THE MAN WHO COULD
THE INSPIRATIONAL TALE OF TALAN SKEELS-PIGGINS
The first time I met Talan Skeels-Piggins was at the top of a hill. When I say met, it was more a case of my usefulness in 'catching' him after he had completed his run up the Shelsley Walsh hill climb course.
Sarah, his helper, had explained that Talan was a disabled rider who raced. He was the first paraplegic to be granted a licence to compete by the ACU, following a determined struggle. As he reached the hill climb finish line, several of us needed to support Talan and the bike to stay upright, turn him round, and point him back down the hill, where other helpers would assist him back to the paddock.
There had to be an interesting story here, and after a chat with Talan and his crew, he agreed that we could arrange to meet at a later date. I wanted to learn more about his life, as someone who had become paralysed from the chest downwards as a result of a motorcycle crash. I wanted to learn about his determination to ride again.
Many young people are discouraged from riding motorcycles because of the concerns and anxiety it provokes in parents, especially mums. Talan's mother had forbidden him to ride because a relative had been injured in a bike crash. But as soon as he had left home, he acquired an RG125 Suzuki. He was instructed in the basics by the bloke who sold him the bike, and he was away.
His mum's anxieties were confirmed when he was badly injured in a collision. Undaunted, he recovered, took a Direct Access course, and acquired a CBR600, which he used to commute from West London to his workplace at Piccadilly in central London, as well as for regular transport. He told me that he was never part of the motorcycle 'scene,' but rode for the pure pleasure of riding and feeling in control of the machine.
Crash two and recovery
Then, for a second time, Talan was involved in a collision with a car. It hit him and pitched him into oncoming traffic. He severed his spinal chord, was paralysed from the chest downwards, and the prognosis for recovery would mean two years in hospital. Emotionally, he was in a deep hole of anger, frustration, and hatred, until he met another patient at the hospital who inspired him to adopt a more positive frame of mind towards recovery. He was able to be discharged after six months.
Despite the fact his life had been completely changed, positive ideas for new activity occurred...he would go skiing, and get into the British Paralympic Team. Eleven months after his crash, he was sit-skiing; in fourteen months, he was in the squad, going on to be top placed British male sit skier at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. He then became a European Champion, gaining medals in tough skiing disciplines.
Given this level of character, determination and discipline, it couldn't be too long before motorcycling thoughts would invade. They did. Talan bought a solo bike, imagining he could ride again. He went to an airfield in Cornwall, with two helpers who assisted him to launch. He fell off, of course, but why should this put back his ideas and plans?
He approached Castle Coombe circuit, to ask if they would help him to ride again; they agreed. Two people held the bike upright while Talan pulled away and rode with track day instructors front and rear. He was a motorcyclist again: “When I'm riding I do not feel disabled. I feel free from my wheelchair, I enjoy the sense of excitement and independence, just as I used to.”
After a year, he felt ready to sign up for his first track day at Mallory Park, on a circuit where other riders could easily be 'obstacles,' blocking his already remarkable progress. They were not, and there was a gleam of fond memory as Talan recalled his first overtakes and how the track day organisers began to see him as just another rider.
If track days were a challenge that had now been overcome, racing thoughts could not be far away. But how to obtain that necessary piece of paper: the ACU Racing Licence? Darley Moor circuit, in Derbyshire, is where riders are assessed for their suitability to race by ACU coaches. On the day he attended for his track sessions, he was told a licence would be given. Later, the ACU re-considered and would not allow him to race in mass starts with others. From 2010 until 2012, Talan, and others involved in road racing, campaigned to have this decision rescinded.
Frustrating and annoying for Talan. But, given that few aspects of life where he wanted to achieve had defeated him, this would be just another episode in which he battled through and realised his aims. Not only that, his determination has made it possible for other riders to obtain licenses and race - some of whom are now incorporated into the first team for disabled racers, Talan Racing.
Help for others
Not satisfied with this personal remarkable feat, he then developed an idea to help other motorcyclists with a disability to ride again. He set up a trust in 2011 and invested considerable amounts of his own money in The Bike Experience (TBE). The aims of which are to show motorcyclists who are disabled how to ride again; use motorcycling as a catalyst for further rehabilitation, and to increase well-being and self-belief; improve physical strength, balance, co-ordination and stamina; and give participants the knowledge, understanding and confidence to buy their own bike, adapt it, and ride at track days.
He bought and adapted a Suzuki GSXR600, enlisting further help from the team at Castle Coombe. Talan showed the first riders who took part how to handle the bike, then the help and support team would take over, to launch them onto the track, where they utilised the breaks in track days sessions, which Castle Coombe allowed without charge.
The Bike Experience gained charitable status in 2012 and expanded activity to RAF Odiham in Hampshire. With the help of Bennetts Bike Insurance, it went on to hire space at Donnington circuit, and to use Silverstone, who have also given them free circuit space. Bennetts' staff are intimately involved in TBE, as part of a development programme at the company. Talan told me proudly that there is now competition within Bennetts to become part of it.
As the charity, and the achievements of riders taking part became known, offers of help came in the form of equipment (leathers, helmets, gloves etc). Able-bodied motorcyclists and others offered to become volunteer helpers, as the process of 'launching' and 'catching' riders is labour intensive. They have two Aprilia Mana bikes on loan and a Suzuki SV650 - the big advantage for participants is that they are not charged for the sessions. But it's a costly business, and Talan has had to devote more time to fundraising, coordination and profile raising as the organisation and its activity has grown.
Information about TBE has gone out to Spinal Units across the UK, and to the institutions who take care of rehabilitation programmes for injured service personnel, Headley Court and Tedworth House. Publicity across the motorcycle media, and on bike forums, has helped draw attention to the impressive and courageous exploits of the participants; in the West Country, ITV has ran news pieces on the organisation's achievements.
They've not only helped and supported paralysed riders, but also those with MS, stroke conditions, amputees, and those suffering from post-traumatic stress. And riders from other countries have also come here, to take advantage of this unique rehabilitative challenge – Ula, a woman from Finland, has made two visits to The Bike Experience and is now riding at track days back home.
Talan's role has changed as TBE has grown. From demonstrating the possible, he now leaves much of this in the hands of the volunteer team. He has an important role in supporting the families who arrive with their sons, daughters, husbands etc. And it is often an emotional experience for them too - watching as they prepare and undertake this risky journey and succeed in their aims to ride a motorcycle again.
Spreading the word
The riders' own voices is the best way to convey how life changing and valuable their bike experience has been.
Last year, Colin Ketteringham wrote: “I have a terminal illness called Muscular System Atrophy. I'd let my disease rule my life. I had given up on life. Then, one beautiful July morning, I was taken to Silverstone to see TBE. I didn't expect to ride, but I did and it changed my life. My heads were free and clear of everything, just me and the bike again”.
Dan Edwards has said: “Since my accident in 2009 I was determined to ride again, and thanks to Talan and his team, I did. It was such an amazing experience...after getting back to the pit lane, reaching a whopping 113mph on my last lap, I had a grin from ear to ear under that helmet of mine”.
Brett Crossley said: “Today I rode a motorcycle on a race circuit again for the first time in nearly five years, thanks to Talan and TBE. It was bloody fantastic...”
A documentary film company, Speechless Films, has made a brief film about Talan's progress as a racer: The Little Person Inside - you can view this at their website. They also have a ninety minute documentary about Talan Racing in production, Dream The Impossible. You can view a 'teaser' from this on the site too.
The Bike Experience and Talan Racing has evolved and been developed because of the determination, persuasion, courage, and not a little money provided by Talan Skeels-Piggins. The whole project has provided new aims and opportunities in life for people who can be invisible in society. The breaking down of barriers, attitudes, prejudices and stereotypes is a part of Talan and the volunteers' work, that cannot be underestimated.
It's a project that should be fully supported and funded by the motorcycle trade and others. But they struggle from year to year to keep equipment renewed, bikes adapted and on track, fuel and transport costs met and sponsorship gathered. If you want to support their efforts, contact Talan and his team through the TBE. You can donate or find out about others ways to help at tbex.co.uk.
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