A spinal tumour at the age of ten months left Isabelle Clement with severe mobility impairments for life.
Now 48, Isabelle is the director of Wheels for Wellbeing, a charity offering disabled people the chance to experience cycling through specialist equipment.
Here she recalls how discovering handcycling in her mid-30s got her to where she is today.
I had my son when I was 32. He doesn’t have any disabilities. My wheelchair was fine until we got him a bike when he was four. I thought ‘I’m going to be stymied here’. I couldn’t keep up in the chair on the same terrains. I was really worried and didn’t want to be left behind.
Then I came across an ad for an attachment to your wheelchair, which turns it into a handbike. You’ve got a wheelchair at the back and a hand-crank at the front.
Before this discovery, all I could think of was to get an electric scooter, because they’re what I’d seen. I didn’t really fancy it because that’s definitely a granny look, and I was only 36. But I’d thought I might just have to bite the bullet.
In a wheelchair, though you’ve got large wheels at the back, with any uneven ground your casters, the small wheels, slow you down. With the handbike attachment, you’ve got a much bigger wheel at the front. It’s a smoother ride, and unbelievably easy.
At the time, and it’s the same for most people who come to our charity, I thought ‘it probably won’t work for me’. You’re so used to coming across barriers and coping with the fact that there are things you can’t do. I was sceptical.
For my tenth birthday my parents got me a bike. I can still visualise it – bright, white and shiny. We gave it a go, but my feet wouldn’t stay on the pedals and I couldn’t balance. So we put it down as ‘no’ and got on with other things. That was my only experience of cycling as a child. As far as I knew I couldn’t cycle, so I didn’t try again.
The first time I used a wheelchair was in my mid-20s. Until then I saw wheelchairs as something you don’t aspire to. I was going to meetings across a university campus and probably could have walked, but I would have arrived in a complete state. Somebody suggested a wheelchair and I thought, ‘I’m not sure about that’. Then a rep came with a bright pink, lightweight wheelchair. I could put it in my car, get to meetings and cross the campus quickly. That was my first experience of thinking mobility is fun.
The first time I used the hand-bike, I went to see friends near Banbury. These were friends from university so they’ve known me a long time. It wasn’t a long ride, but I put this thing on and off I went.
I’d left them behind. Kids go off and leave their parents behind, but I’d never experienced that. I just thought ‘oh my god this is great, this is such fun’.
For the first time ever I felt the breeze in my hair and my heart was really pumping under effort. I felt the whoosh of energy and endorphins that you get from exercise, which I’d never experienced. It was just really pleasurable. Now that I knew it, I wanted more of it.
That first cycle was like crashing through like a glass door. The distance in front of me was always very limited in terms of how far I could go, but suddenly I went right through that. It was fantastic and it’s really changed my perspective on what’s possible. Now I don’t have a limit. I’m not going to cycle to the other side of London, but I could.
But even then, and for quite a few years, I didn’t think of it as cycling. I just thought of it as a better mobility aid.
Wheels for Wellbeing was set up in 2006, about five years after I bought my handcycle. I knew the woman setting it up and she knew I had my bike, which I still didn’t call a bike. She asked if I’d mind being on the board. I helped the governance side of things, but didn’t think I knew anything about cycling.
As we grew the organisation, I started going to the sessions we ran. You know how you sort of re-look at yourself and your identity sometimes in life? I suddenly realised ‘I’m a cyclist, of course I’m a cyclist’. I’d never put that word to it.
I’d been taking on other people’s point of view – that unless you’re on two feet you’re not mobile, and unless you’re on two wheels you’re not a cyclist. I call it my bike now. It’s not a bicycle in the purest sense but I call it my bike because that’s what it is, and I want people to see it as that.
Find out more about Wheels for Wellbeing at their website: www.wheelsforwellbeing.org.uk