Left-hand-operated bicycle options?
December 6, 2011 7:50 PM   Subscribe

Help me figure out the bicycle options for someone with limited use of their right hand. Long-winded details inside.

I'm shopping for a new bike for my boyfriend, who, for physiological reasons, can't really grip with his right hand. He'd be using it mainly for a short commute and other local errands (all asphalt, nothing off-road). Recently, he's been riding a housemate's vintage beach cruiser, which is single-speed and has a coaster brake, but besides being too small, it's very heavy/clunky, and the single-speed thing is pretty limiting, efficiency-wise.

I think the perfect bike would be multi-speed (not necessarily tons, but more than one, ideally with a shifter on the left), at least a bit more practical than an old steel beach cruiser, and have coaster brakes. I've been to a few DC-area bike shops, plus done some online research, and the options I've identified are:
  • Several manufacturers make off-the-shelf bikes built around the Shimano Nexus Inter-3 read hub, which is a three-speed internally-geared hub with a coaster break. Most of them seem to be cruisers, albeit aluminum ones (like this Giant), but there are some still-casual non-cruiser options, too (like this one).
  • One shop suggested buying a coaster/internal hub (maybe the 7-speed version of the above-mentioned Shimano), having them build us a wheel in whatever size we wanted, and putting it on an off-the-shelf bike that came standard with regular derailleur gears and rim brakes. This looks like it would be quite expensive, but it looks like there are also places where I could buy pre-built wheels around one of these hubs.
  • One of the shops suggested taking an off-the-shelf bike with standard brakes and recabling them with one of these adapters, to allow both brakes to be controlled with the left hand. This would be cheaper than the above option.
None of these are exactly what I'm looking for. Open questions:
  • It's not just the brakes that are problematic; he has a hard time with right-hand shifters, too, and none of these solutions address that. Can left-hand shifters be bought that would match any of these hubs? What about something hacky like mounting a right-hand shifter upside down on the other handlebar; is that even possible?
  • DC's Capital Bikeshare bikes also use three-speed internally-geared hubs, and I find that the gears are so "easy" that I only ever use the highest one. Is that true of all three-speed hubs? Would it make a difference if the wheel was a 700c instead of a 26"? It would be pointless to put all this effort into figuring out shifting if the gear range was such that it wasn't useful.
So, yeah. In my shoes, which option would you choose? Are there other possibilities I'm not aware of? Advice on the left-side shifter?
posted by andrewpendleton to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My vintage Schwinn as a down tube shifter that looks like that one but only has 1 lever since it is a 3 speed. All you'd have to do is to reach down and shift gears.
posted by astapasta24 at 8:00 PM on December 6, 2011

I think you should definitely get an internal hub, 3- or 7-speed depending on hilliness, one that's compatible with a coaster brake, and put a brake lever on the left side for a front rim brake. Internal hub shifters are, for the most part, meant to go on the right, so putting it on the left might take a special part or some finagling by a good mechanic.

I think you're going to have to go with a custom build. I would start out with a single speed frame like the Surly Steamroller (great frame, good tire clearance) and have a mechanic build the bike around it. You'll get exactly the bike you want without discarding half the parts from and stock bike. You'll be able to get the coaster brake worked in, handlebars that fit perfectly, and some kind of shifter that works for you; doesn't have to be "grip shift".

And yes, gearing range is totally customizable with different chainring and cog ratios.
posted by supercres at 8:08 PM on December 6, 2011

It might not always be easy for him to take his only good hand off the bars to shift (hands-free riding takes fairly advanced cycling balance even on smooth level ground) so I would think downtube shifters would be out, unless he's got the dexterity with his right hand to operate a shifter lever.

I have no idea how good it is, but here is a 2-speed internally geared hub with coaster brake that purports to shift automatically.
posted by contraption at 8:14 PM on December 6, 2011

A few semi-random thoughts:

I believe that, in the UK and Australia, it is common for the handedness of controls to be opposite that of the US. As in, the front brake will be on the right, rear brake on the left. If you can special order a left-grip twist-shift from Shimano or SRAM you'd be set. Just hook it up to the appropriate rear hub and you're virtually done. That said, you might then want to route the front brake to the left side as well. This would be usual in the extreme but it would enable his more capable hand to both shift and use the more powerful front brake. I think you could easily live without a rear brake, to be honest, but a coaster brake would be ideal.

Another thought is that your bike shop might be able to get ahold of a Shimano Coasting group set. It's a three-speed hub-gear arrangement BUT it shifts automatically using power from a small front hub generator. Bottom line is that he wouldn't have to shift at all. However, Coasting was a commercial failure and it was discontinued a few years ago so it might be hard to find. This might be a case of having your shop call Shimano and start pleading for help in order to locate a group.

Another alternative would be to have a standard rear cassette and use Pauls Thumbies (google it) to mount the right shift lever on the left handlebar. Just have a single front chainring of appropriate size and that should result in a very large gear range with 9 or 10 speeds. Again, I would mount the front brake on the left for use with his more capable hand.

By various means this should be readily doable. I hope he has many happy miles ahead of him; a nice bike is a genuine pleasure in life.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 9:12 PM on December 6, 2011

I would approach this as follows:

Primary brake is the left hand, via a standard brake lever and rim caliper. This goes on the front wheel, for maximum braking capacity.

Secondary brake is a coaster brake. Weak, but not horrible as a backup in case of failure of the front.

Gear shifting? A 2-speed kickback hub. This is a hub where backpedaling a lot acts as a brake, but backpedaling just a little bit changes gears.

I think the easiest (and a fairly cheap) way to do this would be to pick up the Torker KB2 and add a front brake. The fork looks drilled for a caliper, so it should be very easy to add. It looks the default gearing for the Torker is 42x22, which would mean 52 gear inches in low, and 73 gear inches in high. Those are pretty reasonable gears for small-medium hills and flats.

I would definitely not use the dual-caliper, as I have read that it's basically a recipe for skidding the rear wheel.

On preview, I think building a 1x9 with a left-hand brake and thumb shifter would also be doable. Definitely more complicated, though.
posted by god hates math at 9:17 PM on December 6, 2011

You can pretty trivially install a gripshifter on the opposite side; you just have to deal with the fact that it'll be backwards, and the number display will be facing down. That shouldn't be a big deal on a three-speed hub, but it could be annoying as you add more gears.

It's not true of all three speed hubs that they are undergeared; it's purely a ratio of chainring:cog:gearing:wheel. The typical 3-speed hub is 66%/100%/133%. If the 100% middle gear is set low based on the chainring:cog:wheel relationship (as would be common for a bikeshare bike) you'd spend most of your time in the top gear. For a typical rider, picking a chainring and cog combination that puts the middle gear around 70" is normal.

I don't think the 2-speed kickback and automatix hubs with their ~25% overdrive add that much value over a decent singlespeed.
posted by lantius at 9:26 PM on December 6, 2011

Could he deal with a bar end shifter with his right hand?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:28 PM on December 6, 2011

You guys are all awesome. Thanks so much for your help. The Torker KB2 looks particularly interesting to me, but a lot of this stuff warrants further investigation.
posted by andrewpendleton at 10:22 PM on December 6, 2011

I want to convince you not to listen to the people above who are telling you it's okay to forego a rear brake or to use a coaster brake as the rear brake. You should have front and rear caliper brakes (or disk brakes). You can just mount both levers on the left side so your friend can access them.

While it's true that the front brake is powerful enough for almost all braking purposes, it's still important to have access to the rear brake. The front brake might fail, for example. I also prefer the rear brake when riding one-handed (e.g., while signalling a turn) because I find that the front brake tends to affect my steering. So you definitely shouldn't set your friend up with anything where he can't access the rear brake at all.

People above have suggested a coaster brake as his backup, but I've written previously about why coaster brakes are a terrible idea. Briefly, they teach a bad habit that will have to be unlearned in order to safely ride any other bicycle. Plus, they're inherently weaker than rim or disk brakes, and they have a nasty failure mode: if I squeeze my caliper brakes too hard, I just lock up the wheel, skid, and increase my stopping distance a little. On the other hand, if I backpedal abruptly on a coaster brake I can actually rip the bracing arm off my chainstay (which I have done) and completely lose braking power. So don't forego the rear brake, and don't use a coaster brake.

Instead, have you considered installing two separate brake levers on the left side? You can run the front brake cable to a normal brake lever on the drop and the rear brake cable to a smaller lever on the flat. It would look like tbe picture for "interrupter" brakes on this page, except of course you would use a regular cable-pull brake lever (such as that sold for mountain bikes). That way, he can use the front brake most of the time, but also have access to the rear brake if he needs it.
posted by d. z. wang at 12:16 AM on December 7, 2011

I agree that an internally geared hub with the twist shifter mounted on the left is the best way to handle getting decent gearing. If you end up getting a 3-speed gear, I recommend following John Allen's advice on selecting chainring and sprocket sizes. For a 3-speed, it's best to set up the highest gear as a flat terrain gear, which then gives you a medium gear for moderate hills or cycling into a wind, and a low gear for serious hills. It means you end up having to coast, or spin really quickly, on downhills, but that's not a problem for most people!

I disagree with d. z. wang's point on coaster brakes. Plenty of people adapt well to switching between bikes with coaster brakes and without. Anyway, it doesn't matter what is best for someone with good grip strength in both hands. What matters is what works in your boyfriend's case, and there, I think a coaster brake is reasonable as an adaptive technology. I think a front hand brake on the left side, and a coaster brake on the rear, would be a good combination of brakes, allowing him to use both if necessary and providing the coaster brake as a backup if the front brake fails. If he's using it for a short commute and around-town errands, he's probably not going to be descending steep hills at 40+ mph.

Shimano makes a 7-speed Nexus hub with a coaster brake, while Sturmey-Archer has a 5-speed IGH with coaster brake. If I were in your shoes, I'd strongly consider the SA 5-speed. You can set the 4th speed to be appropriate for flat terrain with no wind, which leaves 3 lower gears for hills or wind, and a higher gear for riding downhill or with a tailwind.

What does your boyfriend think about all this?
posted by brianogilvie at 1:56 AM on December 7, 2011

dz. The individual in question can't operate a back brake as an ordinary rider would, so your concerns simply aren't relevant.

@OP Coaster rear & front caliper brake, hub gears either kick back or on lever operated if he can manage that with his other hand (it's possible to put the gear mechanism on the same lever as the front brake if necessary.)
posted by pharm at 1:58 AM on December 7, 2011

P.S. I don't have personal experience with them, but members of the Internet-BOB mailing list recommend Bikes@Vienna and Silver Cycles (in Silver Spring) as good shops for people who want something other than an off-the-shelf bike.
posted by brianogilvie at 2:22 AM on December 7, 2011

How about a drop-bar bike with integrated brakes and shifters, and a triple chainring up front? You could just switch the left brake to operate the front brake (or both brakes simultaneously), and then your boyfriend could use the left shifter to switch between the three front chainrings, giving you three gears. He could set the rear gear before setting off. This would be a nice solution because he wouldn't have to take his stronger left hand off the hoods to change gear.
posted by primer_dimer at 2:24 AM on December 7, 2011

I think you need something called a "cable doubler" - your local bike shop should be able to get one from QBP.

It allows one brake lever to control two brakes - could be two discs or two rim brakes or one of either. I think this would be safe enough if the brakes are adjusted so the rear bites first followed by the front.
posted by dickasso at 5:11 AM on December 7, 2011

@dickasso: I wouldn't do as you suggest. If the rear brake engages first, in a system where the same force is being applied to both brakes (as with a cable doubler), it can lock the rear wheel, which will start skidding as the rider's weight shifts forward and the front brake provides more stopping force. The coaster brake is a completely independent brake that is well adapted to the OP's boyfriend's disability.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:14 AM on December 7, 2011

@brianogilvie: thanks for the pointer to that hub; SA wasn't even on my radar before this thread, and between the kickshift hubs and these, it seems like they offer a lot of options I should know about.

As for what my boyfriend thinks, he's generally been someone to settle for something mediocre rather than spending a bunch of money on himself, hence the current crappy single-speed, and he probably thinks I'm being overly ambitious in trying to find the perfect solution, though he hasn't come out and said so (this is a birthday present that will almost certainly end up costing much more than he would spend on his own). I suspect that he would be happy with several of the options suggested here, but as a lot of them are new to both of us, we'll probably end up having to try some things before coming to a decision.
posted by andrewpendleton at 8:33 AM on December 7, 2011

Would he consider a recumbent? I know, they're super dorky but if I were your boyfriend I would at least think about it since they might give you more flexibility in setting things up and it gets his weight entirely off the right arm, which might help matters. Does he only have impaired grip or is putting weight on that arm problematic as well? This option will not be cheap, but you're already talking well into the hundreds or thousands for the kinds of customization he needs on a regular bike anyway.
posted by slow graffiti at 9:03 AM on December 7, 2011

I think the most affordable safe thing would be a coaster brake internally geared hub. You can either have an upsidedown grip shift on the left. You may be able to find a bike that meets these criteria and all you'd need custom is for the sifter to be moved from one side to the other.

If I were to build a custom spare no expense bike, I'd probably get the cable doubler that dickasso recommends. Then you could run a standard 1x9 drivetrain and get a very wide gearing and choose from a much larger set of possible frames and bike styles.
posted by advicepig at 11:11 AM on December 7, 2011

Just a quick followup on Sturmey-Archer: You'll occasionally hear bad things about them, because in the last years of the original Sturmey-Archer company, they cut corners on quality in order to keep prices low to compete with Asian manufacturers.

The Sturmey-Archer name is now owned by a Taiwanese company, which has completely replaced the old machinery (after hauling it from Nottingham to Taiwan, only to discover it was practically worthless!) and is once more making quality hubs.
posted by brianogilvie at 1:36 AM on December 8, 2011

pharm: "dz. The individual in question can't operate a back brake as an ordinary rider would, so your concerns simply aren't relevant."

I thought the problem was that he couldn't squeeze a normal brake lever with his right hand, but had no impairment of the left hand, which is why I described mounting two separate brake levers on the left side.

Anyway, glad the OP found some leads to try.
posted by d. z. wang at 5:03 PM on December 8, 2011

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