If you grew up on after school cartoons like I did, then you know that quote all too well. G.I. Joe (not the rather silly movies of today of course). Each episode would end with some lesson to the kids, telling them that knowing was halfway to a goal, or an understanding. For a lesson from a silly animated series designed to sell toys, where the animation was pretty terrible and the stories mediocre (and yes I loved it)…it was rather deep. Knowing was half the battle.

Looking back at my riding days, I can recall the first mountain bike I bought. Not that ancient, bright yellow, skinny tire, ten-speed that I went head over heels on…that bike died in the accident when I was 17 and turned into the start of a very long journey…we’ve heard that story before. No, the first bike I got was one from a very good bike shop in Pickering, Ontario…and for the life of me the name of the shop is eluding me right now. I’m sure my buddy Bruce could fill that in. I thought I had done my homework at the time, which consisted of just looking at bikes at a few shops and not wanting to spend too much money. Having no real clue what I was looking for, but knowing I was on a budget. I ended up with a very simple Davinci bike…hard tail, simple front shocks,, V-brakes, the simplest of gear systems…the only change I made was “upgrading” the saddle to a gel-filled saddle that I thought would be easier on my tush.

Strangely, one week later, my friend Bruce bought the exact same (if slightly smaller) bike. Shows how much both knew….but then again Bruce’s first attempt at mountain biking was on a Canadian Tire special with no shocks and he completely torqued the rear tire in the first half hour…so really…what did we know? Granted, those bikes did last us about two years, where we honed our skills and got better at biking, trying more challenging trails as time went on, pushing those bikes beyond their limits. I didn’t realize that despite my being 6 foot 2 inches tall, the bike I’d got was way too big, my centre of gravity too high, the brakes were terrible and the gears nearly impossible to change when hill climbing. So in time, we used those lessons, and for both of us, our next bikes were major improvements.

Ok, Bruce’s was a major improvement. Mine WOULD have been if I hadn’t made the mistake of buying one with a brand new hydraulic disc brake system that kept crapping out in the middle of a ride…but it was still a better, and more expensive bike. Experience had taught us both what we better needed…well that and necessity after someone *cough* threw his bike into a tree. But that’s a whole other story.

That second bike of mine got some major overhauls, the brakes redone, the crank replaced, and by the time my legs made it impossible to ride, the frame was the only original part that on that bike. I never got to do a third. Thankfully, Bruce did…and seeing the look on his face when he got his dream bike for his 50th birthday was something I’ll keep in the back of my mind for a long time. The lessons learned, the knowing, not only improved our skills, but improved our equipment.

I bring all this up because it’s funny how relevant it is when it comes to wheelchairs…and also to the resources available to you when your life takes a hard right turn that you don’t expect. So once more bear with me as I back up and tell this tale.

Back after the last surgery in 2011, when we knew our world had changed, Shan and I knew NOTHING of the road ahead. We knew nothing of the challenges of being a para, of the changes we’d need to make, of what a wheelchair should be. We went to the rehab hospital that happened to have a bed free…which in hindsight was a mistake. I lay no blame on the rehab staff there…but my time there was not a lot of fun and as the only spinal cord patient on the whole floor, being at least 20 years younger than all but one other patient….they were grasping at straws to properly rehab me…in the same way that I was grasping for anything I could to figure out what came next. We didn’t realize just how bad this was until very recently, when we had an appointment with a rehab hospital that we SHOULD have gone to. That’s another tale to tell…but where this one goes is to the wheelchair.

When we knew that this was going to be needed, we had to convince the rehab people there of the reason for it. It didn’t take much, as our arguments were quite logical…and once the decision was made, they started to set us up with someone to help choose the chair. The staff was actually excited about this process, and trust me so was I, it broke the tedium of rehab, because they didn’t normally get to do the types of chairs that I was going to be getting. They were used to doing…well let’s be honest…old people’s chairs. Transfer chairs, foldable ones with seats made of nylon or just a bare cushion. Not a chair meant for someone active, working, who wants to travel and still adventure. So we went in as blind as the staff as to what a proper chair should be.

I don’t blame anyone really…how could we have known? They gave us four different chairs to try, all of different makes and models, more seat cushions than I could count and different back rests for each chair. Eventually, I made the decision based on which frame felt most comfortable, which seat seemed to as good, and which backrest would be the most weather proof. Yep weather proof. Come on, we live in Canada, I wanted something that could handle getting soaked and dry quickly…it seemed to make sense to me. So some bare measurements were taken, I was given a temp chair until the actual chair was custom built…and then that fiasco began (it took them 4 delivery attempts before they finally got the order right). Things seemed good. I started to adjust to life in a chair…at first quite oblivious to all the mistakes we had made. There is actually a posting I made, quite proudly showing off pictures of my chair, in its custom British Racing Green paint finish…showing it off as if it was my new mountain bike. I was actually quite proud of it.

It didn’t take long though to realize we had made some mistakes.

The chair was too tall, the main wheels not large enough, the seat cushion too thick, my centre of gravity way too high, I was too easily ejected from the chair hitting the slightest of obstacles (which admittedly was part of my own lack of skill as well). My own lack of knowledge, along with the lack of knowledge of people who weren’t experts in spinal cord injuries, left us with a chair that was…adequate…at best.

Flesh forward to a few weeks back, when I finally get an appointment with the seating clinic at Lyndhurst Rehab. Lyndhurst is a place I should have been to years ago, a place that specializes in spinal cord injury. In five minutes of sitting in a waiting room, we collected more resources than we had found in the two years previous. In the appointment itself we learned just how bad the chair was for someone of my height and needs…then we also got confirmation of something else…the chair was broken. The when’s and how’s of that I can’t get into right now, but it’s being dealt with. The gist of it all is…I’m getting a new chair, sooner than later I hope.

This time though is going to be very different. The people helping to get the chair know more, they measured me in ways that were never done. The company we’re using specializes in manual chairs. We’re getting the wheel sizes right, the seat cushion, the height of the chair….this time we know more and we’re dealing with people who know what they are doing. It’s going to be a chair where the wheel isn’t higher than the seat, and where I can actually fit my knees under the average table without adding more insult to injury.

Experience teaches. Finding places that can give you the information you need helps. And as that cheesy afternoon cartoon taught me as a kid: Knowing is half the battle.

(and yes…pics of the new chair will come…and more on that story to come later as well)