By Dennis Johnson
It’s a few weeks out from the running of the 6th Annual Tara Llanes Classic (TLC) mountain bike race, and the Internet is flooded with footage and images recapping the Mega DH, the Shimano Kid’s Race and the general awesome nature of the event.
Captured in just about every bit of imagery from the three-day weekend that helped close out September is the shining, smiling face of the event’s namesake, Tara Llanes. Handing out medals. Hugging kids. Posing for photo ops. Narrating video. Llanes’ presence looms large.
Ask her about some highlights and she’ll tell you the Shimano race is always a blast, with parents and kids digging the chance to compete right there at mid-mountain. And there’s some promising talent too, she says. “Little Ricky Castro. That kid, he’s been at our event every year and every year he races the kid’s race,” Llanes explains. “The kid is fast and I see a lot of potential to do really well at mountain biking so I hope he does.”
The TLC is hugely positive event and it’s plain to see from the footage that everyone is stoked to be there. Llanes especially.
“It was a really wicked time,” she says. “The event got started for such a rad reason. Everybody who comes out says to me, ‘Every year this is the one event that we know we’re gonna be at, 100 percent, we’re going for sure. We just love to be there to back you up!’ It gives me so much support, too, even though the event’s not for me necessarily anymore. It’s for spinal cord injury and for finding a cure for spinal cord injury.”
What started as a fundraiser to help Llanes with medical bills following a devastating crash in 2007 that left her paralyzed below the waist, has morphed in scope and scale into an annual event that brings in pro racers, a mass of high-profile sponsors like Giant, Pearl Izumi, Pinkbike.com, Leatt and Fox Racing Shox to name a few, and the kind of commitment and passion endemic to efforts that begin in the heart.
Now in its fourth year at Northstar California in Lake Tahoe, the TLC features the downhill, the kid’s race, a cross-country race, an industry cup, riding clinics and other industry high points. Proceeds go toward the Tara Llanes Road to Recovery Fund, the Reeve-Irvine Research Center to help find a cure for spinal cord injury and to the Center of Restorative Exercise (C.O.R.E.).
And with all this, Llanes is right in the thick of it, helping organize the event while also holding down a gig as a sales rep for Pearl Izumi in British Columbia, Canada. Ramping up to this year’s TLC, Llanes says she was slowed down by pain relating to her injuries, but she kept charging forth.
This drive is part of her determination to raise awareness about spinal cord injury and funding to help find a cure for paralysis. It’s a hard-edged will that’s apparent in a trailer for a documentary aimed at helping people better understand paralysis through the eyes of of paralyzed athletes. While production of the documentary — which has strong backing from Leatt — is currently on hold awaiting more funding, Llanes is determined to finish the film
And there’s a telling line in the trailer that offers a good insight into Llanes’ determination: “Those athletes that were athletes before the injury are still athletes and they’re damn good ones,” she says to the camera. “Spinal cord injury needs a face and if I can do that I can be the one.”
For good reason, too. Since the crash at the Jeep King of the Mountain finale in Beaver Creek, Colo., Llanes has plowed headfirst into her rehab and recovery. In 2009 she aimed to compete in the Hawaiian IronMan and devoted herself to training. Medical complications sidelined those efforts but the goal ever since has been reaching upward. Getting the message out about spinal cord injury is part of that goal.
“For me the message is to basically show everybody that we’re not different. People say able-bodied and disabled, but I hate that word, ‘disabled,’ because I’m very able,” she says. “I really want to teach people what a day in the life is like for someone in a chair. Everything we have to go through just to get through a day, let alone train for something.
“I want people to walk away just being more educated about those who are paraplegic and quadriplegic. Just understand the injury a lot better.”
Llanes thinks it’s a mix of fear and just not knowing that colors the perception of most people when it comes to spinal cord injuries. Just rolling down the sidewalk she catches the reactions of passersby — those who look from far away, the others who look down, avoiding eye contact, and the people who stare, their eyes boring down on her, but not really seeing anything.
“I went and did this talk at this school in California … it was amazing. All the kids were really young and afterward I was out in their yard chatting and talking,” she says. “They were so into asking questions and that’s what I want. I want people to ask questions because I’m not shy about answering them. I’d rather somebody know the answer than just sort of stare at me funny, not having any idea how I got hurt, what I can still do and what I can’t.”
In addition to getting the word out about spinal cord injury, Llanes is also a huge safety advocate and a tremendous believer in the Leatt brace. The brace didn’t appear in the mountain biking world until after her injury, but she saw its popularity explode at events such as Crankworx.
“It really caught on over the course of about two years,” she says. “One year, there were just a few riders wearing them, and the next year, so many more riders were wearing a brace.”
Llanes says that she wears a Leatt brace religiously whenever she gets the chance to ride a four-wheel downhill bike. “I wouldn’t wear anything else. I really wouldn’t,” she explains. “I’m so confident in what Leatt has been able to produce with Dr. Leatt behind it and all that went into developing the brace.”
Now, when anybody asks about protective gear, she recommends the brace, saying, “I feel like everybody should be wearing one.”
Llanes admits that it took her a while to understand her own injury, that the time since the crash has been a long, insane learning experience. But in learning about her injury, how it’s affected her body, she’s better able to explain it to others.
Through working with the Reeve-Irvine Research Center and with Aaron Baker — the recovering quadriplegic former pro motorcross racer who founded C.O.R.E — she’s gained a deeper understanding of her injury and all it entails. “The more I understand what’s going on with my body, the better I can explain it,” she notes. “Then, I can get that message out exactly.”
For now, she’ll be taking some time off to concentrate on her rep job with Pearl Izumi before jumping back into preparing for the 2013 TLC — this time with some help as doing both is like having two full-time jobs.
Seems there’s a lot of work to do.