Michael Trimble is impossible to forget. Ever since I met him in 2016 I wanted to know him better. I finally did that yesterday when I spent the afternoon with this 35-year-old, gay, armless, bike-loving former Russian orphan who wants to be Oregon’s next governor.
Michael’s story is about much more than his obvious physical challenges. He’s a survivor who refuses to be defined by circumstance.
Michael’s mom lived in Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986 when the world’s worst-ever nuclear disaster unfolded. She had Michael one year later and he was born without arms. As a child he bounced from orphanage to orphanage in St. Petersburg, Russia and was taken care of by a loving woman he remembers fondly as Babushka (Grandma) Rita. Just before his ninth birthday he was adopted by an evangelical Christian couple from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The way Michael tells it, they were monsters guided by God’s word to “rescue” him, but they never accepted who he really was.
With a fierce sense of independence forged by a life lived by his own rules, he never felt at home with his adoptive parents. “It was always an icey relationship, partly because I blamed them for taking me away from her [Babushka Rita]… When I came to America I lost my childhood,” Michael shared.
“They say if you have it, flaunt it. Well I have my own saying: If you don’t have it, flaunt it even more!”
— Michael Trimble
Michael was sent to Christian boarding schools; a move that backfired when he connected with new friends and began to learn about American culture (through secretly watching R-rated movies when school counselors weren’t around) and about himself. The more he learned, the more he wanted to escape the crushing rules and beliefs of his adoptive parents, who he says abused him, starved him and forced him to work “dusk to dawn”. “On the surface it looked like I was in a wonderful, loving family. But beneath the surface it was anything but.”
His journey away from that life included getting kicked out of boarding school and finding social workers to help him navigate the Pennsylvania juvenile justice system. Michael was ultimately granted asylum based on his religious beliefs (he’s an atheist) and was finally free.
“I wish I could remember the names of those counselors who helped me,” Michael said, “Because they were heroes.”
Lest you get the wrong impression, it’s not easy to keep Michael serious for more than a few minutes at a time. After sharing his difficult childhood, he immediately switched into humor-mode.
When I told him I felt a bit vulnerable he wasn’t wearing a mask, Michael replied, “Don’t worry Jonathan, I’m unarmed.” And with a light view of his dark past he said, “They say what doesn’t kill you makes you happy, and after all that money they spent to change me in those boarding schools, as you can see I’m still very happy. I’m very proud to be dancing on rainbows with all my beloved unicorns.”
He’s been dancing on pedals ever since he first started biking in 2013. Michael loves cycling for the same reasons you and I do: It’s fun, healthy, and exhilarating. He says he picked it up “pretty instantly” after first trying it (probably owing to his flexibility, core strength and excellent balance). By the time he moved to Portland in 2015, he was ready to upgrade his bike.
Michael’s first bike was a single-speed cruiser with a coaster brake and a modified handlebar. As he biked more, he wanted gears and more speed. Michael connected with local adaptive bike expert Adam Amundsen to create “Black Mamba 2.0” — a lightweight aluminum Scott Matrix with several customizations.
To steer his bike, Michael grabs a u-shaped bar (at the end of a long handlebar) with the “nub” of his arm (watch how he gets ready to ride and more in the video below). A few inches in front of his bar is another attachment with two buttons that shift his 11-speed rear cassette electronically (he also usually has a two-speed front crank gear made by Schlumpf he can change with his foot, but it was in the shop). Midway down the top-tube is another handle that Amundsen fashioned into a dual-brake. Michael pushes the handle with the inside of his right knee to engage the front and rear v-brakes simultaneously.
Because getting a flat would be a serious hassle, Michael uses solid, puncture-proof tires. “If you don’t want to change tires and you don’t have any arms like me. Get them,” he recommends with his trademark wry smile.
Michael recently started wearing cleats to clip into his pedals. “I wanted to go faster and have a smoother experience,” he said. When he bought them the shop was so concerned he’d hurt himself they made him sign a legal waiver. “I biked off the lot with no problem and haven’t had any falls because of the cleats,” he added proudly.
Michael’s two favorite accessories are his deluxe Garmin GPS unit (he’s obsessed with ride stats) and his bluetooth speakers. Blasting music helps people step out of the way when his favorite paths gets crowded. “It’s not enough not to have no arms these days,” he says sarcastically. “You really have to amp it up!”
Asked why he doesn’t use an e-bike, Michael says he wants all the exercise he can get. He also doesn’t like the heavy batteries.
Another quirk about Michael’s bicycling set-up is that he always wears sandals. Even in winter. “My feet are my hands,” he explained. “When I put my feet in shoes, they get sweaty and stinky. I need my feet to be pristine.”
Once on his bike, Michael is hard to keep up with. He averages about 13 mph on a good day. Asked if he gets scared on downhills or at high speeds, he seemed surprised at the question. “Why would I be scared? When I’m going downhill I shift into the hardest gear! It’s so very exhilarating and freeing, especially with the wind blowing in my face.”
I found that with many questions I asked, his answers weren’t really all that different than someone with arms.
Just like some of you, he loves sharing his ride statistics. In fact, his favorite hobby is creating large, detailed graphical images to present them on. Michael combs the internet for political graphics from news stories (he’s a news junkie who loves talking politics) or movie stills and then painstakingly manipulates them in Photoshop into bold creations several gigabites large. He takes extreme, Where’s Waldo-like pleasure in hiding his numerical stats somewhere in the image.
He has a lot to be proud of too. 2020 was his best riding year ever (thanks to the pandemic that freed up so much space for him on the paths) and he notched over 10,868 miles of riding. That’s more than twice the mileage he had in 2018.
Many of you have seen him on his go-to route that includes the Hawthorne Bridge, Springwater Corridor, and loops through Sellwood. Asked if he gets bored of doing the same route every day, he said, “No way! Because there’s always cute cyclists to stare at and interesting comments and interactions from people. Every day is different.”
Some of those comments are annoying, Michael admitted, but he takes them in stride. Nothing will keep Michael from doing what he loves. Not even serious crashes.
In 2017 someone in a car cut him off while he biked on SW Washington. “The guy gets out of his car and says, ‘Oh my god you have no arms!’ and I was like, yeah dude you shouldn’t have cut me off!” He laughs about that crash, but the one on June 18th 2016 was no laughing matter. He nearly died after falling on his head while biking on North Interstate Avenue. He was in a coma for nine days. The crash had such an impact on Michael, he made a video about it titled, “Doomed, the 18th of June“. This was also the crash that turned Michael into a staunch believer in helmets. Before it, he never wore one.
Then there was the time in March 2018 when he says a TriMet bus operator nearly ran him down. The incident was reported to the police and led to a tweet from @PDXAlerts that read, “Bicyclist is now leaving the scene, riding away – caller reporting cyclist is “steering with his mouth and doesn’t have any arms.”
On Wednesday we rode from his apartment near SW 21st and Burnside, over the Hawthorne Bridge and then down to Sellwood Riverfront Park.
A few blocks into it a construction project forced him off his usual route and back onto West Burnside, which is busy and full of potholes. He was irked. “I absolutely hate riding on Burnside,” he said as our bikes clanked over bumps and our tires crackled over gravel. As we zig-zagged through downtown streets on our way to the bridge, I realized how he can’t signal intentions like you and I can.
I felt myself getting anxious on his behalf as dangerous scenarios played out in my head: He can’t turn sharply. He can’t signal his turns. What if he hits a big bump? What if he has to stop suddenly? None of this even occurred to him as he smoothly navigated everything. In fact, I was the one who nearly crashed when I rolled off a high curb unexpectedly while filming him.
Even though he’s a very confident rider, I sensed a sigh of relief when we crossed over that “Springwater Corridor” sign and were finally on the carfree path.
Free from urban biking hazards, the conversation got easier. He told me all about how he plans to run for governor (“If I can bike 10,200 miles, why can’t I be the governor?”) and shared his platform to eradicate homelessness, establish rent caps , expanding Medicaid, and of course bicycling. He promised, if elected, he’d be “The most bike-friendly advocate the state has ever seen. I want to make Oregon a cycling mecca.”
Michael definitely has politician vibes. He has an unforgettable backstory, he’s smart, funny, charismatic and seems to relish attention and publicity. When I pointed out how he liked to be filmed, he said, “Well why not?! They say if you have it, flaunt it. Well I have my own saying: If you don’t have it, flaunt it even more!”
He also doesn’t shy away from being a role model for other people who face physical challenges (a term he prefers over “disabilities”), “We all have our limitations and we need to acknowledge reality. But don’t let that hold you back. Go for it! Don’t let others determine your fate or destiny. After all, you steer your own bicycle.”
Get to know Michael better in this video I put together after our day together:
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and email@example.com
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