Last year, Andrea Robinson said to her husband, John, “I’d really like to take a bicycle trip with the family.” Robinson, who lives near Albany, said, “I thought she wanted to go up to the Hudson River, go up and down a few miles, so I said OK. Then she pulled out this book about bike trips on the Erie Canal. I said, ‘No way, that’s crazy.’ But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that would be really neat.”
The challenges of such a trip, including more than two weeks of daily exertion in the heat and sun, would give anybody pause. But Robinson has had some experience in overcoming adversity since he was born 44 years ago without hands and with his lower legs growing from his hips.
If the cyclists on the “Journey Along the Erie Canal” keep to their itinerary, today they will travel from Weedsport to Syracuse by boat, one of three parts of the trek where they must take to the water to follow the canal. The journey, which has been punctuated by scheduled events, cheering crowds and on-the-spot education of fellow canal-trail users, will end July 8 in Albany.
Not only is Robinson tenacious and determined, but Andrea, herself a marathon runner, picked the perfect time to suggest a physical challenge. When she suggested a bicycle trip, Robinson had just returned from the XIV Summer Paralympics in London, where he and a photographer reported on the competition in adaptive sports.
“It was absolutely an amazing experience,” Robinson said. “It was the first time I’d seen people who looked like me competing and achieving.”
While he observed and documented the Paralympics, Robinson was suffering some pangs of regret for challenges he had missed. “I was thinking, ‘I wish I had had this opportunity as a kid, because I would have done that.’ So when Andrea suggested the trip, I thought, I can train for this, I can do this. But I’ll only do it if we can document it on video, we can create a story for ourselves down the road, but also bring people with disabilities out, bring families with disabilities out and create awareness for all of us.
“The world is so for adaptive sports, and the United States is not up to speed with the other countries. I hope in some small way in New York we can help that along with what we are doing.”
Robinson was born in Binghamton, the first child of an Episcopal priest and a dental office manager. He has a sister who is 2 years younger. The family later moved to Manchester, N.H., and Robinson attended Syracuse University. Robinson was the subject of an award-winning 2009 PBS documentary, “Get Off Your Knees: The John Robinson Story,” and also wrote an autobiography, “Get Off Your Knees: A Story of Faith, Courage and Determination,” published by Syracuse University Press in 2009.
He is founder, president and CEO of Our Ability, an Albany nonprofit that assists people with disabilities to succeed in education and employment through publicity, public speaking, advocacy, job services and mentoring. But the longtime advocate and inspirational public speaker is a relative novice at handcycling, which was created in the 1980s.
“This technology wasn’t invented when I was a kid,” Robinson said. All three of his children – Haydon, 24, Ariel, 15, and Owen, 9 – rode bikes growing up, but without hands and with shortened legs that lack knees, their father was not able to ride with them. Then about two years ago, Robinson tried out a handcycle, a long, low three-wheeled bike propelled by a hand crank. “I brought it home, got on it, and rode with my kids for the first time,” he said. “My kids were smiling and having a great time, and I was enjoying them watching me bike.”
The bike he is using for the canal trek has been specially modified for Robinson. He inserts the ends of his arms into two soft, lined plastic sockets, similar to those used for prosthetic limbs, and shifts the bike’s seven gears with a control he grabs with his mouth.
Both Ariel and Owen are making the trek with their parents; Haydon is working out west. They will also be accompanied by Doug Hamlin, vice president of Our Ability, a quadriplegic who also rides an adaptive cycle, and his wife, Pam. “We have some friends that will join us for most of the way, but the core group is the six of us,” said Robinson. Vehicles will transport the group’s luggage along the way, and they will stay in hotels each night. “We definitely need real meals and beds,” he said.
Part of the reason for selecting the canal trail was pragmatic. Robinson said, “As a person with a disability, I was very concerned about huge hills, so thinking about Route 20 or the Adirondacks and Catskills, that’s just not feasible. What is feasible? This path.”
But as Robinson and Hamlin met with officials of the state Canal Corporation, Parks & Trails New York and the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, they discovered more intersections of interests and themes. In a statement, Canal Corp. Director Brian U. Stratton said the agency is “thrilled” about the tour. “The event will highlight the many opportunities that exist for people of all ages and abilities to experience the scenic beauty and rich history of the canal system,” he said.
Robinson said that from the time it was created, the canal has been “all about economic development, about working together and building. We’re at that stage right now, as people with disabilities, in finding employment and education.”
Also, Robinson said, like the talents of people with disabilities, “I think the Erie Canal is underappreciated. The state has a lot of beauty, and we all know about Niagara Falls, the Adirondacks, the Catskills, but the Erie Canal is just as beautiful in its own way. ”
Along with raising awareness, Robinson and the other participants hope that the trip will raise funds. “The money we raise on the canal will be used to build a scholarship fund, money that we can give to students with disabilities for years to come.”
Last Sunday, the trek began with a brief ceremony under brilliant blue skies in Niawanda Park in Tonawanda. Rep. Brian Higgins, representatives of the Canal Corp., the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, New York State Industries for the Disabled and Disabled Sports USA praised the effort and pledged their support. “These guys are incredible; this is quite the commitment,” said Higgins.
Then, with cameras rolling, about a dozen bicyclists accompanied the Journey cyclists as they pedaled down the trail, headed east. On their second day, a crowd bid them farewell as they left Lockport.
Heat and humidity added to the stress of the early days of the trek. “We’re grateful for shade when we find it,” said Robinson, who was already battling some soreness in his shoulders, but was buoyed by the company of people who came out to walk, jog, bike or rollerblade along for a bit. He said, “If you’re differently abled, or disabled, or aging, and you don’t think you can get out and do something big, you can get out on this path, which is accessible in a lot of places, and walk or ride or whatever it is that you can do. Get out there in nature and do it.”
In a year or so, Robinson hopes that the film being made along the way will be ready to be televised on PBS. While he says that this film may not be as popular as “Get Off Your Knees,” which was shown on every PBS station in the country and in several other nations, he’s prepared to be pleasantly surprised. “I think that the nine public broadcasting stations in New York will air this, as long as we do our work well, and I think it will tell the story of achievement, of me persevering, certainly, but a good part if this story will also be the people we meet along the way and the pretty canal. I know we can make a good documentary, so I’m not worried about that,” he said.