Pedal Your Way
“I don’t know how to ride a bike.” Or, “I can’t ride a bike.” These were phrases that, if you were like me, were a source of shame, on par with having to leave a sleepover early because you got scared of the bad guys in Home Alone.
When my peers graduated from their training wheels, I never quite graduated with them. But every summer, I (stubborn, irritated) would drag a two-wheel bike from the garage and figure out new ways to tip it—and me—over. This would continue, endlessly, until I got frustrated or injured and gave it up till the next summer. My (spastic, stubborn, irritating) body has never been great when it comes to balancing, so the following summer would go much the same way.
I thought of myself as determined, and as not giving up. Which I was, in a way, but what I was also not doing was giving myself options. And with bikes, as with life, there are always options.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t ride any bike—I had grown up pedaling away on the back of tandems and trailer bikes. Rather, I couldn’t ride the wrong bike. Which for me, was a two-wheeled bike without anybody captaining. But there’s a lot more to cycling than two wheels and two feet.
A trike is the right choice for me because, like many people with neuromuscular disabilities, I have trouble balancing. In my attempts to learn to ride a standard bike, I always toppled, especially when it was time to put my foot down and hold up the bike. With a trike, I can actually use the handlebars and pedals to help me balance when getting on and off. Three wheels gives me the stability I need to get out and ride.
I found that, for me, adding an extra wheel is a great way to ride independently. And if you think a trike is the right cycling option for you, too, I’ll share some thoughts on picking the right model. Many bike stores will only have a single trike in stock, often single-speed, with coaster brakes (which I utterly hate, for reasons I’ll get into later). But just as you have loads more options for cycling than just bikes, you also have lots of choices for trikes.
Handcycles are a great option for people, but I know next to nothing about them, so I’ll leave that topic for more qualified cyclists.
So, I have strong feelings about trikes. I’ve found options that work for me, and things that I think are a scourge upon cyclists. You may have different opinions, and might not share my burning resentment of single-speeds, for example. That’s awesome.
You may also have different needs. I have spastic cerebral palsy, and that informs my choices about trikes and other forms of exercise. Whether you have the same, or different, disability, your perfect trike may be different than mine, because your body is different than mine. You need to figure out what works for your body and your situation, and be relentlessly passionate about pursuing that.
To get you started, here are some of the many trike components you can customize.
Handlebars are not just for steering. Messing with your hand position and the angle of your handlebars is a simple way to “hack” your posture. You (or your nearest cycling buddy with a wrench) can experiment with adjusting your handlebars, which might help you get them into the position that you want.
Whether you’re concerned about comfort, or just getting colorful streamers, you should be able to find handlebars that are worth holding onto. Some cyclists enjoy more textured grips, while others enjoy smooth handlebar wraps; either way, they should fit your hands. For example, if you’re likely to support your weight with your hands, you might enjoy a more padded grip. Our hands are all unique, and our handlebars can be too.
Don’t worry if, like me, you have trouble keeping your feet on the pedals. Nothing will explode and, generally, your trike won’t fall over if you let one foot hang free for a rotation. But you do have ways of convincing your feet to stay where they’re supposed to, if that’s what you need. Clip-in bike shoes are an option you can find at a mainstream bike store. I haven’t tried them, but they are supposed to attach your foot to the pedal in the correct position. I suspect they may be difficult for a rider with lots of side-to-side foot movement, as they are meant to unclip.
There are also adaptive pedal designs, which provide more significant straps and support, as well as pedals that address internal rotation of your knee. Sometimes my feet manage to escape from pedals like these, but they can often come with a myriad of strap arrangements to keep your feet pedal-ready.
My personal favorite are toe clips, which you can find at a mainstream bike store. Despite what the name suggests, you slide the front of your feet into them, and they gently hold your feet in place. They don’t manage to keep my feet totally stable (which would possibly be too much to ask of a piece of plastic), but they make a good attempt.
Okay, everybody! Buckle up (or put on your helmets). This is where I’m going to rant about gears, and why single-speeds grind my gears (haha?). I mention this because single-speed appears to be the default trike option at many stores. There must be some benefit that I’m not aware of, because it’s always sold as a feature, rather than a bug. Changing gears lets you adjust your pedaling resistance, and single-speed leaves you with a fixed, low pedaling resistance.
I tend to dislike (okay, despise) single-speed because, by making pedaling easier, it actually makes cycling harder. That may sound weird, but if I can’t shift into a harder gear, I’m deprived of momentum and a certain amount of muscular control.
There are lots of hills where I ride, so it’s really useful to be able to gain speed and momentum before I try to haul myself over them. Being able to adjust my gears lets me do that. For me, maybe counterintuitively, it’s actually simpler to pedal if I have some resistance to push against. I’ve heard this from other people with cerebral palsy as well. My legs are especially affected by my spasticity. The muscles that pull knees in are tight and make it hard for me to keep my legs in a neutral position as I pedal. Having more resistance helps me control the path of my legs and avoid banging them against the center bar. My disability also means that I fatigue faster than other people, so it’s really nice for me to be able to have really specific control over the pedaling difficulty.
If you find that you also prefer a 3 or 6-speed trike, it’s definitely possible to find them. You can order them on the Internet by searching “x-speed adult trike.” Your local cycle shop will probably also stock a particular trike upon request. You could even replace, or have someone else replace, the gear mechanism on a single-speed with another option.
Consider your hand strength and comfort when you’re choosing the type of gear shift control you’d like. Some of them work with a click, like a button, while others require twisting your wrist. You can always choose which side you’d like the controls to be on. I suggest placing your gear shift and bell on opposite sides so you can happily ding at people while you zoom down hills.
We’ve talked about things that will make a trike go; now we need to talk about what makes it stop.
There are many technical choices you can make when it comes to brakes, but I’m going to focus on braking controls. Your biggest decision when choosing brakes is whether you’d like hand brakes or coaster brakes. You use coaster brakes with your feet, pedaling backwards. These seem like they’d be great for somebody who has trouble with their hands, because hand brakes can take a bit of strength.
Coasters aren’t my favorite, because I like to be able to pedal backwards on various occasions. I’m right-footed, so starting with my right foot up lets my weaker side go for a bit of a free ride when I’m first getting momentum. I’ve nearly flung myself off my trike while flying happily downhill, and tried to backpedal to bring my right foot up; instead, I screeched to a stop, and almost catapulted over the handlebars. Needless to say, I can’t be trusted with anything other than hand brakes.
I prefer to have a handbrake on each side, so I can brake on the front and the rear wheels. But it is possible to get just a front brake, especially if your grip strength isn’t as strong on one side, or if you don’t plan to do much careening downhill.
Saddle-sores are a great way to cut your cycling career short. Sitting in comfort is key, especially if you have trouble standing to pedal. It’s best to avoid friction when you head out on a ride.
Have a (suitable) seat. It could be that the bike seats advertised as most comfortable for other people won’t be quite right for you. I tend to slide forward on cushier, wider seats, and end up with most of my weight perched on the narrow front (ouch!); I do much better with firm, sportier seats. You can explore different levels of firmness and different designs.
Get the right seat for your anatomy.
For some riders, it’s worth looking into female-specific seats. Some of these have a cut-out in the middle to relieve pressure when riding. It’s also important to check spots that are sensitive for you personally. I try to pay attention to the sides of the seat; I need to make sure there aren’t any obnoxious, pokey bits that will scrape my legs as they turn in.
The clothes make the cyclist! Or, at least, make the cyclist more comfortable. It’s a great idea to bring the padding with you, so you can have the comfort you need for every ride. As with everything else mentioned here, your cycling clothes need to fit you and your situation. Mountain bike shorts are often two layers, a snugger under layer and a baggier outer layer. They tend to look a little more like regular shorts than road bike shorts.
Road shorts are a sleeker, single layer. I initially found the snugness less comfortable, but this style actually works better for me, since they don’t bunch up based on my internal rotation.
You can also go long, and wear bike pants. These are nice, because they’re a little bit of extra protection against skin irritation. I tend to knock my knees against the center bar when I ride, and having pants makes things a little more comfortable, which is the goal!
If you want bike shorts that don’t look like bike shorts, you can consider the miraculous skort. Not quite shorts, not quite a skirt, a skort can be a stylish way to get a bit of padding where you need it.
Getting the perfect trike can be costly, but it doesn’t have to be. Many people with disabilities have a lot of financial pressures to think about, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get into cycling. There are grants that can help you afford sports equipment, such as Access for Athletes.
There’s also an entire community that can help get you pedaling. For example, you could look into an adaptive sport club to try out a variety of sports. Here’s a list of groups in the U.S.
Your local independent living center may also have ideas for local sport groups or sources of adaptive equipment. You could also seek out any local trike rider groups on social media. If nothing else, you should absolutely do a test ride on any trikes your local cycle shop has. That will be a great starting point.
I’m going to do a magic trick and turn into my mom for a second, here. Wear your helmets. I know you don’t legally have to if you’re an adult, but adults still have brains, and brains are delicate. Brains are also important: all of your cool ideas live there. And, as many of us may already know, dealing with brain injury is not a walk (or, in this case, a trike ride) in the park.
Make sure your helmet fits.
As with any biking equipment, your helmet should fit you, and should be snug and comfortable.
Know when it’s time to move on.
If your helmet has to do its job—i.e., if you hit your head while wearing it—, it’s time to send your helmet to the great bike rack in the sky. When your helmet is involved in a collision, there might be some damage to it that you can’t see, which could make it less effective the next time you have an exciting encounter.
There are many ways to move, and being active is important for all of us. Prioritize fun! There are plenty of activities I didn’t mention here, so keep looking if you’re not sure what your next fun hobby should be. If you decide that trike riding is right for you, do yourself a favor and take the time to find a good match. Maybe I’ll see you on the trail! Whatever you choose, be persistent, creative, and always wear a helmet. Happy pedaling.