Opening up the singletrack

Rough Riderz-style downhilling

Opening up the singletrack

Mountain biking isn’t just for able-bodied riders. Journalist Benji Haworth meets the riders and developers making off-road riding accessible to all.

Watching one of the Rough Riderz hurtle downhill on a high-end quadricycle, getting – let’s be honest – more air than you do over jumps, any doubts are instantly quashed. This is mountain biking, just not as we know it. It’s mountain biking remapped onto a different machine and rider.

Some trails are wide and flat; others are world cup level downhill race tracks."

There’s more to all-ability mountain biking than this, of course, just as there’s more to mountain biking than downhilling. It’s a broad spectrum. At one end, the trails are wide, smooth and flat fireroads and green lanes; at the other end, disabled riders are throwing themselves down World Cup level downhill race tracks.

Buying into it

The key difference between regular mountain biking and all-ability mountain biking is the cycles that the disabled riders use, which range from adapted conventional bikes, through hand-cranked trikes, to crankless quadricycles.

Two-wheeled adapted bikes are typically used by amputee riders who may have a lower arm or lower leg missing (or sometimes two limbs). These bikes are propelled by a standard shoes-on-pedals drivetrain. They – and their riders – can ride the same sort of trail as a regular mountain bike.

Trikes and quads are used by riders who have either lost their legs or the use of their legs. They’re arm-powered, either by a hand-crank system or by pushing the wheels with the hands like a wheelchair. What they’re capable of depends on the machine and, in every sense, that rider’s ability.

Handcycles can be cranked along any sufficiently wide trail, even up long hills. The machines are heavier than bikes, at around 20kg, but are relatively manageable. Non-cranked, wheelchair-style quadricycles tend to avoid uphills as much as possible. The cycles can weigh around 35kg, making them too heavy to propel up significant climbs. These riders go to a lot of the same trail centres as able-bodied downhill riders where there are vehicular uplift facilities, as well as a number of suitable trails.

All-ability mountain ‘bikes’ are very expensive. They start at around £3,000 for a capable trike, and some full-suspension quadricycles cost nearer £10,000.

Widening the remit

All-ability mountain biking has become more popular recently. There are more and more trail centres, with purpose-built trails that can be used by – and are sometimes built for – disabled riders.

There are also organisations and schemes promoting all-ability mountain biking. Disabled riders can hire or try out a suitable cycle for a day. There are sample sessions, rider accreditation courses and ‘vehicular uplift gravity days’.

As custodians of the majority of the UK’s trail centres, the Forestry Commission have played a massive part. With their well-surfaced, moderate-gradient trails, it would have been hard to invent a more perfect environment for the growth of all-ability mountain biking.

Andy Braud is the Mountain Bike Ranger at Coed y Brenin trail centre in North Wales. Discussing the Forestry Commission’s working partnership with the all-ability mountain biking organisation ‘Challenge your Boundaries’, Andy says: ‘It developed from our desire to make mountain biking more accessible. We realised there was a gap in what we were offering off-road riders. So we planned around four years ago to include a blue (intermediate grade) trail. To try to be more inclusive, we wanted to build a challenging mountain bike trail suitable not only for able bodied people but for those with a disability. And that’s what we’ve done.’

The people behind Challenge your Boundaries are Graham and Jacky O’Hanlon. Graham explains their inspiration: ‘One was news footage of the struggles facing severely injured servicemen returning from the world’s war zones. We discovered by chance that a friend of ours, who works in the Army Medical Corps, had been based at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre (DMRC) at Headley Court in Surrey.

‘The vicarious pride we experienced from our friend’s good work was quickly overtaken by a sense of shame over a couple of episodes associated with public reaction to the DMRC. The first was a storm of protest by the local residents when the hospital attempted to open an accommodation facility for visiting relatives. The second was a news report of two women who demanded the removal from the leisure centre swimming pool of a group of amputees from DMRC undergoing a hydrotherapy session. The reasons cited were “they haven’t paid to use the pool and we have” and because “their appearance might upset our children.” We felt that things should be better than that.

‘I completed a Coaching Riders with a Disability course, and attended Sighted Guide Awareness Training run by North Wales Society for the Blind. I then provided informal consultancy for the new trail build at Coed y Brenin.’

Gathering momentum

Graham goes on to explain how the operation works today: ‘In our role as coordinators of the Challenge your Boundaries project, my wife Jacky and I have been responsible for the fundraising to purchase a number of different adaptive MTBs to go into the rental fleet at Coed y Brenin. We have developed the site operating procedures and an accreditation process to ensure each potential rider gets coaching related to the particular bike they will be using, and to put in place a support structure appropriate to them.

‘We have developed a two-day training course for qualified mountain bike leaders to give them the confidence, background information and technical skills to encourage them to consider including adaptive riders within their own operations. We also have run a number of events and taster sessions to expose more disabled people to the idea of mountain biking as a potential hobby.’

The Forestry Commission have been fully supportive of the Rough Riderz group too. Rough Riderz aims to give wheelchair users the opportunity to enjoy the thrills of downhill four-wheel mountain biking, promoting it as a sport nationwide. The club’s Secretary is Phil Hall, a level 12 paraplegic wheelchair user with complete loss of sensory and motor functions in his legs due to spinal cord injury.

‘We want to form a fully inclusive downhill mountain bike racing community here in the UK,’ he says. ‘As our membership grows, we will continue talking with various organisations to help develop more accessible venues. We want to adapt some of the existing trails too, providing the accessibility for everyone to enjoy some serious downhill thrills.’

Phil has been working with Rough Riderz for several years now, although he’d only been mountain biking for about a year before his crash. ‘I suffered a motorcycle accident in September 2003. The first few weeks in rehab after my spinal injury, when I realised I would never walk again and needed to use a wheelchair, was a very trying time,’ he says. ‘It took a while for this to sink in and for me to realise that this didn’t mean the end of me enjoying my life.

‘I rode gravity bikes in the USA for the first time in August 2006. Then I came back to the UK and set up the club. Rough Riderz has been a driving force in highlighting the need for greater access at venues and trails for our sport to expand.’

More trails, more cycles, more riders

Let’s not forget about Cycling UK's involvement in the all-ability mountain biking scene. Cycling UK's Dan Cook is already planning an off-road training course geared for disabled riders. His colleague Steve Bailey, meanwhile, has overseen the Cycling Champions project for the past four years. Its aim has been to provide opportunities for everyone to participate in cycling, regardless of ability, disability or any other label. He sees a bright future for all-ability mountain biking.

Next? Integration for riders sharing the same thrills."

‘Equipment will improve, skills will develop, participation numbers will increase, and facilities will evolve,’ says Steve. ‘I think it will see the adaption of existing facilities more than the creation of new, bespoke, adaptive trails. Let’s be honest: we want integration for riders sharing the same thrills as everyone. So why not the same trail centres, routes, and singletrack where feasible? In the long term, I’d like to see parity of events in competitions like the Paralympics. It would be great to see a gold awarded to a disabled mountain bike cross-country rider in Rio.’

Graham O’Hanlon agrees: ‘Trail centre riding is a sector of the sport ripe for development. Most visitor centres are already fully accessible, and many have bike rental outlets on site. Coed y Brenin’s MinorTaur trail has demonstrated that wide, adapted-MTB-friendly trails can still be great fun to ride for everyone, and I believe we will see more trails like that being built. Bike provision also has scope to improve.’

Adapted bicycles, trikes and quads are expensive, but Phil Hall is undeterred. ‘The aim is to make what is currently an inaccessible sport in terms of location, availability and cost into an equal opportunity sport. This will be achieved through the development of UK manufactured bikes, as opposed to importing them, and making them available for hire at a number of trail centres, at a similar cost to hiring a conventional mountain bike. We aim to establish this sport as a mainstream element of mountain biking.’

All-ability mountain biking has come a long way recently, but it’s clear that the best is yet to come.

A companion article to this on hand-cranked tricycles for all disciplines is on the Cycling UK website, www.cyclinguk.org.uk (Home > Publications > Cycle October/November 2012). We planned to run it back to back with this one, but there wasn’t enough space to do justice to both.

 

This was first published in the October / November 2012 edition of CTC's Cycle magazine.

Go online

Useful websites to find out more.

Adaptive MTB

www.adaptivemtb.co uk

Where you can have a go in the UK, what other people are riding, what events and training courses are running.

Rough Riderz

www.roughriderz.co.uk

For disabled mountain bikers who’d like to participate in the UK’s newest downhill MTB scene.

The Handcycling Association of the UK

www.handcycling.org.uk

A great resource for all things handcycling, on road or off.

SnowBikers

www.snowbikers.com

A mountain bike skills and leadership training and guiding service run by Graham and Jacky O’Hanlon in Snowdonia.

Inclusive Cycling Forum

www.inclusivecyclingforum.org.uk

A Cycling UK Member Group created to work for, support and encourage disabled people who use cycles.

 

Go riding

Where you can try all-ability mountain biking.

Coed y Brenin

Snowdonia

The place to go for most adapted-bike riding, all-ability mountain bikers. The MinorTaur trail is already a classic loop to do.

Whinlatter Forest

Lake District

The Altura South Loop trail is suitable. There may soon be a facility for storing and hiring some adaptive bikes there.

Dalby Forest

North Yorkshire

Should become a centre of excellence for disability mountain bike riding. The Ellerburn trail will be specifically tailored for all-ability bike users and there will be adaptation of existing trails for multi-wheeled bikes.

Antur Stiniog

North Wales

A number of their downhill trails are suitable. One minor change is still needed to the Black Powder trail to avoid a difficult drop-off.

Ae Forest

Scotland

The Shredder and Omega Man trails are suitable. One change has been made to the Shredder trail to avoid a narrow boardwalk.

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