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A brilliant Australian campaign makes it possible to understand what suffering from MS feels like.
When they work perfectly, bicycles are an extension of our bodies. They enable us to move farther and with greater speed. When we pull on the brakes they stop, when we pedal harder they move faster. They are an incredibly efficient machine. But what if our bodies, like our bikes, don’t work as they should?
This is the idea behind “This Bike Has MS,” a brilliant campaign by Grey Advertising Australia for the non-profit MS Australia, aiming to raise awareness of multiple sclerosis in the lead-up to the MS Melbourne Cycle in March 2016.
Multiple sclerosis is a terrible disease. At times fatiguing, at times numbing, at times itching and burning, at times debilitating, at times painful, and at times all of the above at once. It could come in waves or lapses, or gradually get worse over time.
While different for everyone (and different from day to day), MS could feel like the day after two sleepless nights, an asthma attack, and a severe muscle spasm combined into one. Throw on a numb, tingling limb, a sudden inability to find the words you’re looking for and a slight blurriness of vision and you might have an approximation of what a person who suffers from MS has to fight against as they navigate their day.
But it is only that, an approximation. While non MS-sufferers can take a guess at what it may feel like to live with the disease, the reality remains a mystery. MS is the most common autoimmune disorder to affect the central nervous system, as of 2008, over 2 million people were affected globally. But to those who don’t suffer from it, it is incredibly difficult to understand. From the outside, those who suffer from MS appear healthy, and as such, it is incredibly difficult to diagnose and often difficult for others to take seriously.
Carol Cooke, a cycling Paralympian, along with a team of bike-building experts, neurologists, physiotherapists, and people with MS, have designed a bicycle that offers non-sufferers a glimpse of what’s it’s like to live in a body that just doesn’t work as it should. From a distance, it looks like a perfectly normal bicycle, but once you try to ride it you’ll find everything you knew about navigating space and distance no longer applies. The physical signals you usually send no longer elicit the same response.
“This is a terrible bike to ride,” begins the narrator in the campaign video. “Its gears are unpredictable, its frame off-balanced, and its brakes numb to press. This bike has multiple sclerosis.”
Two expert bike builders, under the direction of Cooke and the team, rigged the bike to mimic the symptoms of living with an afflicted body. The frame is deliberately misaligned, the brakes are dull, the wheels are intentionally untrued, the gears are missing teeth, thin handlebar tape fastens painful ball bearings onto the bars and a BMX saddle rules out any chance of comfort sitting down. Users should feel a “dizziness of shifting, a real kind of unease,” says bike builder James McLeod. “After some distance, the rider will have to start using some muscles that wouldn’t be natural for a bike rider.”
“You’ll have to be constantly fighting the bike to stay straight,” adds builder Thom Pravda. “Using particularly heavy parts, it’s going to be pretty fatiguing.”
This campaign highlights the terrifying reality that we all know but are understandably reluctant to admit. Like bicycles, our bodies are machines. When they work perfectly, we barely notice them save for the occasional gratitude we feel after accomplishing a particularly gruelling ride or heavy task. It is only when they malfunction that we really understand the parts and processes that enable us to move through our days. When your derailleur breaks, you can take the bike to the shop. But what about your central nervous system?
In this most recent video, cyclists Shane Kelly, Alex Morgan, and Charlie Pickering take the bike with MS out for a test ride.
“It was very difficult, it was genuinely hard work, and I definitely didn’t feel in complete control of what was going on,” recounts Pickering after the ride. “I was never comfortable at any point.”
In 2013, 20,000 died from MS, but to date there is no understood cause and no known cure. If you’re interested in learning more, visit MS Australia. The 10th annual MS Melbourne Cycle will be held on Sunday, March 6th, 2016. To learn more, visit melbournecycle.org.au
Hilary Angus is the Online Editor at Momentum Mag. @HilaryAngus