Fit For You: Handcycling

Jun 22, 2018

Bikes have had many forms since they were invented, from the classic two-wheeled bicycle, to tricycles, unicycles, fixed gear bikes, fat tire bikes… the list goes on.

But it’s still rare to see a handcycle on the streets of Milwaukee. The three-wheeled, seven-foot-long machine is arm-powered, and most commonly used by disabled athletes. While an athlete’s body operates a handcycle differently, handcycle races are just as exhilarating as any other form of bike racing.

The Tour of America’s Dairyland, or ToAD, hosts its second handcycle criterium this weekend, and John Haupt is the man responsible for bringing the format to the famous Wisconsin racing series.  Haupt, who has multiple sclerosis, is both the director of handcycling for the event and a participant in the races.  And as you’d expect, he’s a strong advocate for the sport.

"I said from the start, we’re not a sidelight," notes Haupt. "No need to come out with the idea that we’re going to see some disabled guys do the best they can do - it’s way better than that.  We’re going to see the fastest people in the country."

Haupt has been an athlete all of his life, but after being diagnosed with MS he had to adapt his active lifestyle to a format that was still physically and mentally challenging. After being introduced to the format at a local demonstration, Haupt says becoming a handcyclist "has been a whole new bag of tricks."

"Tensing up you're whole body and throwing all your will power into it doesn't make any difference," he says. "The only things that makes any difference is from the shoulders up, so it's best to relax the body and save your energy."

Although handcycles use most of the same components as a standard bicycle, the riders look more like they're in a luge with their heads resting only 18 inches from the pavement. The pedals must be powered symultaneously, Haupt explains, so that the rider can have greater control of steering the front wheel of the bike. Riders must also make a full revolution before shifting gears.

"We're not a sidelight." - John Haupt

Handcycles also take up more space on the road, making criterium racing a more complicated and tactical endeavor, he adds. Turning is "much more difficult" as well. Handcyclists need to prepare for their approaches and make sure they have enough momentum to carry them through the changing course, because they can't pedal while turning.

"When you're in a tight turn or a fast turn...those are potentially hazardous because unlike a bicycle where you can lean into a turn, you can't lean a handcycle into a turn," Haupt explains. "The danger of rolling a bike is always there."

John Haupt
Credit Audrey Nowakowski

He says that handcycling needs more visibility and recognition. "Out of the thousands of people who come out to see ToAD, probably 90 or more percent of them have never seen a handcyle before. So when they see this, their jaw drops."

"Since I've been doing handcycling, I found something else I can do and something else I can compete at. I've started to do this thing that's areobically and physically really good for me - and that's been eye-opening," Haupt adds. "I hope that some young people, especially, get the idea that, 'Hey, I can do this.'"