Vision Zero: Bicycling with paralympic cyclist hopeful Leo Rodgers

For as long as he can remember, Leo Rodgers has loved three things: building bikes, riding bikes and moving fast -- really fast. He recalls biking to school every day beginning in fourth grade and collecting bicycle parts in middle school -- like tinkering with LEGOs, he says -- so he could cruise the streets of his hometown St. Petersburg on his own custom builds.

When he got his first motorcycle in high school, Leo Rodgers started moving faster than ever -- in the 100 miles-per-hour range.

"I was always on two wheels, but now I could go fast. I definitely had a love and a need for speed. That's where my adrenaline rush came from," says Rodgers.

In 2007, Rodgers' "need for speed" resulted in a life-changing accident on Fowler Avenue: The then 23-year-old lost control of his Suzuki motorbike and crashed into a guardrail. Not long after he was pulled from the Tampa Bypass Canal where he landed, Rodgers learned that he was lucky to be alive, but his motorcycling days were over.

His left leg was amputated at the hip. 

Although he was determined to keep cycles central to his life -- he relocated to Orlando in 2008 to attend the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute and became certified as a Suzuki and Yamaha Mechanic -- Rodgers says it took him nearly four years to seriously get back on a bicycle again. 

"The first bike I ever bought was a single speed 26-inch Redline. I loved it for the sentimental value of it, but [after the accident] it was just sitting there collecting dust. … I'd walk my dog with it and let him pull me around and think, 'this is cool, but I wish I could pedal it.'"

So he went to a bike shop to figure out how.

"When I moved back to the Tampa area, I bought shoes and a cleat. Once I was clipped in, it was game on: The freedom came back and I had smiles from ear to ear," Rodgers says.

Leo Rodgers hasn't stopped biking since. Upon returning from a job in Denver -- where he was inspired by the robust local cycling culture -- Rodgers got involved with group rides in St. Pete and found a job as a bicycle mechanic at City Bike Tampa. 

Rodgers pedaled 23 miles each way from St. Pete to get to work every day before relocating to Tampa to shorten his commute to 11 miles. He's accustomed to turning heads on his rides. It's hard to miss the cyclist powering his bike with one leg -- unless you happen to blink as Rodgers is whizzing by on his steel frame fixed gear.

When he learned about the Florida Velodrome, Rodgers' found a way to satisfy his need for speed -- and a new achievement to set his sights on: In January, Rodgers competed in the 2017 U.S. Paralympics Track Cycling Open in California. His ultimate goal? Representing the U.S. in the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.

83 Degrees sat down with Tampa's swiftest one-legged cyclist to talk training and biking in the Bay area.

83 Degrees: Leo, why do you cycle?

Leo Rodgers:  It keeps me a kid. When I see older people riding, I think 'I want to be that guy -- the guy who's 70 but riding like he's 20.'

Cycling is the gym for me, and it's inspiring for other people to see it. I'll have people who always see me riding finally catch up to me one day and say things like, 'man you're an inspiration -- I just enjoy seeing you ride.'

For me, it's a love, it's a passion, it's a prosthetic and it's a sense of freedom. It makes me feel like I'm back on a motorcycle -- except that I'm the motor. 

83D: How many miles are you biking per week?

LR: Now it's between 150-200 miles. Before [when commuting from St. Pete] I was up to 300 miles a week. I was always hungry! I'd say 'I ride for food.'

From the Velodrome guys, I learned I was riding too much. I was riding like I was a road biker, but I'm a track rider. They suggested riding 8-10 training miles and going to gym and work on my core. I was like 'man, I've been overthinking it.'

83D: Let's talk about your training. Tokyo 2020?

LR.: It's a been a goal of mine. For the past three years now, I've been telling myself that if I didn't make 2016, I'm going to make 2020. I want to improve my resume and make myself better. It's giving me the motivation to do more and the determination to get better: I want the jersey, I want the medals, and I want to do this for my city. I want to put the whole Tampa Bay area on my back and represent us, so I've been pushing hard.

It's off-season right now, but I still train. I might take it easy one day and hit it harder the next. That's where different bikes come into play: I have my "all-purpose" bikes and some days I'm casually spinning. Other days are like days when you go to the gym for a heavy workout -- I have bikes for that.

I have to think about both upper and lower body. I learned that from a prosthetic standpoint. I'm up to the hip, so when I had to rely on a prosthetic, it was difficult because I have to move both a hip joint and knee joint. It's like ball and chain. … I'd leave work from wearing a prosthetic and have to get on a bike just to loosen up. I would do gym competitions and I would go hard just to work on my balance. Lots of dumbbell workouts is what really helped with that.

83D: You've mentioned that your bike is your prosthetic these days.

LR: I don't use the prosthetic as much now. It's nice to walk on, but it's not athletic -- and I'm an athletic person. I've just learned to accept that I have one leg and this is it. This is life, so let's ride it out. 

With my prosthetic, I'd have pains on the side of my knee. Now that I don't wear it as much, I don't have too many knee problems. I'm always on the bike, so there's less stress on the knee. Keeping my back straight; keeping form on my leg -- the crutches and being always on the bike helped that.

It was important learning my strong points and weak points and what I need to focus on, but being accepting of my disability turned this into an ability.

83D: You've been biking all over the Tampa Bay area most of your life. What's the most interesting place your bike has taken you? 

LR: I've done centuries [a century is a bicycle ride of 100 miles]. … Being able to ride that far with almost no elevation -- to see the whole Bay area -- is amazing. It really has given me a mindset 'I just did 100 miles at under 1,000 feet elevation, spent six hours relaxing, and saw a few entirely different counties and cities.' Doing that has made me think about where I want to go to next.

I travel a lot, and I always compare big cities to our city. I'm always looking at: What does this place have to offer if I moved my family here? How is the culture? How is the weather?

It always winds up that I realize: Tampa's pretty cool -- I think I'll stay here.

83D: You've talked about discovering the bike scene on a visit to Denver, and how group rides like the Denver Cruiser inspired you. Do you have a favorite group ride in Tampa?

LR: I do my little Wednesday ride that I call the 'Wednesday Night Wolfpack.' It's what I call an 'a between ride' -- there are slow rides and faster road bike rides, and this is the in-between. We're gonna be riding pretty fast, but it's like a fixed gear alley cat: We'll ride to a park, have a brew, and I'll set up a check point.

I have to control where we're going so we're not too reckless. We take it slow to wherever we're going, and then everyone knows the route on the way back. They have an idea which roads are safer; which to go down. It helps everyone be more aware of the city and see more of it. On this ride, they know we'll be somewhere different each week.

[The ride back] is like a race, and all these guys know it -- it's their day to let it all out. I don't cut them any slack. They know I'm gonna beat 'em. I don't care what route you take -- I'm going to beat ya. Seeing these guys exhausted and tired, saying, 'man, Leo, you got me today' -- I love it. I like to keep them motivated.

83D: You have kids, right? 

LR: I have a 12-year-old son and a step-daughter who's 9 in St. Pete. My youngest boy is 2.

83D: And your kids like to ride, too? You have group rides with them.

LR: I teach kids rules of the road. I try to explain things in a nice way -- the 'Dad' way -- and take them out for a ride to give them experience.

My kids would attract other kids. When I lived in St. Pete, we'd ride out to the Pier. We'd start on the sidewalk and go on to an intersection with a light [to practice riding in traffic]. Sometimes I'd have up to eight kids riding along. It was almost like a monthly event.

I always tell them, 'That's a car. It weighs a lot. It can hit you -- and sometimes it will run. You're hurt on the side of the road and they're off free -- so get your butt to the side of the road or on a sidewalk.'

My first goal is giving them awareness. Then I explain rules of the road and get the basics in their heads: 'Stay to the right, watch your back, here's a helmet; OK, let's ride.'

Leo Rodgers was awarded the honor of Bike Commuter of the Year in the annual Bike/Walk Tampa Bay awards in May.

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Jessi Smith (she/they) is a freelance writer who is passionate about sustainability, community building, and the power of the arts and transformative storytelling. A fourth-generation Floridian, Jessi received her B.A. in Art History and English from Florida International University and began reporting for 83 Degrees in 2009. When she isn't writing, Jessi enjoys taking her deaf rescue dog on outdoors adventures, unearthing treasures in backroads antiques and thrift shops, D.I.Y. upcycling projects, and Florida-friendly gardening.