April 9, 2021
Happy Trails: Making the City’s Open Spaces More Accessible
Drew Wills loves a challenge. On any given day, you can find the Colorado Springs attorney on a mountain biking trail in Stratton Open Space, attacking steep climbs and tackling technical tracks. But unlike most of the other riders on the trail, Drew pedals with his hands while flying down hills headfirst.
A lifelong cyclist and outdoor athlete, Drew began handcycling after a skiing accident left him with paraplegia. A fierce competitor, it didn’t take long for him to make a name for himself in on- and off-road cycling events. He was the only handcyclist to enter and complete the initial Pikes Peak Cycling Hill Climb from Manitou Springs, and the first to complete the 110-mile Tour de Steamboat, the Durango-to-Silverton Iron Horse, and the Bob Cook Memorial Hill Climb, which starts in Idaho Springs and ends at the top of Mount Evans. Along the way, he’s set numerous records and won a number of off-road world championships.
But these days, he says he’s “kind of over” his own individual accomplishments being in the spotlight. In the last several years, his priority has become breaking down literal and figurative barriers for himself and others with disabilities. A former board member for The Independence Center, he is passionate about helping other people who use wheelchairs stay healthy and fit and live more independently.
Image courtesy Jeanie Wills
It’s not surprising, then, that he took quick action when he arrived one day for a ride and found his usual trail being rebuilt. After speaking to the trail volunteers, he learned that the trail was being redesigned for a very good reason; it would help prevent erosion. “Unfortunately, the new trail they were creating was on severe side slope,” says Drew. “The way my handcycle is configured, my wheels are three feet apart. So if the trail is not wide enough, it’ll tip me over.”
The volunteers put Drew in touch with Dan Allen, trail project specialist with the City of Colorado Springs Parks and Recreation Department. After years spent as both a lawyer and a disability advocate, Drew prepared himself to be confronted by miles of red tape, bureaucracy, and excuses. But Dan was friendly and responsive, and offered to meet Drew at the trailhead to talk.
Once Dan saw the handcycle, he immediately understood the issue. By the end of their meeting, Dan told Drew that they would fix the trail so that it would accommodate him and other handcyclists. “And I’ll be darned if they didn’t start on it the very next day,” says Drew.
For his part, Dan saw this as a learning opportunity.
“I wasn’t quite sure what a handcycle was or what it was capable of so, what I learned from that experience, we’re definitely applying to our trail design,” he told news station KRDO in an interview about the project. “It was a few extra hours of work but I feel like, we want to make sure all members of the community are welcome and out here enjoying our open spaces.”
Dan and his team not only used what they learned to redesign the trails at Stratton Open Space, they are working to improve accessibility at several other trails at parks around the city, including Red Rocks Open Space. The wider trails not only benefit people with disabilities, they also ensure that the community’s natural areas can be enjoyed by everyone from serious mountain bikers to parents pushing strollers.
“This has been the best example of somebody responding immediately and going the extra mile to make it work,” Drew says. “They could have, as I have experienced in the past, had somebody say, we don’t have the money for that or it’s not feasible or this is all planned and we can’t change it now. But that just didn’t happen. It was just a great example of the way things ought to be.”
Interested in trying out a handcycle for yourself? Many of Colorado’s ski resorts offer adaptive winter and summer recreation opportunities. Check out Crested Butte’s Adaptive Sports Center, the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center, or Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports (STARS).