Color & Control:

Shiftin’ Gears


For writer Elizabeth Bokfi, staying in the wind meant adding an antique replica WWII-era Bimmer sidecar by Trans-Moto Sidecars of Laval, QC

A Biker Chick Adapts After a Bone Tumour

The year 2007 turned out to be a not-so-pleasant one. Now, when asked about my amputation, I merely respond, “Bad year, that 2007.”

In late January, the discovery of a bone tumour left me a below-the-knee, left side (LBK) amputee. My amputation and subsequent chemotherapy had me anxious that I wouldn’t ride my silver anniversary – my 25th year of riding. There I was – survivor of the fittest, having seen most of the continent from behind a set of Harley handlebars, emerging with no scrapes or skids – only to have surgeons remove my left foot. My gear-shifting foot. When I could have worried about anything else, not excluding my own mortality, my anxieties centred around riding season. After all, there are marriages that never come close to making The Big Silver. Cutting right to the marrow, so to speak, it wasn’t long before I started my homework – a lengthy investigation into alternatives to two-wheeled motorcycle travel. Wheelchair four-wheeling had quickly lost its lustre, prompting me to explore trikes and sidecars for solutions to my shiftin’ attitude.

In Motorcycledom, simply, a trike is a three-wheeled motorcycle. Trikes are available in two configurations: tadpole, sometimes called “reverse trike,” with two wheels out front and one wheel at the rear, and the more traditional delta, with one wheel out front and two at the rear.

Prior to the advent of trike conversion kits, in their quest to stay in the wind, motorcyclists with disabilities were creating home-built trikes, welding together machines that were often not road-safe or insurable. Inferior welds and unstable front ends, together with bogus vehicle-inspection certificates, led to trouble. With the perceived high risk of injury, insurance companies were reluctant – and most times outright refused – to insure this type of machine.

Acknowledging the disability riding community, companies producing trike conversion kits began to surface, and in tandem with motorcycle dealers, offered riders a product that was safe, street-legal and insurable: a motorcycle, converted into a trike.

The motorcycle industry in turn began to develop and market adaptive products for riders with specific disabilities. Lower-extremity amputees and stroke survivors now had a variety of options to modify and aid in the shifting of gears and braking, such as heel/toe shifters, floorboard shifters, air shifters (hand-controlled) and handbrake systems that eliminate the need to use the right foot. Some companies are now producing trikes with automatic transmission.

Trikes offer much to the rider with a disability. Stability gained from three-wheeled road contact, coupled with a reverse gear, is of great benefit to those experiencing problems with leg strength and balance. Survivors of vehicular accidents rank having a good suspension system high. Post-accident surgeries involving the addition of nuts, bolts and steel plates to the human body necessitate comfort, satisfied by suspension systems that are adjustable to riders’ needs.

With trike conversion kits readily available to motorcycle dealers, conversion is made simple. Kits are now available for specific motorcycle models. Prices vary according to the model of motorcycle, and can range anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000-plus.

Additionally, there are companies producing ready-made trike models. Prices for ready-mades can start at $19,000. Boss Hoss Cycles offers a liquid-cooled V-8 to customers who really like to sink their teeth into meaty power, while Bombardier’s tadpole-configured Can-Am Spyder Roadster offers stability and unique styling for the rider who likes to stand out in a crowd. Harley-Davidson has also addressed consumer demand with its first factory trike being presented in its 2009 lineup.

Riding clubs dedicated exclusively to the trike rider celebrate triker culture. Three’s the charm – a chance to show their machines, participate in family-friendly camping weekends and contribute time and money to charitable events keep members of the Brothers of the Third Wheel (BTW) working hard to hold the triker community together.

A significantly less expensive option, and ultimately the route I chose to travel, is the installation of a sidecar. A sidecar is a cart bolted to the side of a motorcycle. There are differences between trikes and sidecars: appearance, price, physical manageability and drive. Trikes are rear-wheel driven, whereas a traditional sidecar has no drive – it rolls on a wheel alongside the motorcycle. Simple modifications, such as relocating the foot shifter to the right side of the motorcycle, as I did, saved money by eliminating the purchase of a button-controlled shifter.

A sidecar adds stability instantly. The third wheel added to the motorcycle eliminates the need to balance the motorcycle using your legs. The extra space increases luggage capacity and adds room for another passenger.

Styles range from space-age fibreglass to solid steel nostalgia, and can vary in price from $1,000 in the used range to as much as $5,000 and up for brand new, taking into consideration options such as special paint effects, whether or not you want a windshield or top/tonneau cover and, of course, chrome.

Physical manageability can vary. Proper installation by a shop experienced in sidecar installation is extremely critical to both comfort and safety. Handling a motorcycle with a sidecar is different than handling a trike. There is a push/pull effect as the sidecar wheel “follows” the motorcycle to its side.

Of particular interest to the wheelchair motorcyclist might be Martin Conquest’s wheelchair-driven trike. Hailing from the United Kingdom, the unit comes with a loading ramp and hand controls, and is designed for those who have disablities from the waist down. Still fresh, the company has a wonderful website with a video demonstrating the product (see “Ready to Roll?” for website info).

There are also American alternatives to trike kits, such as Ghost Wheels and Instatrike made by Safety Features Inc. Although interesting, they are not legal in Canada. Be sure to check with your provincial regulatory body and insurance company as to what is street legal and insurable. In Ontario, for example, trikes are considered motorcycles and require a valid motorcycle licence.

Whatever your bone of contention might be, the trick is to do the pre-op: Assess your personal needs, level of riding experience and, ultimately, what you can afford. Once you’ve done that, rise to your life challenge – adaptation and a shift in attitude just might be what the doctor ordered.

Elizabeth Bokfi is a freelance writer living in Simcoe County, Ontario. 2008 marked this seasoned motorcyclist’s 26th year of riding.


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