Neil gears up for solo handcycling adventure in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland
The weather may be a little different, but the scenery will be no less impressive when Neil Russell from Stirling embarks on a big adventure next week – not across Africa as originally planned - but through the Highlands and Islands of Scotland!
Neil, 36, who says handcycling has "opened up a new world" for him will be venturing into parts of his home country that he has never explored. His route will take in the rugged mountains of Arran, the pristine white sands of Gigha and the wild, desolate moorland at Cape Wrath, mainland Scotland’s most north-westerly point.
With no lions or elephants to worry about, Neil will be wild camping in the wilderness and hoping that the tiny but infamous Highland midge doesn’t make an appearance.
Neil’s love of handcycling started when he entered a para triathlon five or so years back. Despite finding the swimming and wheelchair racing part of the event “the worst thing I’ve ever done, just not the right sport for me” he enjoyed the handcycling part and wanted to do it again.
Following some time riding the trails on a manual handcycle in the area around Stirling, which is well known in gravel riding circles, Neil upgraded to a custom-built handcycle with electric assist and full suspension, made by hand by a family company in Las Vegas. Sadly, his planned trip to Vegas to collect the cycle fell victim to the coronavirus pandemic.
It was also during the lockdown period that he got in touch with a man who posted on Facebook about his desire to handcycle across Africa. The trip was planned and a local support team paid before the plans fell through. Not wanting to miss an opportunity, Neil turned his attention to some of the lesser-known islands and parts of the Highlands instead.
The trip is expected to take him around a month and he will be supported by his father and his girlfriend for some of the time. Neil, who is fundraising for the trip, said:
“I’m taking my time to complete the journey. The point of the whole thing is to show what an ordinary person is capable of as I’m not an athlete.”
An outdoor education specialist now based in North Wales, Neil has previously worked for Experience Community in Yorkshire. He has a particular interest in participation for disabled people as a wheelchair user himself and he has recently advised some competition-level mountain bikers on accessibility issues.
“I believe in integration - often with adaptive riding there’s an isolated group of disabled people doing it together, but why can’t people ride adaptive cycles and regular ones side by side? How can we encourage disabled and non-disabled people to ride together?”
Neil believes that the use of electric assistance can be one way to give more power and confidence to disabled cyclists.
“I think a cycling group would be worried if an adaptive cyclist like me asked to join, as they might think they couldn’t meet my needs. It takes a brave disabled person who will not worry about being able to keep up, but electric assist levels the playing field for a lot of people.”
In fact, when Neil went riding with some mountain bikers on regular bikes, he surprised them by overtaking them on the hills.
“They thought I would be really slow but with the assistance I was faster than them!"
Once his trip is over, Neil won’t be taking it too easy as he has another challenge to look forward to:
“This year the Duke’s Weekender event in Aberfoyle in September has an adaptive category for the first time, and I’d really like to take part.”