Mary Free Bed offers new one-of-a-kind off-road program


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — There is groundbreaking equipment now available at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, and it’s the only place offering it in the state.

The Explorer III off-road handcycle knows no boundaries. From leg amputees to people who suffered spinal cord injuries, the heavy-duty bike takes bumps out of the road for people with disabilities.

“It’s awesome,” laughed Michael Burkhart, sports coordinator of the Wheelchair and Adaptive Sports programs at Mary Free Bed. He explained that the new off-road equipment allows the people he works with to explore a new world of recreation.

“It’s an awesome vehicle that can really handle anything that West Michigan can throw at it,” he said.

The 11-gear bike boasts large tires, shocks, handbrakes and a design with two tires in the front and one in the back. The most talked about feature is the powered pedal assist.

“When that power assist kicks on they can make it up those short, punchy climbs that they would otherwise have to really shift down into like their highest gear possible,” Burkhart said. “I compare it more to like a quad than a cycle.”

A $10,000 donation from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation brought Burkhart’s hopes of adding an off-road handcycle program to life.

“I don’t have a lot of friends that are paralyzed, so really this will help me get back on trails really with anybody that wants to go,” said Noah Valdez.

Valdez is no stranger to off-road racing. He competed in cross-country and downhill events before a motorcycle crash on Aug. 7. Among his injuries, he broke his T7 vertebrae.

Valdez has climbed back on the saddle and is soon heading to a weekend-long hand and mountain bike festival that cruises through Wyoming and Idaho.

Patrick Besta, of Belmont, cut a main artery in his leg after a crash about 25 years ago.

He is a well-rounded athlete, a coach and someone well-involved in WAS programs offered by Mary Free Bed’s sports programs.

Besta had some doubts about the new bike before trying it, but told 24 Hour News 8 that living an active lifestyle is the only option.

“Especially after injury and you’re in a wheelchair, it’s so easy probably to just sit on the couch and watch TV or do nothing,” Besta said.

The powered assist offers different levels of assistance and makes it easier to go uphill and over rough terrain.

“[You’re] able to keep up with an able-bodied person and they don’t have to stop and wait for you and go and stop and wait you can stay up with them,” Besta said. “Some of the people that we’re with, you can even go faster than them.”

The growing interest now has many asking when the hospital will purchase more.

“Even just two more,” Valdez said, “having that ability to have two or three guys at one time along with just regular capable riders, I think that would be amazing.”

Mary Free Bed Wheelchair and Adaptive Sports program offers the off-road handcycling series for four more sessions: Aug. 14. 15, 21, and 22. The cost is $20 and they meet at 5:30pm.

There are some age, weight, and height restrictions. For more information call 616.840.8356 or email sports@maryfreebed.com.