Virtual Cycling Helped George Dooper Recover From a Traumatic Brain Injury, and He Gave Back by Using Zwift to Raise Awareness of Disabled Athletes

Do you want to give the Zwift Handcycle a spin, but it just doesn't feel like the right thing to do? George Dooper felt that way, too, and did something about it.

On Sunday, October 23, 2022, George Dooper led a group of over 175 primarily non-disabled cyclists in search of the 100km badge on the roads of Watopia. They were all riding the Zwift Handcycle on a group ride. The first ever!

 

“I was a bit scared even to ride the handcycle,” admits George, “because I don’t have any disabilities that cause me to use the handcycle. I find that I have no right to use it.” On the other hand, Zwift made it accessible to everyone, and he wanted to experience it.

Zwift handcycle group ride announcement

Cycling With a Disability

For George, cycling with a disability is a privilege dear to his heart. So George “came up with the idea to use it with the group so everyone is equal and the handcycle will give the same ability to everyone.”

 

Zwift has offered several handcycle-only group rides organized by the newly-formed Handcycling Club in conjunction with the Challenged Athletes Foundation. George felt that many interested riders missed them and many like him, on purpose.

Uneasy With the Idea of Using the Zwift Handcycle

George explains, “I just wasn’t comfortable with the idea of using it. Now with the group ride in the perfect setting of the desert and the goal of 100km, I think it is an ideal atmosphere to make people aware that the handcycle is in the game because people who have to use it in real life are just as much a cyclist as me or you.” He knows first hand.

 

George Dooper’s father-in-law introduced him to mountain biking when he was 26 years old, and he enjoyed riding on the trails of his native Holland. His love of cycling evolved, and he graduated to a road bike and racing. In 2015 he suffered an acquired brain injury from a severe crash.

Recovery From a Brain Injury and COVID Isolation

George Dooper riding indoors during Zwift handcycle group ride

The injury took his sense of smell and taste. Every time he tried to ride hard, he got a splitting headache. George discovered virtual cycling when he realized, “It would make a nice change from real-life cycling because you can do it anytime you want to, and if my headache started, I could stop and be in the shower in under 30 seconds.”

 

Virtual cycling got George through the ten-month recovery period, and in 2020 COVID hit. George’s world turned upside down again, and the stress left him wondering where to turn. “By the end of 2020,” he shares, “I got into a fight with myself, drinking and eating. Your world becomes so very small when all you can do is work from home.”

 

In December, he said to himself that he would put a stop to that and dedicated himself to biking on Zwift. He turned to the community he found in L’Equipe Provence (LEQP). LEQP organizes badge hunts, and its members ride together to accumulate XP, level up, and have fun together.

Zwift handcycle avatar

Zwift Team L’Equipe Provence (LEQP)

In April, George joined a LEQP TTT squad and the racing team not much later. “During that time,” he proudly reveals, “I already lost 11 kilograms, and my body and mind became at peace with the current circumstances of COVID.” He found his distraction from real life and tried to cycle every day, riding a course or doing a workout.

 

Besides racing, George started leading LEQP group rides from time to time. He was asked to lead the Sunday Badgehunt ride, and that’s when he had the idea to use the handcycle. When the opportunity to lead the LEQP badge hunt ride came up, George jumped at it because “I hope this event can contribute to the handcycle and how good it is that it exists.”

Zwift handcycle group ride avatars riding together

The First Handcycle-Only Group Ride on Zwift

He chose Tempus Fugit because it was flat and fast, and the handcycle’s weight wouldn’t be a factor going uphill. He had to think of something to earn besides the route badge because almost everyone on Zwift already has that one. The only reasonable option for him was the 100km ride badge.

 

When the ride started, George was dazzled by what he saw. So many people and all on handcycles. Like most people on the ride, he watched how the experience of riding the handcycle unfolded in amazement. “In the corners, you see them hanging slightly to the side, so you know the avatar is feeling G-forces,” he noted. He even had some people saying that they saw a wheel going up!

Tron?

One of the first questions George fielded as ride leader was if there would be a Tron handcycle! He thought it lovely to see how quickly some riders felt the need to make the Tron bike more accessible for arm-powered cyclists on Zwift. When a road bike popped up in the group, George took notice.

Zwift tron bike and handcycle avatars

“It was just huge,” he recalls thinking, “so that makes you realize how dangerous it can be to use the handcycle for real because being visible is a problem.” In real life, adaptive athletes equip their bikes with flags to make them more visible.

The Draft

George also took note of the draft. He informed the group that handcycles benefit from a 100% draft off of one another, and his ride sweeper agreed. “I asked him about his experience,” George explains, “and he felt it was easier to make his way back to the pack when riders fell behind.”

A LEQP teammate that uses Sauce for Zwift and measures the draft said that the effect seemed to be even higher than the draft between road bikes. Other riders reacted that the 100km ride using the handcycle was less taxing, and they didn’t find that a problem at all!

The Sprint

Like all good group rides, it ended in a dash for the line. The experienced sprinters described that it was more challenging to ramp it up on the handcycle, but when it was going, it went fast!

 

George and his group completed the ride in 2hr and 29min, and he averaged 2.9 w/kg while trying to maintain the front. “I thought we would be faster,” he observes, “but I think I underestimated the bike’s weight.”

Zwift handcycle group ride report

Conclusion—Goal Achieved

George sums up the experience by saying, “The goal was to make people aware of the handcycle and how it works, and we achieved it! We tested the draft, the sweeping, the sprinting, and the social aspect. Overall, we have a lot of respect for arm-powered riders and people who use the handcycle in whatever way it is needed.”

 

George doesn’t know if he and his L’Equipe Provence mates will use the handcycle in future events but reserves the right never to say never! Goal achieved!

Zwift handcycle group ride avatar with fire coming off the wheel

What do you think?

Is it okay for non-disabled riders to use the handcycling on Zwift? How about in a Zwift handcycle group ride like this one? Comment below. Your fellow cyclists want to know.

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