Story by Dave Zuchowski for Mon Valley Vistas
While randomly browsing the Internet, Karen Primm found an unusual video of a man and his wife in Australia riding an equally unusual bike.
“Both had been bike riders, but the wife was no longer able to ride after she developed Alzheimer’s,” said Primm, a resident of Smithton. “So her husband created a special bike with a wheelchair welded to the front.”
A member of a triathlon training group, Mighty Tri Girls, Primm proposed starting a similar program in Southwestern Pa. She shared the idea with others in her group and with Total Chaos, a men’s triathlon training group. Members of both responded enthusiastically. They then went out and found a sponsor, the non-profit Veterans Leadership Program, and formed Joy Riders.
The next step was a little more challenging. Organizers discovered that these sorts of “Duet Bikes” were actually made locally in Oakdale, but cost in the vicinity of $10,000 each. In 2018, shortly after starting Joy Riders, the group raised enough money to purchase two bikes. Fortune soon struck again when someone donated a third.
Training the volunteer cyclists came next. David Primm and Sue Waldrop, Mighty Tri Girls founder, began instructing the volunteer peddlers a minimum of one to two hours each, followed by another 8 hours of practice with a volunteer riding in the passenger seat.
After finessing the details of the program, Joy Riders scheduled their first official ride in July of 2019. Eighteen others followed that same year when they partnered with Harmon House of Mt. Pleasant, a senior care facility. However, the frequency of rides dropped off last year due to the coronavirus.
Connor Esch of South Fayette managed to take a late summer-of-2019 ride Fourteen at the time, he was unable to ride his own bike due to multiple physical and cognitive disabilities. With members of his family riding alongside, Connor enjoyed the biking adventure in the company of his father, Jason, mother, Gina, sister, Lauren, and Logan, his younger brother.
“It was a life-changing experience, not only for Connor but for the entire family,” Gina said. “We were so inspired, we started our own program, Always B Smiling, and ride the Montour Trail.”
Gina said that it was fun to watch the Joy Riders group grow because people with disabilities are now able to enjoy some of the same things most people take for granted. While Always B Smiling focuses on children and young adults, Joy Riders serves people of all ages, including a 95-year old World War Two veteran, an amputee, and a young woman paralyzed from the waist down due to an accident.
“We think new start-up groups are great,” Primm said. “The more the better because we like to see the joy on peoples’ faces that ride along with us and others.”
All of the rides, which usually last 45 minutes to an hour, are free of charge, although donations are accepted for the purchase of new helmets and tires. Passengers can ride at one of three locations. These include the Great Allegheny Passage at Cedar Creek Park in Belle Vernon, Five Star Trail (Youngwood/Greensburg), and Heritage Trail in Pittsburgh.
Because the bikes are too heavy to transport on a bike rack at the end of a car, they’re stored in sheds at each of the starting point locations. Once there, a family member or caretaker must assist the passenger from their vehicle to the wheelchair seat because it’s something Joy Riders doesn’t do.
One of the peddler volunteers, Lori Stripay of South Greensburg, joined Joy Riders from its inception and organized the first fundraiser, the sale of hot dogs, beverages, and snacks. To date, she’s been a peddler on about 10 rides, including one for a 96-year old grandmother.
“She loved it, despite the fact that she wasn‘t an outdoors girl,” Stripay said. “It was a birthday ride for her, and she felt like the belle of the ball. She smiled and beamed as we drove along the Allegheny Passage Trail and said she wanted to do it again this year. Unfortunately, she passed before we could repeat her experience.”
With late spring now starting a new season for Joy Riders, the group is seeking both riders and volunteer peddlers, who are assisted by an electronic component that makes peddling easier. More information for potential volunteers and riders can be found on the Joy Riders website.
“We’ve had the experience of the sun on our face and the wind on our back, and want to share the experience of a bike ride with others,” Primm said. “We get as much out of the rides as the people we serve.”
“Sometimes I wonder who enjoys the ride more – me or the passenger,” Stripay echoed.
This original piece was penned by Dave Zuchowski for Mon Valley Vistas. Visit Dave’s blog for a plethora of eclectic upcoming events, performances, and activities taking place in our region: www.pittsburghowlscribe.blogspot.com