Warren McConnaughieEmma McCannClaire Overend
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Mountain Biking, Disability and Me

Posted on January 30, 2018 @ 2:38 PM in Mountainbiking

We were fortunate enough to get speaking to Brian Lenehan. Brian has a long history of playing different sports at a high level. After an accident that changed Brian's life, his brother helped him to discover mountain biking. This is his story.


Hi Brian! Thanks for chatting to us. First thing is first – what are you riding at the minute?

Hi Ethan, how are you?

At the minute I’m riding what started life as a 2016 Giant Trance 3- but it’s had constant evolution/ tinkering over the past 2 years!

It's currently running Giant Contact dropper, Pike 160s up front, shimano xt m8000 brakes, xt 1x 11 drivetrain, Bontrager Rhythm wheelset- Nobby Nic rear and Magic Mary front, Nukeproof warhead bar/ stem and nukeproof pedals. I've also just finished a hardtail build- On One Parkwood frame, Pike 140s up front, Sram roam 40 wheelset, Nobby Nic rear, Hans Dampf front, Slx brakes and xt/ Zee 1x 10 drivetrain.


Do you want to tell us a little about your condition and how it impacts on your day to day life?

I have a condition called NMO (Neuro Mylitis Optica) which until relatively recently was bracketed as a form of MS- so it’s in the same Neurological spectrum- some similarities, some differences- in my condition, the main one being that I am registered Blind, as my central vision deteriorated massively since onset. I still have and use my peripheral vision, but without any meaningful central vision it’s basically a life without detail- so daily life, recognising people is difficult, reading, judging car speeds and distances, timetables in train station etc. I can’t manage without assistance- I’ve been on a fair few wrong trains when pride got in the way and stopped me asking the simple questions, made a decision on guesswork and ended up on the way to Larne instead of Lurgan!

Another aspect of my condition that is ever present is “tingles” or sensation issues in my lower legs, feet, arms and hands- best way I can describe this is as “constant fuzzy pins and needles”, whilst not the greatest comfort wise, I can use them as a barometer when something maybe isn’t right- if they intensify for example, my nervous system is telling me something is putting it under strain, so I am able then to back off a little and just let it calm down again.

On the bike it can become a bit of an issue where the sensation can develop, particularly on my right side, to feel like that feeling of a trapped nerve (but more extensive) from my shoulder right down to my finger tips and my trunk area. Ultimately it affects grip strength on the bars but as I said I am learning about the sensations and causation more and more and therefore managing it.

In relation to the combination of both, fatigue can be a major factor. You're constantly on alert when getting from A to B so I can get it done as safely as possible and this has an effect on fatigue levels which can be debilitating, and again, when that occurs, it’s just a matter of resting correctly. It took me a while to differentiate between fatigue as a symptom and regular day to day tiredness - two completely different things, but now that I know my condition, I am able to manage away.


It sounds like you've got a great handle on everything. So how did you first get into mountain biking?

My brother Eamon was integral in my entry into this current mountain biking mission, and it was his idea that has made this entire journey what it is now. We ride every week.


Brian and his brother tackling Castlewellan Mountain Bike Trails

I have always been into bikes, just loved every aspect of them, and all disciplines, whether it was watching track cycling, doing a bit on the roads myself or tinkering away at bikes in the garage. It took a back seat though as football and hurling became more prominent in my life. I had a few seasons with Armagh County hurling from Minors through to Senior squads and that became my primary focus. Then when I moved to Liverpool, football became my primary sport. It was only after my injury, and the subsequent change in life path for want of a better term, that mountain biking became the focal point.

I was struggling badly both emotionally and psychologically coming to terms with my diagnosis. The words 'permanent' and 'visually impaired' and 'registered blind' etc- I couldn’t accept them at all. Plus sport as I knew it, and my identity that came with Gaelic games, changed over night. I was slipping further and further into depression and it came to a head. My brother basically said “Right, let’s go. We are going to Castlewellan - get your bike ready”. It turned out it was the best decision I ever made post diagnosis and within half the trail, I was hooked. I remember smiling on the bike and thinking “**** that hasn’t happened in a while!”


When you first approached it, did you think your condition would make it more difficult for you?

Initially yes. 1. Because I had conditioned myself to think “I can’t see properly now so I won’t be able to do this” and 2. I thought the physical sensations and fatigue would play a part and I would be stuck half way around a trail somewhere shouting “Eamon that’s me stuck now”!

But after run one in Castlewellan, which was only half a lap, the fears began to diminish and I quickly realised that every thought and notion I had going into this was based on the negative, as in "What if I can’t...” and “I can’t see properly so I might not be able to do this." So that evening, I distinctly remember making a list of the attributes and reasons as to why I CAN do this and subsequently how I will do this.

The very first building block was to begin right there and then in devising a system where I utilised my peripheral vision as primary and not the central vision. This meant re training myself not to instinctivly try and look or focus on a given area or object like I used to, but look off centre to the side of trails and use colour changes as markers. (This, Brian points out, is a conversation in itself details wise) But it basically started that very next Tuesday morning in going down to Craigavon lakes trails on my own with the bike and riding the loop on my own, trialling different head and eye positions, and then beginning the process of memorising corners, sequences and features such as trees etc as markers.

I worked away on my own at the lakes, hour after hour, day after day, just honing how I was going to ride my bike, and visually how I looked at the trail, how I memorised the trail and then how I can get faster! I still do this once or twice every week, 2 years in. This also allowed me to see how far distance wise and also time wise I could go before the nervous system decided to pack it in!

It became apparent very quickly that if I was conscious of my actual body position on the bike, that is my buffer zone if something unexpected comes up that I have missed visually.

I bring these methods with me now no matter where my brother and I ride- same rules apply whether it be Craigavon lakes on my own training on a Tuesday morning, Davagh Forest or wherever, identical thought processes are in play.  I also spend as much time using imagery techniques as I can; how I see a trail being ridden and how I see myself riding it. I spend as much time 'YouTubing' the trails we are going to ride as I do on them. That way I have an instant video in my mind’s eye for when we arrive - this eye is the bigger help!


What is the best part about mountain biking for you?

It’d be very easy to sound cliché here, but I love everything about it. From dissecting YouTube videos of the runs we'll ride, to actually riding them, right down to sitting down that evening and going through what worked for me and what didn’t. Thinking about what could I tweak to improve the ride and therefore the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment for the next ride. Above all though I think, I love the challenge. Beating my own constraints.

However sometimes it’s beating them by accident. My first time going over Boundary Rock on the left hand side, I thought it was just a wee grey slope down to the right hander - I was over it before I had time to re assess! So actually sometimes my sight is bliss as I'm over things before I've time to think!

Brian on the left in red and his brother Eamon on the right.

It has afforded me something that I can utilise in my every day life. Patience. Without patience I’d have given biking up at week 2 because that would have still meant I want everything now, instant results. With realising I was going to have to be extremely patient and look at the long game, it allowed me to curb frustrations, to not rush the development and in turn to do things like preparation or body position on the bike the way it is supposed to be done. Bringing that same mentality into my day to day life has allowed me to develop the strategies and coping mechanisms I need to move forward. No shortcuts!

In summary, I don’t feel at all labelled on my bike, and the further I go into this journey, I don’t feel constrained or held back by being on my bike. Theres a freedom to it, but also a focus that I had rarely encountered before.

I know I have limitation criteria, there's no getting away from that, but I am at a point now where I have realistic goals for what I want to achieve on my bike. I'm under no illusions they will be difficult to attain and may take a long time - but the key point is that they are realistic- and that in itself avoids frustration creeping in as long as I stick to my prepation routines and continue to try and improve every aspect of that.


The average person on the street often thinks mountain biking is a terrifying pastime. What would you say to people with disabilities who would potentially be interested in mountain biking but don’t know where to begin?

For me it was a blank canvas. I could make of it what I wanted. There are so many variables that can be manipulated to suit and turned into major positives. You are in complete control of where you ride, which trails you ride, how fast or slow you want to ride, how long for - the list goes on. Approach it at entirely your own speed and build it in any direction you want to or need to.

Personally I find being the person on the street infinitely more terrifying!! An example: A while back on University Avenue, I was crossing over and I did everything a person with a visual impairment should do to the letter- found the green man crossing, found the buzzing cone under the box to signify when green, listened for car noise when safe to cross and STILL got clipped on the wrist because someone decided not to stop. Luckily I wasn’t one step further out; my point being that mountain biking is no less terrifying than our environment, assess what you can do, assess how you want to do it, and talk to people like myself, who can maybe help out even a little bit with questions or possible solutions.


You posted about mountain bikers with a disability to a MTB Facebook page recently and it got a fantastic reception. Have you heard from any other MTBers in a similar position to yourself?

It was class! The mountain bike community here automatically wanted to talk about it and offered to aid in whatever comes from it. That was no surprise because all you have to do is go to any of our trails at any time of the week and you get chatting to the friendliest bunch of sports people about.

It’s early days but there are quite a few riders with a disability/ impairment in a similar situation as myself, so hopefully we will build a dialogue and a bit of a network where we can learn from each other’s experiences etc. I’ll keep you posted!

Trialling different head and eye positions, memorising the trails and playing YouTube clips on repeat are just some of his techniques that allow him to shred.

How would you like mountain biking in Northern Ireland to evolve in terms of inclusion for mountain bikers with various disabilities?

I mentioned earlier how I feel that when I'm riding my bike, I am not labelled and that is the very nature of our scene here; so I would be very conscious of the fact that by trying to raise an awareness and increasing the knowledge base of the issues of riding with a disability- that could inadvertently begin to stick labels on people.

But if we approach it in the way that we are riders first and foremost. We were riding our bikes before this, and regardless of the posts to get dialogue going, we'll still be riding our bikes, shows me that the way forward is not really to highlight “Oh that rider has sight loss” “That rider is an amputee” “That rider has hearing loss” – but rather to develop a network or a system whereby people can learn from each other’s experiences and use them to develop their own riding. We talk and listen to how we ride a race or train for a race etc., so same rules apply. If we can then convert that into a monthly run for example, that would be sweet!

Obviously not every sport is for every person- we would be naïve to think that - but our sport is as accessible as any other and broad enough by it's very nature that, if it is something that interested people with a disability, then a little bit of discussion and planning, coupled with an infrastructure of riders who already joined its ranks, theres no reason why 1. It cant be explored and 2. It can be moulded to suit. Even by discussing this, boundaries are already being broken.


Any shout outs you’d like to make?

I suppose to my brother Eamon Lenehan who began this whole thing. Michael Regan and Glyn O Brien who love biking that much they were more than happy to get involved with the aforementioned posts and have been fantastic in offering belp and advice. And to Disability Sport Northern Ireland (DSNI) who afford me the time to train away and practice staying upright!!


Finally, hit us with some of your results and tell us what you're planning next.

Previous results include:

2016 Davagh Enduro. 97th

2017 Davagh Enduro. 41st

2017 Davagh Nightrider. 31st.

2018. Davagh Enduro and Nightrider. Top 30 is my goal. Also to enter and complete at east one round of VFT Enduro.


Thanks for chatting to us Brian. If you have any questions, messages or comments you'd like to pass on to Brian just drop an email to info@mountainbikeni.com.

Ethan Loughrey
Ethan Loughrey  Mountain Bike Officer

Hardest thing about Mountain Biking? Definitely the trees.

2 comments have been posted in reply to this article

Posted by MTB TRIBE PODCAST on February 3, 2018 @ 11:55 AM

Awesome. Brian is such an inspiration to us all. We could all learn a lot from Brian. I am glad to say Brian will be coming on the podcast over the next few weeks! I can’t wait to get him on and tell us his story!!

Posted by Gerard on February 27, 2018 @ 12:39 PM

OMG, it´s such an amazing post. Please keep on pushing and try to spread your story. We have a blog where we talk about eye health. Maybe you could check this post.


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