Author: Seth McBride
New Mobility Magazine
July 1, 2019
I drive north to see a guy about an adaptive bike. 850 miles, one international border, five cups of coffee and a night sleeping in the back of my car on the edge of a quiet lake in Central British Columbia. It’s a long journey, especially because I don’t even know if I have the function to ride the thing. But I’d been waiting a long time for a piece of equipment like this. Seventeen years, to be precise. Ever since I broke my neck while on a summer ski trip not far from here.
Now after many hours of analyzing Instagram videos and one phone call to get details the internet didn’t provide, I think that maybe, just maybe, a machinist in Calgary has done it — designed a product that could allow me, with weak hands and little core function, to access the wilderness in a way that’s been unavailable since my accident.
Ten hours from home, I wind along a river colored milky turquoise with glacial runoff and flanked by forest and high mountains. This landscape stirs a fire that’s been in me since I was a kid exploring my Southeast Alaska home. For the first time in a long time, I don’t immediately tamp it down.
The World Isn’t Flat.
When I first roll onto Christian Bagg’s deck and see the Bowhead Reach, it’s clear that he has created something unlike anything else out there. It has two 20-inch wheels up front that are dwarfed by an enormous fat bike wheel in the rear. There are no cranks. Power is delivered to the rear wheel via a 3,000-watt electric motor attached to a handlebar-mounted twist throttle. These features are all important, but the Reach’s party piece is the front end — a lattice work of pivoting metal that allows the two front wheels to articulate independently of the trike’s main frame. This articulation is what has brought me here, as it allows the Reach to cope with terrain in a way that no other adaptive bike can.
Bagg grew up in Calgary, with the surrounding mountains serving as his teenage playground. After he graduated high school, he started an apprenticeship as a machinist, learning how to make custom parts for the engineering program of the local university. In 1996, he was two years into the program when he over-rotated a backflip while competing at a snowboard big air competition and broke his back — spinal cord injury at T8.
After the injury, he remained active — handcycling, pushing a racing chair — but the adaptive equipment avail¬able in the mid-1990s wasn’t really capable of taking him into the kind of wilderness he’d explored pre-accident. Cross-country sit-skiing was an exception, even though he describes the technology as “basically a shopping cart on skis.” In the winter, he’d hit the trails. “That was my adventur-y kind of thing — go off in the middle of nowhere and get freaked out that I’d never make it home.”
But pushing farther into the backcountry eventually pushed Bagg to the limits of his shopping cart. About eight years ago, he went with his wife and a few friends on a cross-country ski trip. When they got off the groomed trail, everything started to go sideways. “It was snowing, and my poles were sinking deeper and deeper. Every time I went by a tree, one ski dropped into the tree well and I’d tip over. Or I’d end up on a sustained side slope, and I’d be uncomfortably twisted trying to battle this thing,” he says. Progress slowed to a crawl, and his wife and friends had to help him struggle along. “This isn’t how I want this to go down,” he thought. “I don’t want to be cheered on.” The frustrations of that experience made one thing clear: “I need to figure out this fucking leaning problem, because the world I want to play in isn’t flat.”
Up until now, the biggest issue in adaptive off-road design has been how to deal with side slopes. A fixed base — like on a typical handcycle, a wheelchair or a cross-country sit-ski — provides stability, but when you’re traversing a slope, the entire frame has to angle to meet it. As the rider, you have to lean up the fall line to stop yourself from tipping over, which puts you in an awkward position to steer or crank.
Putting his machinist training to work, Bagg came up with an idea for a pivoting frame that would attach to his seat and give the skis a limited approximation of the articulation that human knees typically supply — if the slope dropped away on one side, a single ski could drop with it while his seat bucket stayed vertical. Bagg manufactured a prototype, and to his surprise, it worked. Not that Bagg was stabbing in the darkness. He was already in the adaptive design business, having cofounded the manual wheelchair company Icon alongside Canadian Paralympian Jeff Adams. Still: “As a designer and builder of things, very often things don’t work,” he says. “And my expectation isn’t ever that they do [right away], just that it’s the start of the process. … But this one worked.”
Now Bagg had a ski that he could take off-trail. After a winter of testing, he started to build an improved version. He was in the process of cutting the parts when he spied an off-road handcycle that he’d been slowly designing and evolving but so far remained unimpressed with. “What if I just turn this thing upside down, and bolt it to the front of the bike?” Bagg thought in a flash of inspiration. He did, and again it worked. “Now all of a sudden I can lean into corners. I can accommodate side slopes. It’s doing everything I want it to do,” he says.
Let’s Just Go Biking.
The bike that I see sitting on Bagg’s deck is the result of seven years of development, redevelopment and refinements — this is a high-performance machine, with the components to match. But really, he says, “It’s all about the leaning. If McLaren designed our suspension system and took away the leaning, it would be garbage. Whereas if we had the leaning and low-end shocks from Sears, it would still be better than a Sport-On [a competitor] with a Fox shock. [The leaning] is what allows it to be narrow, which allows you to not have to go on accessible trails. It’s what lets you not dive into the outside of a corner when you’re turning. Performance-wise, it’s key, but it’s also key safety-wise. It just doesn’t tip like the other bikes.”
I put on a helmet and transfer into the seat. Bagg is nervous. This bike is his baby since before he had real babies, and he’s proud of it. But he really wants me to like it too. He helps me remove the pin that locks out the front end. The bike wiggles but I stay upright. I tentatively move the cranks side to side, leaning myself a few degrees to the left, then the right. I smile. I might be able to control it.
I take it for a slow spin around the neighborhood. After 17 years of riding handcycles, I feel like a 4 year old who has just taken off the training wheels. I ride it for 20 minutes, taking it up, down and across some grassy hills at a local park. Bagg tails me on his road handcycle, hoping I don’t fall over. I’m wobbly and unsure of my movements, but I can tell that’s an issue with skill, not function.
With power available at the flick of my thumb, it’s a little strange how easily the Reach ascends steep hills and powers over soft dirt. Originally Bagg designed the Reach to be powered by an arm crank. He’s an athlete, the kind of super para who has ceiling-mounted climbing holds that he sometimes uses to ascend and descend the stairs to his basement workshop. At first he was militantly anti-motor. Then he had a potential customer who was adamant that he needed a mo¬tor on the bike, so Bagg put a motor on it. “That’s when I realized I was never going to go back to a hand crank, at least not for this.” he says. “There are a thousand different ways I can get exercise, but I cannot have the kind of fun, or keep up with people or have the kind of access with a hand crank as I can with a motor.”
Before, when he’d go riding or exploring with friends, it was all about him. Which trails, what pace, he was always the limiting factor. His friends were happy to assist, but they were always assisting. Adventure was never on equal ground. Once he’d put the motor on the Reach, the speed it offered, along with the ability to cope with narrow trails and off-camber slopes, meant that all of a sudden, he could ride with friends on their terms.
The first time Bagg realized this was when he went to meet a friend for a ride. The friend was a professional triathlete, the kind of guy who is great to have around in case something goes wrong. When Bagg got to the trailhead, there were 15-20 people milling around, getting their mountain bikes ready. “What’s going on?” Bagg asked.
“It’s the Wednesday ride,” his friend replied nonchalantly.
“Oh, are we … we’re not … I’m not going on this,” said Bagg, trying to beg off. “I’m not ready for this.”
“Dude, it’s ready,” his friend assured. “It’s a bike. You go bike speed on bike trails, so let’s just go biking.”
Ryan St. Lawrence was a mountain bike racer who was injured while riding some training laps on a local trail. After his T4 spinal cord injury, he tried everything from kneelers to a bucket bike (essentially a typical, two-wheeled mountain bike with a bucket seat and an electric motor bolted on). He didn’t love the other three-wheel bikes — the kneeling, headfirst position was uncomfortable and he hated the chest plate that you use to steer while pedaling. The bucket bike was a lot of fun, but he couldn’t get on and off it independently, and it wasn’t good for anything but riding flowy mountain bike trails.
After getting in touch with Bagg, St, Lawrence got his hands on a Reach. He was immediately impressed, not only with its capability but with its versatility. “I can take the Bowhead on a downhill mountain bike track … but I can also take my dog for a walk or just use it as a wheelchair on a grassy surface that would be hard for me to push on regularly,” he says. “I see the Bowhead as having so many more uses than just an aggressive downhill bike.”
One use Bagg likely never anticipated when he designed the Reach was as a cross-country touring machine. Janne Kouri, a C6 quad and the founder of NextStep, a network of functional rehab centers, recently used the Reach on a 3,000 mile ride from California to Washington, D.C., dubbed the “Ride for Paraylsis.” The Reach didn’t have a quad-friendly braking option until I asked for one, but Bagg has since developed a system that allows anyone with wrist-extension to control both front and rear brakes. The upright seating position and supportive chest harness make the bike a lot more quad-friendly than you’d imagine. Kouri, a power chair user, kept the front end locked out because he didn’t need the articulation on road.
He logged 60-plus miles a day on the bike, often at full throttle, for two months. Kouri is a big guy, and he put the bike through constant, long-haul work that it was never in¬tended for. But through the extreme conditions, the Reach held up with only minor issues. “In very hot weather, going over the Rockies, there were a few days the motor overheated and I had to pull over for 15 or 20 minutes and let it cool down,” Kouri told me from the road. “Overall it’s been amazing. It’s got me all the way to Memphis and ultimately to D.C. It’s a remarkable piece of equipment.”
After begging and borrowing enough money to buy my own [see below], I’ve taken it to the beach with my family, where I was able to navigate soft sand independently for the first time since my SCI. I’ve taken it down forest paths with my 2-year-old son on my lap, keeping up with my wife as she runs trails. I’ve spent evenings pinning the throttle across open fields, grinning like a loon as I lock up the rear brake and practice drift turns through the dirt. I went riding along a gravel road and after spotting a trail wandering up a hill¬side and into the forest, I explored it with no regard to width, slope or supposed accessibility. I returned with a few scrapes and needed to dismount and wrestle the bike free from a tree, but I was otherwise pleased with the experience. I’ve sat at the top of a steep ridge, surveying the trail that passed over roots and around trees, and felt my breath shorten and a shiver rise up my shoulders as I decided whether I had the skill to safely descend.
This is what I was looking for when I drove to Calgary — a reintegration with the terrain and experiences that helped form me. In the words of former New Mobility editor Barry Corbet, I wanted “to transport myself instead of being transported. To go where I dared.”
Somehow the bike has delivered.
Issues with Innovation.
I love the Reach, but we’ve had our rough spots. My first mountain bike trail ride, I sheared through one of the steering linkages, and a friend had to splint it with athletic tape so I could limp back to the road. My first ride this spring, the controller had somehow fried the battery, and I lost power after a quarter of a mile. In both instances, I was pissed, and so was my wife. “If you’re going to pay that kind of money for a bike, it should work,” she fumed. I had no counter argument.
What kept my faith in the company, and the bike, was Bagg’s response. In the case of the steering linkage, he fabricated a new version, machined from aluminum instead of 3D printed material, and sent it express mail. Same with replacing the battery and controller. The problem with being an early adopter of a technology is that problems invariably arise. Bagg owned and resolved the issues, and the fixes are incorporated into the new versions of the bike. Sure, I wish I didn’t have to deal with them, but they’ve been taken care of as well as I could’ve expected.
The Elephant in the Room: Cost.
The Bowhead Reach retails for $15,000. If you’re choking on your sandwich, I’ll give you a moment to compose yourself. Continuing: There’s no question that 15K is a lot of money, especially for members of the disability community who have to pay every time they take a pee. But there are reasons for the price tag that have nothing to do with padded margins.
Bagg says that the Reach has about 100 unique parts that outside companies fabricate, in addition to the 30-40 the company makes on its own. Add in welding, machining, assembly, hydraulics, wiring, battery cells and everything else that goes into an electric vehicle, and the sticker price climbs quickly. “You could say, ‘If you’re putting electric vehicles on the table, look at Smart Cars — they’re 15 grand and have a hell of a lot more parts,’” Bagg acknowledges. “There are also mil¬lions of Smart Cars, and if I could make millions of bikes, they’d be $2,500 or less.”
Small adaptive equipment manufacturers aren’t able to benefit from the economy of scale. When you can only order in small batches, everything is more expensive. “This is a barely functional business model, as far as profit goes,” Bagg says. “The amount of work and money it takes to make a bike, the sales price just covers that.”
So what about everyone who can’t afford 15K? “We’re getting in contact with as many funding organizations as we can, as many provincial and federal parks as we can, to try and get the equipment out to people who don’t have the money. Because I do believe in that, and I do want everyone to be able to experience what I’ve experienced.”