STORY: Liam Keenan's Journey
Updated: Apr 14, 2020
Mountain biking is a lifestyle. There are obvious health benefits that come alongside riding, but to most these are considered added value; with the satisfaction of rhythmically flowing down your favourite trails and the sense of adventure that comes alongside exploring backcountry canyons and dense forests that attracts us long before the thought of getting in a good workout does. Once you’ve had a taste, more often than not you end up hooked and mountain biking is all you think about and all you want to do. The sport is unique and there’s not many others that will take over your life in quite the same way.
Like any pursuit, each come with their risks and for us, crashes are an unfortunate necessity in our pursuit of adventure. If all that’s bad, goes well, a brush of the hands is all it takes to get you back up and pedalling. If all that’s bad, goes bad, it often takes much more than a simple brush of the hands to get back on the bike. We all have that one crash, the one that we think back on when we’re about to push our limits, the one that keeps us humble and asking is the risk worth the reward. That one crash for Liam Keenan, however, left him asking where to next.
I’ve known Liam for a while now and the one thing that’s remained constant throughout our friendship is how stoked he is on bikes. I see him all over mountain biking Facebook groups and naturally, pretty much every time I see him it’s at something bike related. I remember the first time we met, he was down in Queenstown riding and came by the store I was working in looking for a part that he’d just broken on the first or second day of his trip. I, for the life of me, can’t remember what said part was but I do remember that I couldn’t supply one, so I sent him on his way. I’m pretty sure he was also looking for employment – something I also couldn’t offer. We kept in touch over the years and as I was coming back to Auckland, he’d just lined up work in Queenstown and was making his way down the line. Swapsies!
Queenstown life is pretty rad and, almost exactly what you’d imagine – work your nine to five, then take to the hills after work and ride until the sun goes down. If you’re into snow sports, the winter is much the same. There aren’t many better places to be if you’re into both! Liam managed to take things to another level though and had found a job at Cardrona Bike Park taking care of their rental fleet. Lunch time laps? No worries. It’s about now in the story that things take an unfortunate turn. That one crash I was talking about earlier; Liam had it.
For those not familiar with Skyline Queenstown, as you exit the gondola you roll down a shared, fenced gravel path towards the trail head. The path is, as you’d expect, pretty loose and being that it’s a shared area, if you don’t take things slow you can end up hitting walkers or, in Liam’s case, a fence post. As Liam joined the path, his front wheel washed out and sent him over the handlebars and head-first into a fence post. He saw the path was clear and came in a little fast, ignoring the slow down signs. It was a stupid crash that should never have happened, as he puts it. While knowing it’s a stupid crash doesn’t necessarily add to the story, I feel like it’s a good reminder that even the easiest sections of trail can lead to crashes with big consequences so if you see signs telling you to take it slow, do just that. Anyway, trail wisdom aside…
Liam knew immediately that something wasn’t right and, after being assessed by the team at Skyline was evacuated to Queenstown Hospital where it was discovered that he’d fractured two vertebrate and had lost all sensation from the chest down. He’d also done a lot of damage to his shoulder but as you can likely imagine, that was the last of Liam’s concerns. From Queenstown he was transferred to the Burwood Spinal Unit in Christchurch, where Liam was told he would likely never regain sensation from the chest down. His first thoughts were “how can I ride again?” and so, once he began rehab he also began researching adaptive mountain biking, a niche sub-genre of mountain biking where bikes are modified to suit riders disabilities. The obvious option was a bucket bike, as per the bike Martyn Ashton now rides.
Bucket bikes, as you can imagine, aren’t terribly common so Liam had a lot of work in front of him to get a bike together. He started with a Pivot Phoenix – a 200mm travel downhill bike. The first, and most obvious, problem to address was having no use of his legs. With the rise of eBikes, Liam opted to run the bike with a Paradox Kinetics electric motor that can be controlled via a thumb throttle. All in all, a relatively easy process. The rest of the bike, however, was, and still is, a constant work in progress.
As able-bodied mountain bikers, we’re able to control our weight distribution and let the bike move around underneath us. If you watch a side-on video of someone riding over rough ground whilst out of the saddle, for example, you’ll notice that their chin and hips stay at a fairly constant height from the ground as they can allow the bike to move up and down underneath their body. Liam on the other hand, is strapped into a seat, meaning his weight moves with the bike and that the suspension system is constantly loaded supporting not only Liam’s full weight, but also the weight of Liam’s adaptive chair and the battery for his drive system, making for an absolute nightmare as far as suspension setup is concerned. Mountain bike suspension is typically setup with a dynamic load in mind, as your average mountain biker will work in conjunction with the suspension system to absorb impacts. Liam’s weight is more or less static once it’s on the bike and as a result, it’s been difficult to dial in settings that suit. Because of the extra weight of the seat and battery, Liam needs to run a higher spring rate but because he can’t absorb impacts with his body, he also needs a really slow rebound rate to control the bucking he’d otherwise face with more typical rebound settings. The problem with this though, is that the rear shock packs out because it can’t rebound fast enough on repeated impacts, like braking bumps. He has similar issues with the fork, but they’re far less exaggerated than the problems he has with the rear.
The seat is another component that’s given Liam issues. Liam’s adaptive seat does more than just give him somewhere to sit. It also holds him upright as he no longer has use of his core. As a result, it’s a lot bigger than your typical mountain bike seat. This is where adaptive bikes really start to get tricky. Because you’re adapting a standard mountain bike frame to work with someone who, ultimately, wasn’t even considered a user in the design process, there’s certain elements that are trickier to work with than others and the mounting of an adaptive seat is the prime example for this. Liam’s adaptive seat has to mount to a standard seatpost which to be frank, is simply not up to the task. This has resulted in multiple re-designs of the mount, with some iterations lasting a mere day.
While the bucket bike is about as close as Liam can currently get to replicating riding a mountain bike, the other big issue is that he can’t ride by himself. His feet are clipped in with standard SPD pedals and because it’s a two wheeled bike, Liam needs people to send him off, catch him and pick him up if he falls. Many of us have the luxury of throwing the bike on the car and going, but unfortunately Liam needs to convince at least two people to go with him.
Well, needed to, I should say…
Liam’s recently picked up one of the raddest things I’ve ever seen: a Bowhead Reach Adventure Cycle. The Bowhead is basically an all-out off-road trike designed to get people adventuring outdoors again. Using mostly mountain bike components and being designed to fit down mountain bike trails, it was the obvious choice for Liam. Being a trike, he can set off by himself and stop mid-ride without having to worry about having someone on hand to catch him. He can also load, and unload it, from his car without assistance, giving him back the option to go ride by himself. As Liam put it: “it doesn’t give me the sensation of two wheels that the bucket bike gives me, but it gives me the freedom to ride whenever I want and to go so many more places.” And, he plans on going to plenty of places. There’s already talks of an Old Ghost Road trip, with Liam even offering to tow my gear aboard a trailer that attaches to the Bowhead. Sign me up! With the Bowhead completing Liam’s fleet of adaptive bikes, he can experience the flow that comes with riding two wheels aboard the bucket bike, with the freedom of exploration aboard the Bowhead – the two main aspects of mountain biking we all chase.
When one of the things that you love most, takes away something massively from important to you it’s easy to see why you’d give up. Especially when, there’s no conventional method to carry on doing that thing you love – such as mountain biking. Liam’s attitude, though, has been nothing but inspiring and it’s humbling to watch him continue to chase the lifestyle mountain biking brings us. Having found ways to feel the flow, explore beyond where anyone else would reach and to ultimately, have a rad time enjoying trails with his buddies.
Words: Cam Baker
Images: Todd Wallace