Batec Mobility, a Spanish company based in Barcelona, was established by Pau Bach in 2006. The company developed in response to his own needs as an athletic engineering undergraduate seriously injured in a traffic accident. Thus the designs are based on user needs and personal experiences. The firm began with hand cycle attachments for wheel chairs and also developed electric non-cranked attachments as well. The first commercial Batec machine was launched in 2008 and was innovative in that the connection process was simple and could be achieved quickly by the user without outside help because the machine remained standing up when disconnected.
The business developed a domestic market in Spain then, following that success, expanded into the rest of the European Union plus Canada and New Zealand. The UK dealer is Cyclone Mobility in Widnes in Cheshire. Since the Batec range are add-on hand cycles, the user can choose just about any wheelchair, either fixed or folding. However, the advantage of ordering a wheelchair at the same time as the hand cycle is that the Batec mounting bracket can be added during the construction of the chair. This is a lighter option than using a bolt on bracket.
The Batec Manual
The tested machine is a Rambla, a special edition of the Batec Manual hand bike. The frame is made of aluminium, the wheels are 20” aluminium fitted with a Shimano 9 speed cassette, Shimano Acera changer, Shimano Acera FC-M361 crankset with 170mm cranks and a single 32T chain-wheel protected by a pair of Shimano chain guards. The gear lever is a twist grip Shimano Shifter, while the brake levers are Shimano Deore working on a single disc on the front wheel. This special edition model differs from the standard manual machine in that the standard machine has a 3 speed hub gear and an 8 speed dérailleur. The machines all come with a battery headlamp and bottle cage with bottle, but no bell or other warning device.
An important feature of the Batec machine is the stand that enables the machine to stay upright ready for connection. This is a key element of the design philosophy of making a machine that can be used by a less than able bodied person without assistance. By comparison, the connect and turn to upright machines usually need outside assistance. The stand has two small wheels at the rear which means that the machine can be moved about easily whilst upright. The stand also doubles duty as the mudguard keeping the users feet free of spray and mud. The downside of the stand is that, when the chair is connected, the ground clearance is limited to around 55 mm, even though the wheelchair castors are around 104 mm off the ground.
Connection to the chair is by an arm terminating in a connector with an open front slot and a rear slot closed by a spring loaded clip. To connect the chair to the hand bike the user simply approaches the bike making sure that the arm is lined up with the bracket on the chair. The hand bike is tipped down a little then pulled towards the user to allow the front crossbar of the seat bracket to drop into the front slot of the connecting bar. Once in this position, the user simply leans backwards gently pushing the top of the hand bike away. Provided the chair is set up for ‘normal’ wheelchair use where the user’s weight is pretty close to the centre of balance, the amount of effort required to connect is in the region of 10 kg. By leaning back the user takes their weight beyond the centre of balance and it is their static weight that provides the connecting force, not pushing effort. Indeed it is possible to make the connection by leaning back without actually touching the hand bike, providing that the front crossbar is connected correctly.
The hand bike looks quite complex in comparison to older twist up style machines. The forks are extended forward on semi-circular brackets which have a range of other attachments. The connecting arm is also mounted in a pair of very substantial plates that allow it to be shifted to a height to match the user’s wheelchair. All this means that the machine weighs in at 13.5 kg which is nearly 4 kg more than the equivalent dérailleur version of the Da Vinci Speeder. The design requires wheelchairs to be set up with their balance point forward to enable easy backwards tipping. This means that the wheelbase of the whole unit is very short. This disadvantage is countered by two additional clip on traction weights that add an extra 5kg to the weight on the front wheel.
The principal adjustments available to the user are in relation to the height of the connecting bar, the angle of slope of the machine and the degree to which the chain wheel can be extended out of the head set. There is no dealer option to change the width between the crank handles or the chain wheel gear ratio or cassette ratios.
The User Experience
Set-up – The initial set up of the machine is by the dealer, rather than the user. However, a few criteria for settings can be derived from first principles. For the Batec, the connecting bar clearly needs to be set at a height which ensures that the front connecting socket is at exactly the same height as the front cross bar on the user’s chair. This was correctly set on delivery.
The position of the centre of the chain-wheel needs to be set so that it is at the same height or slightly higher than the seated user’s arms when held out level in front of them. Set too high the user will be reaching up and may have difficulty seeing over the chain wheel and attached equipment. If the height is set lower there is the issue of the crank handles bashing the user’s legs in straight running, and particularly on turning.
The correct position of the centre of the chain wheel vis a vis the user is determined by the user’s arm length. The user should be able to still reach the cranks when they are positioned at their furthest beyond the chain wheel without having to lean forward. If the chain wheel position is too close to the user then the cranks will hit the user in the chest. The issue of reach can be adjusted by using shorter cranks. In addition, the fitter user who does not have back problems may wish to have the cranks further away so that s/he has to reach for them. This operating position means that core body muscles can be used to add to arm power.
The width of the crank handles is also important. The rule of thumb for road cyclists is to take the width of the shoulders plus 2 cm as this will keep the arms comfortably aligned with the shoulders. The same rule makes sense for hand bikes, particularly as the hand biker works their arms and shoulders much more than road bikers.
The gearing of a hand-cycle needs to be related to the size and strength of the user and their planned pattern of use. Thus it should be possible to set up a chain wheel and cassette combination according to the cadence the user finds most comfortable.
On the Batec machine positioning the centre of the chain wheel in space is a function of three variables. Lowering the angle of the machine lowers the chain wheel and moves it closer to the user. Extending the stem out of the head set raises the chain wheel and brings it closer to the user. Moving the connecting bracket on the shaft will bring the chain wheel either closer to or further away from the user without changing its height. The whole process is more complicated than for a lift up machine as the hand bike needs to be tipped towards the user during the connection of the chair and the bike.
The dealer’s team put much time and effort into trying to ensure that the variables all worked out for the client. However, the final position was one in which the user was required to lean forward to reach the handles at the end of the stroke if she was going to be able to connect the machine without chest bruises. The machines are delivered with a fixed handle width so the dealers were unable to change that. Similarly, the 32T chain wheel was not changeable by the dealer.
To overcome these deficiencies the chain-wheel was replaced with a 22T item and two new chain guards fabricated. The ‘pedals’ were shortened to bring the crank handles into alignment with the user’s shoulders. The striker plate for the front connection was also reduced in length reducing the amount by which the hand bike had be pulled towards the user. The 170 mm cranks were shortened to 148 mm. As a result of these adaptations the machine now ‘fits’ the user reasonably well.
In action – The first thing that jumps out is just how easy the machine is to set up for use. Connection takes a matter of seconds once the process has been learned. Once ‘clicked’ home the whole arrangement of chair and hand bike feels like one solid machine. The Shimano hand grips are nicely shaped and feel immediately comfortable to use.
With the lowered gearing the machine is easy to propel and a cadence of 60 rpm with second gear gives a comfortable walking speed of just over 3 mph. The short wheelbase come into its own in the urban setting allowing the machine to be manoeuvred around pedestrians and other street obstacles. The LED light on the front, when set to flash, seems to alert pedestrians to the presence of the machine. To date, none has attempted to walk under the machine! The flashing front light has also been useful on shared use cycle paths to alert other users. Having lights has encouraged us to try using the machine at night in the urban setting. Adequate front lighting has meant that user feels safer because the pavement is illuminated and pedestrians and motorists can see the machine coming. The rear light gives a degree of confidence using streets where pavements are blocked or absent.
The shorter wheelbase and easy connection/disconnection has encouraged the use of the machine in new territories, namely inside buildings and on public transport. Supermarkets and 'shopping sheds' are easily accessible, but so too are some other locations like coffee shops. The latter seem to have developed their facilities to capture the 'mum with large pram' market and we have been able to follow in their footsteps. Venturing onto public transport requires more courage and a helper. Booked assistance for trains is easy and for the most part reliable. The national standard for maximum size of equipment is 700mm wide by 1200mm long, so this combination 640 mm by 1400 mm will just fit, but is best split into two. The helper is useful to deal with luggage and tickets. Buses are more of a problem in that the specification there is 600mm wide and 1000mm long. We have used park and ride buses satisfactorily but it does require co-operation from other passengers. It is usually possible to crank on, quickly split the machine and then reverse the chair into the wheelchair space. The hand bike can then be pulled in afterwards. For getting out the quickest is for the wheelchair to exit as a wheelchair with the helper bringing the hand bike.
Using the machine in a more rugged outdoor setting is reasonably successful too. The stand is successful at keeping flying mud away from the user. For the most part the lack of ground clearance has not proved to be a problem. In long grass the underside of the stand drags while on lumpy routes the stand can ground leaving the front wheel clear of the ground. In these conditions a ‘pusher’ becomes a useful accessory.
The Shimano brake levers are not so good for users with small hands as they are difficult to reach. We had intended to replace them with the long and almost straight Pashley trike brake levers. Unfortunately, those brake levers have been discontinued and replaced by short curly levers. Thus it was necessary to use the next best thing, electric bike levers from the local bike shop. With changed levers it is not difficult to apply stopping force to the front disc. The brakes only work on the front wheel thus making front wheel skids easy to produce. If the wheelchair had (say) Sturmey Archer drum brakes it would be reasonably easy to divert one of the brake cables to actuate rear brakes. However this would reduce the simplicity of the docking system as it would require the connection to be split and joined with (say) a screwed connector. This would probably require outside help as it would need to be re-connected after the user had connected the chair to the hand bike. Running at faster speeds, such as on long descents, the machine feels very stable and runs true. It has a pair of elastic cords arranged to provide a centring motion when the wheel is tipped either to the left or right.
The Batec machine is just about liftable at 13.5 kg without the traction weights so could be lifted into a car boot by a strong helper. The real issue is which way up to transport it. In a car boot it would need to be on its side requiring a space 1250 mm by 550 mm. In our VW transporter, after trying several positions, we have finally taken to carrying it upright, facing backwards with the chain-wheel against the back of the front seat. It can be tied into this position by a short bungee hooked onto the headrest pillars. The wheelchair can be reduced by folding the backrest and removing the wheels, but this has not been necessary for us in the VW. It looks as if a Batec user would need a van type vehicle with a flat deck and lowish loading sill to maintain the design intention of no external assistance. Obviously a small wheelchair hoist would be an advisable addition.
The Batec Manual Hand bike is a well designed machine that clearly meets its objective of giving the user the chance to operate without assistance. When correctly set up the connection system is quick and easy to use requiring no lifting and little pushing. This will make it an ideal machine for those with spine issues or limited upper body strength. Getting the machine correctly set up is not that straight forward for smaller users. Batec could make life easier for their dealers if they offered (say) two widths of pedal. The latter take just minutes and two screws to change but make a big difference for the user. Similarly, Batec could offer the ubiquitous 22T chain-ring for the smaller and less able user. Whilst appropriate chain guards are not available off the shelf, they would be a simple inexpensive plastic moulding which any plastics moulding firm could produce. Finally, shorter cranks are also readily available and could be offered thus making the 'fitting' of the machine to the user much simpler.
For the future, a power assisted manual machine with the sort of output of the Nano Brompton (200 W) might fill a market niche in which there is no competition. Batec's own electric hand-cycle is a heavy powerful beast (500 W) with a range of 30 or more miles. The 'minor' power machine would probably have a range of 5 miles and remain light enough to easily load into a car. By comparison Batec's electric hand-cycle needs a proper wheelchair lift for loading.
Overall a good machine but one that needs a little too much user technical adjustment. Hopefully in time the company will take those issues on board.
© 2016 Cycling Otherwise