Is there a bike type best suited for hand pain?
July 6, 2019 12:22 PM   Subscribe

I have permanent hand damage and chronic pain that is keeping me from engaging in almost all of my hobbies and sports (Netflix, I am so tired of you!) -- and I desperately, desperately need a physical activity to help me manage my stress levels. I can't currently ride either my beloved trail bike or road bike. This may be a long shot, but is there any type of bike that does not rely on having a good hand grip specifically with the thumbs to control the bike and doesn't put pressure on the hands?

I'm looking at recumbents, crank-forwards and adult tricycles (never thought I'd say any of those things, but here we are...) but the local bike shops aren't carrying any that I can test drive. Also found Day6 and TerraTrikes recommended in older AskMes, but there are no local dealers. FWIW, there's also a BigHA on the local CL. I've never bought any bike without a test drive, and while it seems like a terrible idea, I may have to do that this time if I can find any type that I can still ride, so open to ideas about how to best do that.

Probably important to note I live in a hilly area, and ideally would use the bike on both paved roads/paths and dirt trails. Also, I don't have a specific budget, but hope to find a biking solution that is very good quality for the money.
posted by vers to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe a recumbent with some sort of coaster brake? The challenge might be to get that to work with multiple gears for the hills. A quick search turned up this adaptive bike company, which has dealers scattered across the US and elsewhere, and seems to have a lot of neat tricks up its sleeves. They do have a fancy hydraulic coaster brake. In case only one hand is problematic, they also have single-handed brake and gearing controls.

I’ve only ridden one afternoon on a borrowed recumbent so I’m no expert, but they certainly don’t require you to carry a lot of your weight on your hands the way standard upright bikes do.
posted by jon1270 at 12:54 PM on July 6, 2019

Active Hands makes gripping aids
Idea thread if one hand is stronger than the other
(If you were comfortable sharing your general location, someone might turn up a local demo opportunity.)
posted by Iris Gambol at 12:56 PM on July 6, 2019

Forgive if you've already considered and rejected this, but how about something like converting to mostly riding aero bars, where the majority of your weight ends up on your forearms? I feel like bar-end brakes and shifters (e.g.) on aero bars may work without thumb grip if you grip between fingers and palm; unsure if that's workable.

A LBS should be able to help you mount them higher than normal for "aero" so you're not super hunched all the time.
posted by supercres at 1:00 PM on July 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

Where are you located? Many local areas have recumbent biking clubs, and often will have get-togethers where you can see (and possibly test-drive) different options.
When my wife was unable to ride her recumbent due to balance problems, she posted to a group and a kind fellow cyclist lent her his tadpole trike for a few months.
posted by dttocs at 1:13 PM on July 6, 2019

I have been riding recumbents for over 15 years and have never had any wrist pain associated with biking. In my opinion, the only problem with recumbent bicycles is that they are so comfortable you won't ever go back.

I bought my first recumbent new without a test drive. It was a bit of a learning curve, but I figured out how to use it. I was having knee pain the first week I rode, then a rower explained that you have to keep the cranks a little closer to the seat than you do with uprights, and that fixed the problem. The recumbent turned out to be a bit too big for me, the handlebars were right in my line of vision. When I eventually sold it, i got the next size down (also without a test drive - bought it off Craigslist halfway across the US), and my knees nearly hit the handlebars all the time. Both worked fine and were completely useable, though. These were the cheapest model Lightning bike (which they no longer sell). Lightning bikes have a 5-year warranty. Someone forced a kickstand onto mine once and cracked the frame; I sent it to them and they fixed it. Even though I bought it used. They also replaced the stem on my first one, I forget what its issue was. So I can vouch for Lightning Bikes.

Then there's the one that I DID test ride (Craigslist works great for recumbents here on the west coast), and it seemed fine, but it turns out it actually isn't working out for me, and I have to sell it. The company that made it is now out of business. I am currently riding a flevotrike, which is unique among recumbents, and you steer with your feet, and it's amazing, best recumbent ever, but they have unique parts and are hard to find in the US. I have to steal it from my partner, who found it on Craigslist several hundred miles away, bused down, and biked it back). Cruzbikes are similar, but I haven't tried them. They specifically advertise as being friendly for people with wrist pain. Also the recumbent tandem I ride (a retired model or company, not sure which), my partner bought that without me on it (biked down to California solo to pick me up), so I hadn't ever test-ridden that one, and it is also working out great.

So the moral of the story is that I wouldn't worry too much about test riding your new recumbent. If it doesn't work out, you can sell it and get a different one. They hold their used value pretty well.

See also
See also

After typing all that out, I recommend you try the Cruzbikes. Check out their 100 Mile Trial.

You might also like to know that there exist electric bike shifters. I haven't looked into them yet; they might still be expensive. But if you have hand trouble when shifting, they might be worth looking into as well.
posted by aniola at 1:18 PM on July 6, 2019

I've ridden recumbents for a long time now, and can confirm they don't put any weight on your hands; I often have only a couple of fingers on the handlebars. They aren't as great on uphills as conventional bikes because you can't stand on the pedals -- although with a trike you can go as slow as you want. Because you can't shift your weight as well it's harder to handle them on rugged conditions, the kind where you need an actual mountain bike, but if the surface is fairly flat and well maintained, just not paved I'd ride there.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 1:54 PM on July 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

I recommend against coaster brakes, because they are by definition on the rear wheel, and it's your front wheel that does most of the work when braking. If you're having trouble clamping down on the brakes with one hand, there are 1-to-2 adapters that let you control both brakes with one hand. If you're having trouble with both hands, I'm not sure what to recommend except a visit with a sports physiologist.

In the world of conventional bikes, a "sit up and beg" position puts no particular pressure on your wrists, but this is not a very efficient position.

Good brakes are good enough that they doesn't require a lot of force. Likewise the shifting mechanisms on most higher-end component groups. And there is electronic shifting, but that's very expensive.

I've done a fair amount of riding on a recumbent, and with all respect to aniola, I prefer conventional bikes. Definitely worth trying out though, as those put no pressure on your wrists to maintain your position. There's a wider variety of layouts and positions on recumbents than conventional bikes, so just because you like or dislike one doesn't mean you'll feel the same about another.
posted by adamrice at 1:59 PM on July 6, 2019

FWIW, Sheldon Brown's recommendation when using coaster brakes is to have a conventional front-wheel brake as a backup.
posted by jon1270 at 4:04 PM on July 6, 2019

I had terrible hand and wrist pain on my upright bike. A recumbent solved it completely.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 5:53 PM on July 6, 2019

Thank you all for the info and ideas. Yeah, it's both thumbs that aren't very functional. Still searching, and realized I'm also going to have some trouble keeping tires with tubes inflated with the pump I currently own. Sorry to add on, but are solid bike tires a thing yet? Any other ideas on that front?
posted by vers at 10:29 AM on July 7, 2019

I've never used them or even seen them in the wild, but, yes, airless bike tires are a thing--here's a review from a recumbent forum, and one from a conventional-bike site that mentions some competing options.

You might also consider using tire sealants and/or an electric air compressor.
posted by box at 11:28 AM on July 7, 2019

Maybe check out the International Human Powered Vehicle Association. Their technical journal, Human Power, really takes on a lot of view points from a engineering/design standpoint and I wouldn't be surprised if you found something that worked for you. It's all a bit out there but it's not woo and you'll have plenty of hard facts to rely upon if something is relevant.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:44 PM on July 7, 2019

I have a plug in mini-compressor for inflating my bike tires. I get a lot of flats and it was a semi-joke gift. I love it. Highly recommend.

I don't know if this would help you but I also ride with the tpr rubber hand rests and point all my fingers and my thumbs forward. I don't wrap my hands around the handle bars at all even when braking. This is just a habit I'm in but I find it very comfortable and functional. I do use my thumbs to shift but bar end shifters would let me ride pretty much thumb free with these hand rests.
posted by fshgrl at 12:53 AM on July 8, 2019

I know someone who got an electronic gear shifter after hand surgery and says she'll never go back.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:44 AM on July 8, 2019

Sincere thanks to all of you; this has been very informative and encouraging. In case it helps someone else, my continued searching let me to Rad-Innovations, who specialize in adaptive bikes and work with dealers across the US. I had an initial call with them, and think they're exactly the outfit I need. Demo is the next step!
posted by vers at 7:57 AM on July 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

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