In all the right ways, the 13th annual Ride to Unite was no different than the other races on the schedule of the Bommarito Audi West County Gateway Cup, which took place in St. Louis over Labor Day Weekend. The participants traversed the same course as the elite riders in the Tour de Francis Park and were encouraged by commentary from Tour de France veteran Frankie Andreu.
But rather than crown one champion, everyone won, because the Ride to Unite illustrated that cycling is for people of all ability levels.
This includes Holly Connor, a freshman at Webster University, who has risen above the challenges of visual impairment and autism on several stages. A music performance major, Connor has sung the National Anthem at the NHL All-Star Game and St. Louis City SC soccer matches.
Participating in her third Ride to Unite, she rode a tandem with Tim Lepp, who says his biggest challenge is stopping and starting. “I’m like Fred Flintstone in his car,” Lepp said. “You have to put your foot down and then take a few running steps on the ground to get going.”
Connor more than pulls her own weight, preparing for the ride with spin classes and workouts on the Peloton bike at home. “I’m just the stoker,” she said. “Tim’s the captain of this ship.”
Along for the ride was Devin Sommerville, 2023 USA Cycling Amateur and Junior Road National Champion in the 11-12 age group. He won four Gateway Cup races that weekend and joined the Ride to Unite to show, “We all ride the same roads.”
Also in the field was Dave Cummings, winner at the 2010 Gateway Cup, who underwent an above-knee amputation following a traumatic skateboarding injury in 2019. (See the story from our November/December 2021 issue.) Since then, he has become an advocate for adaptive sports and spoke before the event.
Organizers from Cycle St. Louis and the Recreation Council of Greater St. Louis hoped to attract 100 riders to this year’s Ride to Unite. The entry list topped 125, much to the delight of Sue Fleming, the council’s executive director.
“Not enough people with disabilities realize the benefits of cycling,” she said. “That’s because they don’t get the opportunity to realize the benefits. We want to provide that opportunity.”
Adaptive Cycling Roots
The Ride to Unite wouldn’t exist, much less succeed, without the groundwork laid by Deb Naucke nearly two decades ago. As executive director of Delta Gamma Center, Naucke organized a tandem cycling group for the visually impaired teenagers that the organization serves.
“The kids didn’t have any form of exercise,” Nauke said. “This gave them exercise. It started to change the community attitude from, ‘You can’t ride. It’s too dangerous’ to ‘Yes, you can ride.’”
The Ride to Unite joined the Gateway Cup in 2010, and Naucke expanded its boundaries after retiring from Delta Gamma in 2017. She co-founded Cycle St. Louis to build an inclusive cycling community for people of all ages with visual impairments and intellectual and developmental disabilities. Naucke brought together organizations that serve people with disabilities and connected them with the resources of cycling retailers, clubs, and riders.
Their impact could be huge. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in four adults in the U.S. live with a disability. Many of them could take advantage of Cycle St. Louis’ services.
Cycle St. Louis and its partners are eager to offer their resources to more people. Here are a few examples:
- The Recreation Council loans adaptive cycles to bike shops and individuals. These include tandems, push cycles, recumbent tandems, and carrier bikes (with the pusher in back and a wheelchair up front). “It doesn’t matter what kind of cycle we use. We celebrate riding the same road,” Fleming said. The council also offers resources on the best places to ride.
- Cycle St. Louis has partnered with Trailnet to offer a shorter route on its rides, so that cyclists can turn around at any time. Cycle St. Louis participants and their helpers receive free entry and the closest parking available by using a special code when registering. To get the code, contact CycleSTLpartnership@gmail.com.
- Achilles St. Louis offers training walks and rides twice a week in Forest Park for people of all abilities.
- Creative Mobility organized the Tri My Best triathlon for school-age participants in September. The event surpassed its fundraising goal of $50,000 to support cerebral palsy sports and rehabilitation programs.
Ride to Unite, though, is Cycle St. Louis’ biggest celebration of the year. “Once you see the impact the program has on the riders, it makes it all worthwhile,” Naucke said. “If we can make one more person aware that they can ride a bike, it’s worth it.”
Kim Scharff wouldn’t miss it. Diagnosed with diabetes 55 years ago, she started losing vision as a young adult and took what she thought was her last ride more than 35 years ago. Sharing a tandem with volunteer Hugh Share, she says the Ride to Unite gives her the chance to feel, “the wind in my face, the exhilaration, the letting go. I just pedal, and Hugh does the rest. It’s an incredible feeling of freedom and release.”
Author: Kathleen Nelson is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Top Image: Kim Scharff on the 2023 Ride to Unite. (Phil Shoulberg)