Adaptive mountain bike advancements help paraplegic riders return to the sport they love
For the first time in 16 years, Renee Junga is considering a return to competitive downhill mountain biking.
In 2006, she suffered spinal injuries when she crashed at the Mountain Bike World Championships at Rotorua in New Zealand.
"I got a bit too keen, overshot a jump and fell on my head and sustained a spinal cord injury," Junga said.
Now, finally bike technology has started to catch up, with adaptive three-wheeled bikes being produced where the riders can be strapped to their seats.
"It's a game changer," Junga said.
Junga travelled to South Australia from Queensland for the Downhill State Championships at Willunga last weekend to test out new bikes and trails.
"Seeing how much fun everyone is having riding just makes me want to give it a go again," Junga said.
For Junga, who has been passionate about the sport since she was a child, the opportunity to ride again was long overdue.
"I didn't ride any kind of bike until two or three years ago when I got my adaptive mountain bike," Junga said.
"When I had my accident in 2006, the technology just wasn't there.
"It's like riding a bike, it just comes naturally back, all the fun and adrenaline.
"My family are keen for me to get back in to it."
Renee's older brother Sam Howie — who is a BMX rider himself — said he is happy to see his sister back in the saddle.
"It's her living her life and her just getting out there and amongst it, that's all we could ever ask for," he said.
"I'm just pumped up, stoked for her."
Junga has a clear view to the future.
"I just want to be on a bike. As soon as there was a possibility to get back on to it, I was in to it," she said.
The advances in bike technology have also given Australian Paralympic cyclist Grant Allen a chance to get back on to the dirt of downhill tracks after his life-changing crash in 2011.
"The three-wheel bike is a massive difference in terms of independence, safety, the way that it works is far better," Allen said.
"It's that same familiar feeling of what it always was on a two-wheel bike, I'm just doing it on a different piece of equipment now.
"Ten years ago, something like this was not possible … [now] I can go out riding with friends for probably the best part of three-to-four hours."
For Allen, mountain biking has been an integral part of his identity and getting back on the trails and hitting jumps with his trademark style was only a matter of the right bike being developed and suitable trails for adaptive riders being built.
"It's me, it's who I am," Allen said.
"A life-changing accident doesn't necessarily change you as a person.
"I'm still the same person as I was before and always will be.
"Riding is something that is ingrained in me and what I'll always do. I missed it so much."
Event organiser John O'Brien grew up watching DVDs of Grant Allen riding and now takes great pride in offering the first competitive Australian adaptive downhill race.
"To grow up watching your idols racing, and now working with Grant and some of the other big downhillers in the world, it's just amazing," he said.
Along with a team of volunteers, he has worked on the track at Willunga to prepare for the state championships and the introduction of the adaptive downhill mountain biking discipline.
"It's one of the most favourite race venues in Adelaide, with big wide open hills, perfect for adaptive bikes to start on," he said.
With the largest ever contingent of entrants across all categories competing in this year's event, it has also meant they have a larger pool of volunteers to call on.
Mr O'Brien said the extra hands have made the new adaptive discipline possible with a view to holding a larger, national event next year.
"We have the two adaptive racers this weekend, that was really the target, to have a couple, to learn from our mistakes and start movement [on a national round]," he said.
The possibilities of adaptive cycling is something Grant Allen said he is keen to share.
"Perhaps people who've never known how cool it is to ride a bike, just because they live with a disability it doesn't mean they can't experience it and enjoy it the same way an able-bodied person does," he said.
There are hopes it could even be embraced on an international level with a debut at the Commonwealth Games.
"I can see it being a thing where there is an adaptive downhill and an adaptive cross country racing at that highest level and it would be cool to see that in 10 years time Brisbane 2032," Allen said.
Renee Junga said she was also hoping to show others who may be considering the sport what is possible.
"I'm keen to do a few competitions and promote the sport," she said.
"The more people we can get in to the sport, and show the possibilities that would be great."
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