Two lone bikes rested at the bike rack in front of the Onalaska Library, as if to validate what was taking place inside.

Liz Ramsay, a math and science teacher at Longfellow Middle School was reading a story to the monthly meeting of the Onalaska Historical Society. She had been invited, along with Jodie Harmon and Joey Roberts of the Bethany St. Joseph Onalaska Care Center, to talk about a program that would make Onalaska the first city in western Wisconsin to host Cycling Without Age.

Ramsay’s story reminisced about the joys of a first bike, “It brought freedom and independence to explore the neighborhood,” she read. But fast forward through the years when age and infirmity suddenly hit the brakes and independence comes to a skidding stop. What then?

Ramsay, an avid cyclist herself always had one eye open for ways to help the elderly. One day last summer she chanced upon a bicycle blog about a new program in Denmark. At its center was a bike called a Trishaw. “It allows freedom for those who are no longer able to ride a bike,” she explained, “to experience the freedom and health benefits and regain their independence in a different way.”

So, Ramsay approached Roberts, the recreation therapy director at the care center where her grandfather had been a resident about “engaging the people back into the community” using the Trishaw. The Tri-wheeler is equipped with a bench seat for two riders with a “pilot” pedaling in back. It comes with a canopy for the riders and an electric assist motor for the pilot. Roberts was immediately ecstatic. In December, they borrowed one from a Madison facility and kicked off a fund raiser. Within two months they hit their target of almost $7,500 and placed the order to Copenhagen.

“Our residents will benefit so much,” said Roberts. “We’ll make good use of those bike lanes and hopefully get it out on the trails as well.”

Jodie Harmon, fund development director at Bethany St. Joseph explained that part of the increased cost came from selecting a model that has easier access and would accommodate someone with very limited mobility. “The only thing a resident has to do is sit up,” she said.

Harmon emphasized that support from local businesses and families of the residents was overwhelming.

But it’s not just about the residents.

“We’re very passionate about what is going to happen to our community,” said Ramsay. “I believe that cycling is one of those things that connects us as a community. As a community, we can join together and start a program.”

And the community contribution, in addition to helping fund the project, would provide the pilots. Roberts explained that pilot training consists of watching several videos and taking a road skills test. Pilots also create meaningful relationships with the residents.

While the trio has already begun fund-raising for a second Trishaw, they look to the future when they would have a fleet of them at all the care centers. Roberts also had the idea of reaching out to the schools, using student volunteers to ride along as companions for the residents.

“This is just the start of what we’d like to kick off in La Crosse County, and we’re excited,” said Harmon. For information about donating to the project or becoming a pilot, see jroberts@bsjcorp.com or visit www.cyclingwithoutage.org

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City government reporter

Jourdan Vian is a reporter and columnist covering local government and city issues for the La Crosse Tribune. You can contact her at 608-791-8218.

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