Come On and Take a Free Ride
Cycling Without Age program offers assisted bike rides to those who can’t ride alone
Writer: Conni Leigh James | Fall-Autumn 2022 edition
On a breezy day in June in Lexington Park, Christina Allen is pedaling an unusual vehicle on the paved paths of Lancaster Park, drawing interested looks from passersby. The vehicle is a “trishaw,” a bright red hybrid of a two-seater rickshaw and a motor-assisted bicycle, the centerpiece of the St. Mary’s County chapter of a worldwide program called Cycling Without Age.
Allen invites folks to hop in for a pleasant spin around the park. Her goal is to introduce herself and the trishaw to county residents who may not be aware of the program that offers fun, free rides to those unable to ride a bike due to age or disability.
The St. Mary’s County CWA program, the only chapter in the state, is part of a network of more than 2,700 chapters in 52 countries, as of mid-2022. The program originated in 2012 in Copenhagen when founder Ole Kassow hit upon the idea of using a trishaw to take residents of a local nursing home on bicycle rides to help alleviate the loneliness, boredom and isolation that older people often face.
Allen became an avid cyclist while recovering from cancer. She already owned a recumbent bike and found that the fresh air, exercise and freedom that cycling provided was very healing. As Allen’s strength returned, she increased the miles she biked, and routinely put more miles on her bike than her car.
Knowing her love of cycling, in 2019, a friend suggested she look into bringing the CWA program to the area. “I immediately went home and Googled it,” Allen said. “That’s for me. With my love of bicycling, I applied.
“When I went through cancer, I bicycled throughout all my cancer treatments. I really believe in the power of cycling. That’s one of the reasons I’m promoting it so much. … It saved me.”
Allen believes cycling is good for mental health as well as physical health.
“We know how lonely people are. It’s easy to get into a smaller and smaller world as you get older. And I don’t think that should be permitted,” she says.
And she worries about the impact COVID-19 has had on those in nursing homes who are confined indoors. “It’s like solitary confinement. Even prisoners get outside for an hour a day!” she says.
A 91-year-old blind woman has been Allen’s oldest passenger so far. The woman’s 60-something daughter accompanied her, and Allen believes that the gentle, brisk ride, scented with autumn leaves, provided them both with a treasured memory.
Another memorable ride featured a 33-year-old passenger with Down syndrome who was non-verbal but kept pointing forcefully ahead as Allen pedaled down the Three Notch Trail. The woman’s father, who was riding his own bike alongside the trishaw, laughingly said, “I think she means just keep on going!”
Allen also recounts the ride of an elderly man, nearly deaf, who had been confined indoors in a nursing home through the worst of the pandemic months. During his ride, he sat up suddenly at the sight of the river and said one word: “Water!” It was the most alert he had been in a long time.
“He used to be a ship’s captain,” she says.
FANS AND FRESH AIR
Leonardtown resident Mary Wallace, one of Allen’s repeat passengers, is a fan of the program.
“Christina has a deep love of the elderly and shut-ins whom she believes benefit greatly from getting out in the fresh air, and she is willing to go to great lengths to give them that opportunity,” Wallace says.
“She takes great care to show beautiful parts of our county at a pace that allows one to see so much more than when zooming around in a car,” she adds. “She is also a wonderful historian about our local area. We often stop for a picnic either brought along or purchased along the route.”
Allen’s biggest hurdle with the program is that many don’t trust that the rides are actually free, and fear there is some kind of “catch” or sales pitch attached. There is never a charge for eligible passengers to ride. She funds the maintenance for the trishaw personally and will sometimes rent the service on a case-by-case basis for events such as weddings or personal rides.
“When I decided to buy the first one, I envisioned one in south county, one in north,” says Allen, whose long-term goal is to see more chapters added throughout the county. “That’s my long-term goal, to have them all over the place.”
“I just want to ‘seed’ the idea. So that other people will say, ‘We need this for the nursing home, or we need this for the senior center.’ I want them to see the possibilities and see people having fun.”
To learn more about Cycling Without Age in St. Mary’s County, or to schedule a ride for seniors and less-abled, call 301-247-3285, email christina@CyclingWithoutAge.com or go to facebook.com/CWASMC.