biking event in Rotorua. Photo credit: Dell

Kim says despite the challenges of running the charity, which has been operating since early 2021, it's all worth it when she sees how happy people are out on their bikes.

"It's totally rewarding. The energy that we put into it you just feel like you get it back 1000 times."

In the future, James says he hopes the sport can grow to a point where there will be adaptive mountain bikes available for hire at a number of bike parks across the country, and that the sport will continue to grow to have a "healthy community" of people sharing their experiences and adaptations with each other.

He'd also like to see an annual festival held to celebrate both the social and competitive aspects of adaptive mountain biking.

"And hey, why not? Let's make it a Paralympic sport too."

This article is brought to you by Dell.