(this story will appear in Traverse Magazine)
Tim Brick and his brothers Bob and John used to ride their Western Flyer bicycles past the Traverse City State Mental Hospital because the huge manicured grounds and many roads were a joy to ride, plus they had fun with the residents. Some of the 8,000 would be out on the barred-up porches and they would taunt them and they in turn would yell to them as the boys sped away…all in good fun, typical adolescent boy behavior. Their bicycles were a source of freedom and joy
John Brick did not get adequate oxygen when he was born. He seemed a tad slow but back in the 50’s there was not the technology to measure and test it. He seemed fine. But when puberty hit, John suffered a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized- in the Traverse City State Mental Hospital , of all places! What a crazy twist of fate. The boys used to tease friends when they did something stupid and say, “What’s wrong? Are you from 11th Street College or something?” for the hospital entrance was off 11th street.
“We always thought it was funny but when your brother is a patient there it wasn’t funny anymore,” Tim admits
So their mother, Mary Jean, a school teacher by trade, went back to school to get her masters in special ed and founded a group home for adults with developmental disabilities, called Grand Traverse Community Living Center (now called the Brick Ways), with the goal of helping them live independent but safe.
“Mom used to say, ‘We want them to be a part of the community not just living in the community.”
Brick Ways has 70 people enrolled in their TRAIL essential support programs and 50 people living in their five unique housing centers.
Mary Jean and John are no longer with us but Tim has continued to carry on the amazing work that was spurred by their rides on the hospital grounds. Forty years ago, Tim founded Brick Wheels cycle shop. He was one of the four founding members of the TART (Traverse Area Recreational and Transportation Trails) and introduced cycling to many in this beautiful city, where over 100 miles of off-road cycling paths exist. Thousands of folks took up cycling, giving them a healthier and happier lifestyle and making Traverse City one of the Top 10 places to retire in all of America.
But what is extra special about Brick Wheels is the clientele. On any given day, you’re likely to see a adult trike, a bike with adult training wheels or a you might see a handi-capped van pull up and the driver unload his wheelchair, then his adaptive bike. It’s normal around here.
Nineteen year old Steve Chapman had just washed his dirt bike and was taking it out for one last joy ride before selling it when the front fork broke. It sent him propelling out over the handlebars, flipping him and slamming him into a tree. His lung collapsed and the impact of the blow shattered his spinal cord. He laid there for fourteen hours, through rain, hail, thunder and lightning.
He had passed a neighbor’s farm right before the accident and had waved to the farmer as he performed a wheelie. That farmer’s dog was going ballistic all night long, barking at the injured Steve who lay so close to the house. The dog’s owner just yelled to the dog to hush up. Because of his collapsed lung, Steve could not yell for help, yet he was conscious.
It was very hard that first year for paralyzed Steve for he spent four months in the hospital recovering, but he soon began to play wheelchair basketball and won the national championship with the Grand Rapids Pacers. He could hold the ball high above his head for his torso and arms were so long- his frame measured 6 feet 4 inches. After the Vietnam War, high tech equipment was developed and wheelchair basketball began. Now they are using high tech gear for bicycles and wheelchairs.
“Getting into shape helped me. The wheel chair just became an extension of my body.” Steve’s mom took his accident the hardest although she said, “God knew what he was doing when he made your arms so long.”
Steve now averages over 11 miles an hour on the TART trails (or paved roads around the Old Mission Peninsula). He put 1500 miles on his bike last year alone.
Steve’s bicycle is aerodynamic. His field of vision is obstructed by his crank and he has to look around it. Still Steve sits very low to the ground and his butt often hits when he has to go over a crack or a bump on the trail or road. His bike has only a very few inches of clearance. His hands get sweaty turning the crank and the aluminum hand pedals get slippery so he must wear gloves. But he can easily put fifty-two miles on his bike in one day and accumulated 1500 last year. Traverse City is a bike-friendly community (thanks largely to Tim Brick, owner of Brick Wheels.) Since there is such a large number of cyclist in the area they tend to have a certain empathy for their fellow cyclist. They LOOK for and after cyclists on the road.
Steve has been riding with his son Dylan, who is now 14 years old. Dylan runs a very fast 22 MPH pace and Steve onlyaverages a respectable 15-18! He will have to step up his game!
He has ridden the I-Ride- Independent Ride across Michigan – a 4 day ride with the Disability Network, which helps physically challenged riders like Steve accomplish their goals.
Cycling isn’t the only sport Steve excels at – he water skis, snow skis, plays tennis in a special quick-moving wheelchair…is a lot more active than most able-bodied fifty year olds. Steve has great balance. Besides his bike, Steve rides 4-wheeler and snow mobiles, but he can’t use his stomach muscles.
“Everyone takes their accident differently. I go to hospitals and talk to accident victims. It helps both of us for you can always find someone worse than yourself. “
Thirty-two year old John Johnson had no idea when he went out for his joy ride on his 600cc Polaris snowmobile that his life would be forever altered. His machine hit a rut. The impact threw his hands off and he lost control, propelling him into a tree moving at 80 MPH. His back broke. He was in the hospital for 56 days. He never walked again. He does however, ride a bike quite spectacularly. Like thirty miles in a day, a distance many walking people can’t accomplish. John moves at 11.3 MPH and last year he put 2,600 miles on his bike without the use of his legs, riding about 4-5 times a week
How does he do it? With the help of Tim Brick of Brick Wheels and his pit crew.
John arrives at the store in his modified van, that he soley uses his hands to drive and his “pit crew” greets him, like a Nascar star. John can get himself out of his vehicle on his own, into his wheelchair onto his bike and lift his useless legs strapping them in. He can even take his bike and ram his chair up the van’s ramp but 99% of the time, the crew is there to help. Unlike Steve, John can sit up. The crew airs up his tires and checks his breaks and he’s off, using his hands to pedal. Every ride begins and ends at Brick Wheels.
When he has a flat on the trail, Brick Wheels arrives like his personal AAA road side service, they put him and his bike up on blocks and change tubes.
“If it wasn’t for these guys, I wouldn’t be riding.”
John is an inspiration for all who see him. Like the elderly couple who flagged him down to find out about his recumbent bike. Now they are out there staying fit and having fun in their 70’s.
John and Steve’s bikes both cost about $10,000 and they received grants from foundations to help purchase them through Top End Co- who also makes wheelchairs and skis etc. Although there are over half a dozen bike shops now in Traverse City, Brick Wheels gets the lion’s share of disabled riders. Tim’s staff makes every attempt to make them feel like everyone else and caters to them.
Steve and John tell me, “They know us here, what we need and go above and beyond a normal bike shop.”
Ray Myers arrived at Brick Wheels after surviving brain surgery to correct his seizures, that rendered him needing to relearn everything. Like how to count, spell, read, even move his body. He hadn’t driven in many years but that was his goal. Learning to ride a bike would help him achieve that goal, Ray believed. Tim Brick at Brick Wheels was the only bike shop owner who would work with him.
Ray learned to ride his bike and rode all through the seasons, over ice and snow. He learned to balance and steer, build his stamina and his confidence. He was rebooting his brain to learn new skills.
“There are so many things happening when you ride a bike. There are horizontal, vertical angles to deal with, multiple functions had to be executed in order to stay upright and move. I had to learn to balance, focus. I knew in my heart that if I could learn to ride a bike, it would be a stepping stone to driving a car again.”
No one believed in Ray but Tim Brick. Everyone else said, “You will never drive a car, Ray. And you should give up that bike,” as Ray ended up in the hospital on more than one occasion.
After 1 ½ years of practicing on his bike, he was granted a driver’s license, but only within 5-10 miles of his home at first, then 20-then 50. Now Ray owns his own car and is leasing his own home, which is huge for this previously homeless man who lived in shelters, having seizures, on 12 meds a day, without a job or income or hope.
“I am so grateful to Tim Brick. He brought about great change in my life.” Ray believes God put Tim in his path to help him. “I have had more blessings in my life in these last six years than most experience in an entire lifetime.”
The other unusual clientele they have are the mentally handicapped cyclists…the folks who live in Mary Jean’s very popular group homes and independent apartments under the Brick Ways direction.
Peter Garth is one such cyclist who serves as the Ambassador of Traverse City’s Cherry Festival. Peter makes it his duty to sell more Beer Tent pins as anyone else. Last year he sold over 20,000 via his familiar one speed coaster brake cruiser with turn down handlebars, and has been doing this work for over 25 years promoting the city he loves on the bike that he loves. It’s actually his second bike because he wore his first one out. The National Cherry Festival organization purchased his new bike for him four years ago. He had it set up just the way he likes. It’s an unusual set up but Peter is an unusual man and he knows what he likes
In a normal week Brick Wheels will service about 15-20 special needs cyclist. “They may come in and talk, discuss sports, ask us to check their gears, investigate squeaks, see if their bell is working right, or just grab a coffee” Tim shares, “even if we checked the same problem the day before , we still do it. To these folks their bicycles are not only their main form of transportation but also a great source of pride and status. They’ll look forward to adding a new set of streamers or valve caps like a young CEO might covet a new carbon shaft driver. Our mechanics never pre-judge. Other bike shops may not want to bother.”
“Our employees all figure it out sooner or later that the short bus stops here and they are more than welcomed!” Our race team is called the Brickheads and these folks are Brickheads too
Tim teases his special needs clients, gives them bike gloves, and other special presents they might need.
“Fast Eddie” got equipped with a trailer for his twenty-seven speed mountain bike. He cruises town picking up recyclables, which earn 10 cents a bottle or can. He has made over $300 in one day.
Eddie was born to a homeless couple and found in a box as an infant with rat bites on him and long rat claw scratches. He’s had a tough life in and out of foster care until he found Brick Ways. Tim and I visited him in the hospital where he was recovering from a bout with pneumonia. On Tim’s office door there is a handmade get well card that Eddie gave to Tim after one of his surgeries. It looks as if it were from a pre- school student but to Tim it’s a Rembrandt.
When we walked in his room, Tim teased him about the brown iron IV drip, “What’s that in the bag, Eddie? Root beer?” Tim never hesitates to tease his special needs friends, and treats them all as if they were family, like his brother John. I asked Eddie why he is called “Fast Eddie” (on his mountain bike he named “Hot Rod”!) and he answered, “Because I’m fucking fast!”
As we prepared to leave the hospital, Eddie put his arms around Tim and hugged him hard, and teared up. He said, “I love you Tim. You’re like my big brother.”
Mom Mary Jean and Brother John are both smiling broadly down on Tim Brick.