Decades ago, when I was a child, my world grew so much larger when I got a bicycle. The bike also gave me more mobility and the freedom that goes along with it. It’s a sense of freedom that many of us take for granted. And it’s a freedom that isn’t necessarily available to everyone.
Gary Dagastine works to provide that freedom to people with disabilities, disease, missing limbs or anything else that may inhibit them from riding a bike. He got his start when his wife, Beth, who has multiple sclerosis, was having problems with her balance and strength on a regular bicycle. He got her a tricycle, but that didn’t work out well at all. The center of gravity was too high, and it would easily tip while turning or when one of the rear wheels hit a large bump. He got her a recumbent trike, and it was stable and comfortable. And the advantage of having her back braced against a back rest made her a stronger rider. Soon she was happily riding the roads and trails again. Gary also bought one for himself. One thing led to another, and he started his own shop, Northwest Recumbent Cycles.
Gary doesn’t remember exactly when, but he started measuring bikes to fit veterans. The Veterans Administration will provide a bike to certain qualified veterans who are in physical therapy. The VA would then use the measurements to order the bikes from Seattle shops. Gary learned that the shops were charging what he felt was too much money for the modifications they were making. To him, a brake is a brake regardless of which side of the bike you put it on. So he offered to build the bikes and make the modifications at no extra charge. For example, he moved the shift and brake controls to one side for an amputee. He also built a tandem for a blind veteran, so he could ride with his wife. Gary builds about 15 bikes a year for referred veterans.
Gary has also built bikes for disabled children. The list of children whose lives he has affected is long. There was the eight-year-old autistic boy who he set on a recumbent and let loose in the yard in front of his shop. The boy rode across the yard, stopped, picked up the bike and turned it around, and then rode back. Gary squatted down and began to tell the boy about turning and brakes when the boy exclaimed, “I know!” Gary turned around and saw the boy’s parents had tears in their eyes. It was the first time they’d ever heard his voice.
One little girl refused to use her legs, and doctors could find no reason for her not to use them. Gary built a bike with a hand crank but also left the pedals connected to the drive train. The pedals had straps to hold her feet. As the girl rode more, she began using her legs. Gary is modest about his common sense approach, and he thinks the girl finally realized she could go faster and farther if she put her legs to work.
A church near his shop asked Gary if he could build a bike for a three-year-old girl with spinal bifida. Gary has a supply of old bikes and parts that he uses for custom builds like this, and he does his own welding. He fashioned a hand-cranked trike and painted it her favorite colors, pink and purple. And he has adjusted the size to fit her as she’s grown over the last three years.
Back when Gary was still with the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department, he was dispatched to a terrible collision scene. The seventeen-year-old girl driving the car had struck a tree. The investigation later estimated she was going 72 mph when she hit. Gary held her C-spine straight until they got to the hospital. There he learned that her injuries were extremely severe, and her quality of life would be dramatically affected. A couple years later the girl’s father asked Gary to build her a bike. The young lady could barely walk and was wheel chair bound most of the time. Gary put a recumbent trike together with an electric motor assist. The young lady, who has since gone to college and married her high school sweetheart, loves her bike.
Gary Dagastine selflessly says his reward for helping anybody get on a bike is just the fact that they are out riding. He believes that if you get the right bike that’s comfortable, then you will look for an excuse to ride. Otherwise it’s a dust collector in the garage. The mobility and freedom that comes with a bicycle makes just as much difference to a child as it does to a senior citizen, and even more so to a disabled person. The world has grown for a lot of people thanks to Gary Dagastine.