Pedal Power

As he crafts custom bikes in his North Side shop, Michael Brown is building a national following as the ‘Maestro’ who creates adaptive cycles that can fulfill the needs of just about everyone with two-wheeled dreams.




photoS by David Kelly

 

Mike Trimble pedals along the North Shore, his empty shirtsleeves billowing like sails in the wind, the stump on his left shoulder maneuvering the front wheel of his bike so he can pass a slower cyclist. As he pumps past PNC Park on a bike without handlebars, pedestrians do double takes.

How is he steering that bike?

Indeed, Trimble is doing what so many bike-shop owners told him he would never do: He is cycling upright with just the use of his legs. Even more remarkable, the 28-year-old looks more fluid riding with two limbs than many people do using four. Gliding on the bike/jogging path, he negotiates tight turns, steering with the single bar that juts from the front center of the bike frame up to the short stump that is the only vestige of his arms, which he lost to a birth defect following the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

“I am showing the world that I can fly,” he says, flashing a mischievous grin.

Once a child stopped him in the street and asked him how he could ride a bike without arms. “It’s all magic, kid,” he replied before zooming off.   

Not exactly magic. It’s a clever engineering feat, courtesy of Michael Brown, owner of Maestro Frameworks, a custom bike shop in the North Side that is attracting national acclaim and business through its work for Trimble and other riders with special requirements. On a recent summer day, Brown rides beside Trimble, whom he befriended while retrofitting Trimble’s one-speed bike with coaster brakes.

For the first time in 16 years, Trimble, of Munhall, could feel the exhilaration of speeding down a hill on two wheels or pedaling on a bike path with the wind in his face. It was just the first step in fulfilling his two-wheeled dreams; he’s aiming to pedal all the way to the nation’s capital, powered by his sandaled feet.

Once a child stopped him in the street and asked him how he could ride a bike without arms. “It’s all magic, kid,” he replied before zooming off.

Brown, 57, is building a second bike for him, this one a custom model assembled from the ground up. “Bike 2.0,” Trimble calls it. Instead of a heavy single-speed model, this one will be a sleek, 16-speed ride with coaster brakes and a switch that will allow Trimble to shift gears with his stump. The new bike will give Trimble the oomph he needs to climb the hills of Pittsburgh as well as tackle long-distance rides.

This fall, the two Mikes — or “M & M,” as Trimble calls them — plan to lead a group of cyclists pedaling 335 miles from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., on the Great Allegheny Passage and the C&O Canal Towpath. The riders intend to raise money for a still-to-be-designated nonprofit that assists people with disabilities.  

“It will be a modern retelling of a grand journey,” Trimble says with a theatrical flourish that is his trademark. “Sadly, no horses will be involved, no sorcery, no witchcraft.”

Just leg power — and lots of heart.

A year ago, Trimble wondered whether he ever would ride the single-speed bike with coaster brakes he bought online. He doesn’t drive, which added to his desire to ride under his own power. His longtime friend and occasional driver, Tim Rhodes, of West Mifflin, took him from bike shop to bike shop around western Pennsylvania, asking the staff to retrofit the bike.

No way. You can’t ride a bike.

“But I rode a bike as a kid,” Trimble replied. And no, he didn’t have arms back then.  



 

A native of St. Petersburg, Russia, Trimble was one of thousands of babies to be born with malformed limbs and other physical disabilities in the aftermath of the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant that spread radioactive contamination over parts of eastern Europe and western Russia. He lived in several orphanages before being adopted by a Pittsburgh family at age 8.

He first rode a bike at age 12 while attending boarding school in Missouri. The school’s pastor took off the handlebars and jerry-rigged a pole Trimble could use to steer. With the pastor riding beside him, the scared boy crashed a lot at first. But he soon learned to balance and pedal around the school, feeling the sheer thrill of propelling himself forward on two wheels.   

Decades later when he relayed this childhood experience to several bike-shop owners, he got raised eyebrows. Yeah, right. Even those who believed someone could ride a bike arms-free wouldn’t touch the project because of concerns about liability, he says.

“Are you in the business of litigating or in the business of letting dreams come true?” Trimble says he asked them. Rhodes, a cyclist himself, was feeling discouraged until he happened to meet Brown at a bike shop where Brown worked part-time as a salesman. When Rhodes learned Brown was a custom builder, he introduced Brown to Trimble.  

The minute the men met, Brown says he knew he would get Trimble on two wheels. Trimble’s good balance and jaw-dropping leg flexibility enabled him to wrap his foot around the back of his neck, lift a milk carton from the top shelf of his refrigerator and cut his own hair with a razor. (Videos of these feats can be found on YouTube.)

Most of all, Trimble possessed a burning desire to ride a bike, showing the same kind of motivation Brown had seen in the devoted semi-pro cyclists he coaches. “I just had to get him on a bike,” Brown says. “So many people had turned him down. That pulled on my heartstrings. How can you tell people that they cannot do something?”

Brown got to work inside his big, drafty garage off Federal Street, where he creates custom steel bikes that cost $2,000 to $6,000 for clients around the country.

Brown’s business grew out of his lifelong passion for the sport. As a competitive cyclist in his 20s, he became his own mechanic and started selling custom wheels out of his Bethel Park home. A customer from Puerto Rico dubbed him “Maestro.” Brown, who worked for the regulation and measurement department of Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania, also ran his own retail shop, Maestro Cycles, in Bethel Park from 1988 to 1993.

Early retirement from Columbia Gas in 2009 gave him an opportunity to focus solely on bikes. He apprenticed under Mike Flanigan, a legendary Boston-area bike builder, before opening Maestro Frameworks in 2011, commuting by bike from his Squirrel Hill home.  

People with disabilities started seeking him out. “I didn’t go out of my way to look for this market, but people keep finding me to do custom things that nobody else would touch,” Brown says.

A Pittsburgh woman with one short arm, on which her hand protrudes from her elbow, asked Brown if he could get her on two wheels for the first time in her life. He designed a bike that allowed her to shift gears with her longer arm while resting the shorter one on a modified handlebar. He also built a bike for a young man with dwarfism who had been riding ill-fitting children’s bikes and was ecstatic to ride a high-performance bike that fit him.

Then came Trimble’s request — at that time Brown’s biggest engineering challenge to date. To design the steering system, Brown says he sat on the bike and imagined that he had no arms. His first prototype extended the bar to underneath the armpit, but that made Trimble lean to the right. The second version, which Trimble controlled with his stump, allowed him to steer.

As a protective father would, Brown helped Trimble to take his first wobbly laps on the sidewalk outside PNC Park, making sure he didn’t fall.

Trimble was all starts and stops at first. Looking back to that first ride, he jokes that he crashed into the Roberto Clemente statue — he didn’t — and quipped that a newspaper headline of such a mishap would read, “Pittsburgh Statue Defaced by Armless Man.”

Before long, he smiled widely as he pedaled and steered by himself. “It was like he was a 12-year-old kid again,” Brown says. In those first few months, Trimble rode at night to avoid cars. “I wouldn’t fall, but [I would] crash,” he says. The first crash was into a police car in Munhall. The officer stared at him incredulously as he picked up his downed bike with his feet.

Once Trimble got his bearings, he started pedaling in the daytime. For a guy who spends most days in his apartment working remotely as a customer-service representative and playing with his beloved cat Tiger, cycling is a welcome escape. “Walking is not fun. Biking is fun,” he says.

But even his strong leg muscles couldn’t get him up some of Pittsburgh’s famously steep hills. He wanted a bike with gears that would give him the independence to go to movies (his passion) and the grocery store by himself.

In September 2013, Brown started designing Trimble’s second bike, a 16-speed hybrid with internal gears and coaster brakes. The project has proved to be a technical challenge. “I’m trying to find a way where he can shift gears easily,” Brown says.

Trimble is on a fixed income, so Brown is making the bike at cost for $2,000, and he has convinced some vendors to donate parts. In March, Trimble made a down payment of $500. Brown watched in amazement as his customer signed the check with his toes. The writing was perfectly slanted, displaying better penmanship than most people’s signatures.

As he works on the project, Brown is fielding more and more inquiries from people with disabilities from around the country. He is consulting with a man in New York who suffered a stroke and needs help controlling the handlebars on his recumbent bike. He also is helping an armless man from Seattle and has been approached for assistance by an armless man in Tennessee.  

Though Brown has not sought fanfare about his work, he received an anonymous nomination for a Citizen Service Award, which the Mayor’s office of the City of Pittsburgh bestows. To honor him for his “unprecedented creativity” in assisting cyclists with disabilities, former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in 2013 proclaimed Dec. 6 to be “Michael Brown Day.”

Brown didn’t mention the honor to Trimble until months after the fact. Trimble says that is characteristic of the bike maker’s modesty. “He is one of the kindest, most giving people I have met in a long time,” Trimble says. “But he doesn’t call any attention to himself. He is a dream maker. They should name a constellation after him.”

As Trimble awaits his second bike from Brown, he is looking for a place on his apartment wall to mount his first bike once he retires it in favor of the new model. “I will call it ‘The Bike That Started It All,’” he says. He’s also upping his training mileage in preparation for his upcoming ride to Washington, D.C.

As he whizzes along the North Shore, Trimble pushes on his coaster brakes and comes to a stop. Flashing his playful grin, he says, “You can take that off your bucket list. You just went bike-riding with an armless man.” 

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