Hand cycle – freedom on three wheels


One of the most popular sports for wheelchair users is hand cycling. Hand cycles are available in different versions, which are driven by a hand crank. They are definitely all fun! Whether on a trip to the countryside with the whole family or every day to work, school or friends – the „bicycle for wheelchair users“ provides more mobility in a simple way. In the last 25 years, the hand cycle has developed from a „sports equipment for freaks“ to the most used sports equipment for wheelchair users.

Riding regularly is also an excellent fitness training because it maintains the body’s mobility, stabilizes the cardiovascular system, helps to lower blood pressure and blood fat levels, supports muscle building, reduces love handles and clears the head after a hard day.

The muscle groups that are trained with the hand cycle are also different from those that are used, for example, to drive a manual wheelchair. The shoulders and back are relieved by a slightly different posture. This can counteract long-term damage to the shoulder, which is more common in paraplegics.

The correctly adapted and individually assembled hand cycle not only makes the top athlete faster but also enables occasional hand cyclists and couch potatoes to extend their radius of action.

The wheels are all equipped with gears and are driven by arm power via a hand crank. Despite pure „arm power“, quite high speeds can be achieved. Depending on the equipment, well-trained paraplegics can reach approx. 25 km/h on the adaptive bike (hand cycle add-on for wheelchairs) and approx. 40 km/h on the recumbent bike.

Because of the health benefits that riding handcycle can offer, handcycle can be considered as aids for disabled persons, the purchase of which is partly covered by the service providers like health insurance funds in the different countries.


The name commonly used word “hand bike” is presumably derived from the fusion of the words bike for bicycle and manual drive – driven manually. In the time when the first pioneers were experimenting with “hand bikes”, mountain bikes also experienced their great boom and were on everyone’s lips. And so, it is assumed that the word “mountain” was quickly replaced by “hand” and thus the term “hand bike” was born.

Most people in Europe don’t know that “hand bike” is a pseudo-anglicism. The English term “bike” or, more correctly, “bicycle” actually refers to a two-wheeler – the classic hand cycle, however, is a tricycle..

In the English-speaking world, the term hand cycle is – correctly – therefore preferred.


There is now a wide variety of hand cycles. Thus, in addition to the two best-known variants, the so-called adaptive bike and the recumbent bike, there is also the seat bike and the knee bike (options of the recumbent bike), as well as the therapy bike or Berkel bike for therapeutic use.

The main difference between adaptive bikes and recumbent bikes is that adaptive bikes are coupled in front of a wheelchair, and recumbent bikes are independent sports equipment.

We would now like to present these two variants here.

the adaptive bike

In brief:

The terms adaptive handcycle, handcycle conversion for wheelchairs or handcycle conversion for wheelchairs refer to a hand crank driven auxiliary equipment which is attached to the front of the wheelchair. This increases the mobility of the wheelchair user enormously. Compared to a wheelchair, an „attached“ handcycle can cover much greater distances and, thanks to the reduction gear, inclines can be mastered more comfortably.

A manual adaptive bike is equipped with a hand crank, gears and handbrake. When coupling the adaptive bike to the manual wheelchair, the steering wheels are raised, turning the wheelchair into a tricycle. With the steering wheels raised, the adaptive bike offers more possibilities. Also, higher speeds are possible without the steering wheels, and the changed seating position improves the driver’s posture. The larger diameter of the front wheel increases outdoor mobility and makes it much easier to drive on uneven ground such as gravel, cobblestones, potholes and forest trails.
A significant advantage for the riders of adaptive bikes is the possibility to disconnect the hand cycle from the wheelchair at any time and thus to take a break in a café, go shopping or do other activities that would be rather difficult with a recumbent bike.

Depending on the disability, transferring from a wheelchair to a recumbent bike can be quite awkward and challenging, which is why the adaptive bike version is preferred here.

Adaptive bikes are available in different weight classes. The lightest weighs about 7 kg.

It is also essential to ensure that the handcycle add-on can be attached to the desired wheelchair with an appropriate adapter device. In the case of foldable wheelchairs, this should be checked more intensively, as this is not always possible or a special adapter is required.

the fixed-frame hand cycle

(recumbent, knee or sit bike)

In brief:

A fixed-frame hand cycle is a wheelchair sports equipment that was constructed from the ground up for hand cycling. They are no longer just an addition to a wheelchair.

This type of construction allows much more freedom in the positioning of the driver and also eliminates the need for a wheelchair.

In the streamlined recumbent bike, the driver is only a few centimetres above the ground, and the feet stuck in stable footrests next to the front wheel. The recumbent bike is also a tricycle with a fixed lying surface. However, there are now also variants with four wheels. The recumbent bike is driven by a hand crank, which is also used to control the gears and the handbrake.

Racing recumbent bikes usually have wheels with a minimum camber of 2°, which does not provide optimal stability but does ensure high speed. Recumbent bikes are not suitable for everyday use because of their high turning radius and the limited view from the low head position.


By attaching an adaptive bike to the wheelchair, the four-wheeled wheelchair becomes a tricycle – with all its advantages and disadvantages. The recumbent bike is also a tricycle. In the following, we will introduce the essential points regarding the functioning of the hand cycles.

Sitting position

The seating position is a crucial criterion for the hand cycle. Depending on the disability, specific variants may not be possible.

Since the adaptive bike is attached to the wheelchair, the position of the body and therefore, the seating position is already determined by the wheelchair. The positioning in the fixed-frame hand cycle, on the other hand, aims to optimize the efficiency and stability of the user, so that it can be used optimally as a piece of sports equipment. This seating position is usually not identical to the seating position in the wheelchair.

hand cycle add-on for wheelchair

The seating position in the adaptive bike is similar to that in a wheelchair. The described raising of the steering wheels when attaching the bike increases the seat inclination and the back angle. The advantage here is that this attitude is usually perceived as pleasant. The disadvantage, however, is that due to the pronounced inclination to the rear the front wheel of the hand cycle takes even more pressure off the ground and the wheel loses traction more quickly.

It is also important to adjust the height of the hand crank to suit the driver. Otherwise, the crank handles will come into contact with the thighs when turning into a bend.

If you have poor sitting stability due to missing or weak trunk muscles, you should choose a sitting position that keeps the upper body in an upright position during the crank movement. To achieve this, the crank length must be adjusted to the arm length. The elbows should not be fully extended when the handles are fully forward of the body.

fixed-frame hand cycle

Due to the individually adjusted seat position, the hand cyclists can use the recumbent bike to its full potential. The inclination of the upper body, the location of the crank bearing, the height and the sufficient distance to the shoulders are essential points on an excellent hand cycle. Depending on the disability and discipline, a different posture of the upper body is important.
A hand cyclist who cannot use his torso can neither sit in the knee nor the long seat (leaning position with legs extended). Conversely, a deeper incomplete paraplegic can drive in almost any position, allowing a sharper focus on the area of use of the bike.

Most handcycles are driven in the so-called basic seating position, which is between the recumbent bike and the long seat bike. The torso is tilted backwards +/- 20°, and the backrest is supported (when pressed). This feels comfortable, allowing this position to be held for a long time, which is why touring and long-distance hand cycles often have this shape. Due to the upright torso, the head is higher, and the driver has a relatively good overview of the traffic. The cranks turn in a low position so that it is easier to pull from below. People with higher paralysis can optionally use a waist belt and/or sit more inclined backwards. The basic seating position is also ideal for electrical support.


The handcycle consists mainly of the frame, the seat and back system (for fixed frame handcycles), the wheel(s), the crank handles, the components for the drive system and the voluntary or mandatory safety precautions.

The kinship with the bicycle is particularly evident in the wheels and the drive/shift and brake components. However, there are also fundamental differences that are particularly important. The most obvious difference is that the handcycle is a multi-track companion – usually a three-wheel drive. This means that the handbike does not lie in the curve and other forces act on the wheels.

The second big difference is the manual drive. For every rider, the handle is the central point of contact with his bike. Impact and tensile force are transmitted via the handle. The stems on modern handcycles are inclined inwards at an angle of approx. 10° to 15°. This ensures sound power transmission. It is also possible to select handles for people with unlimited hand function, with limited hand function and without finger function.


The e-hand cycles are very popular, just like the e-bikes for pedestrians.
Every wheelchair user knows from personal experience that the anatomy of the shoulders and arms is not intended as a means of locomotion. Electrical propulsion aids, therefore, open up unimagined ranges and open up areas for people with disabilities, which would otherwise only be possible with foreign help.

An e-hand cycle is usually a normal hand cycle, which is additionally equipped with a motor, battery, sensors and a controller. If the sensors register a pedal movement, they send a signal to the controller. The controller uses the data from the sensors to regulate the flow of charge from the battery to the motor, which then supports the driver.

With the e-bikes, also known as hybrid bikes, the rider still has to drive the bike himself, but when it gets too strenuous, an electric motor automatically switches on. The speed of the electrical support is usually freely selectable.

Due to the battery and the motor, the e-bikes are considerably heavier than the manual versions. With adaptive electric hand cycles, you have to reckon with approx. 15 kg of net weight.

Depending on the choice of the drive, almost any commercially available hand cycle can be converted to an e-bike.

Wheelbase extension
(for adaptive bikes)

A wheelbase extension increases the distance between the front wheel of the hand cycle add-on and the wheelchair wheels, thus shifting more weight and pressure to the front wheel. The increased grip means that the front wheel spins less easily, traction is better, and steeper sections can be managed. Whether a wheelbase extension makes sense depends on several aspects:

  • On the adaptive bike (length of the bike, distance to the wheelchair axle, etc.)
  • the wheelchair (can a wheelbase extension be fitted?)
  • the route and the terrain to be driven on
  • the possibility of mounting the drive wheels on the wheelbase extension
  • an adjustment of the parking brakes

If a wheelbase extension is installed, a slight camber should also be planned to prevent the frame from tilting sideways.



As with all sports equipment that can be used on the road, it is also essential for hand cycle to take care of their safety and the safety of third parties. So here is some information about the security.

Generally speaking:

  • Choice of the route off the main traffic routes, if possible on cycle paths or hardly used side roads.
  • When crossing roads, it is better to wait longer, even if you are in a hurry.
  • Special care must be taken in autumn with tall plants, shrubs etc. A recumbent bike can become invisible to a motorist even behind high grass.
  • For looking back, use two rather than no rearview mirror at all.
  • More extensive tours should always be well planned. If possible, the trips should not be carried out during the high season.

Protection against injuries

Standard foam seat cushions on fixed frame bikes are not suitable for Anti-decubitus protection. They offer some comfort, nothing more.

The utterly different sitting position in the fixed frame bike, compared to the everyday wheelchair, puts a strain on other regions. The coccyx area, in particular, should be well observed.

The sweat produced by exertion can, like any moisture, negatively affect the skin.

It is therefore advisable to try out different seat cushions and, especially at the beginning, to check regularly that everything is in order.

The position of the feet and legs in the hand cycle should also be considered, as in the worst case they can cause pressure points. Pressure points due to foot straps are also possible. Legs that press or fall against a part of the frame are also not immune to pressure points. So watch precisely where and how the legs come into contact with hard elements. Besides, shoes should always be worn.

Since you are travelling at high speeds, it is only logical that legs that have jumped out of the footrest can suffer serious injuries. Therefore, it is best to always use an extra strap to tie your legs or feet.

Road traffic – what to note?

In terms of traffic law, hand cycles are regulated differently in each country. However, knowledge of the general traffic rules is essential. For wheelchair users, the rules of the road traffic regulations apply as for any other road user; for a manual wheelchair, the rules for pedestrians apply.

Bicycles are generally required to be equipped with a minimum. There are usually no regulations for handcycles, but it is still recommended to follow the guidelines for bikes.


From our team, Baumi is the adaptive hand cyclist and therefore has some additional information that may be helpful:

  • Proper clothing that absorbs sweat and dries quickly.
  • Always observe the surrounding area and remember not only yourself but also the other road users.
  • Take breaks and, to avoid pressure points, change your sitting position as much as possible during the breaks.
  • Adaptive bikes with additional electrical assistance usually have a longer caster, which means that the braking distance is longer.
  • When driving on bad roads, such as coarse gravel and potholes, the driver must remember that there are still the steering wheels on the wheelchair which could touch or hit the ground. Therefore, do not drive through every pothole just like this.
  • Raise curbs frontally if possible. The hand cycle could tip over when riding at an angle. Also, attention must be paid to the height of the steering wheels.
  • When cornering, reduce speed and, if possible, move your upper body to the inside of the curve to avoid tipping over.

Any questions? Then leave us a comment!


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