DESIGNED FOR ACCESSIBILITY

He Worked It Out

Athlete Rob Balucas helped bring handcycling to Strava.

Strava: Run, Ride, Swim

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He knew he was going way too fast.

In September 2015, Rob Balucas was training for a half Ironman, a race that comprises a 1.2-mile (1.9-km) swim, a 56-mile (90-km) bike ride, and a 13.1-mile (21.1-km) run. He was biking north of San Francisco, descending an especially steep and winding road, when he lost control of his bicycle and crashed, sustaining a spinal cord injury.

“I went straight over the edge, fell 20 feet down a hillside, and landed flat on my back on a log,” says Balucas, 42.

[Photo description: Two photographs, one of paratriathlete Rob Balucas in his wheelchair, smiling, and one of him racing in his three-wheeled handcycle, which is very low to the ground.]

The accident left Balucas paralyzed from the waist down. But while it ended his cycling career, it provided a new challenge: Within 10 days, Balucas had recovered enough to begin increasing his activity levels. Determined to complete the half Ironman for which he’d been preparing, he begin training as a paratriathlete with a handcycle—and tracking his rehab with Strava.

“Whenever I could, I’d get in a wheelchair and do a lap around my floor of the hospital,” Balucas says. “But my triathlon friends kept saying, ‘If it’s not in Strava, it didn’t happen.’”

[Image description: Screenshots from Strava show the route, length, and duration of Rob Balucas’ training workouts.]

That was a problem, because Strava didn’t have a dedicated handcycle mode at the time. They were working on one, though, Balucas learned. “Through the Challenged Athletes Foundation, I went and spoke to the crew at their offices in San Francisco,” he says.

Balucas talked to the app’s engineers, answering their questions and offering his singular insights. Their response was more than he expected. “The handcycle mode went live in the app that week,” Balucas says. “It was awesome.”

Now I have this whole other world of handcyclists to interact with.

—Rob Balucas

Now, two years later, Strava helps handcycle athletes track their routes, times, and expended energy with even more accuracy. But Balucas says it’s the app’s community that’s proven most beneficial to adaptive athletes.

“After I got hurt, I was separated from my triathlon community,” he says. “Posting my workouts helped me maintain contact with a group that was such an important part of my life. We track each other, give each other kudos, and benchmark ourselves.”

[Photo description: Two photographs, one of Balucas working out and one of him crossing the finish line of a handcycle race.]

It’s become a connection to a greater community. “Now I have this whole other world of handcyclists to interact with,” he says. “There are handcycle users in Australia whom I’ve never met but ask questions of. It’s cool to see how other handcyclists are doing, how they’re improving, and where I’m at relative to them.”

Having helped shape Strava’s handcycle features, Balucas, who recently qualified for the Ironman World Championships as a paratriathlete, has set a new technological goal: to see a handcycle avatar in his favored at-home training app, Zwift.

I talk about it and show people. I explain that I was 5 miles from home, and where it looks like I went off a cliff, well, I went off a cliff.

—Rob Balucas

He still looks back on the ride that changed his life—which, as it happens, is preserved in Strava. “I still have the ride in the app,” he says. His friends were going about 13 mph; according to Strava, he was at 30.2 mph.

But he doesn’t experience any “fear, shame, or trepidation” looking at the route. “I talk about it and show people. I explain that I was 5 miles from home, and where it looks like I went off a cliff, well, I went off a cliff.”

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