Robert Bailey’s Facebook friends thought the cycling double amputee from Baton Rouge looked great riding across rolling Iowa.
“One of them said they hadn’t seen me smiling like that since high school,” said Bailey, 53.
It was Bailey’s third attempt at the seven-day, Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa.
RAGBRAI began 40 years ago when two writers and a public relations guy on the Des Moines Register newspaper decided to ride their bicycles across Iowa, write stories from the road and invite the citizens of the Corn State to join them.
A few hundred did, some making just a day ride, the start of a tradition, and some going all the way across the state.
Today, RAGBRAI’s one-day cyclists number in the thousands and the weeklong ride draws cyclists from across the United States. Bicycling means more than $360 million a year to the state of Iowa, “which has trails and bicycle routes everywhere,” Bailey said.
For the former information technology worker, the ride across Iowa was a coming out party, a celebration that grew out of a freak accident.
Almost seven years ago, Bailey was mowing the fields around his family’s home place in Central a few days before Christmas.
As he mowed the tall grass using a bush hog, the tractor’s muffler set fire to the grass, he thinks. As flames rose around him he tried to jump clear of the tractor.
Bailey was run over by the bush hog, “my legs literally stopping the mower’s blades,” he said.
Bailey’s recovery is ongoing, aided by his work with Limb Up, an affiliate of the Amputee Coalition of America, and his own growing ability as a para-athlete.
Bailey talks about “Oscar,” as though para-athlete Oscar Pistorius, a sprinter from South Africa, were Michael Jordan.
One of the most moving moments of the London Olympics was a competitor’s approaching Pistorius after a race to exchange name tags pinned to their shirts.
Pistorius, a double amputee below the knee like Bailey, runs on Cheetah Flex-Foot blades.
Bailey, who moves well on prosthetics, chose an English-made, touring tricycle and long-distance cycling for his athletic passion and torture.
Bailey weighed 255 pounds two years ago when he first attempted the approximately 470-mile, seven-day ride across Iowa.
Today, he weighs 190, on his way to 175 pounds, and says he’s halved his monthly medical bills for complications of diabetes.
But that first try, “I was totally over my head. I ripped up my legs. There was more flesh on my legs and my riding sockets were too high. My legs were loose in the sockets which resulted in chafing, but what stopped me, really, was my lack of fitness.”
Fitting an amputee to a bicycle is an evolutionary process, said Jay Tew, a certified prosthetist with Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics.
“Just trying to keep the foot on the pedal can be very trying,” Tew said. “It’s a great thing to lock your feet to the bicycle, but it can be really dangerous.”
“We have great fun playing with all the different designs and outcomes,” Tew said. “It takes patience and determination on the part of all parties… There is no playbook to this stuff.”
“People think Iowa is flat,” Bailey said. “It isn’t. The first two times, I felt I let myself down, but I looked forward to the next time.”
Because of a poor diet and diabetes, Bailey said, he was eating muscle when he trained.
“You feel like you’re a four-cylinder engine running on two cylinders,” he said. “I had to quit processed carbohydrates. I switched to tuna fish, other protein, fruits, vegetables, no rice or bread.
“I eat some red meat, but, mostly, it’s fish and chicken and a lot of tuna” when training. “Star Kist and I got to know each other very well.”
Going to the gym, riding his tricycle two to three hours a day and eating better, the pounds and inches slowly came off.
“I was in 40-inch pants,” Bailey said. “I’m in 34s, now.”
“The ride this year was not monstrous,” he said. “Riding 80 miles a day, I could usually do 13 miles an hour. On the hills, you gear down, and I have no lower legs. I spin. That’s all I’ve got.”
Spinning is what para-athletes and the world’s elite cyclists in the Tour de France do. Cyclists use the biggest gear that they can turn rapidly for maximum RPM and sustained efficiency.
“What I brought back this time was, ‘Why not Louisiana?’” Bailey said.
What Louisiana lacks in broad highways it makes up for in scenery, from the rolling, forested hills of North Louisiana to the flat agricultural fields and bayous of Central Louisiana to the bayous, marshes and coast of South Louisiana, Bailey said.
Care would have to be taken in selecting the route across Louisiana, but such a ride would make money while getting able-bodied Louisianians off the couch and amputees out of bed, he said.
“You have amputees in Louisiana sitting in bed alone,” Bailey said. “That’s terrible.”
The Limb Up affiliate offers support for new amputees as well as amputees who lost limbs years ago, Bailey said.
“There’s a successful Veterans’ Administration group in New Orleans,” Bailey said. “The VA is supposed to start a group here soon.”
The VA helped him buy his tricycle, said Bailey, a U.S. Navy veteran.
Call Bailey at (225) 270-3134 to learn more about para-cycling and amputee support groups.