Quinn Brett was a professional National Park Service (NPS) climber working in technical search and rescue when in October 2017, she suffered a 120-foot fall while climbing Yosemite’s famous El Capitan. The accident left her with a broken back and paralyzed from waist to toe.
Brett’s paraplegia led her to rekindle her love of cycling, which started for her when she was a child. Since his injury, his favorite bike has been an all-terrain handbike. Handbikes are conceptually similar to leg-propelled bikes except, as the name suggests, that they are instead steered by the arms. In a recent email interview with me, Brett said that a handcycle is “the most capable mobility device for exploring our land.”
Brett explained that there are some crucial differences between an adaptive bike like a hand bike and standard bikes. While a standard bicycle has two wheels, an adaptive bicycle has “usually 3 or 4 wheels,” she said. There are many types of adaptive bikes to choose from, depending on individual needs and tolerances and the level of experience desired. Brett uses a reactive adaptations bomber. She faces forward in a kneeling position, her chest resting on a hinged pad; her arms are extended so she can reach the handlebars, brakes and normal style shifters. When she needs to pedal, Brett reaches between the handlebars and chest pad a set of cranks that work like pedals, except that instead of using her feet, she does so with her arms.
As e-bikes, or electric bikes, have become increasingly popular, so too has electronic assistance on adaptive bikes. Brett told me that “most people” use electronic assistance for their handbikes these days because it “opens up the terrain and the distance a lot.” Adaptive electric mountain bikes, she said, are not legally considered to be in the same category as standard two-wheel e-bikes. “When they [adaptive bikes] are specially designed for use, these are our mobility devices and can be used both as bicycles or as off-road wheelchairs for hiking.
Brett is “neither here nor there” in terms of competitive cycling. His passion for off-cycling stems from a desire to explore, not necessarily to compete. While some mountain bike races have become more inclusive for cyclists with disabilities due to the increase in technology, Brett participates in the sport for the sake of community. “It’s fun to share the community and the adventure with others through the races,” she said. “But I like to explore the land with friends more, camping and going at our own pace.”
One of the races Brett participates in is the Tour Divide. The annual June race runs the length of the Rocky Mountains from Canada to the Mexican border. It follows the 2,745 mile Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. For the race, she uses batteries from Goal Zero, a company specializing in solar energy and portable battery solutions. Before his injury, Brett used their products on rock climbing expeditions and decided they would be suitable for his handcycle as well. “I had battery assist on the tricycle I used for the Tour Divide with each 17.5 aH battery ranging from 30 to 40 miles depending on the terrain. I wanted to average 100 miles a day in a row so I needed 6-7 batteries for the whole adventure, ”she said. “The Tour goes through many towns and villages, but we also spent 3-4 days camping without the ability to ‘plug in.’ Goal Zero portable power stations offered that ability to plug in and charge wherever we were. “
Brett became the first adapted rider to complete the Tour Divide. Goal Zero made a video chronicling their journey which was posted earlier this month.
Looking ahead, Brett wants the bicycle industry to engage in various facets of adaptive bicycle technology. She literally exploded on rides, with circuit boards and the like crumbling. She wants more reliable engines because she has two now. Brett is also planning more international travel once global travel is deemed safer (obviously due to the pandemic). She is “thrilled” to take not only bicycle trips, but also river trips to places like Bosnia, Mount Kilimanjaro and New Zealand.
Brett’s story is another illustration of how accessibility and assistive technology isn’t limited to computer-centric applications; they can also apply to real world things such as bikes. E-bikes and adaptive bikes are forms of technology, after all.
“As a professional athlete, I can’t help but push the limits of what’s possible with my mind and body – and honestly, it doesn’t have to be about the limits,” said Brett. “I really like the way my body and mind feel after a few movements and time outdoors.”