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“This thing is going to change everything”: Crested Butte bike builder, after his own injury, delivers adventure to chair-bound athletes

ReActive Adaptations -- hand-cycles that start at around $8,000 -- bring paraplegics and quadriplegics back to trails

Jake O'Connor checks out a ReActive Adaptations Hammerhead full-suspension bike he is designing and building in his Crested Butte shop. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)
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GAMECHANGERS, a Colorado Sun series on innovators who are changing the way we play outdoors.

CRESTED BUTTE — Every so often, Jake O’Connor feels the exhaustion of running his one-man company, designing and building one-of-a-kind mountain bikes that deliver lost adventures.

Then he tunes in to his buyers.

“I’ll be stressed out and overworked and tired and I forget why I’m doing this and I’ll get a Facebook post, or a call from someone or an Instagram showing someone doing something totally ridiculous out in the woods that they haven’t done for 10 years because they’ve been in a wheelchair — like a quadriplegic who never thought they’d be out in the woods again,” he says, rolling through his Crested Butte machine shop, where he designs and builds off-road handcycles for chair-using adventurers like himself. “And I’m like ‘Oh yeah, that’s why I’m doing this. I forgot.’ So maybe I’ll stop whining and I’ll go back out to the shop.’”

Jake O’Connor checks out a ReActive Adaptations Bomber bike he built in his Crested Butte shop. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

For nine years, O’Connor has ferried his rolling comrades deeper into wildlands they feared were no longer accessible. Life in a chair used to mean off-road trails were off limits.

But O’Connor’s knobby-tired, three-wheeled, ReActive Adaptations — hand-cycles that start at around $8,000 — bring paraplegics and quadriplegics back to those trails. With innovative suspensions, drivetrains and frames, his born-in-Crested Butte bikes provide long-missed thrills to disabled athletes.

Roy Tuscany, the founder of California’s High Fives Foundation, recently held a mountain bike camp for adaptive athletes at the Northstar ski area in Truckee. Many of the campers ripped down the trails on O’Connor’s suspension-equipped Nuke bikes.

One of Tuscany’s closest friends was struggling to rebuild his relationship with his son after suffering a life-altering injury. They had always adventured outside together, and with dad in a chair, that bond had faded.

“Sports were a strong part of their relationship,” says Tuscany, who suffered a spinal cord injury in a ski accident and founded High Fives nine years ago as a way to support the recovery of athletes who have endured significant injuries.

“Watching them ride downhill singletrack together again, man, that was intense,” he said. “The father-son bond just reappeared instantly, right in front of our eyes. It was so cool. I mean, if there is a word beyond cool, that’s what those bikes are.”

In nine years, O’Connor has built about 200 three-wheeled bikes that feature two wheels up front and one in the rear.

The Bomber puts riders in a prone position, leaning over their knees and able to steer with their chest as they hand-crank the pedals.

Jake O’Connor has designed and built a full-suspension off-road handcycle that allows two front wheels to move independently. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

The Nuke is a recumbent bike, with riders sitting back.

He’s designed a slew of other stuff, too, like hitch racks and battery-operated lifts so his buyers can carry bikes on their cars. He builds his own monoskis and has developed a unique, shifting binding that allows the burly, Crested Butte-forged Romp ski to flex.

Topher Downham rides his electric-assist Nuke bike in Park City, Utah in September. (Photo by Chris Lawlor, provided to The Colorado Sun)

O’Connor, a former framer who landed in the chair when a wall collapsed on him at a construction project in Fort Collins, never stops tinkering.

His hands, with leather-like callouses from years of gripping his chair’s knobby tires, are always moving. He’s building a scaled-down bike, with a gear rack, for campers and sportsmen. He’s a week or two away from finishing his first full-suspension bike — called the Hammerhead — with a pair of high-end shocks for each front wheel as well as a shock for the rear wheel.

“This thing is going to freaking change everything,” he says, showing off the not-quite-finished full-suspension bike on a rolling stand in his shop. “But I need to work on it some more.”

He’s designed a wrap-around handlebar for the bike that weaves around the suspension of the front tires, offering a secondary steering system for quadriplegics who need more leverage to direct the bike.

In mid-September, he was taking the prototype to Moab for an annual event with a crew of hand-cycling adaptive athletes. His production welder — who lives in Minturn and mass produces his designs — was going to be there, and O’Connor said he planned to set the prototype full-suspension bike on a stand and “stare at it and come up with ideas and talk shop.”

In the past couple of years, about 80 percent of the Nuke and Bomber bikes he builds include electric motors that kick in when the hand cranks are turned.

O’Connor, who is among 10 advisers working with Colorado Parks and Wildlife as the agency develops plans for a new state park, is a staunch advocate of pedal-assist bikes for adaptive athletes.

As the number of electric-powered bikes in the U.S. explode, following fantastic growth in Europe, O’Connor hopes that the increasing number of regulations governing the use of electric bikes carves out exceptions for adaptive athletes hand-cranking off-road bikes that can weigh twice that of a traditional bike.

Many trails, like this one at Beaver Creek, prohibit electric and pedal-assist electric bikes. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

“When I go out there with electric-assist, I’m hoping I get caught so I can start battling on this. It’s a serious situation. We have to have this,” says O’Connor, noting that he can keep up with his wife when he has electric assistance to his pedal strokes.

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Topher Downham works for the City of Boulder developing trails for athletes on hand-powered off-road bikes like O’Connor’s.

The city has two Nukes, and Downham often takes fellow chair athletes on their first rides since their injury.

“It’s not like two-wheel mountain biking, but it’s pretty close — going over rocks and branches and through rivers and dodging trees. Just going places you didn’t think you’d ever go again,” says Downham, who recently took a trail-building training class in Park City, Utah, with the National Ability Center and hopes to develop uphill and downhill trails in Boulder that can accommodate the wider bikes used by adaptive athletes.

Those first-timers, once they get a taste of the freedom and exploration offered by O’Connor’s bikes, quickly start planning a purchase, Downham said.

“I try to get as many people as possible out on them,” he says. “You get kinda hooked, that’s for sure. Maybe I’m not a salesman for Jake. Maybe I’m more of a pusher. You know, the first one is free.”

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