When Ole Kassow was three, his father was diagnosed with MS. “We couldn’t do the same things that other fathers and sons, we couldn’t fish or play soccer,” Kassow recalls. “But he was really good at putting a positive spin on many things. We invented imaginary superhero glasses — we’d just turn our thumbs and fingers into little glasses and we’d go around and I’d pull him in his wheelchair with my bike.” In many ways, that’s where the seed for Cycling Without Age, a non-profit that uses tri-shaw bikes to take seniors living in care facilities out for rides in cities across the world, was first planted.
What started with Kassow in Copenhagen in August of 2012 has since blossomed into a global network of more than 1,643 Cycling Without Age chapters in 42 countries, including over 300 chapters and counting in the U.S. “With my dad, I saw what it does to a person when you lose mobility,” Kassow says, noting that many people lose friends when they’re no longer able to engage in the activities they once loved.
After seeing an elderly man sitting on a bench one August day, Kassow got to thinking how much mobility and access to community he could provide to seniors through something as simple as a bike ride. “I was dedicated to seeing this man back on a bike. I hired this old tri-shaw and showed up at a care home and began taking elders out for rides,” Kassow says. It wasn’t exactly cycling: The seniors don’t pedal or steer, as those tasks are left up to a volunteer. But the riders get all of the adventure, freedom, and wind in their hair that a traditional bike ride provides.
Kassow quickly saw a slew of unanticipated benefits as well. Seniors who were described as loners who had all but given up on talking suddenly became chatty with everyone from the staff member accompanying them to their bike driver once again as the world became exciting again from their three-wheeled perch. “I think what it does is that it allows people to get access to relationships again,” Kassow says, musing on the fact that “there isn’t anything in the [UN’s] human rights charter about relationships, even though I just read a book by Susan Pinker that talked about the important role social relationships play in longevity and happiness.”
Kassow has since come to see relationships as something of a human right that his organization works to restore through bike rides, an idea that the city of Copenhagen was eager to support. The city funded Kassow’s first five bikes, a boon because the tri-shaw bikes — essentially pedicabs where the seat is in front of the cyclist, rather than behind — the organization relies on can cost $7,000 – $10,000. In April of 2013, Kassow hosted a joint ride where everyone, regardless of age or mobility, was invited. “Over 100 people showed up. It was a cold, clear, frosty day and it was fantastic,” he recalls. “A lot of people who came said that they wanted to join as volunteers. From there it was a matter of experimenting to figure out how it was going to work.”
Largely through word of mouth, the program spread to different care homes across Copenhagen and eventually to different cities as well. Kassow eventually developed a “train the trainers” methodology so that each new chapter would be able to support the development of other chapters without requiring Kassow’s direct involvement.
In late 2014 Kassow was invited to give a TED Talk in Copenhagen. That’s when the Cycling Without Age really began to spread, leading to something like 10 new chapters popping up over the course of just a few months. This was also when Kassow left his consulting business to focus on Cycling Without Age full time.
Chapters, like Kalynn McLain’s in Meridian, Idaho, are still popping up today.
What started as an adventure in testing out electric bikes with her mother in law in October 2017 ended with the duo stumbling across a chapter kickoff in nearby Eagle, Idaho. The Eagle chapter didn’t take off, despite having already acquiring a tri-shaw. The woman eventually donated it to McLain. “It kind of fell into my lap. I hadn’t intended to start a chapter, but I couldn’t say no,” she says.
With the hardest part — acquiring the tri-shaw — behind her, McLain set out to establish her chapter by filing with the state and getting logistics like an insurance policy in order. In April of this year McLain began offering rides in partnership with a local assisted living facility.
“Once I started working with them, other facilities started asking about it. What I ended up doing was working through the parks and rec department to be able to ride in parks and on pathways around the city,” she says. McLain and her stable of volunteers now meet seniors shuttled from their facilities at parks where the rides take place. “They get outdoors and it gets them talking to people of different generations and telling their stories,” she says.
Currently it’s McLain’s handful of volunteers who give most of the rides while she hangs back.
Across the 109 rides that the Meridian chapter gave this season, McLain is most pleased by the seniors who come back time and time again, especially largely nonverbal residents from memory care facilities who have burst into words on their ride.
“I had one ride,” McLain says, “where the staff was asking the resident if she was enjoying the ride and she suddenly said, ‘Yes! I’m loving it!’ The staff member turned to me and was like, ‘Did you hear that?!’” It was the first time that resident had spoken in some time, all inspired by the ride Cycling Without Age was able to provide.
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.