How electric assist benefits hand cyclists

November 1, 2017

Betsy Welch

Kirk Williams, Jake O’Connor and Pat Dougherty in Moab, Utah.

When Jake O’Connor approached the manufacturer who built his hand cycle and asked him to build him a different model with bigger wheels and suspension, “he kind of laughed at me,” O’Connor says. “And now I know why. It’s been a long process trying to figure out how to build these things better.”

Not only did he learn how to weld and fabricate his own off-road hand cycle, O’Connor now builds and sells the bikes, as well as hand cycle hitch racks and work stands, from ReActive Adaptations. The company, based in Crested Butte, CO, pushes the envelope of what’s possible with adaptive equipment. O’Connor just released three children’s off-road hand cycles and has a full suspension bike nearing public release. ReActive Adaptations is breaking down barriers that prevent differently abled people from enjoying themselves in the outdoors.

Lately, however, off-road hand cyclists are encountering a new hurdle in access, one that mirrors a burgeoning national conversation but that is particularly pertinent to their population: whether or not electric assist hand cycles should be allowed on non-motorized trails. According to O’Connor, one in two of each Nuke (ReActive Adaptations’ rear wheel drive recumbent hand cycle with rear suspension) he builds, is equipped with electric assist. We sat down with O’Connor and Kirk Williams, an ex-pro mountain bike racer and electric assist Nuke rider, to find out how electric assist benefits hand cyclists and about their hopes for inclusive federal regulations.

PeopleForBikes: Who buys ReActive Adaptations off-road hand cycles?

Jake O’Connor:  Anybody. You don’t even really have to have a disability. But it’s typically anybody that has some sort of disability, anyone from a paraplegic to a quadriplegic. I’ve got several folks with Spina Bifida, multiple sclerosis and other neurological or physiological conditions. 

Kirk Williams: I first met Jake from ReActive at a mountain bike clinic in 2010. I had just been released from Craig Hospital and was eager to try the adaptive mountain biking. At the time, the only bikes available for quadriplegics were the downhill bikes and even those had significant issues, such as being able to brake when you have limited dexterity. Jake approached me one night and told me about his business and that he would like to design and offer a hand cycle that will work for quadriplegics. We’ve been friends since.

PFB: Why would someone want electric assist on their hand cycle?

JO: There are several reasons. One, a lot of the people who ride Nukes are quads [meaning a disability in all four limbs]. It doesn’t mean that they can’t use their arms, it just means that they have a disability in them, like being able to wiggle fingers but not move arms. They’re not as interested in long mileage-rides, they just need assistance with the power so they don’t get stuck on the uphills. A typical ride without assist for a quad on the Nuke on a jeep road might be 4-5 miles. With electric assist, they can ride 20-25 miles. So it’s a game changer. It’s helping them climb, it’s helping them do longer mileage, and it’s letting them hang out with their families. Many of my customers have families and growing kids, and there’s no way the parent can keep up in a wheelchair, so they buy an electric assist off-road hand cycle. A lot of them are using it to go camping. They’ll put backpacks on and they’ll actually camp directly from their off-road hand cycle. They’re rediscovering the outdoors through the electric assist.

KW: Currently I have three hand cycles, but that will probably change soon. The first bike I received right after my accident was liberating to ride but nothing fancy. The second bike was the first hand cycle I bought. It’s a road cycle and fun and fast, but difficult for me to get on and off of, and felt dangerous on busy streets because I’m two feet off the ground. The third and most recent bike is my electric assist ReActive Adaptations Nuke off-road hand cycle. I can finally mountain bike again despite my decreased muscle function. For those of us in wheelchairs who use our arms for everything, it’s vitally important that we protect our shoulders. Our shoulders become our new hips and by not straining them to the extreme to go for a bike ride, it’s both more fun and still a killer positive workout for our muscle longevity.

PFB:  Now for a tricky question. Should electric assist hand cycles be allowed access on non-motorized trails?

JO: Generally speaking, everyone agrees that if you have some sort of disability, why not allow that person an assist that allows them to pedal a bike like they used to. Maybe folks without a disability shouldn’t be able to use the e-assist on non-motorized trails. I don’t know if that’s fair, but I don’t understand why electric assist is banned on non-motorized trails in the first place. Our trails are not getting torn up due to the extra power of the electric assist. As far as we’re concerned, as off-road hand cyclists, it’s not the speed at which we’re traveling down the trail that’s making it any more dangerous than anybody else out there on an able-bodied bike.

KW: I am an e-bike advocate for those of us who need it. Having an electric assist doesn’t make it easy for me to go for rides, it just makes it possible. For somebody in my position who has limited dexterity, minimal chest and upper body function, and wants to ride an 80-pound bike over a loose gravel up a mountain using only their arms, it’s not possible without electric assist! I hope that as the regulations move forward and come into effect, people such as myself can still get out and enjoy our beautiful trail systems, just like anybody else. I’ve always loved mountain biking and being able to ride my bike on trails. Both electric assist and the trail systems allow me to do this—if either of them aren’t available, it will no longer be possible.

For more information and resources about electric bicycles, visit our e-bikes page.

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