People who ride motorcycles say they love to feel the wind in their faces, and to be able to hear sounds and even smell the surrounding environment where they ride. They also enjoy the exhilaration of speed provided by high horsepower engines that propel them on paved roads at highway speeds, or savor the ability to head off-road for exploring the outdoors on some lighter machines.
The original motorcycles had two wheels, mounted in line, and were steered by a handlebar. Since they were developed by people who made bicycles, they had relatively small frames and didn’t require powerful engines to move them as fast or faster than the surrounding traffic. For years, most motorcycle designs stayed basically the same — riding them required the ability to balance and use hands and feet to control them when moving or stopping. That requirement meant that some of those early motorcycles were unusable by many people who were paralyzed or missing limbs due to amputations or other causes.
Or were they?
Those challenges don’t always deter people with spinal cord injuries or other types of disabilities who really want to ride. Some of them enjoyed riding motorcycles before or at the time of their disabling injuries and are willing to do whatever is necessary to continue riding.
Lance Magin is typical of those who decided they could ride a motorcycle again, despite his disability. Within a year of his 1975 injury, Magin, a para from Holtville, Calif., transferred onto the seat of a Suzuki dirt bike and had friends make modifications on the spot to allow him to ride it. Since the gearshift is usually operated by a foot lever, they fastened a jack handle to it so that he could shift gears by hand. They also wrapped bungee cords around his legs to hold them close to the gas tank, and zip-tied his feet to the foot pegs so they wouldn’t fall off. Dismounting was not a problem, as long as he made it back to the starting point so his friends could help him get unhooked from the bike and back into his wheelchair.
While Magin had to carry a passenger and make liberal use of duct tape in order to ride longer distances on that first post-injury motorcycle, advances have been made that eliminate those problems. Automatic, air-activated or electrical shifters that mount on the handlebars have replaced shifting with a foot, and a single handbrake lever can be set up to operate both front and rear brakes.
Retractable supports called “Landing Gear” can also provide upright stability while stopped, yet retract so they are not in the way while the motorcycle is in motion. It seems fitting that Lee Beaver, a paraplegic motorcycle stunt rider from Bullhead City, Ariz., was the one who developed and continues to market that system worldwide.
Steve “Wheels” Bucaro of Palmdale, Calif., has modified two motorcycles since his 1998 accident, which resulted in paraplegia. The cause? An elderly driver ran a red light and struck Bucaro on his motorcycle. He has always loved to race, so besides an electric shifter, he added the retractable landing gear to his Kawasaki racing bike. That modification allowed him to transfer onto the bike or stop without fear of toppling over. He can lean as far over as other riders when negotiating the curves of a racetrack.
The name of the first person to build a motorcycle with three wheels is difficult to determine, but perhaps it was someone who noticed how easy it was for children to ride their first tricycles. Having three wheels eliminated the risk of tipping to the side when stopped and made them much more stable when being ridden. That same principle worked for motorcycles, and especially for people with various types of disabilities who wanted to ride them.
Trikes are a popular choice for those who would have trouble balancing a motorcycle when stopped due to an inability to use one or both of their legs. As with all motorcycles, functions normally requiring foot operation, like shifting gears and braking, can be relocated to the handlebar area. Early developers even equipped their trikes with a reverse gear to allow them to back out of parking spaces without dismounting from the trike.
Once the rider has transferred to a trike, a wheelchair can be hooked to the back of it with bungee cords or straps. John Martinson, a T8 para from Rio, Wisc., eliminated much of the effort required to haul a wheelchair. He mounted a swingarm on the back of his trike, which makes loading, transporting and unloading his rigid-frame wheelchair very easy.
Having ridden motorcycles prior to their injuries is a common factor when it comes to riders who are paralyzed or have had amputations. Captain David Gaston, adaptive sports coordinator of the Community Sailing Center in Galveston, Texas, was injured at the T12 level while riding a motorcycle in 1979 in a crash that was not his fault. While he currently drives his Honda Goldwing from a modified sidecar while sitting in his wheelchair, he says that his next bike is likely to be a new Harley-Davidson Trike. Such models are proving to be very popular, especially with older riders, as they combine the stability of a trike with the power and familiar throaty roar of the traditional Harley engine.
Michael Atkins, from Pembroke, N.C., rode motorcycles extensively prior to a solo truck crash in 1988 that left him paraplegic at the T9 level. His best friend showed up with a motorcycle a couple of weeks prior to his discharge from the hospital and insisted on taking him for a ride. They placed his feet inside the “highway bars” to keep them out of the way, and his friend did the shifting when Atkins nodded his head. Once he saved up enough money, he was able to buy a trike and modify it for his use. Since then, he says the high point of his riding has probably been the first 1,000-mile, seven-day trip he made to Sturgis, S.D., shortly after his trike was finished, to attend the annual motorcycle rally with thousands of other motorcyclists.
Another trike that would fit in well with the high-horsepower crowd present at those Sturgis rallies is a recent offering from Liberator Trikes. Powered by a 275-horsepower Chevrolet V8 engine, the rear-engined Liberator can haul two people at highway speeds for hours on end with minimal effort.
Other types of three-wheeled motorcycles are available, including the Can-Am Spyder, which features two wheels in the front and one in the back. Since the Spyder doesn’t come equipped with hand controls, Patrick Cottini of Chico, Calif., relocated the brake controls to the handlebar of his 2008 Spyder and added a hydraulic booster to compensate for the weaker grip resulting from his C7 spinal cord injury. It came equipped with a paddle shifter for its semi-automatic transmission, so that helped with the shifting. Cottini is a skilled mechanic. “I did all of the work necessary to make it possible to ride my bike,” he says, “but any good motorcycle mechanic should have no trouble making those modifications.”
Unlike a trike, the Can-Am has independent front suspension. That feature allows the body of the bike and the rider to lean into corners and makes it more stable than other types of motorcycles with three wheels when cornering.
Ride Within a Ride
Individuals who do not want to go to the trouble of transferring out of their wheelchairs in order to ride a motorcycle also have options. Manufacturers have developed systems that allow a motorcycle to be operated by someone seated in a wheelchair in a sidecar, such as the one owned by David Gaston. People are often surprised to see a riderless motorcycle roll by, but Gaston says, “I have had friends follow me when I have been driving from the sidecar with nobody on the attached bike, and they report that the bike bounces around a lot when empty.” Partly for that reason, he recommends that riders use extra care when cornering whenever a sidecar is involved.
People who want to enjoy motorcycle travel without the distractions of driving can utilize similar sidecars while riding as a passenger. Lou Ann Kibbee of Hays, Kansas., sustained a C7 spinal cord injury in a 1976 automobile accident. Her husband Larry likes to ride motorcycles and wanted to make it possible for his wife to join him in a manner that was safe and would allow her to have her power wheelchair available for use at their destinations. He built a prototype sidecar that was finished in 2007, and they used it for a few years until they bought a new Harley Davidson. At that time the decision was made to build another sidecar, this time with a much fancier body to match the new motorcycle, and it has been getting plenty of use since it was finished.
A ramp on the back of the sidecar allows Kibbee to roll into place, and a tie-down automatically locks her power wheelchair in the riding position. She is also secured by multiple seat belts, and the ramp folds up and is locked in an upright position behind her chair. That setup allows the couple to enjoy riding together, and also assures that they can continue to enjoy whatever activities await them at the end of their ride.
Something for Everyone
In this time of technological advances, it was inevitable that someone would decide that four wheels should be even better than three when it comes to motorcycles. A Swiss manufacturer has developed the GG Quadster, a high-performance four-wheeled motorcycle powered by a BMW engine. While it has standard motorcycle handlebars, the Quadster also has a limited slip differential, servo-assist power steering, reverse, heated hand grips, electric shifter, and is manufactured from billet aluminum. The Quadster has the performance and price tag equaling those of a good sports car.
Don Holland, a para from Placerville, Calif., who rode motorcycles extensively before a 2010 SCI, drives a Quadster. The size, stability and horsepower combine for a very comfortable ride. “Riding my Quadster makes me laugh out at times,” says Holland. His folded wheelchair fits nicely in a compartment on the side of the bike, which makes it very convenient when it comes time to unload at his destination.
Those who are interested in riding motorcycles should take comfort in knowing that adaptations can be made that will allow people with almost any type of disability to ride. As far as the perfect type of bike, it obviously depends on the capabilities and interests of the individual. Captain David Gaston has some expertise when it comes to adapted motorcycles; he was injured while riding a motorcycle, and has built or owned four adapted bikes since then. He says that the most stable model, especially for a beginner, would be a trike with large rear tires and a center frame-mounted engine as in a traditional motorcycle.
Why do people ride motorcycles? Perhaps Kibbee summarized it best: “The advice I offer to others is very simple. Don’t let barriers stop you from enjoying your life! Whether it is being able to catch some wind or enjoying spending some quality time with someone you love, don’t miss out. Live to Ride, Ride to Live!”
• Air Shifters — www.mpsracing.com/products/MPS/as01.asp
• Can-Am Spyder — can-am.brp.com/spyder/
• DMC sidecars — www.dmcsidecars.com
• GG Quadster — www.hz24.com/
• Harley-Davidson Trikes — www.harley-davidson.com/en_US/Motorcycles/trike.html
• Liberator Trikes — www.liberatortrikes.com/