Caito Bowles-Roth - Twin Cities Adaptive Cycling


What would you do if your favorite thing, the thing you loved to do, were not accessible to you anymore?

What if there were simple hardware solutions to ease a disability? 

What about strangers?

What about serendipity? 

Caito Bowles-Roth could easily get tripped up in questions.  Instead, she pedals answers:  on three wheels, with a hand crank. 

Caito started her professional career as an occupational therapist (OT) and credits an early internship in East Harlem, New York City as instructional.  There, Caito worked with disabled clients who were also homeless.  “At the time, OT was crossing a boundary into social work,” Caito explains.  “I worked with physically disabled individuals struggling to regain control of their lives.  The shelter was strapped for resources, so we had to get creative.”

She worked with her clients to help them adapt to their realities, and then some. Caito did not limit her assistance solely to improving physical functionality, she also helped them fix their “crappy” wheelchairs, manage money, and navigate the public bus system, all while the clients built independent living skills.  “My role was holistic in practice, non-traditional,” Caito offers.  “I was always pushing the envelope, and asking, ‘Can OT’s be in this role, take on this task?’”

One morning, while commuting by bicycle through Brooklyn and Manhattan, before much of the city was awake, Caito felt a nudge.  “It was one of those epic rides,” she reflects, “I felt freedom.  I felt grateful to be riding.”   

The universe then posited two life-changing questions: “What would I do if I couldn’t ride my bike?”  “How would I adapt?”

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Caito pivoted professionally to Berkeley’s Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program (BORP) so she could continue to push OT boundaries and address challenges that vexed her patients.  As the country’s largest adaptive cycling organization, BORP became Caito’s guide across multiple aspects of her life.  She says, “Berkeley was the perfect trifecta:  It was California, it was adaptive cycling, and I found a mentor there.”  She also fell in love.  Make that a quad-fecta. 

BORP didn’t have an OT position for Caito, but she was interested in the experience anyway. Caito started as a volunteer one day a week at BORP, then, over 3 years, worked up to a paid programming position.  “My mind was blown,” she says about her first day on the job. “There were riders of all abilities and ages coming through.  I talked to as many as I could.  I heard stories of how adaptive cycling changed their lives and impacted their communities.”

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All the while, she thought of Minneapolis.  She told herself she wouldn’t return to the Twin Cities until she could introduce something new: Adaptive cycling was the something new. 

In Berkeley, Caito dreamed.  She strategized, she kept a notebook.  She saved money, read books on “How to Start a Nonprofit,” and convinced her new love, Tommy Dixon, to dream with her.  Tommy, a native Minnesotan and fellow cycling adventurer, didn’t need much convincing. 

Cosmic forces aligned.  The two hit the ground running with a trailer and 5 adaptive cycles in tow.  For the Twin Cities, Caito envisioned an urban location, in a dense neighborhood close to people and partners, and on a trail system to keep riders off busy streets and to facilitate long rides.

Urban Ventures, a nonprofit serving South Minneapolis, was game to host Caito’s pilot program. She called it Twin Cities Adaptive Cycling (TCAC).  With a large lot adjacent to the Midtown Greenway trail, and an offer of free rent for a year, Caito felt like she hit the jackpot.  Smiling, she says, “The universe really wanted this to happen.” 

After that simple start, good fortune carried Caito.  In rapid succession, she had not only secured a “dream space” for TCAC, she earned 501 c 3 status, began building a volunteer network, AND she crossed paths with Mary Arneson and Dale Hammerschmidt, strangers who seemed destined to be part of her adaptive cycling journey.

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As recently retired doctors, Mary and Dale understood cycling as therapy, as a means to improve lives and expand mobility for people with physical or cognitive disabilities.  The married couple is crazily committed to cycling as a daily practice themselves, and have a wonky love of bike builds and hardware, too.   “What do you need?”  They pressed Caito.  “We have, like, 50 adaptive bikes in our garage!”

Lucky for Caito and would-be riders, Mary and Dale’s volunteerism and adaptive world view came with the bikes.  To use a metaphor: they hooked their customized recumbents with rear differentials to Caito’s locomotion. Under Caito’s direction, the couple leads riding sessions Tuesday, Thursday and Saturdays at TCAC.  “We’re retired now, we’re willing to participate,” Dale offers.  “The smiles we get from the riders are a big part of why this matters to us.  We’re paid in grins.” 

With plenty of bike options on hand – side-by-side tandems, recumbents, tricycles, kid hand bikes – tools, adaptive accessories, and a burgeoning volunteer crew, TCAC served 40 riders in their inaugural 2017 season.  Riders were of all ages and abilities; some had been active cyclists before an injury or disease, others had never ridden. In 2018, 100 riders reserved bikes and time to ride.

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TCAC provides a bike or trike, adaptive gadgets to make cycling possible for each rider, a space to practice and get comfortable on the bike, and volunteers to accompany the riders if needed. TCAC fills a void in the Twin Cities for adaptive services. The need, however, is bigger than TCAC’s capacity at the moment.  “If we said yes to everybody who WANTS to ride,” Caito admits, “we’d have 150 riders.”

Caito expects the non-profit to grow. She wishes TCAC had a fixed, indoor facility for bad weather days and winter.  She needs more volunteers, someone to manage pre-ride logistics, more mechanics, more money.  She hustles and re-frames as she goes.  There is no cost to ride with TCAC, but donations are accepted. Caito is experimenting with a yearly membership to cover costs and provide a salary for herself and her staff as the non-profit expands.

“Adaptive” is the operative word for the work TCAC does, as no two riders’ needs are the same.  The field of OT and the community’s capacity to adapt to difference and opportunity are evolving as well.   

“This is an incredibly important exercise,” Caito says.  “When society sees people with disabilities on a bike, on the trail, it builds integration and visibility and curiosity.  It fosters conversation.  Some of our volunteers have never had interactions with disabled folks.  This brings people together.  If people with disabilities can be doing this,” she sweeps her arm over the corral of differently configured bikes and toward the trail, “What else can they do?”  

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Caito draws practical lessons and inspiration from people she knows.  She knows that cycling can be an equalizer: “My friend Bonnie is a quadriplegic,” she says, “she tried many adaptive activities to keep fit.  She found cycling and told me, ‘with biking, I get to participate with other bikers at the same level.  I use a tricycle, sure, but I keep pace with abled riders.  It feels equal.’”

As a doctor, Dale knows about equalization, too. In hematology, Dale had patients who were hemophiliacs and bled into their joints.  “Cycling allows exercise without stressing joints, and a stable tricycle or low riding recumbent bike accommodates a ride without the prospect of toppling over and bruising,” he says.   

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In their professional lives, Mary and Dale worked with veterans, amputees, and patients who had survived prolonged chemotherapy and were physically depleted.  They saw Parkinson’s patients and stroke victims improve strength, balance and coordination on a bike.  Some doctors frown on cycling during recovery, even forbid it, but Mary and Dale extol the virtues.

Personally, Dale experienced the healing effects of cycling after a leg crushing injury.  He discovered he could ride a specially outfitted recumbent bike with under seat steering, keeping weight bearing off his injured leg.   “I was biking on day 3,” he enthusiastically recounts, “weeks before I could walk.  For 15 weeks, I biked, improving my range of motion.” 

Mary, retired from practicing Occupational Medicine, hopes for a “quiet revolution” in health care, one that would leverage cycling to expand therapeutic options and improve more patients’ lives.  She points to European countries that consider cycling crucial for mobility and independence and to insurance systems that pay for custom-built adaptive cycles, just as US insurers might pay for a wheelchair.  The adaptive bikes are expensive and can cost upwards of $3000, yet, Mary asserts, “Europeans view them as necessary tools for living, not ‘niceties.’”

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On this day, Mary shares a side-by-side tandem bike with Amy Ward, a TCAC regular with mobility issues and limited sight. For Mary, the benefits of adaptive cycling go both ways.  “As a sighted person,” Mary observes, “you experience the ride a whole new way [with a sight impaired rider].  They can smell the restaurants from the trail, we will stop to feel the yarn bombs along the way, they can hear birdcalls.  Riding like this, the biking almost falls away.” 

Caito is fitting Andrew Bodeheimer into a recumbent trike with a calf stabilizer.  Andrew’s trike is connected behind Dale’s recumbent trike.  They plan to pedal about 10 miles together.  Caito explains that Andrew suffered a brain injury and is thriving with cycling in his weekly routine.  He is regaining both his fitness and his good spirits after a long period of physical inactivity.  And, she says, “He has the best laugh.” 

When asked what he loves about TCAC, Andrew declares “Bicycling!” and gives two thumbs up. Asked if he likes biking with Dale, Andrew affirms, “True that!” and away they go. 

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Photo Credits:  Tracy Nordstrom TCAC website