Ask handcyclist Cesar Hernandez about biking on the Cross Florida Greenway’s paved trail and he smiles.
“Riding my bike on the paved trail allows me to be active in a safe environment and enjoy being out in nature,” says Hernandez, 54, an associate engineer with SPXFLOW Inc. “It gives me a tremendous sense of freedom, of normalcy. That is very important to my well-being.”
Hernandez became a paraplegic at 22, the victim of a random drive-by shooting in Brooklyn, New York. Key to adapting to his new life was finding a way to be physically active.
“I began playing wheelchair basketball while attending New York University. It felt great to be active again and be part of a team,” says Hernandez. “When I moved to Ocala in 1993, I joined the Orlando Magic Wheels and played for them for 10 years. As I got older, I knew my basketball time was winding down. But I didn’t know what activity was next.”
Hernandez’s Orlando Magic Wheels teammate John Schulte had a solution for him—a handcycle. Schulte is the head engineer for Top End, a Pinellas Park, Florida-based maker of mobility sports equipment.
“I bought a Top End Force 3 handcycle in 2014,” says Hernandez. “I’ve been riding ever since.”
Hernandez began riding in his southwest Ocala neighborhood, gradually working up to twice weekly 8-mile rides. He met paraplegic Jesse Bryant, who lives in Oak Run, at the monthly meeting of the Ocala Chapter of the Spinal Cord Injury Support Group; the duo began riding together regularly. Hernandez’s biking group now includes non-paraplegics Mike Hamlin, Ken Bailey, Oscar Hernandez, John Bouchard, Gary Brown, Mary Oram and Lenore Anderson. Various combinations of the group ride on different days.
“I live near the Greenway’s SW 49th Avenue Trailhead, so I was very excited when I found out that a paved trail was being constructed,” says Hernandez. “When it opened in late fall of 2017, we biked 30 miles that first day.”
Bre Ximenes, the Greenway trails and volunteer coordinator, happened to be at the trailhead that day when the bikers returned. It was then that the conversation began about creating a limerock road connector from Hernandez’s neighborhood to the paved trail. Under Americans With Disabilities Act guidelines, Ximenes and the Greenway office made the request a reality. On June 23, 2018, Hernandez and Bryant took the inaugural ride on the connector.
“With the connector, I can just get on my bike at my house and head to the Greenway,” says Hernandez, who averages 100-130 miles a week. “Being self-reliant is a great feeling. And once I get on the Greenway, I just smile the whole time.”