Enabling Technology for People with Disability – Affordable Handcycle

Tim road testing a handcyle
Photo: Tim road testing a handcyle

Enabling Technology for People with Disability – Affordable Handcycle

I have spent the last few months working on a recumbent handcycle, which aims to cost approximately 1/3 of the cheapest handcycles available in Australia, while retaining all of their features and more.

Handcycles have been used for hundreds of years as an alternative to wheelchairs. Hand cranks can be attached to wheelchairs, or exist as a stand-alone unit, they can be electrically powered, have full suspension for mountain riding, or exotic composite parts and high tech accessories for racing. As well as useful and fun, many studies have shown that handcycles are more efficient than wheelchairs, less physiologically straining, and can be used by wheelchair users to cross train, improving their wheelchair performance.

Appropriate technology means technology that is appropriate for the context in which it is used, which usually means it is sustainable – i.e. requiring few resources and producing less pollution than other available alternatives, as well as typically being decentralized, small scale and locally controlled.

In the context of handcycles, which are typically used by people with Spinal Cord Injuries (SCI), making them unable to ride standard bikes, the use of appropriate technology is especially important.

Tim preparing bike parts to make a handcycle
Photo: Tim preparing bike parts to make a handcycle

For my project, this means using scrap bikes for prototyping on a tight budget. Prototypes can be developed and refined using old parts at very little cost, and then the design can be adapted to be manufactured from scratch using modern manufacturing techniques. Design for manufacture and Assembly principles play into the design – reducing the total number of parts use in the bike by using standard parts –for example using only one or two standard pipe diameters, if screws or bolts are needed, use as few types as possible.

The cost of current handcycles is high mostly due to their heavy reliance on custom parts, usually at the least the chassis, combined with relatively small scale manufacturing. This is exacerbated in Australia by the lack of Australian handcycle manufacturers, forcing buyers to import them. Medical insurance coverage also adds to the problem, as handcycles are generally not covered by insurance as they are not “medically necessary”, meaning generally no assistance is possible.

Bicycle parts ready to be put together to make a handcyle
Photo: Bicycle parts ready to be put together to make a handcyle

Aside from the question of cost, the most pressing issue is access. Even if the bike costs 1/6th or 1/10th of the next cheapest one, if it is hard to use, it won’t be used. Therefore the most critical consideration is looking at the context of the design. For this project, this was done firstly through research of cycles currently available, which revealed both prevailing trends in the industry, as well finding areas in which current designs were particularly weak. A review of the many studies on handcycle physiology empirically showed the best place to locate each part, the best angle for various components and so on. But the most useful research was talking with users of handcycles, and reading forums online that concerned handcycles. Talks with the users revealed that, above cost, the principle issue was ease of use. If it was too hard to get into the bike (transfer), especially by one’s self, it simply wouldn’t be used.

This is a crucial piece of information – even if all the parts are perfectly positioned to maximise mechanical efficiency and minimise physiological strain, it won’t matter if the cyclist can’t get in the bike, or it’s so hard to get in they can’t be bothered.

Development of a more affordable handcycle, as well as other innovative and affordable technology will enable easier access for everyone to crucial technology – for fitness, fun, and practical applications.

To find out more, please contact me at timfraser91@gmail.com, or call 0401 534 498, I would love to hear from people that are interested in affordable handcycles!

By Tim Fraser

I am a mechanical engineering student at RMIT working on affordable handcycles for my final year project. I am interested engineering in the context of international development, and the development of appropriate technology.

  • Larry Byrne

    Thanks for taking a look at this problem. As you say handcycles are not covered by insurance and the price for a handcycle is exorbitant. It’s a great form of exercise that few disabled persons can afford.

  • Andrew Jamieson

    Hi my name is Andrew and im interested in your project. I am visiting Melbourne in April to check out several handcycles being built at green speed cycles.
    I have cycled extensively in my younger years with a trip from melbourne to Broome along oodnadatta and tanami tracks . My legs are no longer up to long rides so im keen to look at handcycles. I currently have a cruzbike vertical recumbent which is front wheel drive and I really like that concept. Having 2.5 metres of chain to a back wheel drive seems to me problematic. I note one of your pictures shows a similiar front wheel drive set-up. I also would like to explore having a 180 degree crank arrangement rather than the usual hand cycle rotation of both hands at once. I also studied at RMIT back in 1980s in the architecture department. I look forward to your response. Regards Andrew Jamieson.