Through Virtual Cycling Military Veteran and Recumbent Rider Andy Shuttleworth Heals and Helps

Zwift makes riding, racing, and raising awareness possible for this former Reservist whose injury makes pedaling an upright bike impossible.

It’s easy to do.  Some would say human nature, and you’re not to blame.  You want to ride your bike without worry or care, and you take off down an egocentric path with subconscious tunnel-vision.  Even easier to do when isolated in a virtual world surrounded by avatars that look, more or less, like yours.

 

If your monitor were a looking glass, a one-way glimpse into the real world of the other riders around you, it would be clear that it’s not easy.  For many, physical and mental wounds make riding a bike a challenge—every pedal stroke a mountain and merely swinging a leg over the top tube their Everest.

 

If your monitor were a magnifying glass, the chasm between able and ability would be in focus.  You’re not aware because you don’t need to be.  We aren’t in that situation.  To empathize is our Everest, but it is a mountain worth summiting.  There are riders out there that don’t have it as easy as we do.    

Andy Suffered a Severe Knee Injury While Serving His Country

Andy Shuttleworth is a 66-year-old retiree who trained as a medical virologist after receiving a Ph.D. and worked for the British government supporting the Armed Services.  Andy worked alongside UK and US forces in Iraq in the 90s and early 2000s before retiring from government service in 2010.

 

In 1981 while serving his country as a Territorial Army Reservist in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Andy suffered what he described as a nasty accident that severely damaged his right knee.  “My knee-cap dislocated, I had a severely displaced tibial tuberosity, damaged tendons and ligaments, a couple of severed nerves, and significant bleeding into the joint.  It hurt a bit!  It was clear my leg was never going to recover fully,” states Andy, “and I would need a knee replacement in five years.” 

Andy Shuttleworth riding recumbant bike
Dr. Andy Shuttleworth
Group of recumbant cyclists

Stopped in His Tracks For 40 Years

It stopped Andy’s Army career in its tracks and robbed him of the joy of physical activity or participating in any sport for nearly 40 years.  The significant limitation to Andy’s lifestyle allowed his knee to remain functional for longer than expected.  Until 2017 when progressive deterioration caused severe and debilitating arthritis, and the pain was too much to bear.  

 

Andy underwent complex total knee replacement surgery soon after that.  “I was lucky enough to get assistance in my rehab from Help for Heroes,” states Andy when describing the gratitude for introducing him to a new way of life.  Help for Heroes is a British charity supporting wounded, injured, or sick (WIS) service personnel.  The organization also prepared Andy for a total knee replacement of his left knee that had deteriorated after compensating for so long.

A WIS Charity Made an Introduction That Changed Andy’s Life

Help for Heroes was, as Andy describes, “a Godsend.”  The charity assisted with his physical recovery and tended to the mental scars of traumatic time spent in a war zone.  “They also made a huge mistake,” Andy quips with sarcasm, “they introduced me to recumbent trike riding.”

 

Multiple surgeries had gifted Andy new knees and taken the daily pain that had left him sedentary.  His outlook on the future for a more active life had improved, but he had other physical limitations.  “The original trauma and subsequent surgeries left me with weak legs and a dreadful sense of balance,” cites Andy when beginning to describe why a trike was his only option.

 

Andy was unable to feel anything in his right leg below the level of his thigh.  “The second I try to think where my leg is,” he notes dejectedly, “I fall over or lose control of it.”  Andy was unable to balance well enough or raise his leg to swing over even a dropper saddle.  Arthritis that ravaged his knees also crept into his wrists, lower back, and hips, “So I can’t ride an upright bike or use a handcycle.”

Two recumbant cyclists riding away

The Recumbent Trike Opened Up a New World

Help for Heroes wasn’t content to stop there.  After getting Andy comfortably exploring his newfound active lifestyle on a trike, the organization introduced him to racing.  “I gave it a try,” Andy recalls his reluctance, “and it hooked me immediately.”  

 

In early 2019, after time had healed the wounds of surgery, Andy participated in a series of training camps in preparation for the UK Invictus Games trials.  “While I wasn’t lucky enough to be selected,” Andy remembers enthusiastically, “I was desperate to do more racing.”  Andy searched for another way without an outlet for the competitive urge to make up for the lost time.

Andy Shuttleworth standing beside recumbant bike

Obstacles on the Path Back to Physical Freedom

Then two things happened that created obstacles on the path back to physical freedom.  “First,” Andy noted with frustration, “I realized that the UCI (the International governing body of cycling) doesn’t recognize recumbent trikes.  In Andy’s opinion, the organization discriminates against individuals who cannot use upright bikes and trikes.  

 

As a consequence, there are very few opportunities to race or compete as a recumbent trike cyclist.  “Add the hard-wired prejudice of club cyclists who don’t want to be seen with trike riders or fear we are dangerous,” Andy notes wistfully.

 

Second, COVID-19 arrived.  Andy had to abandon the few prospects he had to ride and race his recumbent trike and pursue his newly gifted passion and zest for functional independence.  Life was desperate, and Andy was terrified that the circumstances would cause him to revert to the sedentary life he fought to escape.  

Zwift cycling avatar

The Word, Zwift!

Then in April 2020, an RAF veteran from Help for Heroes, another trike friend, mentioned a word that once again transformed his life for the better.  He kept saying it every time the friends spoke.  “He went on and on about it,” Andy admits, “and in the end, I tried it if only to shut him up.”  The word, Zwift!

 

Andy wired up an old computer and heart rate monitor and attached a trike with speed and cadence sensors intact to a dumb turbo, and off he went.  The original setup Andy used was far from ideal, “but it gave me a taste and quickly drew me into the world of Zwift.”  

 

Coincidentally, two Army veterans organized an Invictus Games Foundation social ride on Zwift at about the same time.  Andy joined the Sunday group rides, and “we used Discord to chat, which brought us much closer together.”

A Trike on a Trainer?

The virtual cycling setup Andy used also rapidly evolved to become closer to ideal.  He dropped his dumb trainer for a Saris M2 wheel-on smart trainer.  When it no longer provided the experience Andy was looking for, he replaced the M2 with an Elite Direto direct drive model (the only trainer available during the height of the pandemic).  He ditched his old computer to make was for Apple TV.  

 

Andy recognized the tremendous potential, and to repay Help for Heroes for the invaluable help and life-altering assistance, he devoted a significant amount of time “selling them the idea of Zwift.”  Andy’s diligence and the organization’s cooperation culminated in a weekly Veterans on Wheels group ride.  Find Andy’s Strava profile here.

Two virtual cycling avatars

Andy envisions the ride format to vary between time trials, races, training, and social rides.  “The social interaction is vital,” Andy describes the primary reason he is immersed in Zwift, “so we use Discord to chat even when racing.”  Andy also enjoys Herd rides “because they are a lovely bunch and ideal for adaptive riders.”  In addition, US Military Endurance Sports hosts group rides geared to a military audience.  Find Andy’s ZwiftPower profile here.

 

Andy’s thrill for Zwift is palpable when describing the experience as a triker.  Andy enjoys the routes that feature multiple climbs due to the realism they provide.  In real life, Andy’s trike weighs 17Kg, and “they remind me how slow trikers grind up hills.”

Andy riding trike on Zwift

As Close as it Gets to the Real Thing

The pay-off is in the descents.  “Long straight descents are great for sheer speed,” Andy’s excitement comes out, “but the exhilarating bits are the bends where you need to throw yourself into it to stop from rolling over.”  Andy’s new favorite route is Neokyo All-Nighter.  “When Zwift is at its immersive best,” Andy gleefully explains, “the twisty, turning descent from the rooftops in Neokyo is as close as it gets to the real thing.”

 

That raises another critical point about the beneficial immersive nature of virtual cycling.  Not all adaptive cyclists are equal and able to ride at the same level.  “Discord means that we aren’t only interacting with riders around us, but anywhere on the ride or others just dropping in for a chat,” notes Andy when describing the social inclusion advantages of virtual cycling to the adaptive population.

 

Comfort and convenience are two benefits that adaptive cyclists share with virtual cycling’s general audience. Being so close to the ground when riding on a cold, wet winter day is thoroughly miserable on a trike, according to Andy’s experience.  “I never thought I would thank a virtual cycling app for keeping my rear-end dry and warm,” remarks Andy in appreciation.

Unique Benefits of Virtual Cycling for Those in Need

There are several unique benefits of virtual cycling only realized and appreciated by those it affects.  Many members of the Wounded, Injured, and Sick communities suffer from hidden wounds – the mental scars of military service.  Virtual cycling opens a nurturing environment to a service member unable to summon the mental strength needed to ride and interact with other riders in the real world. Zwift provides the opportunity to engage at whatever level of social contact the individual can tolerate.  

 

In turn, virtual cycling has failed to address many concerns unique to adaptive cyclists.  “While lots of time and effort,” according to Andy, “has understandably gone into the research of normal cycling biomechanics, little has been done for adaptive cycling.”  

 

Zwift has empowered the adaptive cycling community to educate themselves about the abilities and limitations of their performance.  Andy and his fellow adaptive cyclists compare notes because “we are eager to learn the significant muscle groups used in virtual recumbent cycling and how different disabilities impact how we ride.”  The group is continually searching for ways to improve themselves and the virtual cycling platform.

Zwift Empowers the Adaptive Community, but There is Great Potential For More

Possible improvements to virtual cycling hardware offer tremendous potential for the adaptive virtual cycling population. In most cases, the adaptive cyclist must be resourceful when setting up their indoor rig. Proprietary options that are unique to adaptive cyclists or provide the flexibility to adjust to varied needs create a new virtual world for those affected. For individuals who don’t have the strength or coordination to push the pedals, a device that offers an assist would be therapeutic and inclusive.  

 

There are other potential solutions uniquely available in the virtual cycling world for adaptive cyclists with the ability but lack the strength to pedal at the cadence and power required to enjoy the experience. In the future, an individual meeting the criteria are designated a verified adaptive cyclist, and a setting that allows the rider to multiply their power output is enabled.  

 

Or the adaptive cyclist has the option to choose a “stay together” function that keeps their avatar in proximity to the ride leader beacon. Both options allow adaptive athletes to enjoy the virtual cycling experience without being alienated by their limitations and unrealistic physical demands.

 

“I’d much rather find a ride that suited my performance and match up against those with a similar level of ability because that is true competition,” states Andy when pointing out that an “Adaptive Rider Multiplier” may not be well received.  “That said, it might be nice during a social ride to be able to stay in the gray/blue zone, in the blob, and able to do so without impacting the power or distance of better riders in the way that happens in banded rides.”

 

There are many more ways the virtual cycling experience can be more accessible, inclusive, and enhanced for adaptive cyclists. The potential for improvement in the future is great, and these suggestions are just a start.

Zwift is a Brave New Virtual World For Adaptive Cyclists

According to Andy and his fellow cyclists, the benefits of Zwift’s brave new virtual world far outweigh the negatives.  The availability allows them the chance to ride all year and much more often.  Andy rides with others from a worldwide WIS community while raising awareness and spreading the word about adaptive riding.  Andy acknowledges the positive power and tremendous reach of Zwift when he says, “We have made friendships in the virtual world that translate to the real world.”

 

Andy would like to see one change made soon that would be invaluable in raising awareness and eliminating the perception of adaptive riders’ discrimination.  “1st April 2021, with everyone riding kiddy trikes, as well as being a bit of fun, showed the art of the possible. So, Zwift, how about one upright trike, a recumbent one, and a handcycle. Let’s see if Zwift can take the lead in making all types of cyclists welcome.”

 

How about it, Zwift?

Your Thoughts?

What other ways can virtual cycling platforms be improved to enhance the experience for adaptive cyclists?  Comment below.  Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.

 

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