Background

The Speeder range is the current incarnation of the Easyrider handcycle originally developed by Vince Ross in 1995 when he managed Chevron Wheelchairs.  In 2001, Vince joined forces with John Ingram to form Da Vinci Mobility located on the outskirts of Liverpool. Both Vince and John are wheelchair users, so have an intimate understanding of the likely needs of customers. They now offer a wide range of equipment including two main types of handcycle, power assisted handcycles, wheelchairs of various types, trikes and car adaptations.  

The Speeder

The Speeder comes in three sizes; Adult, Midi or Mini for children.  At first sight, it appears to be a conventional wheel chair with an added hand cranked wheel at the front.  In fact, in the standard model the wheelchair part has no castors, although they can be added if the customer wants.  The front wheel assembly is removable.  It is joined to the rear part by inserting the connecting shaft into the socket, and then rotating the assembly upright.  This then clicks into position and is locked with a lever.  The result is a fairly upright seating position that gives the user a good view of the world.

Whilst they have a good range of “stock” models, Vince prefers to build or adapt their standard product to exactly meet what the customer requests.  This ranges from casters on the wheelchair, through rear brakes, rear suspension, the Schlumpf Mountain Drive, hub or deraillieur gears and mudguards, not to mention a range of fabrics for the seats.

The review machine came with rear suspension working on a wishbone and a single mountain bike suspension unit.  This had been requested as the owner had used a previous non-suspension machine for a lot of off road work.  For on road and pavement use this addition would probably not be cost effective.

The drive train of the review machine is fitted with the Schlumpf Mountain Drive, which is a simple to operate system to provide a second gear on the main crank.  This is teamed with an SRam i-motion 9-speed hub gear with the indexed changer on the crank handle.  Braking is by means of a disc on the front wheel and drum brakes on the two back wheels.  All the control cables are enclosed in plastic tube and flex as the cranks are turned.  The rear brakes are controlled by a single cable that has a screwed joining piece to facilitate the dismantling of the front part from the rear.

The wheel chair part of the machine has a 50mm thick fabric covered cushion and a folding and padded backrest.  This is adjustable to allow for the most comfortable position for the users.  Other important adjustments include the horizontal position of the drive assembly, and the vertical position of the crank boss.  A certain degree of experimentation is required to ensure that the crank axle is in line with the user’s shoulder joints, and that the user is not too close to the cranks as they pass his/her chest.

The front, drive wheel, is 20 inches while the rear wheels are 26 inches.  This gives an overall length of 185cm and a width of 75cm.  The split machine can be dismantled somewhat in that the rear wheels can be removed and the seat back folded down.  This leaves a ‘lump’ which is 85 cm long, 48 cm deep and 48 cm wide.  The drive assembly does not fold up so remains at 128cm long by 45 cm wide.  This should mean that the dis-assembled machine could be fitted into the boot of a car, provided one side of the rear seat can be lowered to accommodate the length of the drive assembly.

In terms of weight, the wheelchair element is 9 kg plus 2.1kg for each of the wheels, while the drive assembly is 10.7kg. By comparison the simpler derailleur version of this front end with a single chain wheel weighs in at 9.9kg. This total weight of 23.9kg compares with 13.3kg for a 6 speed Brompton folding bike with carrier, or 22.2 kg for a Kalkhoff Pro-Connect BS10 electric bike.  This it is a fairly heavy for an unpowered machine.

In Action

The Speeder rolls well on most surfaces and is not at all difficult to operate.  The presence of the brakes on the crank handles allows for skill transfer in that the braking action is completely like to that of a bicycle.  Similarly, the twist grip gear change is intuitive to anybody that has previously ridden a bicycle with this form of gear change.

The turning circle is fairly limited when cranking because turning the front wheel rotates the shaft on which the crank is mounted and shifts the crank down towards the user’s knee.  However, our experience is that there is seldom, if ever, the need to turn so sharply for normal road use.  We have developed a ‘cranks up’ coasting position for sharp turns which means that it is possible to execute a ‘U’ turn within quite a narrow space.

We find that, on our local ‘quick outing’ road circuit of 2.5 miles which has a vertical rise of 140 feet, the average speed is 4mph and the maximum is 13mph.  On a level road, we can propel the machine at 6-8mph, but the hills are more difficult.  Provided the gradient is not too steep, it is simply a case of choosing an appropriately low gear and grinding to the top.  Speeding down hill, either coasting or cranking, is very stable and the brakes are satisfactory.  The rear drum brakes are not as effective as the front disc brake, but do have a very long cable that probably is subject to stretching.

The gears range on this machine is probably sub-optimal for the owner in that the machine is used almost wholly in the lower of the Schlumpf drive range.  This is simply down to the sheer strength required to turn the higher gears and that the machine spend most of its life off road where speeds are much lower.

As a pavement mobility vehicle, the machine copes reasonably well within the urban setting.  Leaping off un-lowered kerbs is much less traumatic with the suspension unit to cushion the landing.  However, climbing up un-lowered kerbs is more difficult.  On a machine with no suspension, it is simply a case of the companion lifting the rear wheels over the obstruction.  With the suspension, lifting the pusher handles simply uncompresses the suspension unit spring.  The work around used is to squat and grasp the rear axle and lift.  The length of the machine means that some "accessible" ramps can prove challenging. This is where the turns have been designed for traditional short wheelbase wheelchairs.  Moving among heavily peopled areas calls for caution, as pedestrians seem not to realise that stepping in front of the moving machine might cause them injury.  To mitigate this risk, the test machine has been fitted with a bell and bulb horn.  The latter tends to be more effective, if slightly aggressive, compared to the bell.  The machine is too large to take into shops except, perhaps the better laid out supermarkets with wide aisles.  We tend to leave the machine outside and shop on foot since there is a double stick holder to carry walking sticks.

The machine tends to attract a lot of attention, particularly from children.  Small boys tend to make “Wow! Cool! Awesome!” comments and want to know how it works.  Adults too tend to be surprised and wonder if it was a home made machine.

Off the road, the machine becomes a useful walking replacement.  Provided the path does not have kissing gates, very narrow A frames or other anti-disabled user barriers, it is possible to reach all sorts of locations.  We operate the machine as a pair with one cranking and the other providing boost when the going gets difficult.  The two handles on the back of the seat facilitate this.  We find that some gradients are impossible to crank independently because the front wheel is unable to provide sufficient traction due to either the slope or the quality of the surface.  Similarly, steep downward slopes are less terrifying if there is somebody acting as a human brake at the rear.  The lack of castors and the high ground clearance mean that paths that are more challenging can be tackled.  The suspension does reduce the buffeting of rough ground but, despite this, too rough a path can become wearing.

The flexibility of the machine means that parts of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path, the Snowdon Miners Track and many other routes that one would not normally associate with a wheel chair become possible.

The machine, as supplied, needed to be adjusted to find the best riding position for the user.  This was expected and, despite attempting to replicate the measurements of a previous machine, needed some experimentation.  The tyres supplied at our request were mountain bike tyres, but it was quickly found that the very aggressive tread of that brand was difficult to clear of dog foul.  We replaced them with Schwalbe slicks which a much easier to clean.

The wheels were originally supplied with hand rims and the chair part with castors.  In use, it became clear that both of those items needed to be removed, as they continually tended to catch on things.

The control cables gave some problems due to metal fatigue where the brake cables met the plastic end sockets on the brake handles.  The problem arose because these bike units are not designed for the motion of hand cycle cranks.  To overcome this problem we replaced them with custom brass units that allowed to the outer plastic tube to be gripped firmly.  The routing of the cabling to the rear brake was changed to provide a better line in the hope of improving braking performance.  The cable for the hub gear has also been problematic due to stretching.  Getting the cable length correct appears to be more difficult for a hub gear than for a derailieur gear.  The wrong length can give rise to some terrible complaining noises from the hub.

In retrospect, we feel that we should have asked for 24 inch rear wheels rather than 26 inch.  The larger wheels mean that the user’s elbows and lower arms are quite close to the wheel and, if loose clothing is worn, dog foul and mud can be picked up.  Of course, if the user intends to operate the wheel chair element as a wheel chair using hand rims, the wheel size would be appropriate.  In our case, we moved the axle back as far as possible to increase the clearance and to move the centre of gravity forward a little.

One problem that we have not fully resolved is the lack of a parking brake on the wheel chair part of the machine.  When the casters were present, the wheel chair part had a tendency to run away if on any kind of slope.  Similarly, the whole machine originally had a tendency to wander off if left unoccupied.  The partial solution has been the replacement of one brake lever by a Pashley Trike brake lever.  This allows the brake to be locked in the on position.

Conclusion

Overall, we feel that this machine has lived up to expectations.  On the one hand, it is robust and copes well with the off road work that it is given as well as working fine on normal road use.  On the other hand, it is rather heavy and took a little while to de-bug.  

This machine would clearly suit a strong paraplegic who could make it fly on the road.  However, the suspension would probably be superfluous for such a user, and the upright sitting position is not aerodynamic.  Perhaps a Bromakin recumbent handcycle might be more suitable for that context.

Off road, as a walking replacement, it has worked well for us working as a pair.  It might be less suitable for a disabled off-road user wishing to be independent and operate alone.  In that case, the Mountain Trike might be more suitable.

However, for a user who wants their wheel chair to have additionally the option of road running or off road use, this is probably a good choice.

(C) 2012 Cycling Otherwise