Chain reaction: Shanith’s story of inclusive cycling

A huge thank you to Shanith, who assisted with our TryaCycle event series, for sharing his story of how an accident caused him to have ongoing mobility difficulties – and how being on a bike gave him independence, a business and freedom.

How was the injury that led to your mobility issues caused?

In January of 2010, I was visiting my family in Sri Lanka and was riding a motorbike on my way home (ironically after donating a prosthetic limb to a victim of war), when I was run over by a drunk truck driver. My left leg was crushed. The bike was damaged so much that when my father had gone to the police station later to complete documentation, they had been surprised that the rider was alive.

I was rushed to the national hospital in Colombo by onlookers, where it was determined that my tibia (close to the knee) was crushed and my femur (thigh bone) was also broken which required a bone graft, in addition to damage to my knee and countless other scrapes and bruises. I spent the next two years in and out of hospital, having various surgeries and metal implants followed by physiotherapy.

I had to give up my dream of completing my education in Australia. I ended up transferring my credits to Middlesex University in the UK which had an affiliated program in Sri Lanka where I completed my degree, going to class on crutches, and finishing my education as valedictorian. 

It was a difficult recovery. I was supposed to be at the prime of my youth but had to rely on my parents for basic bodily functions. I never wanted sympathy, and the systems in Sri Lanka are unfortunately grossly ill equipped to support people who are differently abled or going through recovery. Due to an unfortunate mishap during the surgery, my leg settled nearly an inch shorter than its original length and still poses many complications including severe pain and at times limitations in mobility. However, I refuse to give up. I refuse to let one man’s irresponsible action determine the course of my life, so here we are.

What is your first memory on a bike?

My first memory on a bike is probably the most common memory of most people, getting a bike for my birthday. It wasn’t my first bike, but I was around four years old and got a red bike. Riding it in our garden and locking up my rear tire to do skids and see how much of a dust cloud I could make. Every chance I got it was my favorite activity at that time. I took great care of the bike, and passed it on to a cousin when I outgrew it.

What is your favourite memory on a bike?

My favourite memory on my bike is my most painful memory on a bike as well. It was my first attempt at Eversting ( I was privileged enough to become the first Sri Lankan to complete the Everesting challenge. It was a dream that was three years in the making. It was a grueling three days, but I didn’t give up. I grossly underestimated my physical ability, but I always knew that I had the backing of my will power. As per my research and estimations I knew that I would not be completing the challenge in an average time frame of about 24 hr. Because I was on a mountain bike and because I was not in an ideal state of physical ability I thought I would be finishing around 36 hrs. At that point I had already gone through 6 surgeries post my accident, still had metal plates holding my bones together. Oh how wrong I was! Eventually it took me 76 hrs to complete. but the main thing is that I completed and I was the 1st Sri Lankan to do so and I took on the road cyclist on a challenge predominantly dominated by roadies on my mountain bike. This is my favourite memory because it reminds me that I am more than what my body is supposed to be able to do.

What is cycling in Sri Lanka like?

Sri Lanka doesn’t have formal bike parks. So the entire island is a trail wherever you choose to find one. Finding uncharted beautiful nature trails was one of my favourite activities and one that I was well known for in the cycling community of Sri Lanka. Throughout my travels I mapped close to 100 trails across the country. There is a lot of interest in cycling and many informal cycling groups exist around the island. I used to host a series of cycling events titled ‘weekend warriors’ to encourage cyclists and promote the sport, that brought these amateur cyclists and enthusiasts together, to ride on a trail that I would map in advance, with trophies to celebrate the winners. 

Me and my son, riding through the forest.

Did you cycle before you experienced mobility difficulties? Did you pick it up afterwards or did you return to it?

Well my mobility issues made me return to it. Like any kid in the country I had a bike when I was growing up. But it was just that. Prior to my accident I had cycled, but life had caught on and I had outgrown it. Post the accident, I was unable to do any impact sports. Having been bedridden for over one and a half years, cycling was one of the few things I could do. I had gained quite a bit of weight and I badly needed the exercise. Even more so, I wanted to feel free. I could do something for myself, without the assistance of anyone else, I could experience something refreshing, I could push my body towards becoming more mobile. 

What inspired you to try cycling? Did you know it was an option for you with your mobility difficulty? Was it always a part of your life?

I got into cycling not out of inspiration but out of desperation, but it ended up becoming an inspiration that went beyond a hobby into a revenue generating business. Cycling was the only outdoor activity I could really do post the accident. As I pushed myself I gained confidence that I could aspire to a sense of normalcy in my life. I saw that I was relentless in pushing my limits in uncovering new trails and bettering my own time. This inspired me to share my passion with others, and so I ventured out into forming a little cycling group and eventually a full blown business of taking visitors who came to Sri Lanka on my trails, taking them bike-packing and hiking. What started off as a side hustle ended up becoming Airbnb’s best rated experience in the country. 

Tell us about your bike?

It’s just standard two wheels. Not adapted and no e-assist. I started with a walmart sort of a mountain bike and gradually upgraded to name brands mainly due to performance gains I needed when I was competing in races and events. Most of the time it has been hardtail mountain bikes and one or two road bikes here and there. Now I have a full-suspension trail bike I bought in Auckland and my lightweight hardtail I used in Sri Lanka to which I have fixed a Shotgun Bike seat so I could take my youngest on rides with me. 

How do you use your bike?

Cycling has always been recreational for me. Weekends (with my cycling companions, some of whom became more like family than friends) start at 4am, rides starting from Colombo travelling all the way to the south of the island along the coast 80-90Km one way and returning home for lunch or 5am start and head towards one of our many local mountain bike trails and return home for brekky. 

Silent Hill? More like… Pretty Nice Camping Time In The Woods

How has a bike changed your life and how you get around?

I made many memories along the way. Long weekends were reserved for bike packing, with all my goods packed on to my trusted two wheels. I experienced Sri Lanka in an intimate manner the way most Sri Lankans don’t get to exploring the most remote regions, listening to folklore from villagers, tasting mouth-watering local cuisine. When the evening rolled by, I would pitch my tent up near a waterfall, a mountain top or wherever I felt like to enjoy the sundown. 

It brought so much value to my life and gave me much to look forward to. 

Cycling also gave me a way to share my passion for the greater good. I got to be a part of 1333, riding 1333Kms around Sri Lanka to raise funds for suicide prevention in a country which has a significantly high rate of suicide. I was also able to take part in Tandem Vision which was designed to give individuals with visual impairment the experience of cycling. Last but not least, I come from a country that was engaged in a civil war that spanned over 3 decades. Bombs and terrorist attacks were a part of day to day life for almost the entirety of my adolescence.

So when the opportunity arose to train the Sri Lanka Army Special forces I jumped at it and volunteered 2 months each year for training their teams for an international Inter military Tri-Marathon event. Hands down they are the most inspirational human beings I have ever encountered. 

How do you feel when you’re out and about on a bike?

Cycling for me is not just a means to get around. It is a means to truly immerse myself in my surroundings and explore the unknown. The limitations of my physical body are quickly forgotten and I am able to push myself. It is an experience I got to share with my children and with my friends. Hearing my son squeal in happiness when I took him for his first bike ride on a harness tied to my chest, having my daughter kiss me after her first ride on my saddle are memories that I will always hold on to and cherish.

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