Cycle of life


A useful guide to accessible cycling for everyone

How do we help young people with disabilities discover personal mobility, exercise and fun, all in one go? Cycling to the rescue! It’s second only to swimming as a “low-impact” activity, but I think cycling is more exciting, and it does better scenery.

All professionals know that a child’s developmental trajectory can be hugely influenced by early intervention. There are specialised cycles for all ages and needs and the provision is not as difficult as some would have us believe. Humans, with or without a disability, come in a fairly standard range of shapes and sizes, and bike technology is there for every need.


The most common option is a simple trike. Tricycles come in sizes to fit all ages and body types. They are most commonly “delta” format, with one wheel at the front and two at the back, but are sometimes seen in “tadpole” format – with two wheels at the front. The following is a guide to the basic types.

Trikes work best from 0 mph to trotting speed. The faster they go, the less stable they become, especially where corners are concerned. They are great at carrying heavy loads and, because they are stable and freestanding, great for people with more limiting physical disabilities.

The options list within trikes is a long one. These are just a few of the things that you’re likely to encounter.

You need to understand the concept of freewheel and fixed-wheel. With freewheels, found on 99 per cent of cycles, you can stop pedalling and hear the freewheel clicking away. Fixed-wheel cycles are different. Put simply, when the wheels are turning so are the pedals: it’s the absence of a “free-wheel”.

Fixed brings a whole host of benefits. Combined with a very low gear ratio, it limits the trike’s top speed. This is a good thing. Fixed-wheel cycles also make it easy for a novice tricyclist to get their head around the idea of pedalling, because when you push the pedals the bike goes and if you stop pedalling, it stops. For riders with poor muscle tone or poor co-ordination, fixed-wheel allows the rider to push easily through the “power stroke” from 2 o’clock to 4 o’clock and use their momentum to propel their feet through the difficult 12 and 6 o’clock positions. A fixed wheel transmission can also be pedalled backwards. Don’t underestimate how much fun this can be!

It’s also important to consider the height of the tricycle – the lower the better, for stability. So recumbents are good if the rider can get down that low to get on board. They usually have very supportive seats, as opposed to saddles, and give a great fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants sensation.

For larger children, perhaps with weight problems and lacking confidence, there are even heavy duty quadricycles.


These work best from trotting speed upwards (5mph plus). They become more stable the faster they go; at low speed they get wobbly and the rider needs to be able to get their foot off the pedal and down to the ground quickly. With restricted articulation of the knee or hip, or poor balance, a “low step” or “super-low step” frame makes getting on and off a safer manoeuvre.

Learners can use balance bikes. There is no need to buy something specialised. Your local bike shop can take the entire drivetrain off a cheap conventional cycle and off you go (but make sure it’s a bike with relaxed steering angles and an easy step-through, and make sure the shop give you something for the valuable bits they have removed).

Young people with autism may well want “normal” bikes, but these need to be high quality and able to take abuse. They will probably need extra levels of servicing from your local bike shop.

Lying Back

Recumbents and semi-recumbents (bikes, trikes and tandems, in all kinds of configurations) have a laid back, supportive and comfy seat.

Handcycles are usually tricycles and come in various degrees of recumbency, depending on need and end use. Some are clip-on additions to a standard wheelchair.

Tandems are great for children who need to ride with an adult. There’s a bewildering array of formats. A traditional-style two-wheeled tandem with captain in front is just the tip of the iceberg. There are tandem bikes, trikes and quadricycles. There are options for captain in front, captain behind (steering via a linkage) and side-by-sides, where captain and stoker sit shoulder to shoulder. Then there’s the usual array of riding positions; recumbent front tandems are a common solution when the stoker’s height starts to interfere with the captain’s ability to see where they are going.

Wheelchair/bike combos. Children who are unable to contribute any power can still enjoy inclusion, and the happiness which movement brings; wheelchair tandems are part road-going wheelchair and part bicycle, the rear end being detachable for storage. Alternatively, there are wheelchair transporters which carry passengers in their own wheelchair on a special platform.


Sometimes it’s the little things that matter. Simple, low cost adaptations can, for certain individuals, make the difference between riding and not riding. Two brakes can be set up to operate via one brake lever for people who’ve lost the use of one hand. Even better is to use one hand brake plus a back-pedal brake. “Eccentric crankshafts” can be used for those who have lack a degree of articulation in their knees.

Pedal sandals – supportive platform pedals with straps to keep the rider’s feet safely on the pedals –  are available with or without calf supports for those who wear splints. “Parent” handles attached to the rear frame allow a supervising adult to control the speed of the cyclist when needed. “Rear-steer” handles have the added benefit of being able to influence the direction of travel and are often equipped with a brake lever to help with slowing down. For tricyclists who struggle to sit upright a back support can be fitted, with or without lateral supports and with any type of restraint harness imaginable.

Bikes which don’t move

Static pedal-powered machines are also available for use by special schools and individuals indoors. These can be great fun and can include innovations like pedal-powered Scalectrix racing, a pedal-powered virtual velodrome and a pedal-powered gramophone and light show. Static machines are particularly useful when students can’t get outdoors for exercise in the winter. Some can even be hand-cranked rather than pedal-powered.

There are so many different ways for children and young to propel themselves and, with a little thought – and the right supplier – the right solution can be found to meet everyone’s needs. Cycling really should be a part of every child’s life.

Further information

Jim McGurn is Chief Executive of Get Cycling, a not-for-profit community interest company. He is also the father of a young man with Down’s syndrome and autism. Mick Allan is Head of Inclusive Cycling at Get Cycling:

Jim McGurn
Author: Jim McGurn

All-ability cycling Get Cycling CIC

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All-ability cycling
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