In the March/April issue of Rolling Inspiration, we explained the differences between wheelchair racing and hand cycling.  In this issue, we investigate the different techniques.

Let’s take a look at technique

The hand-cyclist’s hands are always on the hand pedals, applying force to the crank arms. While each athlete exerts effort, going uphill in a handcycle is relatively easier, compared to a racing wheelchair. This is because the hand cyclist doesn't have to continuously make up for momentum lost by taking his/her hands away from the site of power transfer (i.e. a racer's hand rim) after each stroke.

A racing wheelchair is best compared to an everyday wheelchair because it has a hand rim or pushrims. The biggest difference between a racer and a handcycle is that the athlete has to learn how to efficiently push a racing chair – or as we say - to stroke a racer. This is a rather difficult technique to master and can only be done with many hours of training and coaching.

Even though, it is a type of wheelchair, the athlete uses a stroke that is quite different from an everyday wheelchair stroke. The best way to explain it is to envision the racer's hand rim as a clock-face if you were looking at it from the outside the chair. At 1-3 o’ clock, our hands contact the rim with the back of our index and middle fingers because we use special gloves that keep our hands in a fist. If we actually grabbed the rim, we would slow down from the extra friction. As we move our hands back around the rim, we use our chest muscles to squeeze in to maintain grip. At around 6 o’clock, we use the small upper back muscles to lift our arms up to complete the stroke, release the rim at 7 o'clock, and move back to 1-3 o'clock. We have to release the rim at some point, because unlike a handcycle, there are no mechanisms (besides ourselves) to keep the wheels spinning without pushing regularly.

Unlike a handcycle, any speed generated in a racer can be lost very quickly, if it’s going uphill. This results in wheelchair racers being much slower than hand cyclists on the uphills.

To push or to bike?

To get into a racer and to stay in it is uncomfortable. The wheelchair needs to fit your body like as glove while optimising your ability and prevent medical problems like pressure sores and shoulder injuries. Because you are in a crouched position and could be there for anything up to three hours, this really needs to be as close to perfect as it gets.

You need to master the skill of how to efficiently power a racing chair and you have to figure out what type of gloves you are going to use. There are commercial gloves on the market, but these days most of the elite wheelchair racers prefer to manufacture their own gloves, using a special heat sensitive plastic.

On the other hand, the handcycle is a very comfortable piece of equipment to use. Through a simple adjustment of the back rest and the crank height, you can be up and running in no time. No technique needs to be mastered besides a few skills, like shifting gears and most importantly, taking corners.

An entry level handcycle and racing chair will cost you more or less the same with the racing chair being slightly more expensive.

In the end, it depends on preference and if it’s simply staying fit while having fun the handcycle is the best option for you. On the other hand, if you have aspirations of doing athletics professionally, then maybe you can consider wheelchair racing. And if you want to participate in a Para-triathlon, you are going to need them both!