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Steve Ackerman: Around the world and back again

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On a hand-cycle

By John Colson

Sopris Sun Staff Writer

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When the 2,200 or so cyclists and support personnel of Ride the Rockies 2016 get to Carbondale next week, at least one of them will be a man whose family roots are here and who, despite a serious physical handicap, is certainly no stranger to making arduous cycling trips.

Steve Ackerman, 62, is a father of two, a former runner and concert promoter, and current proprietor of a cannabis business in Fort Collins. His parents, Art and Carolyn Ackerman, are long-time and well-known Carbondale-area residents.

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Steve also happens to be a paraplegic, meaning he is paralyzed from the chest down, due to a 1987 car accident along the Poudre River, which rises in Rocky Mountain National Park.

He was driving to Steamboat Springs to take advantage of a powder day, Ackerman told The Sopris Sun this week, when his car slipped off the road in the snow and down a steep embankment, a crash that left him with a broken back.

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The wreck also left him with a rather grim prognosis — he would never walk or run again, which might have seemed like a kind of death sentence to some.

But Ackerman started swimming laps to get his strength back and was getting on with his life when, in 1990, he was invited to a sports equipment exposition, to work at a booth owned by a friend who made athletic gear for the disabled.

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While there, he met a man who was riding what was called a “hand-cycle” — a three-wheeled contraption powered by upper-body muscle applied to a crank positioned in front of the rider’s torso, rather than down near the ground like ordinary, leg-powered bicycles.

The man was set to ride across the U.S., from Los Angeles to New York City, in a 26-day tour, and offered Ackerman a chance to try out the hand-cycle at the expo.

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Ackerman declined the invitation, but in June of that year another friend introduced him to someone who had just finished doing the Ride the Rockies tour that year, and the story inspired Ackerman.

“I said, ‘that sounds like a lot of fun, if only I could ride a bike,’” he remembered, and it was that thought that brought to mind the story of his earlier encounter with the hand-cyclist. He made a call, learned the man had finished his cross-country tour in only 18 days, and Ackerman soon ordered a hand-cycle of his own and started riding it.

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First RTR

In 1991, Ackerman said, he rode in what was to be the first of many Ride the Rockies tours, from Cortez to Fort Collins.

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“It was hard work, and I didn’t think I was going to make it all the time,” he said. “But I did.”

Ackerman said his only fitness regimen was riding the bike, and that he deliberately stayed away from free weights or other strength training techniques.

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“That was just not my thing,” he said. “I’m not a gym kind of guy. I just rode myself into shape.”

He went on several more Ride the Rockies tours and, in 1995, joined up with the “World Ride – The Possible Dream,” an organized ride around the world for disabled athletes.

That tour, he said, covered 13,000 miles, and 16 countries, from Atlanta, Georgia to Boston, Massachusetts and then (following a plane trip to Shannon International Airport in Ireland) across the United Kingdom, central Europe and Russia. They rode through the remote reaches of Siberia, Mongolia and the Gobi desert into China, across Japan and, after flying to Los Angeles, across the breadth of the U.S. before ending up in Washington, D.C.

An hour-long video of the tour on You Tube, moderated by the television personality Charles Kuralt, details the grueling pace kept up by the riders, who covered an average of 65 miles per day over 246 days.

“They’re out to show the world that disabilities don’t matter — ability matters,” intoned Kuralt.

Riding every day (except for plane or ferry trips over water), the group was made up of seven “core” riders (three hand-cycles, a one-legged man on a traditional bike and a woman whose left arm hung useless in a sling, were among the athletes) and countless “stage riders” who joined the tour along the way.

“Some came for a mile, some for a month,” Kuralt reported.

For most of the tour they were in relatively populated areas, staying in hotels and being greeted by throngs of eager and curious onlookers.

But once they got into Eastern Russia, its was a different deal — the countryside, while picturesque, was sparsely populated at best. By the time they reached Siberia and the Gobi, the bikers remarked that they felt they had left the planet.

In fact, the three hand-cyclists accomplished a first in human history, as Kuralt remarked — “Nobody has ever ridden a hand-cycle through the Gobi Desert.”

At one point Ackerman developed pressure sores on his backside, a serious health crisis that nearly forced him to quit, but he persevered and, remarkably, found his sores had healed by the time he got to D.C.

The video is enough to make a viewer either supremely jealous to not have taken part, or heartily glad the chance never arose.

In California, after being greeted by his obviously proud parents, Ackerman was chosen to pronounce “the word for the day” by his fellow cyclists. He chose the word, “courage. And I think the most important part of courage is how we give it to others — and that’s encourage. And I think that’s a big part of our mission, is to encourage others to do great things, through our example of doing a great thing.”

C’dale to Independence Pass

With several other Ride the Rockies under his belt since the World Ride, Ackerman told The Sopris Sun on Monday that he plans only to run two segments of this year’s tour — from Carbondale to Aspen and then from Aspen to the top of Independence Pass.

“This is going to be the first time that I’m back out there,” he said, meaning on his hand-cycle and aiming to accomplish another great thing in a group of similarly ambitious cyclists — challenging distance, gravity and themselves in a bid to inspire others to try to achieve the possible dream.