Build mountain bike technology into a wheelchair and suddenly the hills open up to the handicapped, writes Arthur Goldstuck.
Just a few months ago, John Phillips from Montagu in the Western Cape could only gaze longingly at the mountains surrounding his hometown. Confined to a wheelchair, even moving over grass or gravel was exhausting.
But six months ago he discovered the Mountain Trike, a British-made all-terrain wheelchair that draws on mountain bike technology. It’s designed to handle deep mud, steep tracks, sand and snow. Urban obstacles? Curbs and cobbles offer little resistance.
“Anyone who’s ever tried to negotiate grass, gravel or any sort of rough terrain in a normal wheelchair will know just how difficult, uncomfortable and exhausting it can be,” says Phillips. “But the Mountain Trike seems to sail over both gravel and grass and can handle the really rough stuff without shaking your brains out.”
Tim Morgan, an engineering graduate with a passion for sports, got the idea while racing downhill in the Welsh National Mountain Bike Championships and seeing competitors get badly hurt.
“It got me thinking about what wheelchairs were around. There didn’t seem to be an all-terrain wheelchair that was off-road capable but also practical. There are millions of wheelchair users worldwide and many struggle with off-road terrains, which can be difficult to navigate in a regular wheelchair.”
The Mountain Trike is operated with two “lever drivers”, which allow users to propel the vehicle forward without touching the wheels – a bugbear in standard wheelchairs. They steer with a joystick, which turns a third wheel behind the aluminium chassis. Hydraulic disc brakes and adjustable suspension make up the “rock shocks” that allow the user to move over rough terrain without too much shaking.
Phillips has spent the past few months mastering the Trike and is now a familiar site in the Langeberg mountain range outside Montagu. He has used it on Table Mountain and plans to take it up the West Coast to see how it performs on sand.
But challenges remain.
“The only limitation is the strength required to power it up steepish inclines, but I have no doubt it gets easier the more you do it. Unfortunately, to get to any level contour path on Cape Town’s mountains invariably involves a short, steep climb, so I’m still on the lookout for suitable areas from which to start.”
Customers for the Mountain Trike include those who have lost limbs, suffer from multiple sclerosis or have a spinal cord injury.
“Generally, people are looking for an alternative offering to their normal wheelchair,” says Morgan. “The beauty of it is that suddenly users can get out under their own steam, they can exercise and get back to enjoying the outdoors.”
He worked with fellow graduates from Bath University, trialling the Trike with hundreds of wheelchair users. For his efforts, he was awarded the Silver Medal from the Royal Academy of Engineering last year.
The next innovation for the Mountain Trike is expected to be “tetra braking”, which will enable people with higher spinal injuries or limited hand strength to operate the brakes without finger grip strength.
The Trike is custom-built and comes in a choice of frame colour, adjustable frame, footrest and seat. Oh, and with a three-year warranty if one is nervous about giving it a real workout.