Quinn Brett was a professional climber with the National Park Service (NPS) working technical search and rescue when, in October 2017, she endured a 120-foot fall while climbing Yosemite’s famed El Capitan. The accident left her with a broken back and paralyzed from the waist down.
Brett’s paraplegia led her to rekindle her love of cycling, which began for her as a child. Since her injury, her bike of choice has been an off-road handcycle. Handcycles are conceptually similar to leg-powered bikes except, as the name implies, are steered instead by the arms. In a recent interview with me conducted over email, Brett said a handcycle is “the most capable mobility device out there to explore our land.”
Brett explained there are crucial differences between an adaptive bike like a handcycle and standard bikes. Whereas a standard bike has two wheels, an adaptive one has “generally 3 or 4 wheels,” she said. There are numerous types of adaptive bikes to choose from, depending upon one’s needs and tolerances and the level of experience they want. Brett uses a Reactive Adaptations Bomber. She faces forward in a kneeling position, her chest resting on an articulating pad; her arms are extended so she can reach normal-style handlebars, brakes, and gear shifters. When she needs to pedal, Brett reaches between the handlebars and chest pad to a set of cranks which function as foot pedals—except, instead of using her feet, she does so with her arms.
As electric bikes, or e-bikes, have become increasingly popular, so too has e-assist on adaptive bikes. Brett told me “most folks” use e-assist for their handcycles nowadays because it “considerably opens up terrain and distance.” Electric adaptive mountain bikes, she said, are not legally seen in the same category as standard two-wheeled e-bikes. “When they [adaptive bikes] are made specifically for use, they are our mobility devices and may be used both as bikes or off-road wheelchairs for hiking.”
Brett is “neither here nor there” in terms of competitive cycling. Her passion for off-cycling stems from a desire to explore, not necessarily compete. While some mountain bike races have become more inclusive of disabled riders due to the increase in technology, Brett participates in the sport for the sense of community. “It’s fun to share community and adventure with others through races,” she said. “But I more so enjoy exploring the earth with friends camping and going at our own pace.”
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One of the races in which Brett competes is the Tour Divide. The annual June race spans the length of the Rocky Mountains, from Canada all the way down 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 her injury, Brett used their products on climbing expeditions and decided they would be good fits for her handcycle too. “I had a battery assist on the trike I used for the Tour Divide with each 17.5 aH battery ranging from 30-40 miles depending on the terrain. I wanted to average 100 miles a day back-to-back-to-back, so I needed 6-7 batteries for the whole adventure,” she said. “The Tour does bob and weave through a lot of cities and towns but we also had 3-4 days stretches of camping without the ability to ‘plug’ in. Goal Zero portable power stations provided that ability to plug in and recharge wherever we were.”
Brett became the first adaptive cyclist to complete the Tour Divide. Goal Zero put together a video chronicling her journey that was released earlier this month.
As for the future, Brett wishes the bike industry would get on board with various facets of adaptive bike tech. She has literally been blown up on rides, with circuit boards and the like fizzling out. She wishes for more reliable motors, as she has two she can choose from now. Brett is also planning more international trips once global travel is deemed safer (due obviously to the pandemic). She’s “stoked” to go on not just biking trips but river trips to places like Bosnia, Mount Kilimanjaro, and New Zealand.
Brett’s story is yet another illustration that accessibility and assistive technology isn’t limited to computer-centric applications; they can apply to real-world things such as bicycles as well. Electric bikes and adaptive bikes are forms of technology, after all.
“As a professional athlete, I can’t help but push the limits of what is possible with my mind and body—and honestly it doesn’t have to be about limits,” Brett said. “I truly love the way my body and my mind feel after some movement and time outside.”