Thursday, December 17, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy

Seniors lead East Austin trike revival

As James Maxwell tells it, the first journey nearly broke him. “I almost gave up bike riding,” he said. “These are something else.”

Maxwell, 68, stares down a line of five glossy, red tricycles. While at the moment they’re idling in the rear parking lot of East Austin’s Conley-Guerrero Senior Activity Center, later in the morning they’ll hit the road as part of an adult trike-riding program at the senior center. As local nonprofit organizers have pitched it, it’s a chance to bring mobility and activity to some of Austin’s more seasoned and minority residents. Trike riders thus far have been exclusively Hispanic or African-American, with an average age of 71.

But, there are limitations.

“Some mornings you get there and you say, ‘My knees aren’t working,’ and you turn around and go back,” said Preston Tyree, a board member with nonprofit Bike Austin, referring to the half-mile trips the crew takes along the Boggy Creek Trail. The trail butts up against the senior center. “Today’s really a trial of their knees, their leg strength, their hand strength on the brakes.”

Tyree, along with other members of Bike Austin and the Ghisallo Cycling Initiative, oversees the participants’ training. Twenty-eight senior citizens have tried it out so far. They are taught how to properly wear a helmet (in Maxwell’s case, staff even adjusted the bike seat and handlebars for him; the lifelong East Austin resident is 6 feet 4 inches tall), plus all the ways maneuvering a three-wheeler differs from its dual-wheeled cousin.

“When you come up to a slope of any size, you gotta take it straight on,” Tyree explained to a classroom of seniors. Whereas a bicyclist uses his or her weight to balance, the trike balances itself and it can be difficult to right when navigating uneven ground. But for the most part, its relative stability is a big seller, said Tyree.

“When you get in trouble, just pull on the brakes, and it’ll be just like your chair at home. You just stop, and you can just sit there. You don’t have to worry about falling over. This is a three-wheeler,” he said. “This is a trike.”

Ghisallo’s founder, Christopher Stanton, came up with the idea for the program nearly two years ago. But it wasn’t until earlier this year – when local Chameleon Cold-Brew coffee company approached him wanting to donate money and some of its staff’s sweat – that Stanton had some funding. The organizations split the cost of buying the trikes (roughly $400 each) and teamed up with kids from Ghisallo’s Earn-A-Bike program to build them. The kids then rode them to their current home: the senior center on Nile Street.

The hope is that seniors will eventually feel comfortable enough to take them out on their own – maybe even ride to the nearby HEB and make use of the trike’s rear basket to cart back groceries.

That level of comfort, organizers said, is also bred by the bike amenities surrounding the senior center. On Pedernales Street, just south of Conley-Guerrero, the city of Austin has completed a two-way protected bike lane. Along the path, safety features include either low concrete barriers (like narrow sidewalks between the road and the bike lane) or white plastic bollards (endearingly called “white sticks” by some residents, said city staff).

Bike Austin and Ghisallo said they would like to try the program at other senior centers, but not all were built with mobility in mind.

“Not all senior centers are placed equally in terms of infrastructure,” said Miller Nuttle, Bike Austin’s campaigns director and a staff member of the adult trike training program. “This one is unique given that it has the Boggy Creek Trail directly adjacent to the building and the Pedernales protected bike lane down the street. It’s really an ideal pilot location to try this out.”

So far, staff has led five introduction classes, five trail rides and one road ride. But for someone like Maxwell, a cigarette smoker and lifelong owner of long limbs, it’s just about getting through the day’s ride to Rosewood Avenue and back. On the way out, he edges past 64-year-old Betty Hill, who’s riding after two knee replacements.

At the halfway point, Maxwell is huffing in the middle of the pack (“Oh boy,” he murmured. “Oh boy”), but he is doing well – according to staff members, they almost did not clear him to ride because they were unsure if he could physically handle it.

Asked if he’ll continue riding, Maxwell said, “I’m thinking about it.”

The program is now in a winter hiatus. Introductory sessions and guided rides restart in March.

This story was produced as part of a reporting partnership between KUT and the Austin Monitor.

Trikers return from a ride on the Boggy Creek trails near the Conley-Guerrero Senior Activity Center. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr. /KUT News

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Bike Austin: Bike Austin is a bicycle advocacy group that works to grow cycling in the community by removing barriers to cycling and encouraging the creation of infrastructure.

East Austin: East Austin is the quadrant of Austin that, generally speaking, is east of IH-35.

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