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Disabled Hollywood man bicycles way out of bitterness

Felix Hackenberg lost his left leg in 1987. Twelve years later, he discovered bicycling. Now he's a daily fixture on the streets near his home, in Griffith Park and on mountain roads.

May 07, 2009|Bob Pool

For a dozen years after a 1987 motorcycle accident cost him his left leg, Felix Hackenberg was bitter that he was no longer physically active.

"My idea of fun had been to get out and run six miles to the top of Mt. Hollywood and back," he said. "Losing my leg was emotionally devastating. It didn't make sense that my life should continue."

But during a 1999 appointment with a prosthetist Hackenberg was asked if he had considered riding a bicycle. No, he replied, but he was willing to try.

"I thought I'd have to put a mattress on my left side in case I fell," he said. "But I got on the thing and immediately had balance. I could ride it."

He hasn't stopped pedaling since. The 58-year-old is a daily fixture on streets near his Hollywood home, in Griffith Park and on steep mountain roads such as Mulholland Highway.

Motorists do double-takes when they notice that the man in the colorful spandex racing clothes only has one leg. Other bicyclists' jaws drop when he overtakes and then passes them on steep inclines in places like Pacific Palisades.

Hackenberg has removed the left pedal from each of his four bicycles -- a titanium-framed Lightspeed Firenze road bike, a single-speed Italian race bike, a 21-speed Raleigh mountain bike and a cyclocross-tire-equipped Giant fitness bike.

"I don't need the extra pedal. I'm interested in having a light bike and going fast, so I sawed the left pedal arms off the bikes," he said.

A cleat on his shoe clips onto the right pedal. "It holds on there so you can pull up as well as push down with your leg."

When he has to stop, he pulls over to the curb and grabs a pole or signpost or twists his foot out of the pedal clip and rests it on the ground.

He enjoys bike riding so much that Hackenberg has given up his car.

He rides in the Los Angeles Marathon's Acura bike tour and placed 35th in a recent one, covering a 24-mile course in 59 minutes.

His longest ride has been 70 miles -- from the Cahuenga Pass along Mulholland Drive to the Sepulveda Pass, then down Sunset Boulevard to Will Rogers State Beach and finally to Torrance.

He took city streets back to Hollywood.

Hackenberg particularly likes riding in Griffith Park.

"Sometimes on top of Mt. Lee there are clouds and mist and the sun is coming through and it's just absolutely gorgeous," he said of the mountain behind the Hollywood sign.

"Bombing down those hills with the hairpin turns is just outrageous. It's like skiing. When I was a kid I was a snow skier and would do swoops. You can do that on a bike," he said.

Those seeing Hackenberg on his bike for the first time sometimes flag him down.

"The reaction of people is usually like, 'Whoa, dude! You're the man.' One woman stopped me and said she was having a terrible day, but when she saw me riding the bike everything changed for her," he said.

Once a man pulled up in Silver Lake to present a poem he had written about him.

Titled "Like Lightning Over My Shoulder," it describes Hackenberg as:

Fresh like the wind,

Through the slip-stream of the traffic corridor,

Leaving four-wheeled

monsters behind,

Weightless like a Monarch,

Capable of flying to the ends of the Earth,

Pedaling as if a dynamo,

With the grace of a ballerina.

Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who often spies Hackenberg while traveling in his Hollywood-area district, calls the bicyclist an inspiration.

"Every time I see him he's got his car window rolled down and shoulder, head and arm going out the window yelling 'Go Felix!' " Hackenberg said.

Stephen Box, one of Los Angeles' leading bicycle activists, said Hackenberg has lapped him and others who ride a six-mile Griffith Park circuit that is popular with cyclists. "Seeing him makes you realize you really do have a great deal to be thankful for," Box said.

Hackenberg's wife, Karen, who was riding on the motorcycle with him when a car pulled in front of them in April 1987 at the corner of Vermont and Finley avenues, was less seriously injured in the crash. Although she realizes that city streets are still hazardous, she is supportive of his urban bicycle riding.

He remains mindful of the danger, Hackenberg said.

"One day I went into the pavement and broke the stump leg hip -- I broke the femoral neck right off. But I was up riding within a month or so," he said.

"I hit a truck a few weeks ago and I'm still alive. An SUV hit me six months ago and I'm still alive. Yesterday a guy pulled right in front of me and I managed to swerve around him. That happens almost daily. You're constantly avoiding people who are going to hit you."

He uses what he calls his "fake leg" during the day when he works as a Scientology minister, Hackenberg said. But he leaves it behind when he heads out on his bike.

"It's cumbersome and usually you've got one pain or another going with it," he said of the prothesis. "For my pleasure time it's time to get rid of that thing, hop on the bike and go."

And he has let go of the despair that followed the loss of his leg.

"There was a lot of apathy and grief going on those 12 years," he said.

"I could be bitter at the guy for pulling out in front of me. But ultimately we're all responsible for whatever happens to us."

--

bob.pool@latimes.com

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