Freedom on two wheels

Teachers and students in the Mackay site cycling program celebrate after another successful lesson. Front from left: Gabriela, Sophia and Nathan. Standing: Kinesiologist Eric Parent (left) and Physiotherapist David Marcotte.
Teachers and students in the Mackay site cycling program celebrate after another successful lesson. Front from left: Gabriela, Sophia and Nathan. Standing: Kinesiologist Eric Parent (left) and Physiotherapist David Marcotte.

CIUSSS Rehabilitation team opens up the world of cycling to children with coordination disabilities

Sophia Giraldo used to be afraid to ride a bike, worried she’d lose her balance and fall over. Instead, she would watch her friends from the sidelines. “I felt left out. It made me sad,” says the 10-year-old, who has a coordination impairment.

This spring, Sophia began on a journey that set her on a new course: she enrolled in a cycling program at the Mackay site of the Lethbridge-Layton-Mackay Rehabilitation Centre. Bit by bit, Sophia overcame her fears. She learned to balance on her bike, then propel herself forward, her confidence growing with each class. Soon, the girl was gliding forward gleefully on her own.

“I’m so happy,” Sophia said with a broad smile after one class recently, as her mother looked on. “I feel proud of myself.”

Sophia’s transformation from fearful to free-wheeling was visible at Mackay’s Décarie Blvd. site recently. She was joined by a dozen students who all came equipped with bikes, helmets and a bucketful of perseverance, united in the pursuit of a common goal: the joy of riding a bike.

Watch children learn the ABCs of bike riding at the Mackay cycling program

Learning to ride a bike is a rite of passage for children, marking a step toward freedom and independence. Thanks to a Rehabilitation team from the Mackay Developmental and Motor Program, that freedom is being made accessible to children with cerebral palsy, developmental coordination disorder and other neuro-muscular and motor impairments.

Kinesiologist Eric Parent and Physiotherapist David Marcotte support the children, aged five to 13, by breaking down bike lessons into manageable steps. First, they teach the children to balance, then to move forward; pedals are put on the bike in the fourth of six lessons. With each pedal stroke, the children advance toward a goal that seemed out of reach only a short time earlier.

Jean-François Gibeau’s 10-year-old son, Thomas, arrived at the lessons filled with self-doubt. “I can’t do it. I’m going to fall,” the boy told his father. Yet after only one class, Thomas discovered he could balance on his bike, just like other children. The boy was ecstatic.

“This is the most beautiful day of my life,” he told his father.

Each new lesson represented a sense of accomplishment. “These are small victories,” Mr. Gibeau said while watching his son go through his paces.

“As parents, we’re proud to have accompanied them on their journey.”

Jean-François Gibeau

Cycling offers not only the benefits of physical activity; it also breaks down social isolation. The children who attend the Mackay classes have experienced the struggles that come from developing differently from others. But among their fellow cycling students, they feel like they belong.

“They don’t have to be afraid to be ridiculed, and they don’t have to be afraid to fail, because everyone’s in the same boat as they are,” Mr. Parent says. Surrounded by parents and specialists, the children feel more willing to take risks, he says. “They’re in a social environment where they feel supported and safe.”

During one recent lesson, Mr. Parent and Mr. Marcotte led the children through a series of exercises before reaching the final challenge of the day—a practice ride. The children gathered excitedly for the finale, lining up next to their practice lane.

Then, as their turn approached, Mr. Parent shouted: “Three, two, one—go, go, go!”

The children cruised down their lanes. They leaned into their handlebars, eyes locked on the lane ahead, faces intent with effort and concentration. And when they reached the finish line, they looked like they saw new horizons open up before them. Thomas said he’d be telling his friends that he’d be biking with them soon.

Those moments—when a child completes the classes, succeeding where they believed they would fail—are the source of the Rehabilitation staff’s motivation and deepest satisfaction.

“My greatest pleasure,” Mr. Parent says, “is when I see the children with a big smile, saying: “I can do it! I can do it!”