Smith Mountain Lake resident Doug Miller, whose youthful looks belie his 62 years, is full of surprises. Despite lower body paralysis from a workplace shooting that also took half his eyesight 38 years ago, Doug has led a full life that has included rocketing high-performance motorcycles through tight corners and down irresistible straightaways.
“I've never been without at least one motorcycle since age 11 when my older brother, Mike, bought me a Kawasaki Coyote minibike for Christmas,” Doug recalled.
In his youth, Doug built a tool collection and excelled at maintaining and repairing two-wheeled machines. By age 21 he'd become a respected force on the “Hare Scramble” and Enduro dirt bike racing circuits, often driving through the night after work on Saturday to a Sunday race then drive back to work on Monday. With determination and talent, he soon was racking up point totals fellow riders could only envy.
Frustrated with the confines of a six-day-a-week managerial position, Doug, who was living in Florida at the time, left it for a typesetter's job where the schedule allowed him to take weekend trips to races — then his top priority. One fateful Monday morning in 1981, his employer’s husband showed up, pistol in hand, to wreak havoc. Doug was shot twice — once in his lower spine and another in his neck.
Making a comeback
Years earlier, while at a race in Pensacola, Doug visited a bike shop and saw a 1960s era classic BMW with Steib sidecar on display. At the time, he was fascinated by it, but little did he know that a sidecar rig would one day keep him riding.
Following his initial recovery from the shooting, Doug’s racing buddies organized a benefit race, intent on buying him a Suzuki Quad Sport four-wheel, all-terrain vehicle so he could once again ride off-road. At that point, Doug had already built his first sidecar from scratch and attached it to a Kawasaki KZ650. That rig had him riding the roads of Tallahassee and beyond. “But the four-wheeler was an amazing gift that got me back riding the woods with friends and occasionally racing in the ATV class,” Doug said.
Over the years, Doug has either built from scratch or purchased several sidecars and mated them to various motorcycles. The sidebar not only provides riding stability, but it also can stow Doug’s wheelchair when he’s riding solo.
The most recent three sidecars have been sophisticated, high-performance ones from a manufacturer in France that were assembled in his garage and attached to a Suzuki Hayabusa racing bike. These kits replace the front fork with a center hub front end, wide performance tires all around and a linkage that steers the sidecar's wheel. “Definitely not 'your grandfather's sidecar,'” Doug said dryly.
Configuring a two-wheeled bike to accept a sidecar and be operated by hand controls instead of foot controls is no small endeavor, especially when working from a wheelchair. “It basically doubles the time required for each task,” Doug said.
Doug has overlaid his garage concrete with interlocking plastic tiles that ease his frequent need to transfer between chair and floor as he moves from bike to tool chests to workbench and back.
“My shoulders complain about the strain of getting from floor to chair so many times,” he said. “But I love it.”
Finding a riding and life companion
Seven years ago, Doug married Bea, a Presbyterian minister. In 2016, they moved to the lake when Bea accepted an appointment as co-pastor at Trinity Ecumenical Parish. Since then they’ve enjoyed riding scenic roads around Southwest and Central Virginia.
“There are twists and hills that make for challenging riding and beautiful vistas galore,” Doug said.
Bea frequently joins Doug on those rides, sitting beside him in the sidecar. When she does come along, Doug stows his wheelchair in a small towable trailer pulled behind the bike.
“She had never been on a motorcycle before getting into my sidecar but took to it right away,” Doug said.
The couple shared West Coast riding during Doug's 12,639-mile excursion in 2015.
“I soloed the southern route to California, then rode up to Seattle to visit my dad,” Doug recalled. “Bea flew out to join me there, and we backtracked along the Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco and then returned through Yosemite, Lake Tahoe and Lassen Volcanic Park.”
After Bea returned home to Florida where they were living at the time, Doug rode the northern route east, enjoying Pikes Peak, Garden of the Gods and mountain roads in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado.
“Only on a motorcycle can you truly experience everything through all your senses,” Doug wrote on a blog he once used to keep his family and friends informed of his travels. “Your field of vision is unlimited, you feel the warmth of the sun, the slight cooling as you drop into a canyon, the first drop of rain, the cold of a mountain pass and the smells — sometimes great, sometimes not so — that greet you at every mile.”
For this cross country trip, Doug's motorcycle pulled a miniature camper trailer that he designed and built. “It holds my gear and cuts down on motel expense,” he said.
He chooses twisty and scenic backroads that can sometimes double or triple the mileage rather than straight-line interstates.
“Less cars, fewer buildings, more turns and inclines,” he said.
In 2017 Doug and Bea took a three-week eastern route that included riding the Cabot Trail on Cape Beton Island, Nova Scotia. “It's a lot like riding the Pacific Coast Highway,” he said.
Current project: A two-wheeler
Doug, who is retired from Whitmyer Biomechanix, which offers head support systems, wheelchairs and assistive technology products, is self-taught in welding, pipe bending and motorcycle hand-control conversions.
He’s currently using his expertise to modify a 2006 KTM 950 Supermoto that he found in Florida on eBay. He's installed control buttons for a thumb-activated electric gear shift near the left-hand grip and added a lever just under the clutch that engages the rear brake. (As on most motorcycles, the front-wheel brake is already applied using a right-hand squeeze lever.)
But the key to Miller's ability to ride a two-wheeled motorcycle is his self-designed and built “landing gear” that lowers on either side of the rear wheel to keep the bike upright. “I can't put a foot out at stop signs, so a push of the down button drops small side wheels into place as I come to a full stop. Think of it as an electrically-deployed set of training wheels.”
Miller referred to the two-wheeler as his “late-in-life splurge.” “It's not practical because I can't bring my wheelchair along,” he said. “I'll only use this bike for three- to four-hour joy rides in the countryside.”
When asked what the most challenging aspect of mobility-impaired cycling is, Doug answered, “Just the time it takes to get on and off.”
He added, “Beyond that, it's the expense. Equipping a bike with a sidecar, an electric shifter and brake modifications costs more than the motorcycle itself, even when you do it yourself.”
Currently, no American manufacturers build hands-only controlled bikes, nor do they offer factory-installed sidecars. With his DIY skills, Doug can continue to make the sport accessible to him financially.