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Position of Power: Understanding Handcycle Setup and Design

Seth Arseneau

In the last several years, the handcycling industry has seen quite a few changes to equipment design and setup.  Manufacturers are always coming up with new ideas.  Improvements are being made on a regular basis.  New materials and the integration of various bicycle components have also helped to take handcycling the next level.  Whether you’re into racing or just going out for leisurely rides, there’s never been a better time to be on three wheels.

One of the biggest changes we’ve seen lately is in the theories for body positioning.  Around 2002, things started shifting over to designs that utilize “trunk power.”  Before then, most handcycles were set up with a more reclined position.  However, the trunk-powered designs positioned riders in a way that would allow for the use of core strength and also put some body weight over the cranks.  In general, cranks were moved forward and down while the crank arms were made wider and longer.  In addition to providing clearance for legs, longer/wider cranks gave some extra “leverage” to the rider.  It wasn’t uncommon for riders to get on a trunk-powered bike and mention how much more power they could get into the cranks.  Well, as we’re seeing now, it was more of a PERCEIVED power output as opposed to actual numbers.  There are many factors to consider when figuring out how to get more power out of your setup.  It’s not only about being able to push a higher gear.

The popularity of trunk-powered handcycles grew very quickly.  Regardless of the disability or injury level, many people were eager to get into this new setup.  Even able-bodied riders noted how much “power” they could use when riding a trunk bike.  Well, as many have already found out through experience, there are two sides to the coin.  The ability to employ more muscle groups isn’t necessarily an advantage.  Likewise, getting body weight over the cranks isn’t a way to get “free speed.”  Even though trunk-powered positions may FEEL good, they may not be the best way to ride a handcycle.  Let’s take a look at a few ideas that may help to illustrate this.

Riding a trunk-powered bike can be compared to an able-bodied cyclist that rides while standing up off the seat (for the whole ride).  There are certain times that it is good to be out of the saddle, but those times are usually limited to sprinting and short bursts while climbing.  For example, the riders in the Tour de France are almost ALWAYS sitting down.  Even in the climbs, it usually isn’t until someone attacks that riders stand up.  Of course, every once in a while, riders stand up to stretch their legs, but you’ll never see someone ride an entire race while out of the saddle.  It is only for short periods of time that they employ extra muscle groups and get more weight over the cranks.  Riding like that for the whole race would be far too taxing on the body.  Using more muscle groups requires more energy expenditure.  It is no different than driving a car with a huge engine.  It will be fast, but it will also consume a lot more fuel.  The same is true for handcycling.  Constantly using more power is going to burn up more energy.

Crank Dimensions

Another issue to consider is the biomechanical aspect of handcycles with long crank arms.  With bicycles, crank arms that are longer than 180mm are VERY rare and virtually never used.  In the past, cyclists that have gone to longer crank arms quickly found that their knees started to bother them.  So, it probably comes as no surprise that many handcyclists started having problems with their joints after making the switch to longer crank arms.  It’s doubtful that anyone out there is in the market for extra wear and tear on their joints.  Most handcyclists get enough of that while OFF the bike.  Long crank arms that require much more range of motion can quickly take a toll on elbows and shoulders.  These days, handcycle design is utilizing crank setups that are shorter and narrower.  While in a reclined position, the maximum crank length for virtually all riders is around 180mm.  In England, there was a recent study that found handcyclists’ bodies operated much more efficiently when using 180mm crank arms instead of 200mm cranks.  This brings us to the next topic.

Scientific Speed

In the last couple of years, handcycles have been making huge leaps and bounds in terms of their EFFICIENCY.  This is something that should be taken into consideration by ALL handcyclists.  It’s not only for those that are looking for maximum speed.  An INefficient handcycle is just no fun to ride.  Being uncomfortable or miserable on the bike is one of the main reasons people stop riding.  Increasing efficiency will make riding more enjoyable and help you get more out of your time on the road.  Handcycle designers have come up with some great ways to squeeze more efficiency out of their machines.

One of the biggest changes has been the utilization of aerodynamic riding positions.  Riders have gone from sitting upright and leaning forward OVER the cranks to reclined positions that get more of the body UNDER the cranks.  This position can be compared to an upright cyclist that is riding in the saddle.  There isn’t any excess body movement, and it is possible to streamline everything (for maximum aerodynamic efficiency.)  Shorter and narrower crank arms are quickly becoming the new standard for handcycles.  They provide clearance between the body and the handcycle, and they allow the rider to utilize higher cadences.  There are two ways to get more power to the ground.  One is to upshift and crank harder.  The other is to use a LOWER gear and turn the cranks at a higher cadence.  Both will achieve the same amount of work, but one will require a lot more power input.  This can be compared to someone climbing a flight of stairs.  If you only use every third step, you would be taking long strides and straining your legs as you go up.  However, if you use all of the stairs, you will be taking more steps, but you will put less strain on your legs.  While the longer strides will still get you to the top, they will certainly be more strenuous.

Living Proof

The handcycle racing scene in Europe provides an excellent illustration of efficiency at work.  Until last year, European races were dominated by those that could fully utilize trunk-powered bikes: amputees, walking paras, etc...  However, because of innovations in handcycle design, a significant gap has been closed.  While reclined riders usually aren’t as strong when it comes to climbing and sprinting, they’ve managed to use efficiency and strategy to beat the competition.  In 2007, racers in the B-division were besting fields that included many amputees and those with low-level spinal cord injuries.  In the past, many have argued that riders in the B-division are ALWAYS at a disadvantage (because of injury level).  While there are many things to take into consideration when making such a statement, improvements in efficiency and design have done a LOT to “level the playing field.”  Also in 2007, a group of European riders completed a marathon in under 1:10.  All four were riding in a reclined position and worked together to keep a fast pace (that left all the sprinters behind.)  The same scenario was seen in quite a few other races.  There’s no doubt that increases in efficiency are the key to making handcyclists go faster and farther.  The German manufacturer Schmicking ( has been doing some great research in a wind tunnel.  The results of their testing have shown that even something as trivial as water bottle position can register differences in aerodynamic efficiency.  While most riders aren’t going to worry about a sub-1% difference in drag co-efficiency, it just goes to show the lengths that handcycle designers are going to in order to ensure riders get the most out of their equipment.

So, is there a way to get “free speed” out of your handcycle?  Can changes in setup have a considerable effect on your overall handcycling experience?  You bet.  However, the way to get those things may not be through ways previously believed.  The industry is still changing, and there’s no doubt that we will continue to see improvements as time goes on.  Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for new bikes from Schmicking, Invacare/Top End, and Quickie/Sopur.  They’ll be flying down the road, so don’t miss them!

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