If you’re into mountain biking, you likely already know what an amazing resource Berks County is to Mid-Atlantic cyclists. The two mountains surrounding Reading and Mount Penn, as well as Neversink Mountain, have a wide network of marked trails that put Berks County on the map as a very attractive mountain biking destination. The amount of trails and the variety available is unsurpassable. This is mostly due to the spectacular job of BAMBA — Berks Area Mountain Bike Assocation and land owners and land managers like Berks Nature, County of Berks and City of Reading.
What you might not know, however, is how they also cater to adaptive cyclists. The best way to learn what they offer is to attend their special Adaptive Cycling Day weekend event in July.
Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports, a non-profit based in Killington, Vermont, provides a variety of adaptive bikes available for use during this event. Adaptive folks sign up for two-hour time slots to sample the mountain biking trails criss-crossing Mount Penn. Talks and demos are given, then the adaptive bikes can be tried out in the extensive parking lot or taken on the nearby beginner and intermediate trails. Local able-bodied cyclists from BAMBA accompany the disabled on Adaptive Day, and it’s a great opportunity to connect with other members of the community.
The 200-member association has a philosophy of inclusiveness as opposed to exclusiveness. “Unlike most mountain biking communities,” founder and past director of BAMBA Fred Moreadith says, “BAMBA’s focus is not on building bigger, more ‘bad-ass’ technical trails, which can make the sport intimidating. Getting families and even disabled folks out enjoying this fun sport is our goal.”
BAMBA’s Adaptive Day is the brainchild of John Pacharis, an active BAMBA member and a retired police officer who became disabled from an enduro motorcycle accident. John had been a mountain biker most of his adult life before his accident, and got into adaptive cycling as a way to fight the depression that he found himself in after.
John admits, “After my accident, I was in a dark place. I needed to get out of the house and be around other cyclists. I needed to still feel like a cyclist.” John began to attend the BAMBA meetings and made steps to get an adaptive bike. John rides an adaptive recumbent mountain bike and leads the club’s Tuesday evening rides.
“There are different levels of disabilities,” Pacharis explains. “Some disabled are nervous about being out in the woods. Some feel unsteady when they first begin to ride an adaptive bike and are a little more cautious over the terrain. We are here to help make that experience as easy and fun as possible.”
Together with John, two of BAMBA’s other very impressive adaptive cyclists in the club are the brothers, Chris and Eric Kaag. Both men deal with a degenerative nerve condition that made them lose the ability to ambulate their lower extremities over time. The brothers ride adaptive mountain bikes where they kneel and use a hand crank in order to power their bikes. Their bikes have a push button that drops the gears into a super low granny gear in order to climb over obstacles. Eric works at the Lebanon VA hospital and Chris has a gym in Wyomissing called Corps Fitness Crossfit Berks. Chris’s facility offers workshops and classes for anyone, but also provides opportunities in conjunction with his non-profit IM ABLE Foundation. This foundation provides fitness classes to folks with MS, spina bifida, autism, and Down syndrome for children and young adults. IM ABLE Foundation also raises funds to secure recreational equipment for adaptive individuals to give them the opportunity to discover the possibilities.
Pacharis is a more mobile than the Kaag brothers and could walk out of the woods if he wrecked his adaptive bike. Chris Kaag explains how he was riding solo on the mountain one evening and “turtled,” a term used to describe a situation where a hand-cycle tips over sideways. The disabled cyclist gets stuck underneath and cannot move, requiring assistance to unstrap and crawl out from under it. During this particular incident, Chris was fortunate to be able to Facetime a friend on his phone just as the sun was going down and the temperature was dropping. His cycling buddy made Chris promise not to mountain bike alone again.
Pacharis and the Kaag brothers break their adaptive cycles quite a bit. John laughs, “If the trail is off-camber, where it comes across a hillside on an angle, it doesn’t take much to pop that wheel and drop you over.” The men are out riding every weekend and during the week.
“I am a mountain biker,” John says. “I identify as a mountain biker. The trails are my outlet to vent.” In 2018, John logged 1500 miles of trail riding! If you are cycling on Mount Penn or Neversink, chances are you will see one of these amazing men riding one of their amazing adaptive bikes. All three men are Marines, and are a beacon of inspiration to all. Their impressive example and moving presence at BAMBA’s Adaptive Day does much to suppress the insecurities other disabled folks may experience when they first decide to look into mountain biking.
One of the most amazing features on adaptive mountain bikes is the electrical assist mechanism, which BAMBA’s John Pacharis calls “a game changer.” On an adaptive bike that does not have this feature, a cyclist’s options for where to ride are really limited. No steep climbing or rough terrain is possible because it is too difficult to get over that type of surface using a hand-cranked wheel to move. In addition, some spinal cord injuries require that the person does not overheat, as they are unable to sweat, so the amount of stress a rider will be under must be taken into account. “The electrical assist is an awesome innovation for adaptives,” John says.
New for this year’s BAMBA Adaptive Day will be the presence of folks from Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Center for Adaptive Sports (PCAS), who will lend a helping hand. PCAS’s Russ Selkirk, who had a life-changing car accident that left him disabled, rides an adaptive bike and says, “Getting exercise is very important for the disabled. It not only builds strength and fitness, it is healthy for them to do something normal. It prevents them from feeling useless. If you don’t do things to improve yourself, you can sink into a deep depression.”
“BAMBA’s Adaptive Day is an eye opener for the disabled and the able bodied alike,” Pacharis concludes. “We want to show people that they can get out on the trails again, regardless of what challenges life has thrown at you.”
Eric Kaag says that hosting the event in Berks County is also an eye opener for the community. Many have become aware of the great network of trails on the two Reading mountains — built, managed and maintained by the organization’s members. To learn that these trails are also being used to help the disabled get active and outdoors is another feather in their cap.
Besides getting the disabled out, the event’s goal is to build awareness, to inspire more non-profits to be created on the east coast, and get more disabled folks moving on adaptive bikes. To watch a disabled person propel themselves through the woods when before that person was confided to a wheelchair, is nothing short of miraculous, and we can all use a few more miracles in life.
This year’s event will be held August 10 & 11 held at the historic Mount Penn Fire Tower on Reading’s Skyline Drive.
I was fortunate to be able to schedule a private ride with John Pacharis and BAMBA’s Felix Pena, a Vietnam Veteran who is not physically disabled but uses cycling to also improve his mental and emotional health! We rode on Mount Penn’s sister mountain, Neversink Mountain Preserve in Exeter Township, so the men could showcase the three engineered bridges the organization constructed on the Klapperthal Trail. Crossing streams can be dangerous and impossible on an adaptive bike so trail construction which takes a wider adaptive bike into consideration is mandatory if the trail is to be adaptive friendly.
Twenty-five volunteers from BAMBA hauled the timbers up to construct the six-foot wide by fifteen-feet long bridges. The three bridges were constructed in one short weekend. John rolls his wide hand cycle with the two back wheels over the bridge, moving from dirt trail to timbers, without so much as a bump. The four bridges are a tribute to the generosity and inclusiveness of the local cycling community.
One of BAMBA’s future goals is to construct more accessible trail features, such as bridges and wider trails for the disabled. The organization has recently taken on the job of partnering with the Army Corp of Engineers to rebuild the 30-miles of Blue Marsh Trail that encircle the 1148-acre lake. Building loops and loop extensions will enable others who are not hardcore mountain bikers to ride much of the trail. Another goal is to get not just families, kids, women and adaptives out riding, but also inspire other cultures to ride who did not traditionally see themselves as cyclists.
TAKE A KID MOUNTAIN BIKING DAY
On October 6, you have the opportunity to introduce your child to the great sport of mountain biking. It’s sure to be a fun day for the whole family!
Bring your mountain bike and helmet, and members of BAMBA will lead you on the best trails of Mount Penn. Pre-registration is required.
In May, BAMBA also holds a KIDS BIKE RODEO for all age groups, where they teach bike handling on a safety course, have staged bike games, give away raffle prizes, and share info about the local scholastic mountain bike teams.
AND, there are many more mountain biking opportunities, including the regularly scheduled Tuesday evening rides. Check out their website for all the events. https://berksmountainbiking.org/