cassie s. mitchell, ph.d.


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About Paracycling


Paracycling comes in multiple different forms, depending on the athlete’s disability and events.   Some athletes, like single amputees, use adapted  “upright bicycles”, which look much like a standard bicycle, while athletes who do not have the balance for an upright bicycle but do have the leg power to pedal, use upright tricycles.  Wheelchair athletes (like myself), who have no ability to pedal a cycle with their legs, compete in handcycling.  A handcycle is a low-to-the-ground tricycle powered by the upper body. Blind athletes ride tandem bicycles. They are paired with a "seeing" or able-bodied athlete who serves as the pilot.

Handcyclists (and all paracyclists, for that matter) are classified or “categorized” according to their disability such that athletes with similar disabilities compete against each other.   Most quadriplegics like myself (impairments in all four limbs and no trunk control) compete in the H1 category.  Higher spinal level paraplegics (no trunk/abdominal control) compete in the H2 category.  Lower spinal level paraplegics (with functional trunk muscles) compete in the H3 category.  Finally, double amputees and some of the most functional spinal cord injury patients compete in the H4 category.  Ambulatory athletes who ride upright bicycles are classified according to their leg function and balance in the classes C1-C5, with C1 being the least amount of function. Upright tricycle athletes are likewise classified in T1 or T2, with T1 being the least amount of function. Blind [tandem] athletes have simply one classification, B.



Paracycling equipment and apparel is governed internationally by the Union Cyclist International (UCI) and nationally by USA cycling and U.S. handcycling.


Frames: While most elite handcycle racers ultimately have their own custom handcycles built, there are two main frame types: the longbike and the kneeler.  The “longbike” refers to a handcycle in which the athlete is seated in a reclined position with their feet out in front of them.  The longbike is propelled using mostly arm, upper back, and chest muscles.  Thus, it is the mainstay frame for H1-H2 athletes and most H3 athletes.  The second frame type is a “kneeler”.  As the name implies, the athlete sits on their knees/legs.  If a double amputee, the athlete may simply be sitting erect.  The kneeling bike is used by H4 athletes, which can utilize their strong trunk and back muscles to propel the bike.  The exception to this rule is a kneeling bike, often called a  “one off”, which utilizes a chest plate to support athletes who do not have a functionally stable trunk/core but still want to have the kneeling position.  Note that for internationally sanctioned road and time trial races, all H1, H2, and H3 athletes must use the longbike and an H4 must use a kneeler.


Wheels: Carbon wheels are a mainstay at national- and international-level races.  Disc wheels are preferred for time trials, especially when there is little cross wind.  Spoked carbon wheels are preferred in cross-wind conditions or when there is a lot of climbing since the spoked wheels are lighter weight.  The rear two wheels and the front wheel of a handcycle are all typically the same size, 26”.


Components: The components (gearing, shifters, derailleur, etc) of a handcycle are identical to standard bicycles.  Even though handcycles are considered road bikes, we usually use mountain bike gearing to give us the range of gears needed to climb hills.


Adaptations: Paracyclists may have unique adaptations to accommodate their disability. For example, as one of the more disabled quadriplegic H1 athletes, I use adapted grips to hold my hands on the crank called Quad Grips. An amputee may choose to use a prosthesis or a platform to restrain a limb.  Some adaptations may require approval by the governing cycling bodies.