For just about anyone imaginable, being crushed by a 20’ x 20’ exterior wall on a construction site would signal an end, if not “the” end. Not so for Jake O’Connor. For him, that day in 2001 was just the beginning.
I first catch Jake in Crested Butte, Colorado at his shop, ReActive Adaptations, which boasts half a dozen models of bikes he specifically designs and builds for disabled riders. He is training 3 new employees, updating his website, and preparing several of his clients’ off-road handcycles for a multi-day, 100-mile adaptive riding event on the famous White Rim Road in Canyonland National Park.
Jake’s fiery Irish grit and get-up-and-go mentality is precisely what propelled him to this point, and what got him through that fateful day 21 years ago. As he was freeing himself from the wreckage, he realized he could only use his arms. After undergoing surgery and having new hardware installed in his spine (8 screws and 2 rods, to be precise), he never regained feeling in the lower half of his body. For a lifelong adventure athlete, the word “paraplegic” suddenly became the most visible trait by which he would be defined, and it was one he would work to redefine.
"I want to do everything myself. I want to haul my own gear into the backcountry.”
So, he adapted, and kept his forward momentum going. “I spent ten days in the ICU, must’ve set a record with 5 or 6 weeks of rehab. I finished school, got my degree in construction management, moved to Kansas, bought a new house, started a new job in construction that had me working 70 to 80 hour weeks...all within a year of the accident,” he says. The part of him that was driven to create and build persisted; it just shifted away from large-scale corporate complexes and casinos to personalizing and handcrafting handcycles.
While Jake’s career in construction was fulfilling enough, the loss of the use of his legs left a large gap in his identity where outdoor adventure used to reside: rock climbing, fly fishing, backpacking…those things were no longer accessible to him without major assistance, meaning there was no way to pursue them with serious intent, or without someone else’s help. “I’m an independent person,” he asserts. “I don’t want help. I want to do everything myself. I want to haul my own gear into the backcountry.”
He wondered if he could ever find a way back to his former self. The answer found him a couple years later, when a friend in Fort Collins invited him to try off-road riding on a handcycle – a bicycle designed to be pedaled with the arms, instead of the legs.
Once he was on the trails, he felt free again, navigating rugged terrain and charging around at speed. He asked his friend, “Can this thing go in water?” Before his friend could respond, he gleefully steered it straight into a river. (His friend’s answer, by the way, would have been a hard “no.”)
Having properly broken in the bike, Jake bought it from his friend on the spot: “I was hooked.”
That love-at-first-ride was a One-Off Titanium by legendary handcycle-constructing pioneer Mike Augspurger. While it was a very serviceable machine, Jake soon found himself pushing beyond the limits of its capabilities. He was riding hard, tackling challenging, technical terrain, and finding he was either constantly repairing parts, wishing for different parts, or both. He made some preliminary sketches that included his ideas for improvements and brought them to a local welder in 2010. “Chad Belyea welded things like house railings but agreed to help me tinker and fabricate the first Bomber.”
The prototype featured a prone position (with the rider’s head at the fore), chest steering, and rear suspension. It was a bike intended to be handled as aggressively as Jake needed to ride, a need, he quickly realized, many others were looking to fill as well: a friend noticed his new build and wanted one; and then another, followed by yet another – a chain reaction that led to the establishment of ReActive Adaptations.
One friend in particular, Kirk Williams, was on that list, but had a disability that couldn’t be accommodated by the Bomber. As a quadriplegic, Kirk had to recline instead of kneel, so he became the test pilot for Jake’s newest fabrication: the Nuke. Kirk was more than willing to give feedback on improvements. “He’s a total pain – in a good way,” Jake jokes affectionately. “I see him coming and I know he’s going to be asking for this or that…but that’s what’s great. It wouldn’t get done otherwise. The Nuke was born because he pushed me to develop it.”
Kirk gives it right back to Jake, “he has a gruff and tough façade, but a heart of gold. He’s helped so many people, myself included.”
The lone option for Kirk prior to the Nuke was dismal at best; he described a four-wheeled downhill contraption with brakes flipped on the handlebars so his hands could be duct-taped to them. “I thought I was gonna break my neck again! You can see why I jumped on board to help ReActive from the get-go. I raced my bike all my life, it’s what put me in a wheelchair. Jake made it possible for me to get that life back.”
The four other models of ReActive trikes are the Mako, a full-suspension version of the Nuke; the Hammerhead, a full-suspension version of the Bomber; the Stinger, a foot-pedal recumbent bike; and the Wildcat, a mini-Nuke for the “groms” – the next generation. Kirk recounts that Jake noticed a 7-year-old disabled girl in town and without a word to anyone, made the first Wildcat and surprised her with it, as a gift. “She was in a wheelchair but she can bike around town with her buddies now…it has changed her whole outlook,” Kirk remarks.
"I raced my bike all my life, it’s what put me in a wheelchair. Jake made it possible for me to get that life back.”
The Bomber was in the spotlight last year when Quinn Brett used it to complete 2,450 miles of the Continental Divide, becoming the first adaptive rider to complete the monumental feat. She reminisces, “While I was riding the divide it was downpouring one day. Jake followed my GPS track and when I turned a corner, there he was with a bottle of whiskey! Without my Bomber I wouldn’t have the freedom to explore, which is essential to my heart and being. He has inspired us all to get back to nature.”
Of course, to build these bikes, Jake also had to design and build different machines and adaptations to them. “Jake has the ingenuity and skillset to make those things possible for someone in a chair,” Kirk marvels. “Stuff” is Jake’s technical term for some of the mods, “fixtures that hold onto other fixtures,” he explains. “I also made a gigantic rotisserie-like bike holder; it spins the bike in the air, allowing me to move the frame around so I can get to all the welds.”
Over 200 bikes later, built for those with paraplegia, quadriplegia, hemiplegia, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injuries, or degenerative diseases, among others, this project has now expanded beyond what Jake ever envisioned.
Mountain biking gained popularity during the pandemic, adaptive mountain biking along with it. “2020 drove sales through the roof, foundations like the Kelly Brush and High Fives Foundation were getting huge amounts of donor money for me and my competitors to build bikes for folks with disabilities,” Jake reports.
The ripple effect can be seen far and wide: at Mt. Abram in ME, new trails were recently built to accommodate adaptive mountain bikes; Berkshire East in MA purchased a ReActive bike for any adaptive rider to use, free of charge, on its trails; NEMBA (New England Mountain Bike Association) Fest hosted a record number of adaptive riding associations this year.
Unfortunately, the current labor and parts shortages as well as supply chain issues are felt more acutely in remote areas such as Crested Butte. Unable to keep up with the demand, ReActive Adaptations is not taking any new orders at present. “Word on the street is Jake quit and isn’t making them any more, but that’s far from the case,” he insists, “we are just stressed and slammed.”
Jake recognizes he will have to figure out a new way to operate ReActive Adaptations in its accelerated growth phase, which is fitting for someone who has always looked forward rather than dwelt on the past, and looked past problems to their solutions. “I am an idea guy. I can run a business, but I’d rather look for someone to run that part while I do more product development. I have drawings of ideas I haven’t gotten to in years.”
When I press him on what invention he would most like to get to, he perks up. “There’s the Expedition…I built up a fat-tire Bomber without suspension for myself. I take my kids on it, haul a saw out to do trail work; it’s basically a utility back country bike. I want to add a trailer that folds out and secondaries as a kitchen…it would be the diesel truck of bikes.”
I could easily ask this man a hundred more questions, but I’ve caught on that his nature isn’t to sit still for very long. He’d clearly much rather get back to “doing,” especially after this talk of building and biking. I relent, and wrap up with a final question that brings things back to his own original inspiration: what is his favorite bike to ride? “I ride everything. I’m most capable on the Hammerhead, but I’ve been riding the Bomber style longer than anything else; I’m on the Mako more these days.”
"Without my Bomber I wouldn’t have the freedom to explore, which is essential to my heart and being. [Jake] has inspired us all to get back to nature.”
With that, he straps himself into his Mako and takes off for the hills in a cloud of dust and gravel. He’s a self-professed loner, and doesn’t have much time to ride these days, but there’s an old singletrack trail he still tests his work on called Warm Springs. Wildlife abounds among the colorful aspens, and there’s an old brown bear that spies on him every once in a while. He insists it’s not a difficult ride by his standards, but I have no doubt he’s picking and cleaning the hardest line he can find.
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