Advancing Technology, Innovative Spirit Keeps Para Bikes Moving Faster And Faster
by Bob Reinert
Noah Middlestaedt competed in the world cup time trial race in Ostend, Belgium, in May 2022. (Photo: Casey Gibson)
Speaking about equipment trends and advances in Para-cycling, Ian Lawless used a TV series as a reference point when lauding the ingenuity of athletes in the sport.
“I would definitely say that our crowd has a fair number of ‘MacGyver’ fans in it,” said Lawless, director of U.S. Paralympics Cycling. “There’s tons of tinkering going on all the time to try and get that competitive advantage.
“In my opinion, it’s gone beyond just the, ‘Hey, let’s make an adaptation so that we can ride this.’ It’s now, ‘Let’s really dive into this to see if we can gain a competitive advantage out of it.’”
Since cycling’s world governing body — the Union Cycliste Internationale, or UCI — has rules for Para-cycling equipment in racing, the American athletes must be careful in their adaptations.
“They’re sharing ideas all the time and working together to help each other figure out that competitive advantage,” Lawless said. “The athletes and the teams push that envelope as far as they can, until there’s a bit of a breaking point. There’s sort of this push and pull, always, in the sport.
“We absolutely hold our athletes to a high standard of operating within the rules. We obviously go right up to the edge when we can, just to give ourselves in some cases a competitive advantage or, in other cases, just trying to keep up pace with our competitors around the world.”
Lawless, who has been in bike racing for more than 30 years, said equipment innovations have eased entry into the sport for Para-cyclists.
“They’re able to learn how to make the mechanical side of the equipment work for them more quickly and more easily, and there are fewer barriers,” Lawless said. “So, somebody who has … use of only one arm or hand, there are immediate options for them to be able to just go out and ride a bike and have it work for them and be able to do it safely.
“Whereas even 15 years ago, that was not the case. There was a lot bigger learning curve and even a larger barrier to entry due to the expense of having to customize an adaptation, where now it’s kind of off the shelf. You can find off-the-shelf products that essentially allow any athlete to adapt a bike to work for them.”
As Steve Donovan, the head mechanic for U.S. Para-cycling, pointed out, the sport has a lot of different equipment.
“We’ve got handcycles, trikes, tandems, regular bicycles,” Donovan said. “So, the technology kind of advances at different rates among them. They share a lot of parts, but they don’t sometimes, too.”
Lawless and Donovan both pointed to the introduction of electronic shifting as a big advance for cyclists with impairments. Now, they shift by pressing a button instead of moving a lever.
“So, that’s been huge,” Lawless said. “More recently, what we’ve seen is the evolution of the electronic shifting to now being wireless. On the hand bikes … it’s really amazing for our athletes, particularly the advent of the wireless systems, because they can build their bikes with the drive train and the shifting mechanism — they’re completely separate — there’s no wires.
“That, all of a sudden, opened a whole new world of options for where they can put things on the bike. It’s been pretty awesome because, particularly for shifting, they can put it wherever they want. In my mind, that’s the most significant advancement that has positively impacted Para-cyclists.”
Donovan agreed that it has been a beneficial development.
“The electric shifting is just so precise and so reliable,” Donovan said. “On the handcycles, where the shifting is attached to the handles, it makes a huge difference. Wireless electric shifting has been a huge leap forward, particularly with the handcycles.”
As in able-bodied bike racing, the use of carbon fiber in Para-cycling has made ever-lighter framesets possible.
“In the sport of cycling, power-to-weight ratio is incredibly important,” Lawless said. “With Para-cyclists, I think that that newer technology, lighter equipment that enables them to ride at a faster pace, is absolutely a major impact.
“I would say on the handcycle side, that’s very much been a huge change because when handcycles first came out, they weighed 40 pounds. Now, they’re getting close to 20 (pounds). They’re 40 percent lighter than they were 15 years ago.”
Donovan said that trend will continue.
“I think some of our riders’ fancy new bikes are in the low-to-mid 20s now,” Donovan said. “It’s incredible. The carbon fiber material has really done that. They’re using fancier grades, which can be lighter but are still just as strong.”
Lawless also noted that lighter components and aerodynamic hydration systems are innovations making life easier for Para-cyclists. Donovan added that aerodynamic handlebars for track and time-trial bikes are quite popular.
“Athletes are spending $1,500 or $2,000 just on a handlebar setup that’s custom-made to them,” Donovan said.
“One size definitely does not fit all in Para-cycling,” Lawless said. “We’ve seen athletes really come up with some ingenious ideas on how to solve their individual problems.”
Donovan loves that innovative spirit.
“That’s one of the things that drew me into this in the first place was kind of applying what I knew as a bike mechanic into something different,” Donovan said. “I’ve always enjoyed working out those adaptations with the athletes.”
At this elite level, however, the Para-cyclists have a solid handle on their equipment.
“They’re all really good at that kind of thinking,” Donovan said. “That stuff they can spend hours and hours and hours tweaking.”
Lawless just doesn’t want U.S. Para-cyclists to become “overly focused” on technology.
“We really try, with the U.S. program, to help our athletes be prepared in a holistic way,” said Lawless, adding that equipment, training, nutrition, sleep and other things all have roles to play. “We try to look at preparing our American athletes … in a holistic sense so that when they get on the start line at a major competition, they have the confidence that they’ve done everything they need to do to attain a high result or step on the podium or whatever it may be.”
Bob Reinert spent 17 years writing sports for The Boston Globe. He also served as a sports information director at Saint Anselm College and Phillips Exeter Academy. He is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf ofRed Line Editorial, Inc.