Fat tires and adapted trikes: An East York program wants kids of all abilities to ride a bike

A program in East York that teaches kids with disabilities to ride bicycles is trying to raise funds so it can bring in more equipment and help more children.

The man running STEPS Programs is raising money to get more adapted bicycles for his classes

Benji and Giulietta, 14 and 12, ride their retrofitted tricycles. (Submitted by Galit Kleiner)

Riding is bike is something Galit Kleiner thought would be nearly impossible for her two children.

Benji and Giulietta, 14 and 12, have a rare neurological condition called Phelan-McDermid syndrome (PMS), which causes low muscle tone and motor problems.

But riding a bike became a reality when Kleiner found STEPS Programs seven years ago.

"These two, who we weren't even sure would walk, now bike independently and it's a major part of their life," she said. "There's very little else that brings on such a smile as Benji's success in bike riding by himself."

STEPS Programs, located in East York, offers classes and activities on the weekends and in the summer for children with special needs. 

STEPS Programs offers classes on weekends as well as summer programs for children with special needs who want to learn how to ride a bike. (STEPS Programs)

One of their main draws, according to owner Jesse Seguin, is their biking programs, which use adapted tricycles and two retrofitted, made-in-Toronto bicycles with fat wheels.

"These fat-tire bikes are really special in that they allow the child to learn the techniques to ride a two-wheeler, but in a much more gradual fashion," he said.

The program acquired the adapted bikes almost 25 years ago. Now, Seguin is in the midst of raising funds to fix them and purchase new ones.

"Every kid grows up and learns to ride a bike," Seguin said.

"It's kind of that milestone, and it's something that a lot of these kids, if they couldn't do it, might be kind of left out."

Jesse Seguin, right, pushes a child forward at one of his STEPS Programs classes. (Submitted by Jesse Seguin)

STEPS Programs

STEPS Programs began more than 40 years ago, Seguin said, when his mother Laura Hunter noticed there weren't many programs for children with special needs.

"She was … a bit of a pioneer in the field," he said.

Hunter is the one who found out about a design for the fat-wheeled bikes in the U.S. She contacted Mariposa Bicycles in Toronto to see if they could create something similar for her classes.

"My father was a custom bike builder and liked unique projects like this. He was really keen to take it on," said Michael Barry Jr., now co-leader of the bike shop.

His father built custom frames for what Barry Jr. describes as "John Deer lawn mower" sized wheels, which give children extra balance for when they're first beginning to learn how to ride.

These fat-wheeled bikes are made by Mariposa Bicycles in Toronto. They help children with special needs ease into riding a bike. (Submitted by Jesse Seguin)

Throughout his career building thousands of bikes, this project made his father most proud, Barry Jr. said.

"Seeing kids who would otherwise not be able to ride, riding a bike and feeling that sense of freedom that we all can enjoy while riding was something really special," he said.

Those two bikes built by Michael Barry Sr. are the same two Seguin has used since taking over the STEPS Programs from his mother.

Now well-used and well-loved, he's raised enough money to fix them and buy one more. He's still hoping to buy another, ideally in a new size to ensure each child has the right fit.

Tricycle rentals

Still, Seguin said adapted tricycles play a huge role in his programs today, since they give children who can't balance on two wheels the ability to ride.

"At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter if your bike has two wheels or three wheels if you're still biking around, having fun," he said.

That's why, as a new service, he's starting a tricycle rental program this summer.

"The problem with adapted trikes is a lot of them are very expensive," he said. As well, kids will outgrow their bikes too quickly for some to justify the cost.

Seguin said he'll provide affordable rentals so kids can get a tricycle at the beginning of the summer and drop it off at the end of the season.

"These tricycles open up ... opportunities for kids that need it the most," he said.

Seguin says adapted tricycles play a huge role in his programs today, since they give children who can’t balance on two wheels the ability to ride. (Submitted by Jesse Seguin)

It's the tricycles that made a difference for Kleiner and her children.

"There's so few things they can do independently. It's a big part of their life," Kleiner said.

Even today Kleiner — a neurologist who runs a disability clinic — said she can't find many programs that cater to her children.

"I can tell you that it's very, very discouraging," she said. "It provides them such gratification, exercise, social opportunities."

That's why, she said, she's so thankful for Seguin and his programs. As a teacher, she said, he never gives up on his students.

"He has the bar high, but then he has the skill set to teach them how to meet those expectations," she said.

"He has literally changed the course of their lives."