By Karl Beck
Something about motorcycles captures the imagination. They’ve been part of American culture and society for decades, although many see them as the central element of a counterculture that thumbs its nose at the quiet, buttoned-down world. However, for many motorcyclists, getting together with their friends at big rallies, donating to charitable causes and supporting veterans is a large part of their lifestyle.
Motorcycles mean different things to different people. For some, owning a motorcycle is a hobby. Leisure time is spent on long rides and enjoying the feeling of freedom and adventure brought by cruising down an unfamiliar road. For others motorcycles are a sport, a competition against other riders, the clock and grueling terrain. And for still other riders, the motorcycle is the center of an alternate lifestyle.
For Ron Hurley, a T8 para from Seminole, Fla., motorcycle riding is both part of his life and a hobby. He modified his first motorcycle in 1971 and now has both a Harley-Davidson and a Yamaha V-Max. He also owns a 24-foot trailer equipped to haul the cycles to scenic destinations. The front of the trailer has an under-vehicle van lift and living quarters. He has ridden all over the country, including Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, North Dakota and Georgia.
Hurley uses a sidecar, which is normally used to seat a second person, to maintain the stability of his Harley. The sidecar’s third wheel not only stabilizes the bike, it also provides a location for the wheelchair. Other riders have modified sidecars and drive or ride in their wheelchair from inside the sidecar.
Another popular way of providing stability is using a three-wheeled motorcycle, known as a trike in some circles. Again, three wheels are more stable than two. Some of these trikes are built so a wheelchair user can roll up a ramp, lock in place and drive away. On most, however, the rider transfers onto the trike and loads the wheelchair into a carrier.
While sidecars and trikes provide good stability, some riders prefer not to use them. Driving with a sidecar changes the motorcycle’s handling characteristics, and an inexperienced driver can quickly get in trouble. For some motorcycle purists, trikes lack the ride qualities normally associated with motorcycles, including maneuverability and the ability to lean the machine while going around a curve or making a turn.
Several companies have developed alternatives to trikes, including stabilizing bars, third wheels and retracting wheels. Safety Features manufactures Ghost Wheels for Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and a number of similar products. The Ghost Wheels float on the ground until the rider needs them. Then they are locked in place to stabilize the motorcycle. They were originally made to help motorcyclists, especially older ones, handle some of the bigger bikes, but paraplegics also use them.
All of the adapted motorcycles are custom-built for the rider, usually in small shops. For example, Greg Queen’s company, Queen Custom Cycles in Corbin, Ky., specializes in adapted motorcycles. Queen, a T5 para, was injured in 1993 when he was 18 years old. “From the time I was hurt I started building bikes,” Queen says. “It just gets in your blood.” His small company builds custom trikes and also modifies existing motorcycles. His personal ride is a Harley Soft Tail with a sidecar.
Converting a motorcycle starts with purchasing one with the right size and weight, and evaluating your physical capabilities. “If you’re using a trike, it doesn’t matter. Otherwise use a lighter bike,” Queen says.
“You need good upper body strength, and you need to pick a bike you can handle,” Hurley says. For newcomers, he adds, “it can be dangerous.”
Adapting Your Ride
For those not familiar with motorcycles, the control systems are very different from those of automobiles, and usually need to be modified. Typically, a motorcycle does not have an automatic transmission. The clutch is mounted on the left hand grip, and the gearshift is located near the left foot. The throttle is on the right hand grip and a lever for the front brake is near the right hand. The rear brake lever is operated by the right foot. For paras and others without the use of their legs, the controls need to be moved to the handlebars or automated.
Disabled Motorcycle Riders is one of several companies providing these adapted controls and accessories to bike modifiers, including automatic clutches, brake systems and modified shift levers. Owned by retired school teacher and recent convert to biking, Gail Dewitt, DMR is based in the Tampa Bay area of Florida. She also handles a wheelchair carrier for trikes and a specialized prosthesis to help amputees operate the controls.
Adapting a bike can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to thousands, depending on the rider’s needs and the type of bike. However, Dewitt pointed out that several funding sources will help pay for modifications, including the Department of Veterans Affairs, if the veteran qualifies for assistance.
One of Dewitt’s well-known customers is motocross bike racer Ricky James Jr., who uses a push button-operated electronic gearshift that Dewitt supplies on James’ KTM 450sxf dirt bike. The California Kid’s crew also added an automatic clutch to eliminate the need for a foot-operated control and a hydraulic rear brake lever on the handlebar. To help keep him safe on the dirt tracks, James’ bike includes bars to protect his legs, footplates and a padded, modified seat.
Falling down is part of dirt bike racing, so James is strapped onto his bike. If he falls, his crew sets him upright and he’s on his way again. During one race, bystanders helped him up, not knowing that he couldn’t have done it himself. At the start of the race he is also helped on while the bike is held in place.
James was injured at T7 in a 2005 dirt bike accident when he was 17. He has come roaring back, competing in several motocross races and the Baja 500. James also made a video showing him doing a back flip on his motorcycle and landing in a pit of foam rubber blocks. Racing is in his blood. He hopes to one day race stock cars in the NASCAR circuit.
On the opposite side of the country, in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, are Vinny Cucchiara and Robin Donnelly, who enjoy a completely different motorcycle lifestyle. Donnelly, who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, wanted to ride, so Cucciara modified his bike for Donnelly, adding straps for her feet and a back support. He also designed a wheelchair carrier.
They have traveled to many major bikers’ events, including the pilgrimage to Sturgis, N.D., Daytona Beach, Fla., and Myrtle Beach, S.C. They also participated in the “Run for the Wall” rally, which starts all over the country but ends at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Talking to them about all they have seen during their trips, it’s easy to see how biking can become addictive. “You seem part of nature,” says Donnelly. “It’s the pulse of the road,” adds Cucciara. “It’s almost like you create your own space.”
After riding hundreds of miles, they poured their enthusiasm into the Internet and started Disabled Riders of America. Their website (see below) has about 400 members who exchange ideas on motorcycle riding. And Donnelly is starting her next big adventure — she’s learning how to drive a new trike.
Whether as a hobby, for leisure or sport, wheelers all over the country are discovering that motorcycles offer a unique and exciting way to get around.
EDITOR: This is Karl Beck’s final article for NM. Shortly after completing it, he died suddenly and unexpectedly.
A comprehensive list of manufacturers and other resources for motorists with disabilities can be found at the American Motorcycle Association’s website:
Other online sites of interest for motorcyclists:
• Disabled Riders of America, www.disabledriders.com.
• Disabled Motorcycle Riders, www.disabledmotorcycleriders.com.
• Safety Features, www.trikealternative.com.
• Queen’s Custom Cycles, www.queenscustomcycles.com.