When Christian Bagg was younger, the mountains were his playground. As soon as he got home from school he would jump on his mountain bike and head to the local provincial park, Fish Creek, with his friends.
“We’d crash our way down until we got good enough not to crash, then we’d do something a bit harder.”
He fell in love with the mountains, and as well as mountain biking he dabbled in snowboarding, caving, hiking and scrambling.
“It was how I identified myself for sure, you’re malleable and nimble enough at that age, you can decide to be good at something by putting in a bit of effort.”
Christian knew something life-changing had happened when he made a mistake on a jump while snowboarding. He blew his T 7, 8 and 9 vertebrae and was paralysed instantly, at age 20.
While he was lying in his hospital bed, a family friend, who was a keen mountain climber, would come to visit him, bringing climbing books.
Now Christian was not a big climber but these were not just about the sport, these were stories of survival in the mountains.
”I really identified with the stories, these were people like me who willingly put themselves into stupid situations.Christian BaggEngineering Trailblazer
Any other survival story, such as tales of refugee survivors would’ve been quite different, but these had a profound impact on Christian’s mindset.
“They were fighting for fun, not for life.”
The stories, especially Christian’s personal favourite, Touching the Void by Joe Simpson, helped him to see the only way to get out of a bad situation is to keep moving forward.
Moving forward was exactly what Christian intended to do. However, as a result of his injury he was faced with intense spasticity on a daily basis.
“My legs shook to the point where my legs pulled out of my socket, I was on tons of muscle relaxants and drugs, it wasn’t a life to live.”
For two long years, he suffered through the spasms, even returning to his job in the engineering department at the University of Calgary.
The constant pain meant he wasn’t able to work full time hours. Christian was despondent. Even undergoing a surgery to implant a baclofen pump to drip muscle relaxants on his spinal cord made no difference, and in fact the spasms got worse.
He was desperate to find a way out. In fact he was desperate to just do away with his spinal cord altogether. And that’s exactly what he did.
“I’m not going to walk, I don’t care that I can sort of wiggle a toe, let’s get rid of it.”
Two years after his injury he got his spinal cord severed – otherwise known as the smartest thing he says he has done in his life.
“I wouldn’t have a life if not. When I woke up from surgery I was just a regular old paralysed dude.”
Where once every day and every moment was a fight, Christian could now actually envision the future. He could see himself in the mountains again and now he had the time, energy and the will to get there.
Christian credits Joe Simpson with inspiring him to make such a massive decision to cut his spinal cord.
“The constant sitting on a ledge in a crevasse with pure darkness below you and no way up, you can either sit on the ledge and die or go down and die, but at least going down was somewhere. Things could get no worse in my mind. F – it lets try it, and it worked just like it did for Joe, we popped out of the snow and saw the light.”
A bit of an adrenalin junkie, Christian loves pushing outside his comfort zone and taking risks. Most of all he loves getting to a place where what’s happening in day to day just melts away, unconsciously.
“You have to be 100 per cent present, you really have to be in survival mode.”
Now in his forties, he reflect back on his escapades and adventures in the 1990s.
“It was the early days of mountain bikes, there wasn’t a checklist of things you should do to get better to accomplish X, Y or Z, it was creative. It was the time of the VHS and no internet, we didn’t know what was possible.”
After breaking his back, it took Christian a long time to reach that state of mind again, where he could hop on a mountain bike and experience those same feelings of creativity and spontaneity.
One of the first things he did after his injury was to build himself his own wheelchair. A fairly tall guy, clocking in at six foot four inches, many of the wheelchair back then didn’t really accommodate for his height.
As a qualified machinist, he had the mind-set of being able to build his way out of a situation he didn’t like or build his way into one he did.
“I realised I did have the power… that if I was going to be 100 per cent reliant on technology, I should become a master of it.”
People in Calgary were impressed by what he was able to create, especially a man who was a little person with spinal issues. Christian made him chair, and so would begin his wheelchair building for hire days.
He got involved in medical company Stryker, but says while the design of the chair was the easiest part, the process was complex and the medical regulations were a nightmare.
“Like any job you start, there is a lot of background that isn’t fun.”
Within the adaptive equipment industry, Christian says there’s a lot of issues, including a lack of competing companies and investment. The typical wheelchair design seen today comes from the mid-80s – it hasn’t changed since.
“From a paraplegic’s standpoint, it’s infuriating the industry is so stunted and pathetic, compared to where it could be.”
In the end, bikes were what really mattered most to Christian, and his interest soon turned to fixate on developing trikes, so he could get out into remote places.
It all started with a sit ski, a pretty rudimentary design, essentially a cafeteria chair on top of two skis, held rigid. Users propel themselves using two ski poles.
Christian was in Toronto, working with Icon Wheelchairs, when he met the woman that would become his wife. He took her back to Calgary with him and they started skiing with each other.
A wild adventure during a 25 kilometre back country ski trip saw Christian having to bum shuffle at least two kilometres over the snow, when his ski couldn’t pass easily on the track. The framework for his adaptive bike was born from this trip.
”I love this place, but I can’t get there, no friend will come with me again.Christian BaggEngineering Trailblazer
So he ended up designing an adaptive mountain bike that allowed him to reach speeds of 70 kilometres an hour. Inspired, he got adapting and creating, letting different trails dictate the refinements he would make. Christian now heads the Bowhead Corporation where he sells the Bowhead Reach adventure cycle, out of a shop in the basement of his home.
The Bowhead Reach is a tricycle with two 20 inch size wheels in the front and one big wheel at the back. Initially, Christian was committed to manual bikes, using a hand crank, but after being pressured to install a motor, he never looked back. Out of all of the many options he has to exercise, nothing else compares – “I’ve never had this much fun in a wheelchair.”
The biggest thing is the way the front of the bike works. The parallelogram configuration means it can lean and accommodate side slopes, and as a result is narrow, so can fit through tight spaces.
Christian has been in love with mountain biking his whole life, despite his long hiatus and all he wanted was to get back to a level where he could challenge himself like he used to. Since creating the Bowhead Reach, he has never had to give up on a trail.
After the recent BC bike show in Vancouver, the Bowhead tricycle was considered best in show among some of the best biking companies in the world showing of their wares.
Looking ahead, Christian hopes he can get out of the basement and do a lot more riding himself. But without giving too much away, Bowhead is hoping to expand its market to create a version of the bike that would cater to the ageing population.
“Take my mother who’s in her mid-70s, she’s had two knee replacements, a hip replacement, spinal stenosis. She loved the mountains but now she can’t hike with her grandkids.”
His final words of wisdom is that everyone will get old and die one day, and many will love the outdoors until their last breath – so why shouldn’t they be able to go there until then?
If you’d rather listen than read…
Listen to the Podcast with Christian Bagg now.