My Trike Electric

Natalya at the top of clent hill

I am one of the 17% of disabled people who are born with their disabilities, rather than acquiring them later in life.  I was born with a rare syndrome which means I am partially deaf - hearing almost nothing without my hearing aids - and have balance problems related to my ears and unusual eye movement. I also have significant arm and hand impairments which mean that my arms are different lengths, I have no movement in my left wrist and limited use of my hands, the right being more capable than the left.  My left shoulder dislocates painfully with most useful movement, and my right shoulder is now deteriorating due to over-use.

My first introduction to cycling was as a small child: I went to a mixed disabled/non-disabled nursery which had a very aspirational and inclusive ethos, including a loan scheme for inclusive and adapted toys.  We borrowed a bright blue heavy steel upright tricycle for my use for many years which enabled me to keep up with my friends as they learned to ride two-wheelers. One of my main memories of the trike was the difficulty I had in lifting it up steps; my friends and I could easily carry their bicycles up 3 or 4 steps alone but lifting the trike was a struggle even for two of us. I rode this trike until long after it had become too small for me as there were no suitable alternatives.

Between the ages of 4 and 9 I had countless surgical procedures on my arm and hands, and spent most of the time with at least one arm in plaster.  While my parents allowed me to be active during this time (I didn't have broken bones) they didn't want me to injure it by falling from a bike, which with my balance difficulties was quite likely.

Additional factors restricting my ability to cycle were lack of safe flat places to ride: My home village near the edge of the Peak District is very hilly, and most of the flat areas are used for parking cars.  I was put onto bicycles and encouraged to try from time to time but I think I struggled to understand the theory and couldn't hear what was being shouted at me while trying to control a scary two-wheeled bike.

I eventually learned to balance and ride a bicycle during a visit to family friends when I was about 11. I borrowed my friend's little brother's mountain bike which was too small for me and had slightly soft tyres. Behind their house there was a quiet stretch of tarmac about 200m long which was flat and uncluttered by cars.  Once I got the hang of balancing the bike this was easy to cycle on. It may also have helped that there were no adults around trying to be helpful; my friend and I could just work it out on our own.

Once my parents realised I could actually ride a two-wheeler they thought again about modifying a bike for my needs. As they had done with a musical instrument some years earlier they found specialists willing to make adaptations:  We knew two elderly gentlemen who ran a bike shop in Gorton. I was taken to see them and after getting me to sit on various bikes it was decided that they would weld an extension onto a regular handlebar which was expected to solve my difficulties. I don't know why this wasn't enough, but I never quite took to this modified bike and was conscious that it looked different and didn't quite work.  I felt guilty because so much time and love had gone into the trying.

At the same time, my friends were growing out of cycling around the local area for fun, and those who continued to ride further afield were either sporty types who didn't mind the hills, or doing it to save on bus fare.  My balance deteriorated at around this time, and while I occasionally had a go on someone's bike, I never felt safe to ride in traffic.  As my balance problems limited how far I could walk, especially in crowds, I mostly travelled by bus, or in my parents' car.

Fast forward about 10 years and I was living in London with my partner Kim. She had decided to buy a cheap folding bike to carry shopping home on and get about in the local area. She started to cycle further and further and got involved with other cyclists on the internet.  I tried the folding bike which fit well, but the twitchy steering made me very dizzy so I did not like it at all. Kim quickly got a better hybrid bike which I simply couldn't ride - she soon realised that you can't lift yourself up into the saddle as you set off if you can't push the handlebars equally with both arms, and that heavy braking would be dangerous for the same reason.

A few years later we had moved to Birmingham, and Kim and was doing regular rides with CTC and internet-based groups.  On one ride she met a cyclist with one arm, riding a recumbent tricycle with adapted controls, and realised this could work well for my needs.  She was keen for me to be able to cycle as I might then be able to join her and her cycling friends.

We had some savings so we talked about the possibility of buying a recumbent tricycle for me to ride.  We arranged to visit Kevin Dunseath at D-Tek in Little Thetford for a day of trying out trikes.  Kim's one-armed friend also came to join us and share his ideas and expertise which was useful, enabling us to see what needs we did and did not share.  Kevin set me up on an ICE Sprint and told me to go and play on the quiet road... I was able to zoom off immediately and they had to quickly adjust one of the other trikes to fit Kim so she could catch up with me!  We experimented with other manufacturers and models (particularly the more off-road ICE version), but decided the Sprint was best for my needs.

What was revelatory was the fact the ICE trikes 90% worked for me without any modifications:  Three wheels in a tadpole configuration meant I didn't need to work to balance the cycle at any time, even when cornering. The independent handlebar adjustment allowed them to be set in such a way that I could manoeuvre the trike without dislocating my left shoulder.  Adapatation to make it easier for Natalya to control her trikeWe discussed various modifications that could be made but Kim and I felt that the only ones which would be needed were to put all the brake and gear controls on the right side where I could work them easily with my better hand.  I'm a big believer that ubiquitous is best for disabled users; something which is normative and naturally flexible enough to meet a range of needs with minimal adaptation, and for me ICE's designs fit that bill.

A couple of months later my own ICE Sprint arrived and Kim built it up, replacing the standard brake controls with both front brakes on the right hand using a dual-pull lever (leaving the parking/emergency brake on the left, where I could reach over if necessary), and combining twist-grip and extended bar-end gear shifters on the one handlebar. Kim has a good eye for evaluating my needs and proposing viable solutions. She is aware that what looks good initially might need extensive tweaking or just not work well in practice.  In the end, the only other adaptations we settled on was to add part of a mountain bike bar-end to the left handlebar for me to rest my hand on, and a really good set of mirrors so I didn't have to look over my shoulder as much.

Natalya battles a stymie gateWe started out cycling up and down the nearby Rea Valley cycle path, dodging the various bollards and anti-cyclist gates (which require a 17-point turn, if I don't want to dismount and get someone to pull the trike through). This route has the advantage of being flat and traffic-free, but it is difficult to maintain a decent speed due to having to give way to other path users, and stop for the many road crossings.  We explored some of the canal towpaths, but found that most were too narrow for a cycle with three wheeltracks, and that RADAR gates with rusty locks and steep bridges with slippery brick surfaces were difficult to negotiate.

As I gained confidence with the trike - improving my pedalling technique, learning how best to use the gears and so on - and my cycling fitness improved we started to venture onto the roads, typically heading south from Kings Norton to get away from the urban area as quickly as possible.  On the MacrideThe following year I successfully completed the 25 mile Macmillan charity ride from Stratford-upon-Avon: a total of 39 miles in one day, far further than I'd ever hoped to be able to ride!

Unfortunately, my disabilities mean that I get ill much more often than most people, which combined with work and other commitments mean that I can't rely on being able to get out and cycle as regularly as I need to maintain a decent level of cycling fitness.  After a year of very little mileage, I was struggling to climb hills and accelerate at junctions, but bored with the Rea Valley.  We eventually decided to add electric assist to my trike, enabling me to go further and faster for the same amount of effort, which meant that we could ride to more interesting places, and that Kim would have to put some real effort in when we ride together.  Kim researched various electric assist options, eventually setting on a Falco hub-motor system that gives assistance in proportion to how hard you pedal and allows the use of very high capacity batteries for longer range.  A major advantage of a hub-based system is that if my fitness improves, we can easily swap the motor wheel for the original wheel, and I can ride entirely under my own power again.

Last summer I didn't do a huge amount of riding, but with the motor helping 40+ miles at a 12mph average was easily achievable. This meant that not only could we ride out to Henley-in-Arden to sample the ice-cream, and see the view from the top of Clent Hill (top photo), but that I was able to participate as an equal in some of the group social rides organised by Kim's cycling friends, as well as join a couple of CycleBirmingham rides.

For me the sticking point is transport:  While I cycle primarily for fun and fitness, there are often occasions where I'd like to ride further from home.  As we don't own a car there are limited options for doing so.  Most of the train operators refuse to carry tricycles, and while my trike can be dismantled, bagged and carried legitimately as luggage, I can't lift it like that.  And of course if I'm going to a cycling event, then those I'm travelling with have their hands full with their own bikes and luggage.  After a couple of disastrous attempts at using trains, we've given up transporting it other than in a friend's car or hired van.

As we were uncertain about my confidence cycling in traffic, and there are few traffic-free routes suitable for tricycles, we never really intended that I'd use my trike for day-to-day transport.  On that basis we decided to prioritise what was best to ride over me being able to get it through the front door and down the step without assistance: To get my trike out of the house is a two-person lift, with the heavy battery pack removed.  Fortunately my commute is a manageable walk, and Kim does all the shopping and errands, so I don't need to make many local journeys that would be practical by cycling anyway.  If circumstances change in future, I’d consider getting a cheaper, simpler trike to use for local journeys so I could manhandle it more easily and wouldn’t have to worry as much about leaving it unattended.