After a motorcycle accident in 2003 left him paralysed, Talan Skeels-Piggins admits he thought he’d never get back on a bike again. Five years later though and that all changed, and two years after that he founded the Bike Experience charity to help others get back on a bike, too. Oh, and he started racing.
A lot of people have heard of the Bike Experience, even if they don’t know the full story or exactly what it does. Set up by Talan Skeels-Piggins and his friend Russell O’Neil in 2011, the Bike Experience, a registered charity, helps injured motorcyclists get back on a bike, and changes their lives in the process.
“I remember when I got back on a motorcycle for the first time after my accident,” Talan recalls. “It was the best day of my life. I felt free of my wheelchair for the first time and it was amazing, it was magical. But then I started thinking that there must be more people like me.
“After my accident in 2003, which left me a paralysed and without the use of my legs, I didn’t think I would ever ride a bike again; it wasn’t until 2008 that I thought it possible. I was in the United States and I was riding a snowmobile, which kept getting cross-rutted and was moving around all the time, and I thought, if I can ride this I can definitely ride a motorbike.
“I started riding again in 2008, and Russell and I started the Bike Experience in 2011, converting my own GSX-R600 SRAD in the process, as a way of helping other people get back on a bike. Russell and I did track days together on a pair of GSX-R1000s, and he’s one of our instructors.
“We start with paddock stuff, getting them used to pulling away and the feeling of being back on a bike again. We have also designed bolt-on stabilisers so they can get used to it first, or we’ll start them off on an automatic bike, before moving on to focussing on gear changes and increasing their speeds on a marked out circuit.”
While talking about how the Bike Experience helps motorcyclists get back on two-wheels, Talan explains how he can visibly see it changing people’s lives.
“You can see a change in people as they go through the experience. A lot turn up really quite nervous and quiet. Some might give it a bit of bravado, but you can see the anxiety. We invite them to bring people with them to share the experience as it’s actually quite an emotionally draining thing to go through. But we have volunteers to help as a launch crew too, so they can come on their own if they wish. We also have some donated leathers and riding kit if they don’t have their own.
“But as they get back on a bike, you can see that it changes them, it changes their attitude and it changes their families too. These are often people who are paralysed or amputees, we’ve had people come who have had a stroke, and we even had a blind guy come along. And these are all people who never thought they’d ride again, and we help them realise that it is possible and that they can get back to enjoying motorcycles.
“We allow people to come to us twice for free. We don’t charge for what we do. But we’re about giving them the tools they need. We don’t want them to keep coming back. We’re about showing them what can be done, that they can continue to ride motorcycles and enjoy motorcycling. We give them all the information, and then we want them to get out there and do it. Go and ride motorbikes. Go and do track days. Go and have fun.”
What started out as a trust in 2011, before becoming a registered charity in 2012, has grown and helped far more people than Talan thought possible when it was launched.
“I never thought it would get to this stage,” he admits. “It’s become more popular than I ever thought it would. Last year we ran 15 events and helped 37 different riders, most of which came to us twice. We also did a bit with the army, and helped riders in the forces that had lost limbs in war zones. We’ve got 13 dates in the diary so far for this year, too.”
To help injured riders get back on two-wheels, the Bike Experience utilises an SV650S, not unlike the bike Talan races in the Minitwin class at a number of clubs in the UK.
“The SV we have is a great bike. It’s light, which is great for what we’re doing with it, as people forget how much they used their weight and moved around on a bike to help it turn. It’s very difficult riding a heavy bike just by using steering inputs through the bars. So the SV fits our needs perfectly and is an all-round great motorcycle.
“It has a load of torque, which also makes it very usable for what we’re doing. If people are struggling with gear changes, it will still drive smoothly out of corners in a too high a gear, or sometimes people will just leave it in third gear. I have one for track days that I started racing too. It’s perfect for everything.”
In fact, as well as helping disabled and paralysed riders get back on a bike, Talan shows what else can be achieved with commitment and determination, as the only paraplegic competing with an ACU licence in the UK.
“2014 will be my third season racing against able-bodied competition,” Talan explains. “I raced my SV650 minitwin with Thundersport last year and managed eighth overall in the championship. I got great support from Dave Stewart, who put his hands up and offered to give me a chance to race and help convince the ACU. Before that I was only able to do hill climb and sprint events, time trial based stuff. But Dave was a big help.
“I have to start from the back of the grid, as I need supporting and holding upright before I launch. But it’s great to be racing able-bodied competition. I don’t want to make a song and dance about it, but it’s really special and shows what can be achieved. When I’m out there I’m just another racer. People don’t realise or know that I’m paralysed. It’s just racing. It’s only when I’m off the bike and talk to them afterwards that other racers realise I’m in a wheelchair.
“This year I’m aiming to race with Thundersport again, but also some other clubs and will be doing rounds with the British Motorcycle Racing Club (Bemsee) and trying a few others too. My aim is to improve their awareness of disabled racers who might want to go racing against able-bodied competition, and that they can do so safely and competitively.”
As well as racing his SV650 in the minitwin series, Talan also forms part of the only paraplegic endurance race team in the world, competing in the No Budget Cup.
“We competed over the last two years, but both ended disappointingly. One of our riders crashed in 2012 at Assesn and we were out of the running, and I had a big crash last year, again at Assen. But we’re planning on going back again this year with a GSX-R1000.”