DESIGN BY MIGUEL CAMACHO FOR TRACTION - ERAG MAGAZINE 2013
“I eat ice cream now.
I never used to eat desserts,” confesses Robert Perkins. “I knew that if I ate [dessert] I would have to pull it up the hill a week later. But now... I just buy a bigger motor,” he laughs.
obert lives with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), an incurable disease that attacks the central nervous system. Unknown to Robert, MS symptoms appeared at age 36 but was not diagnosed till a brain tumour and injuries
in his 40’s led to an MRi and mulitple tests. He has persevered for the past 20 years in leading an active life, including riding offroad bikes. When asked why he rides, Robert’s answer is simple, yet reflective:
“Really nothing romantic. Enduro might be the only activity left that l can still enjoy... For now riding is a sport that not only fulfills my self-worth but [provides] exercise as well,” he explains. “I make the best of my ability and enjoy life despite battling an illness.”
In the 80â€™s, Robert raced road bikes. But as his MS progressed, he found that bicycle riding --including mountain biking-became an increasingly practical activity. Although he had lost his balance and was experiencing vertigo, on a bicycle, â€œI just kept pedalling.â€? When he switched to motorized off-road riding years later, it presented itself as a natural extension of his former road racing and mountain biking days. Even now, trails that offer Robert a chance to exercise his mountain bike and super bike skills are what he likes best, where he can use speed to keep his momentum and clean the trail. However, as natural as the move to enduro was, Robert has had to stay innovative and adaptive to keep his
riding a reality. Some of the difficulties he faces are on a smaller scale --like pulling on a jersey over his shoulders-while others are more serious. Case
in point, because Robert is unable to fully use his legs, he has had to come up with an ingenious trick to help get out from underneath the bike after a fall.
Inside his riding backpack, he carries a lightweight motorcycle battery, connectors, an electric pump, a needle and a deflated basketball. If Robert finds himself pinned under the bike, he connects the battery, pump and ball, then slides the ball under the bike and pushes the â€œonâ€? button to inflate the ball. The expanding ball raises the bike sufficiently to allow Robert to push it up and get himself out from underneath. Ironically, though, he still reckons the hardest part of the entire operation is dead-lifting the bike from its propped position at four or five inches off the ground to fully upright. (Robert additionally carries a SPOT GPS with an SOS button, just in case.)
His current stable of bikes includes a 2007 KTM 950, a 2007 KTM 450, a 2007 KTM 400, a 2011 KTM 250 and a Honda 150, some of which are all modified to compensate for Robertâ€™s limited use of his lower limbs, thanks to extensive support from FASST handlebars and LaChapelle Racing Products.
Among other changes, Robert has relocated the rear brake control to a lever on the left side of the handlebar via a hydraulic line, similar to the set-up found on mountain bikes. He has also added a Rekluse and a thumb lever in the cockpit of the bike for the clutch and ground down the teeth on his pegs to make
it easier to move his feet. Nevertheless, despite the need for on-going modifications to his bikes and to his riding style, Robert emphasizes that the rewards outweigh the effort. For starters, off-road riding is a family activity that Robert shares with his wife, Alexia, and their two boys, Ethan and Evan. Enjoying an adventure together provides an important emotional lift for Robert, as well as incentive to keep active.
At the family cottage he works diligently, even when enveloped by bugs, on a network of trails that starts footsteps from the cottage door. “I am very motivated trying to leave a legacy with interesting trails constructed for my family and their [families],” Robert explains. His trail-work has also kept him close with Ripley, the family Golden Retriever, who has overseen each meter of the build. In a nod to the canine’s devotion, the Perkins family has named the trails “The RIP-WAY.”
But riding has fostered connectedness for Robert that extends beyond his immediate family to the larger circle of off-road riders. “The enduro community has character and honour beyond any other [...] on my athletic index page. So many friends new and old have held my hand, held me as I try to stand up and held my KTM,” says Robert. “The enduro community represents a distilled, [pure] form of character. I love this sport and it is beyond my ability to say it in words.” Even the constant maintenance required by enduro bikes, often viewed by others as a detraction, turns out to be a plus for Robert. “Bringing bikes home to service provides another tremendous inspiration, as well as the ability to work outside in the driveway at home with Ripley playing with children,” he says, though he also acknowledges that his self-taught mechanical skills have offered
quite a few comical moments. Ultimately, the larger community that has developed around Robert sustains him and provides strength, for which he is grateful. “I push myself, but friends help me through support. It’s not all me.” In addition to Alexia, the boys and his fellow riders, Robert has been embraced by friends, neighbours and members of his local inter-denominational church --circles of community that have given Robert a sense of security and empowerment. Still, when asked, “What do your friends and family think of your riding?” Robert pauses before he answers. He cautiously admits that he does not fully know how they feel. “They worry, but they are supportive. But, I’m not sure if deep down they
â€œI love this sport and it is beyond my ability to say it in words.â€?
would be happy if I gave it up.” Robert has sensed his friends’ apprehension when, for example, his bike tips over, pinning him. Yet, their reaction --desperate to help, but hesitant to disempower him- has taught Robert another lesson. “I have learned to let my friends help. They feel awkward not being able to... To respect my friends I have learned to have them help me.” As for Alexia’s assessment of his riding, Robert knows that the benefits it brings him also buoy
the spirits of his wife, which he hopes diminishes her worry for his health and safety. He muses whether maybe his road racing days inoculated
“I have learned to let my friends help. They feel awkward not being able to... To respect my friends I have learned to have them help me.”
Alexia against stressing about his activities on a bike. In the end, however, he knows that she supports his choices. The big question, for Robert and for those close to him, is why does he do what he does? Technical modifications and emotional support don’t alter Robert’s daily reality of living with physical limitations and constant pain. Reflecting
on those moments when, for instance, his illness makes it impossible for him to stand, Robert asks, “Why wouldn’t I just continue to lay down? Nobody is expecting me to [push myself].” However, in living actively with MS Robert has learned to see the bigger picture: “Life is put into perspective and it’s better to be a participant than a spectator. I
want my friends and family to be happy and thank them for their generosity and support.” Of course, adopting this outlook doesn’t make Robert’s MS go away; but it has encouraged him to keep busy and to set and accomplish goals. Plus, there’s just the joy of riding: once he’s on a bike Robert can forget his illness and feel the thrill of the moment. I left the Perkins family cottage inspired and renewed by Robert’s story --he is a humble man, and truly the most down-to-earth person I have ever met. Yet his example reminded me to think beyond my limitations and, while accepting what I cannot change, to nevertheless keep pushing for big goals. What’s more, in assessing the dynamic that plays out between himself and his riding, Robert’s summation has a ring of universality: in the end, he notes, “...I’m competing against myself.”
As I look forward to another visit with Robert and his family, I make a mental note to leave the camera and pen at home next time, and instead bring my riding boots to join my fellow enduro rider for a few laps on “the RIP-WAY.”
in the end, he notes:
“...I’m competing against myself.”