One-legged cyclist riding 1,000 km for mental health – his own

He didn’t sleep near the railroad tracks last night, which, all thing considered, was a nice change of pace.

“Getting away from the train is nice,” Jay Doherty reflects. “Especially when you’ve been run over by one.”

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After eight days on the road Doherty, the owner of the Millenium Ink tattoo shop in Central Lonsdale, is more than 455 kilometres into a bicycle trip from Calgary to North Vancouver.

A lot of cyclists have left sweat and rubber along the Rockies, but not too many have had the gumption to do it on one leg.

It was about 13 years ago — before the Low Level Road project got rid of the at-grade rail crossings near the waterfront’s major terminals — that Doherty acted on an impulse to climb over a train car.

“I was walking along, jumped up on the train with my iPod playing music,” he remembers “The train was sitting still.”

Then it shunted forward. One of Doherty’s legs was crushed by the train’s locking mechanism. His toes were crunched off. That would be his good leg.

His other leg fell between the train tracks and was shorn off along with some of his hip.

Doherty spent nine months in hospital, moving from Lions Gate Hospital to Vancouver General Hospital and back again before starting rehab at G.F. Strong.

There were bad times. In some moments, he says, he thought maybe his life was over. In the worst moments he thought he wanted it to be.

“But I’m still here,” he says.

He worked. He rehabbed. And, in his mid-30s, Jay Doherty learned how to ride a bike for the second time in his life.

He was about as scared as any six-year-old watching his dad take off his training wheels. But Doherty climbed on and rode.

“It was the first time since I had lost my body parts that I was able to completely forget that I had lost my body parts,” he says. “I was so busy enjoying myself.”

All he thought about as long as he was on the bike was staying on balance and staying alive. It was a relief.

“As soon as I jumped on I was like, ‘This is like riding a bike,’” he says.

But he did have to make some adjustments; maybe not in what he did but in how he did it. With one leg, you can’t stop the pedals from turning when you’re taking a jump. To deal with that problem, Doherty rigged a button on the handlebars of his bike that lock up the pedals when you press it. The device, which he calls the Jay-Lock, is patented and in production.

“I never thought I’d be an inventor.”

 . . .

Jail, Doherty says, is “just a school for criminals.”

He spent some time in a juvenile detention centre, he recalls.

“Doing nothing with my life. Ready to just be a criminal or whatever.”

You can learn lots of things in detention centres, he says. Some people learn how to be better criminals.

Doherty learned how to make a tattoo machine.

Tattoo artist Jay Doherty gives a customer a design at Millenium Ink. - file photo Cindy Goodman, North Shore News

As with most tattoo artists, he was his own first customer. He was good at it. And more importantly, he loved it.

“I just got so wrapped up in it that nothing else mattered.”

After a few stops in Kamloops and Courtenay where he learned the business side of the tattoo trade, he opened his own shop in North Vancouver in 1999.

 . . .

Ten years after losing his leg, Doherty made a plan to ride across Canada to raise awareness for mental health. The plan suffered “a few setbacks,” he says, the most notable of which was Doherty breaking his leg mountain biking on Whistler.

“When you have one leg and you break it you’re kind of screwed for a while,” he says with a laugh.

He went back to rehab. And then back to his bike. He still wants to pedal across the country, but his girlfriend eventually persuaded him to shorten his first trip to an approximately 1,050 km jaunt from Calgary up to Revelstoke and down to North Vancouver.

He’s still riding for mental health. But this time, it’s his own mental health.

He’s got a friend behind the wheel of a big truck, towing a trailer and following and leading Doherty down the highway.

“I’m used to riding in the city . . . so it doesn’t really bother me to have a lot of traffic around me,” Doherty says. “I like getting pushed by the big rigs when they go ripping by me, give me a little push with the air.”

Speaking to the North Shore News after having his breakfast in Revelstoke, Doherty credits the bike ride for changing his mindset and making him “more hopeful about life.”

That hope seems to have spread, as the sight of a one-legged cyclist has roused a few passersby. Some of them pull over to tell him he inspired them. Sometimes they tell him about their own lives and what they need that inspiration for.

As he rides into Western Canada, Doherty’s trip seems to be less about himself, he says, and more about “people you don’t even know.”

He’s got two kids. And for Doherty, the ride is also about showing them that you can do something you’ve set your mind to, no matter what.

“That’s the biggest reward for me is showing them how to be real human beings,” he says.


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