Drew Wills found new life somewhere along a ribbon of highway skirting the rim of the Black Canyon in western Colorado.
It wasn't easy that day, pedaling a three-wheeled handcycle up and over tall mountains in the 2005 Tour of Colorado, a 400-mile supported cycling adventure. The muscles in his arms and shoulders protested every turn of the crank.
Wills had lost the use of his legs the winter before, in a skiing accident at Aspen. He had narrowly avoided a skier who cut across the slope in front of him. He clipped a tree and severed his spinal cord.
"One second everything was blue skies and powder," Wills says. "The next, I'm paralyzed and I can't do anything about it."
Six months later, still reckoning with the crushing reality that he'd never walk again, he pedaled more than 100 miles, from Crested Butte to Hotchkiss, on a tough leg of the tour.
"I had set my sights on that day," Wills says. "That was the time I started to think, 'If I can do 100 miles with all of that climbing, then maybe this is for me.'"
Wills, now 57, is a lawyer and father of two grown children. He's also one of the most accomplished handcyclists in the country, competing against and often beating athletes decades younger. He recently finished third overall at the three-stage Off Road Handcycling World Championships in Crested Butte, and won the hill climb stage, a 2.5-mile ascent with 1,000 feet of climbing.
"I like pushing myself. I always have," Wills says.
Wills and I pedaled a little last week on the singletrack at Stratton Open Space where he trains for his competitions. He rode a three-wheeled machine made by his friend Jake O'Connor, a paraplegic whose company ReActive Adaptations builds handcycles in Crested Butte.
His handcycle is geared to take advantage of the power he applies. With a carved upper body that would make a linebacker envious, Wills has power to give. His handcycle rides low to the ground, and he leans over the pedals for leverage. He's strong enough to spin the wheels in the gravel going up steep sections. And he left me and my mountain bike behind on the downhill runs, cornering along the winding trail like a racecar sticking to an asphalt track.
After the accident, as he recovered at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Wills and his family spent days talking about life changes. He thought that bike rides with his wife, Jeanie, and family ski vacations with his kids had ended. Then his son, Stephen, walked into the room with a photo album he had found at the hospital. It contained pictures of paraplegics who had enriched their lives participating in various sports.
"He came into the room and said, 'You're not going to have to give up anything,'" Wills says.
The journey began there, and a woman named Claire Cahow, who works with paralyzed patients, helped guide the way. She encouraged Wills to ride in the Tour of Colorado. And though he had doubts, and did not complete the entire distance, he completed the Black Canyon stretch and found the confidence he needed to live life on his terms.
He is drawn to difficult challenges. Wills holds the record — 4 hours, 4 minutes — in the 27.4-mile Bob Cook Memorial Mount Evans Hill Climb. And Wills is the only handcyclist to ride in the Pikes Peak Cycling Hill Climb. He covered the 12.4-mile distance in 2:39 this year. He's twice pedaled from Manitou Springs to Pikes Peak's summit. He also completed the 465-mile Ride the Rockies tour this year and has knocked out other tough rides.
"I do focus on events that I know will be super-hard to finish," he says. "I've always enjoyed sports. For me to be happy, I'm going to have to be outside doing something. The athletic part feeds everything else."
And Wills admits, he enjoys showing people that he and other adaptive athletes have moved beyond their condition.
"I like opening people's minds a little," he says. "I'm not looking for pats on the back, or 'attaboys.' It's nice to go out on a ride and not talk about my injury. Now, the conversation is often just about cycling."