For the past 15 years or so, I had this dream of bicycling from the east coast of the US to the west coast. I would talk about it at every opportunity, but I didn't have a bicycle.
About five years ago, I met a woman here at Gallaudet who was complaining about the low quality of the wheelchair she was renting. It seemed her regular chair was in the shop, and this rental kept breaking down. I looked at it and said "Seems like you should be able to get spare parts at a bike shop".
I talked about biking, and she commented that she wondered if she could do long-distance under her own power. (I still didn't have a bike, but I did have my unicycle. That's another story.) We also talked of computers, social activism, vegetarianism, etc -- you know, all those good, aware, leftist, liberal, commie, hippie things.
A few years later, I bought my bike, and was beginning to train for The Big Ride when I had the accident. I was quite a mess, and it put a kink in my plans as well as my arm. But I was still biking, and one night ran into Jen again as she was moving all her earthly belongings via wheelchair. This was an impressive sight, kind of like "Where's Waldo?" -- find the person located somewhere above the wheels but below the boxes. As it turned out, she was taking the bus, and her route was the same as mine. I offered to meet her at the other end. When I got there first, she was surprised that a bike could outrun a bus, and I think she may have been a bit envious of the bike at that point.
Just then, while we were rolling along together, her front wheel broke. She just flipped the chair back on two wheels and proceeded for the next several blocks that way, balancing on the rear wheels with several boxes on her lap. It was my turn to be impressed.
Anyway, on May 19, 1993, at 3:00 P.M. I shut the door behind me and set out on The Big Trip... I gave myself three months to reach Eugene, Oregon. But, I never did train right, and I overpacked, and never got an early start. That, plus the flooding of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, slowed my progress. So, on August 5, in Pueblo, CO, I decided that I wasn't going to make it, and spent the rest of the month tooling around in Colorado.
When I returned, Jen and I became closer over the course of a few months. One day she sent me e-mail about a dream that she'd had the night before. In her dream, she designed a unicycle that she could ride, and asked me if I thought the design was at all practical. Parts of her design seemed okay, but I pointed out some of the problems that she'd have with it.
It seemed pretty obvious to me by this point that Jen wanted to ride (even if she herself didn't know it), and she obviously had the balance, and strength to do it. I contacted the guy who sold me my bicycle (Robin Stallings, former co-owner of City Bikes in Washington, DC). He's also very political and I had volunteered on his campaign, during his first bid for public office. I asked him what he knew about wheelchairs and bikes. He put me in touch with a guy from the Paralyzed Veterans of America named Larry Binger (a.k.a. "The Rolling Sportsman" -- so named because he rolled his wheelchair from DC to Ohio.)
I guess Larry was also the sports editor for the organization. He gave me a list of 30 or so manufacturers of sporting equipment for the physically challenged. I called them all and told them to send whatever info they had to Jen's address.
Two weeks later, Jen comes into my office, eyes ablaze, and says "You have GOT to see this videotape!!!". It turned out that one of the companies had included a videotape of their product along with all the other material. We watched the tape, and Jen continued to drool over the bike shown. The other stuff didn't interest her much at all.
I called Chris Schwandt, creater of the HandBike the next day, and asked him if he'd ever sold any on the east coast. He told me that he had sold a very early prototype to a guy named Mike Delaney, in Detroit, about 10 years ago. He thought that Mike might have moved to the DC area.
After a bit of digging, we found Mike in Wheaton, MD, and decided to go visit. On the way out, Jen said we'd go look at the bike for a half hour or so, and then head back into town, and grab a bite to eat. Mike told us that the bike hadn't been ridden in a few years, and he wasn't sure if it was still in working condition. Well, almost three hours later, I was prying Jen off the bike, saying "Half-hour, my ass! It's getting dark! I'm hungry! Where's a crowbar when you need one?" We had a marvelous time, and a very late dinner.
We decided to buy the bike together, and then got married. Unfortunately, Chris fell from his roof, one day as he was repairing it. Luckily, he didn't break anything, but it did slow his bike-building capabilities. The bike finally arrived last March (1995).
On November 13, 1996, Chris died of a heart attack. (Read this tribute to him.)
After almost two years of uncertainty about the future of the HandBike, Peter C. Rieke <email@example.com> wrote to inform me that he and his business partners had purchased New Dimensions Design from Chris's widow, and his company Mobility Engineering is now trying to resurect the HandBike. As of June 30, 1998, they have just completed the construction of their first bike and are ready to start offering the bike commercially. See the end of this document for contact information.
The bike is an arm-powered recumbent true two-wheel bike, with "landing gear". To the right and left of the hips, there are two small wheels, which are spring-loaded. A flick of a lever under each side of the seat raises the wheels so that they are horizontal with the seat. It has 14 speeds -- seven rings on the front wheel combined with a 3-speed hub. Chris has the 3-speed hub set so that he "cheats" the center speed, and that allows the crank to free-wheel. If the cranks are not in this "neutral", then cranking once in reverse applies a front brake, and there's a rear hand-brake under the seat. The drive train connects the cranks to the front wheel, and fork rotates 180 degrees. This allows the rider to put the bike in reverse, cranking forward, but moving backwards. The bike is stable on all four, for mounting and dismounting. Then the rider raises the landing gear, and "falls" with the bike to a 45 degree angle.
Now comes the fun part. Jen cranks it while it leans on its side, and then turns the front wheel into the fall, while throwing her weight to the opposite side. The bike goes upright on two wheels and she's off and rolling! One time while we were out, she yelled back to me with a gleam in her eye "Hurry up! I'm doing 22 mph!" Granted, it was a downhill stretch, but on level ground she can do between 12 and 15 easily enough. Dunno how long she can sustain it, since we don't seem to have enough level ground to play with. (And to be honest, on a bad day, and a long incline, I've seen her slow to around 2 mph. But those days are becoming rarer as she rides more.)
While there are some problems -- namely that it is much longer than a wheelchair which makes it harder to get in and out of elevators, and the fact that on uneven surfaces, it's possible to get the rear three wheels touching the ground and have the drive wheel spinning in the air -- it has been very, very nice to have around. Jen's distance is expanding rapidly, and we now want to try a 45-mile trip together. (I think she needs to do something about half that distance first, but she's in a better position than I to say what she can and cannot do.)
To compensate slightly for the length, Jen has removed the footrest at the front, and rides with her calves tucked under her butt. However this increases the tendency of the bike to be back-heavy, and means more chances of her getting stuck with the front wheel spinning in the air -- sort of like having the rear wheel of a car in mud.
I didn't work for Chris. I'm just a very happy customer, since to some extent he's responsible for getting us together. This page is both a tribute to his effort, and an attempt to ensure future development of the the bike. I have high hopes for the folks now at the helm.
The HandBike was made by New Dimensions Designs, in Elmira, Oregon (near Eugene), owned and operated by Chris Schwandt. The bike is now being manufactured by Mobility Engineering, owned by Peter C. Rieke. Before he died, Chris had also developed a tandem that has both hand cranks and foot cranks (if I recall correctly). Unfortunately, I never received a picture of that. I don't know if Mobility Engineering will be offering that as well as the HandBike.
You can contact Mobility Engineering at:Mobility Engineering
If you do call, mention that you read about it here. Tell them Kevin and Jen referred you.
The following 3 photos were taken at a Critical Mass ride, sponsored by Auto-Free DC.(See also: Auto-Free Ottawa
Click here for a list of other manufacturers of sporting equipment for wheelchair users and other people with mobility impairments. Also, here's a list of wheelchair and medical equipment suppliers in the Washington, DC area, provided by The Endependence Center of Northern Virginia.
I'd also like to make a pitch for the bike store that keeps us going, with equipment, repairs and a steady supply of Cliff Bars. They also sold me my bike. Without further delay, here's City Bikes.
Return to The Sprawl home page