Home > Heather's Writing > Wheelchair Bike

Wheelchair Bike

Heather and Martin going for a ride in the wheelchair bike

UPDATE: Build notes are available here.

Every so often when my head is full of cobwebs my husband Martin and I go out for a bike ride. I'm much too unwell to ride a bike of my own, but a couple of years ago Martin modified an old mountain bike so he can bolt my wheelchair to it. Now when I need some fresh air and a change of scene he assembles our 'wheelchair bike', straps me in and off we go.

It's amazing fun - especially whizzing down hills - and people are always so stoked to see us pass! We can go much further with this contraption than with the wheelchair alone, but I'm much more 'in the thick of things' than I would be in a car. We recently discovered a whole street planted with willow myrtles and I enjoyed telling Martin of the time I got stuck in one as a kid. Many people have such colourful gardens that are a delight to look at, and sometimes Martin will slow and pick a hibiscus flower hanging over a fence for me to slip behind my ear. I love seeing the changing of the seasons: the sculptural bare birch trees along Great North Road in winter; the blazing pohutakawa of mid-summer; looking up through autumn street trees at brilliant golden berries against a vivid blue sky. I love the sense of movement, the excitement of being right in amongst the traffic, and the freedom of it all.

Sometimes I'm scared that one day we'll distract someone so badly they'll drive into something! Everyone is so excited to see us: kids stop playing and stare at us; people in cars toot and smile. Folk waiting at bus stops call out to Martin to pedal faster, or ask for a lift. One old guy with a walker stopped and stared till we were out of sight. It's fun to cause such a happy spectacle: I feel like we've made someone's day.

Our wheelchair bike is legally a bicycle so we usually ride it on roads and cycleways. If we are travelling on a tight, busy road we will sometimes retreat to the footpath. We both wear helmets and I am anchored to the wheelchair with a standard wheelchair lapbelt from the Disability Resource Centre. We considered adding a flag for improved visibility, but we seem to attract plenty of attention already! With all this I know I'm reasonably safe, although I still find it a bit hair-raising seated at the front, out amongst the traffic. I love it, but I sometimes struggle to relax on busy roads or if we get too fast going down a hill. Earplugs have helped a bit with this, but I can still only cope with all the stimulation for around 30 - 45 minutes.

Our wheelchair bike is a one-off: inspired by Vietnamese cyclos, designed in consultation with a manufacturing engineer, and built as a metalwork nightclass project. It uses the same wheelchair we use for all my outings (with a few extra fittings which now live permanently on the chair), bolted to a back end made largely from an old mountain bike. The whole front half of the original bicycle has been cut off and the steering head welded back on very low to the ground. Rods attached to the steering head bolt onto plates on either side of the wheelchair at an angle which lifts the small front wheels six inches off the ground as soon as Martin sits down. The wheelchair has been fitted with standard bicycle brakes, the existing gear levers have been attached to the top tube, and we use clipless pedals to maximise pedalling power. Even with the clipless pedals and low gearing it is quite hard work cycling for two, but it is easy for Martin to pause and rest thanks to the stability of three wheels.

If you and a cyclist would like to investigate wheelchair biking, you would be most welcome to try out our setup. Email me to arrange this. Martin would also be happy to discuss how he made the contraption (and what he'd do differently next time).


There are at least four commercially available wheelchair bike systems, although I don't believe anyone is currently importing any of them into New Zealand. In all of them the wheelchair can be detached from the bike so you can be wheeled inside when you get where you're going. In two models the wheelchair is bolted onto a back wheel and frame, just like ours: the DUET tandem, also called 'Rollfiets', from Hoening in Germany, and the 'O Pair' from Britain. Both of these come with their own wheelchair: you can't bolt them to your existing chair. Christiania Bikes in Denmark make the "S.box": a tricycle with a sturdy tray up the front in which you are secured in your own wheelchair. You can buy these in Australia. Finally, "Speedy" in Britain make an attachment that fixes to the front of any wheelchair, enabling you and the chair to be trailed behind an ordinary bicycle.

If you are a bit stronger than me but not strong enough to ride your own bike you may also like to consider a tandem. A tandem still functions when only one person is pedalling so your partner can propel you both home if you get too tired. There are many tandems commercially available, including some such as the Hase Pino where the person on the front sits in a reclining seat and pedals with their legs in front of them. You could also consider an adult-sized tricycle, which gives you much more stability than a regular bike, or getting an electric motor fitted to your bike to boost your pedal power. Adult tricycles are sold by a shop in Levin and many bike shops sell electric motors that can be retrofitted to a regular bike.

Happy riding! Heather - March 2010