Out & About: Program aims to get older and disabled people cycling in Lebanon


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 09-10-2022 10:42 PM

There’s a thrill that comes from riding a bike.

Maybe it’s how the wind hits your face or the way the landscape looks as you ride by.

For many people, however, riding a bike isn’t accessible. That was on Amy Chan’s mind when she saw a TEDx Talk given by Ole Kassow, founder of Cycling Without Age, a Denmark-based nonprofit organization to help older adults go out on bike rides on volunteer-powered trishaws, a modified version of a rickshaw. Now, there are chapters around the world.

Chan was captivated.

“It’s equal parts getting them outside and getting them back into the community,” Chan said in an interview at the Northern Rail Trail’s Spencer Street entrance.

As a board member of Friends of the Northern Rail Trail, she was thinking of ways the nonprofit organization could help promote the Lebanon portion of the trail.

“We saw that with the close proximity of our Spencer Street trailhead to the Upper Valley Senior Center, a project that increased access to the Trail for seniors was an opportunity waiting to happen,” Chan wrote in an email.

At the same time, members of Friends of Lebanon Recreation & Parks were thinking about ways to expand programs for older adults.

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“We thought, ‘Yes this is it,’ ” said Dan Moriarty, president of the friends group, during an interview with Chan. “It’s absolutely spectacular.”

With their support, Chan applied for an AARP Community Challenge Grant and was awarded $22,000 this year to launch a chapter of Cycling Without Age. The money went toward purchasing a trishaw and a shed to house it in.

Currently, the program is in its pilot stage. Volunteers — called pilots — are currently training and undergoing background checks. The goal is to have pairs out on the rail trail this fall and start back up again in the spring.

Lebanon resident Pat McGovern took a ride with Chan on the Mascoma River Greenway this summer.

“It has been several years since I’ve been able to get out to the western end of the MRG … and I had forgotten the wild beauty,” she wrote in a post on the the Mascoma River Greenway website.

Another part of the program that intrigued Chan and Moriarty is the intergenerational component. Pilots are often in a different generation than the riders.

“It’s slow rides, so you’re able to talk,” Chan said. “You’re listening to the birds together.”

Some senior riders might still remember when trains rode through Lebanon and have memories they could share as they ride together.

The trishaw itself is an electric assist bike, meaning pilots do not have to rely on strength alone to propel the trishaw forward. Passengers wear seatbelts. There’s also a canopy that provides a barrier to the weather if they’d like it and blankets they can put on their laps. The trishaw cost $13,000 to build and an additional $2,000 to ship, Chan said. The rest of the funding will go toward building a shed at nearby Eldridge Park to store it.

In addition to the partnership with Friends of Lebanon Recreation & Parks, Friends of the Northern Rail Trail has also partnered with the Lebanon Recreation, Art and Parks Department, which is insuring the program. Over the years, volunteers from Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports have brought folks out on the rail trail, which has always delighted department director Paul Coats.

“This brings that sort of opportunity even more accessible to the local community and enables more pilots to help people get out on the rail trail in particular,” Coats said. In addition to the Upper Valley Senior Center, Rogers House, which houses low-income seniors and people with disabilities ages 55 and over, is also nearby the Spencer Street entrance, and once the Mascoma River Greenway extends through West Lebanon, the program will be more accessible to residents of Maple Manor, an independent housing complex with a similar clientele.

Cycling Without Age also plays into the rec department’s larger goal of making outdoor opportunities accessible to people who may struggle with mobility. This year, the two-thirds of a mile of the rail trail from Spencer Street to Bank Street was paved. There was some pushback from members of the public who would have preferred to see it remain as is.

“I’m fond of telling people I am personally a runner and would much prefer a dirt path as opposed to pavement; however, our objective is to make the rail trail as accessible as possible to people,” Coats said. “There are people in your community who couldn’t use it because of the inconsistencies of the levels and the slipperiness of those loose rocks and things of that nature.”

Since it was paved, Coats has seen people using wheelchairs and walkers on the trail. It’s also become a popular spot for inline skating.

“It’s exciting to think about how much this has opened up to more people in the community for use just by the act of having paved that section,” he said.

The paved section also feels comfortable on the trishaw. During a recent ride, Chan started at 6 miles per hour and at one point climbed to around 10 mph. In practice runs with passengers, including her mother, Chan has found that most prefer 3 mph.

“That’s the pace they want to because they want to able to talk and hear the water of the river,” Chan said while pedaling.

Even when the trishaw switches to the dirt portion of the rail trail, the ride remains smooth. Chan estimated that rides will be roughly an hour, but pilots and passengers will set the pace. For some older adults with mobility challenges, it might be the first time they’ve been able to truly get in the woods in years.

“It’s such a joy for them to get out and be in it again,” Chan said.

Editor’s note: Those interested in volunteering as pilots can visit https://www.fnrt.org/cwa. Information for passengers will be posted there in the coming months. Email info@fnrt.org for more information.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.