News | 22 November 2021

Planned bike network will give Para-cycling mum greater freedom

A network of safe biking routes free of traffic would be life changing for Wellington mum and Para-cyclist Liz Gasson.

Landscape image of Liz Gasson with Paddy in his wagon along Oriental Bay

It would allow her to ride and potentially do some training by herself, bike more places with her husband, son and assistance dog Paddy, and make fewer short trips by car.

With the safe route proposed between the city and Newtown and other connections, she might even be able to bike to some of her hospital appointments.

Cycling has given Liz “wings” after her mobility and balance became seriously compromised by multiple sclerosis. Surprisingly, she found that while walking wasn’t easy – she could ride.

She is currently a Para-cyclist with a Paralympic classification, which enables her to compete in both national and international cycling events.

She competed in a C1 World Qualifiers in Cambridge in 2019, won two gold medals at the 2020 Elite and U19 Track Cycling National Championships, a silver this year at the Age Group Road Cycling National Championships, and has been awarded the Te Hiranga Parikaha Trophy for cycling excellence for women earlier this year.

Liz is in the pathway programme for the Paralympics. Health permitting, she would love to earn the opportunity to compete at the Paris 2024 or Los Angeles Paralympics. But despite all this, the only way she can get out and ride safely in Wellington at the moment is with her coach and friend Steve Bale, who accompanies her on rides and helps keep her safe.

“Biking provided a way to get my wings back. It makes me feel free,” she says. “But I am very limited in where I can go in Wellington, and with COVID, and my compromised immunity, I avoid public transport.”

Liz is a big supporter of Wellington City Council’s goal to develop a connected network to make it easier and safer for people of all ages and abilities to be able to bike or scoot into the city, to shops, schools and between suburbs. Paneke Pōneke, the proposed bike network plan, is open for feedback until 14 December.

“More safe bike routes and connections would be life changing for me,” she says. “It will be phenomenal to have safe lanes and more places to be able to ride and teach your kids how to cycle. The benefits will far outweigh the challenges.

“Anything that enables people to get out and about and enjoy Wellington more is fantastic – and biking is great. For your joints, cardio-vascularly, for your mental health and well-being, and for the environment. Wellington’s not that big a place. Getting from one side of the city to another is not a big thing in terms of distance. It will be great to have more connections and be able to get to more places.”

Liz has always been an athlete, competing nationally in events for running, swimming and soccer but her body was slowly becoming more disabled with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis and a compromised immune system. She started becoming more reliant on mobility devices and wheelchairs, and extremely restricted in what she could do, but was determined to maintain as much independence as she could, and do as much as possible.

With the help of her assistance dog Paddy, she gradually started to walk longer distances, and was eventually encouraged to try cycling.

Six-year-old labrador Paddy has been specifically trained to help Liz in a variety of ways. He assists with her balance by acting as a counter-balance, picks things up, turns lights on and off, opens doors, gets help if needed, and can push emergency alarms and ‘alerts’ if her blood sugar levels drop too low and she is about to faint.

With Liz’s love for cycling, Paddy has acquired a new mode of transport too. He has his own ‘paddy wagon’ so he can join her on longer rides and still do his job.

“I love that it’s possible to ride now on parts of the waterfront route and am looking forward to seeing other parts developed which would make it possible to ride further. There is the question of what the changes will look like, and developing safe routes through some parts of the city will be challenging. But I want future grandkids to be able to enjoy biking places.

“It’s about how people are enjoying the spaces rather than what they are riding. My son loves riding next to me where that’s possible. The important thing is that people are respectful of others.”

With global warming, she says reducing the number of car trips is vital for the future of the city and the planet.

“Making it safe and easy for more people to bike, scoot, walk, or take public transport is the way to do that. It also has big advantages for people who are reliant on cars. By reducing the numbers driving places, anyone who needs to drive or be driven will more easily be able to get where they need to go without getting held up in traffic.”

Liz is super conscious of how important it is to have conveniently located mobility parking spaces. So, in places where developing safer bike and scooting lanes or bus priority lanes means there is less space for on-street parking, she is adamant the Council must prioritise retaining mobility spaces, and put more in where possible.