Back on the Road: a Paraplegic Motorcylist

Written by
an AbleThrive community member
Content via AbleThrive Original
AbleThrive Original
Written by
an AbleThrive community member

Once a motorcyclist, always a motorcyclist.

I had a slow bike accident just over a year after I got my motorcycle license in February of 1985. Must have been the way I landed, and sitting up after the accident probably didn’t help. Wasn’t really with it at that time. It left me an L2 paraplegic. Six weeks’ bed rest and six weeks’ rehab in the Otara Spinal Unit in Auckland and I was back off home to Invercargill.

It was about a year later, while visiting the Burwood Spinal Unit Christchurch for an assessment, that I spotted a Vespa 150 with a sidecar in the local ‘buy’n’sell’ and had to have a look. Bugger all brakes, lacking in power, although it would sit on 80ks on the open road and horrendously hard to start. What a hoot to ride!

paraplegic sits next to his customized motorcycle

That was the start of getting back into bikes. Being a motorcyclist, there’s nothing quite like being out in the open; the acceleration, the deceleration, the freedom, the smells, and the thrill of feeling like being a mechanical part of your machine. Making it go, leaning, stopping; there’s just something about it! The camaraderie in the motorcycling community is rather special too. You’ll always get a chat out of a fellow bike rider, a nod or a wave when out on the highway.

New Zealand has some of the most spectacular riding in the world; great road surfaces, hardly any traffic, and scenery that changes completely every hour. Some of my best rides have been in the high country on gravel roads with no-one around for miles. Travel at your own pace, stopping when you feel like it, just soaking up what lies in front of you and what you have just passed by. It just doesn’t get any better than that!

My latest ride is definitely the nicest and most complete I have ever had. I’ve always made do with whatever I had as a bike and its set-up. This one’s different.

The bike’s a 2007 Suzuki GSX1400, kitted out in the Japanese retro muscle-bike style. With only 4000kms on it when it was delivered, I got it as a wreck with full frontal damage: forks, headlight, fairing, instruments, engine casing, stator and tank damage.

custom motorcycle with a sidecar

To allow me to ride, I’ve had the following modifications done. Of course, the sidecar was fitted, which dates from the early- to mid-70s and is a Christchurch-made Mk1 Sabiston. I’ve owned the chair for about 12 years now. It’s a good basic design, with a Dura Torque suspension unit. It used to run a 10” wheel: the same as what you would find on an old Mini car. I changed that to an old-school mid 70s 13” Cheviot Turbo mag. The body of the sidecar was then widened to take the bigger, fatter tyre. This improved grip immensely.

A small sub-frame was made to attach to the sidecar frame, via the main stand and side-stand mount. The rest of the mounts for the chair were welded onto the frame at strategic points for strength. Sidecars are notoriously hard on the frames of bikes, so the more you can strengthen the frame, the better.

The next modification was the push button Translogic linear gear shifter. There are a few items around the world now, that can help out with this, designed to help paras, amputees, and anyone else who has issues with changing gears using their foot. You don’t have to take your hands off the handlebars to change gear, and it makes things so much easier. This is one innovation from disability technology that’s rolled over into applications for everybody. There are new bikes and trikes out now that have electric shifters as standard fit from the factory.

The rear brakes have been hooked into the front brakes, so I have all brakes working. This is a first for me, and again, works really well. A spin-off using the linked brakes is you get less dive in the front forks and, of course, great brakes.

To keep my feet on, I’ve gone for the very simple solution of a Velcro strap on each footpeg. Works a treat, and all I do is slip my feet in. No more strapping the feet with bungee cords!

My wheelchair frame fits neatly in the sidecar. The wheels used to go on a modified pack frame, but after the 4th time it strengthening and repairing it I thought of another way to attach my wheels. Ive had my engineer fabricate 2 mounts in-between the sidecar and the bike which have two wheelchair axle receivers bolted into. I just slide the wheel axles into them. Simple as that!

I got lots of complaints that I could not take anyone in the sidecar, as my wheelchair frame was in there. Now, I have a very simple-to-use wheelchair-frame rack on the back of the sidecar body. It slots into a bar under the wheelchair frame, and mounts onto the two main frames of the chair with two Thule bike-rack rubber blocks.

motorcycle with ocean and sky in the background

I try to get out as much as I can, usually on weekends. Some of the Christchurch city roads are not the best for riding around, especially in the New Brighton area where I live. I usually tend to head off over the Port Hills, or out into North Canterbury. A lot of the roads have very little traffic on. Most rides are a couple of hundred kms, which is a tank of gas. Probably get more if the throttles not twisted as much but that’s just no fun at all. I’m not the only disabled person in New Zealand to be riding, and you would be amazed at what sort of bikes and trikes are out there.

There’s always some way of figuring out a way to make your passion work for you. It may not be exactly what it used to be like, but it can work out to be just as much fun, or even better than you ever dreamed of!

Thanks to Brett Ladbrook for sending us this awesome story of how he continues to pursue his passion. A self-described "petrol head," Brett has worked in both the motorcycle and wheelchair industries, and he keeps active by doing things like taking a solo backpacking trip overseas, working as a summer camp counselor in Upstate New York, and traveling around England. He currently lives in Christchurch, New Zealand by the sea and works as a Peer Support Coordinator for the NZ Spinal Trust at Burwood Spinal Unit.

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