Tour de Force

Popularity of Handcycling Takes Adaptive Sports by Storm

Children at handcycling camp

Photo courtesy of Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports (STARS).

When you think of cycling, you might picture a scene from the premiere cycling event, Tour de France: a large horde of cyclists weaving down narrow country roads in unison and changing patterns like flocks of birds migrating south.

But cycling is not merely a competitive sport for the likes of Lance Armstrong and other pro athletes.

Looking for a quick way to get from point A to point B? Just hop on your bicycle. Want a great workout or an easy pastime? A bicycle is for you. Love the woods? Why not try mountain biking?

Cycling is a sport that truly knows no bounds—reaching people of all abilities and ages.

Perhaps this is why handcycling has grown to be one of the most popular adapted sports.

Pulse on the Sport

Cycling's popularity was the catalyst for the Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports (STARS) adaptive cycling program that started last summer in Steamboat Springs, Colo.

Woman on Invacare handcycle

A handcycle from Invacare's Top End.

"We recognized that outside of skiing that biking was the next most popular activity that people like to enjoy in Steamboat," said Julie Taulman, executive director of STARS, which is a chapter of Disabled Sports USA and a U.S. Paralympic Sport Club. "There is also a big push to make Steamboat Bike Town USA, which needs to include biking options for everyone."

So STARS brought in the U.S. Para-cycling team and other top U.S. handcyclists for a time trial just prior to the U.S. Pro Challenge finish. After the event, even more cyclists were interested in participating in the STARS bike programs.

But adaptive cycling, or handcycling, got its start much earlier, circa 1990, says Mary Carol Peterson, marketing and customer service manager for Invacare’s Top End, a manufacturer of handcycles and other sports equipment.

Although the earlier models might have been a bit rudimentary, today’s handcycles are complex and customizable with more stability, adjustable seating and footrests, and more gears.

The handcycle itself is equivalent to an upside-down bicycle. Peterson says all of the gearing is the same, whether it’s a seven speed with a reversing drum brake (think recreation) or a more advanced model with 27 or 30 speeds with external gearing (for the more competitive).

“Your hands pedal it instead of your feet, and you're on three wheels instead of two. So your feet on an able-bodied bike are flipped upside down and it becomes the top part of the handcycle,” Peterson says. “The front wheel is the same as a rear wheel on an able-bodied bicycle.”

It's Just Like, er, Riding a Bike

Handcycling is no harder to learn than cycling, and the good news is that this is one adaptive sport that doesn’t require a lot of skill.

Child on handcycle

Photo courtesy of Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports (STARS).

“It's not like racing wheelchairs where there is a pretty big learning curve before you get any kind of satisfaction out of it or even basketball or tennis where … you have to be able to shift fast and hit the tennis ball. It can be rather frustrating,” Peterson says. “But handcycling is just get on and go and have fun.”

In fact, Peterson says the hardest part is learning how to transfer because some people can’t transfer that low. Fortunately, there is a recreational bike with a higher seat that makes transferring easier, although this recreational style is more suited for slower speeds and flat terrain.

Participants in STARS receive individualized training through staff and volunteers who teach the basics and fit each person to a bike.

Taulman says, "The hardest thing for most clients is that many of them do not get too much exercise so they get tired quickly. But we usually have seen them be able to work up to longer rides toward the end of the summer season."

In addition, Taulman says learning how to switch gears can be a bit of challenge for children. It's sometimes difficult for kids to learn how to turn and switch gears at the same time.

"As they get more advanced, they learn how switching gears can really help to save their arms and energy and can help them to ride longer distances," she says.

Who Can Ride?

While handcycling provides many health benefits, including aerobic exercise and upper body and core strengthening, Taulman says the main benefit of cycling for kids is being able to ride a bike just like their friends.

“The nice thing about adaptive cycling is that once you get your bike, you can do it by yourself, you can go with friends and family, and you can be competitive,” Peterson says. “You don't need a whole team to go out there and have fun.”

So who exactly can benefit from handcycling? The sport is perfect for people with orthopedic impairments, spinal cord injuries, spina bifida and leg amputations. Although the main requirement is to be able to move the arm in a circular motion and squeeze the brake, Peterson says even quadriplegics can use a handcycle with some adapted equipment such as a special glove or an elbow-lever brake.

Get in the Saddle

If you're not located in Colorado and not planning an adventure there soon, you can find rental bikes in your area. Taulman recommends checking out the closest adaptive program or U.S. Paralympic Sport Clubs.

"Most adaptive programs or U.S. Paralympic Sport Clubs either have their own bikes for clients to use or rent, or they will know of the nearest organization that does have them," Taulman says. "Some park districts also offer adaptive programs, too. So, they should check with their local parks and recreation program."

Man on Invacare handcycle

Invacare Top End's Force CC (Cross Country) handcycle with 27 speeds.

In fact, Peterson says that trying a handcycle is a great first step if you are considering purchasing one of your own. (Check out their resources here.)

The process for buying a handcycle is similar to that of buying a regular bicycle or even a car. Peterson says she asks what the person’s goals are—recreation or competition? to go fast or just pedal around?—and what their abilities are.

“You have to match it up with not only what they want but what they can do,” she says. “They may want that 27-speed bike that goes like a rocket, but they can't necessarily figure out how to transfer down that low and get up again, or they can't shift. Their hands are so involved that they can't hold onto the pedals.”

Because these handcycles are so unique to a person’s goals and abilities, it’s imperative that consumers seek out experts to help them find the right fit.

Peterson says if you are comfortable with the person who sold you your wheelchair (a home care provider), then that’s the first person to contact. Many of these providers carry handcycles in their stores. But if that’s not the case, these providers can find a handcycle for a customer to try through the manufacturer rep.

Test It

Find a Top End Handcycle Test Center here.

Although it’s tempting to buy handcycles online, Peterson warns consumers to be careful. The online stores won’t be able to provide a model to try, although the good ones will have a money-back guarantee if the handcycle is not a good fit. To help consumers figure out which provider to shop with online, Top End has created a certification program. Peterson says to look for the Top End certification button on the site’s homepage, which ensures the provider has received in-depth training on handcycles.

“I think it's really important to make sure you do enough research on the type of cycle that's going to best fit your needs,” Peterson says.

Cruise Steamboat

Interested in attending a summer camp or vacationing in Steamboat Springs, Colo.? Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports (STARS) offers rentals of mountain bikes, handcycles and trikes. The paths are suited for newer handcyclists or families with younger children. All-day programs are offered Tuesdays and Thursdays. Camps for kids are customized to the group and last 3 or 4 days.

Top End Answers Your Top Questions

Still have more questions about handcycling? Want to know how to transfer, how to carry water and how to prepare for a race? Top End has you covered. Check out the following frequently asked questions:
FAQs: Recreational Handcycles
FAQs: Competitive Handcycles

About the Author

Elisha Bury is the editor of The Mobility Project. She can be reached at