Cycling offers mobility, fitness and fun, no matter what your disability or special need. Mick Allan examines the options

Everyone can enjoy cycling; there are no limitations because pedal-power is infinitely adaptive. Its purpose is to enhance and extend the incredible power of the human body, so the machine is built around that body, with details of design responding to details of need. If your body is not conventional, cycle technology can adapt.

The able-bodied have many activities which allow them to enjoy physical activity in the great outdoors, such as rambling, running and walking the dog. But for the locomotor disabled, only the wheeled variety of recreation may be available, and the chance of a good bike ride can open up a whole new world.

Another important factor is health. Cycling combines fun, variety and practicality and is recognised as one of the best ways to maintain cardiovascular health. In other words, you can have a great time getting where you need to be, under your own steam, and keep fit in the process. Those with learning difficulties can enjoy mastering a new skill, and enjoy practical benefits. And cycling can make a phenomenal difference to a disabled child's physical and mental development. It offers a magical combination of independence, individual challenge and just plain fun. It also teaches co-ordination and promotes strength, stamina and general health.

For an able-bodied person, the job of selecting the right bike can be a daunting prospect. So you’d think that choosing a bike for a disabled person would be much more difficult. However, for those with special cycling needs, the selection process is often easier because the nature of an individual’s disability narrowly defines the type of machine that can be ridden.

Aside from the hardware, the big difference in cycle provision between the disabled and able-bodied is in the time required to fit a bike and, usually, the more profound the disability the more complex the ergonomic solution. A high street disability equipment retailer or bike shop may be out of its depth at either end of the disability spectrum, and few disability retailers know much about cycles. Clearly, the first of many important aspects is finding an experienced and competent provider.

Even for the less severely disabled, it’s rarely possible to take a regular bicycle and adapt it with off-the-shelf components. Setting up a city bike for the use of someone who has the use of only one arm, for example, requires that all of the controls be mounted on one side of the bars. Since few standard bicycle parts are designed to be fitted together in this way, some inventive engineering may be required and new components may have to sourced. At the other end of the scale, those with profound disabilities will require a much more complex machine and the possible addition of extra low gearing, fixed wheel transmissions, restricted steering, harnesses, special seats, pedal platforms and even specially made components with non-standard dimensions. But whatever the disability, the aim is always to select the machine which most closely meets the disabled cyclist’s needs and then fine-tune and adapt it to suit individual requirements.

Single wheeled trailer bike
This popular trailer hitches to the bicycle seat-post or rack.

Two wheeled trailer cycles
Perfect for balance-impaired children and adults, they hitch to the seat-post of any cycle. A universal joint on the coupling ensures that the trailer finds its own level on the road.

Conventional small wheel, low step-over bikes
Some non-specialist designed bikes are ideally suited to special needs use. Life without a cross bar can be much easier for those with limited limb mobility. Choose between regular or folding versions.

Semi-recumbent bicycles
Many appreciate the sitting position of these laid-back machines. The lower seat position makes the bike easy to get on and off. When you stop, your feet can be placed flat on the road. With the upper body upright, the neck is straight and free with no pressure on the wrists. A supportive seat ensures comfort.

Upright adult tricycle
Trikes can be very liberating. They provide a stable platform for those with poor balance. You can stop any time and rest, without putting a foot down, or go up hills in very low gears at speeds which would be impossibly slow on a bicycle.

Electric-assist bikes and trikes
Available as complete bikes or as retro-fit kits, these are ideal for people with limited strength or stamina.

Recumbent trikes
Available in two varieties: two-wheels-at-the-front “tadpole” and two-wheels-at-the-back “delta”. They are suitable for those who want a fast and sporty machine. The riding position is low, giving a comfortable and stable ride with excellent cornering.

Hand cycles
Most use a fairly standard bike transmission which is pedaled with hands, rather than feet. The range includes tandems, recumbents, off-road trikes and powered models. They come as a complete unit or a bolt-on kit which attaches to a standard wheelchair.

Bicycle tandem
The best suited type of conventional tandem for special needs is the versatile, compact smaller-wheeled variety. Long seat posts adjust to allow riders of any age.

Recumbent front tandems
These ingenious machines are suitable for adults, children or adult/child combinations. The front passenger has a laid-back seat and the rear-rider, who controls steering, gearing and braking, a conventional saddle. Both riders have an unrestricted view with heads close enough together for easy conversation.

Wheelchair tandems
These are fully functional tandem tricycles when bolted together and fully functional wheelchairs when detached from the bicycle half.

Three or four wheeled side-by-side tandems

Riders of very different sizes and fitness are easily accommodated. The design enables people who have little or no cycling experience to cycle together.

Child-front tandems
Available as bicycles or tricycles, these can be supplied with fixed front handle bars or dual steer.

Having the wind in your hair is an experience with real therapeutic value. Cycling stimulates the senses with the sounds, smells and sensations of the real world. It is unique in its ability to harness an individual’s energy and convert it into swift, exciting and fun forward motion.

Cycling changes peoples’ lives and, for the disabled, the positive effects can be transforming.