All About Handcycles by Sarah Werner

Handcycling is a great way for wheelchair users to be physically active and see more of the world around them. Even those with a high level of paralysis or disability can learn to handcycle if they have any upper body strength. Unlike wheelchair racing, which requires you to be in a crouched or kneeling position, handcycles come in a variety of seat styles and sizes for comfort and speed.

I recently had the opportunity through the Adaptive Sports Connection in Ohio to try out all kinds of handcycles through their Discover Cycling program. They are part of the Disabled Sports USA network and the US Paralympic Clubs network, whose member groups hold events like these all over the country to help people with disabilities enjoy the sport of adaptive cycling. At the event I attended they had 6 different handcycles available for me to try out with the assistance of their volunteers and a team of physical therapists and occupational therapists with seating and adaptive sports experience.

I got a great workout and met some new friends in the process. They also sponsor weekly group rides so that cyclists of all abilities can ride together, with handcycles available to borrow for people who don’t own one. It was the perfect way to be introduced to this new sport, and there are local clinics and clubs like this all over the country who want to help aspiring handcyclists get started in the sport. You can find a chapter in your area using this link.

Types of Handcycles

There are several main types of handcycles—recreational, competitive and off-road—and some overlap these categories. They are all powered by using hand pedals attached to gears. For those with poor hand dexterity, special quad grips are available that attach your hands to the pedals so that you can use your arm muscles to propel the cycle without needing any grip strength.

Recreational handcycles (pictured above) tend to favor comfort over speed, with upright seats that are easy to transfer into and usually with fewer gears for ease of operation. They come in both children’s and adult sizes.

Competitive handcycles (pictured above) are more aerodynamic, with the user seated in a recumbent position close to the ground. They have more gears, disc brakes, and can reach speeds similar to road bikes.

Off-road handcycles are like mountain bikes and are designed either for downhill riding, cross-country riding, or a blend of both. They are outfitted with knobby tires and shocks to handle the toughest terrain.

Several models of handcycles are in between recreational and competitive, offering faster road tires and lots of gears with a more upright seat, like the Top End Force 3 pictured above. This was my favorite style by far because I didn’t feel like I was laying on the ground, but was still able to keep up with people riding road bikes. Having numerous gears was helpful for starting even on an incline and then being able to build up to a fast speed.

Adaptive Cycling Organizations

There are some real barriers that can prevent participants from getting started in handcycling, most notably not being able to try any out before you buy one, like you would at a local bike shop. Thankfully there is a national network of non-profit organizations dedicated to helping aspiring athletes connect with the sport. Disabled Sports USA, the organization that my local group is affiliated with, has resources about adaptive cycling as well as a national database of participating clubs and organizations in 42 states. Adaptive Adventures is an organization based in Colorado and Illinois that has a mobile cycling clinic that travels around the US. Participants in their programs have a chance to try out a range of different handcycles sometimes over the course of several days to see which one might be right for them. Handcycling debuted as an official Paralympic sport in 2004 at the Athens games, and is one of several different categories of para-cycling. Competitive athletes can compete in a recumbent position, or in a kneeling position on a handcycle specially designed for this, such as the Top End K Force. Some local Paralympic clubs also have adaptive cycling programs with equipment available for participants to try out.

Sports grants for handcycles

For many aspiring handcyclists cost is the greatest barrier to participating in the sport, since handcycles start at over $2,000 new and $1,200 used. Thankfully there are many grant programs that can help with funding. The Athletes Helping Athletes Foundation provides grants to children for adaptive bikes. The Challenged Athletes Foundation is one of the largest providers of sports equipment grants, and the application is open yearly between September and November 1. Disabled Sports USA has grants available to their program participants through local chapters. The Kelly Brush Foundation provides grants to individuals with spinal cord injuries on a yearly cycle.

Get out and ride today

Handcycling is a great way for wheelchair users to get outdoors and see the world from a whole new angle. Rail trails, local bike paths, and long distance trail networks all provide cyclists with safe places to ride away from cars and surrounded by beautiful scenery. To see what trails are in your area, you can visit the Rails to Trails Conservancy website or download their app, TrailLink. Handcycling is great exercise, but it is also a great way to spend time with friends and family and see your local landscape in a new way.