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Interview: Neil Russell of CIC Adaptive Riders Collective

Written by Fiona

April 25 2023

An interview with hand cyclist Neil Russell of CIC Adaptive Riders Collective. The article was published in The Scots Magazine.

Neil finds freedom off-road

Credit: Pete Scullion

Cyclist Neil Russell has launched an initiative to give more people the opportunity to follow new trails to freedom and adventure. 

The 37-year-old from Stirling is behind a Community Interest Company (CIC) called the Adaptive Riders Collective, which is fund-raising for several electric-assisted hand cycles for use off-road.

ARC will be based at so-called Gravelfoyle, which is the nickname for the Stirlingshire village Aberfoyle at the heart of a fast-growing Scottish gravel cycling scene. It’s also where Neil regularly rides forest tracks on his own adaptive electric-assisted hand-cycle. 

Neil, who was born with spina bifida and had his leg amputated below the knee aged 18, says: “Hand cycling has been life changing for me and levelled the playing field of my disability. Being able to ride a hand-cycle off-road has given me the chance to explore many amazing places in Scotland and to enjoy some great adventures.

“But electric-assisted off-road hand cycles like mine are expensive and often prohibitively so to many people. I hope that through ARC, I can give more people with a disability, for example a physical injury due to an accident, the chance to try off-road cycling.”

Credit: Pete Scullion

It was in 2015 that Neil, a swimming teacher, first discovered the joys of hand cycling. 

He explains: “I had long had difficulties with using my right leg for sports and activities. I suffered nerve damage due to spina bifida and the leg didn’t grow like the left one. The shorter leg led to back problems and I also had lots of leg sores and infections.

“In the end, I decided to have the lower part of my right leg removed. This helped with my health to a greater extent but I then had issues with different prostheses. I could walk a short distance and I did ride a ‘regular’  bike for a few years, but I never thought cycling would be for me because it never felt that easy or enjoyable.”

But then a friend persuaded Neil to take part in a paratriathlon at Castle Semple County Park in Lochwinnoch, Renfrewshire. He says: “I managed to finish the race and, while the swim was fine, it confirmed to me that cycling really wasn’t much fun for me.

“But what I did discover at that event was hand-cycling because, luckily for me, Dave Hill, who is an outdoor instructor and offers activities for people with disabilities, had brought along a hand-cycle for people to try. I gave it a go and I immediately fell in love with the sport.”

Neil describes the difference between a traditional road bike and an off-road hand cycle. He says: “Being able to ride a hand-cycle by using my arms makes all the difference to me. I no longer had to rely on pedalling with my legs or suffer the pain of my prosthesis.

“In addition, the type of hand-cycle I have allows me to ride on rough paths and tracks, which means I can have access so many more places than when in a wheelchair or walking with a prosthesis.”

Credit: Pete Scullion

Neil’s hand-cycle also has three wheels and is electric assisted, which means that while he needs to pedal, there is the benefit of extra power when required.

In recent years, he has completed many off-road adventures and challenges. He says: “As well as riding the fantastic gravel routes in the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park at Aberfoyle, I enjoyed a 20-day hand-cycling trip across several Scottish islands. 

“I have also ridden a two-day trip to the lighthouse at Cape Wrath, at the far north-west  point of mainland Scotland, and stayed in a bothy overnight. It was my first stay in a bothy and would not have been possible without my hand cycle because there is a bumpy and stoney track to reach it.

“One of my longest cycling adventures took place last summer when I cycled 125km in one day. It was off-road and sometimes not on an obvious track from Rannoch to Dalwhinnie via the remote Corrour Estate in the Scottish Highlands. 

“Hand-cycling has given me an enormous amount of freedom to get to places I had never been to before and to explore Scotland’s trails. Our country is amazing for nature and I now know first hand the mental and physical benefits of being surrounded by an incredible natural environment.”  

While Neil is a competent hand cyclist, he is also grateful for the support of friends on his cycling trips. He says: “In some ways I have the best form of transport for some of the more challenging sections off-road because I am more sturdy and balanced on my three wheels, while my friends are riding two-wheeled bikes.

“But I can also face difficulties and obstacles, sometimes due to being front-wheel drive and also because I am unable to get off my hand-cycle to push it over boggy ground or to cross rivers.

“It’s why I feel very fortunate to have a great group of friends who are willing to accompany me on my adventures.

“We are constantly looking at what might be possible next with my hand-cycle and considering new places to explore, as well as riding at night and snow riding. There is so much that is doable with the right people around me.”

However, rather than being content with pursing only his own dreams, Neil is committed to the idea of expanding opportunities to other people. He says: “I am lucky because I have been able to afford my own hand-cycle and I have benefited from the activity, both physically and mentally.

“I am now happily part of a mainstream group of off-road riders and this has given me a new sense of confidence; something that I lacked before because being disabled frequently made me feel isolated.

“Through ARC I hope to be able to make a difference to the lives of other disabled people. We are in the funding and grant application phase of the project and so far there has been a very positive reaction from the Scottish cycling community.

“This is just the beginning of gravel hand cycling – and the start of a more inclusive and integrated Scottish cycling community.” 

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