So you’re in the market for a racing wheelchair! Fantastic. Racing, of course, means different things to different people, and while there are specialized chairs for particular events, many folks are looking for a chair that can do a bit of it all. Below, we’ll talk about how to select an appropriate racing wheelchair for the various kinds of races you may want to explore.
Maybe you want to start with a race around your neighborhood, and then tackle a 5K, and then a 10K, and then a Spartan Race, and then a local trail race—we believe your wheelchair should allow you to do all of the above, and more. Alternatively, if you’re interested in one kind of race, you should also be able to fine-tune your chair for that style of riding, too.
Here are the 5 things to look for in a racing wheelchair:
1. Training capabilities
No matter what kind of race you’re preparing for, it is crucial that you feel empowered and able to train for it. Races—on the street, on the trails, on gravel, on obstacle courses, and elsewhere—are all designed to test their participants physically and mentally, so the more time you can put in your race chair before the race, the better!
Translation: You should look forward to your workouts, and that often boils down to creating a versatile workout plan. Maybe ripping around the same track every day is exactly what you want—if so, heck yea, get in those miles. But, maybe you’d like to do some resistance training on grass. Maybe you’d also like to do some hill training. Maybe you’d like to take your chair down the mud-covered road near your house for some post-rainstorm sprints.
Your racing chair should only expand your access to adventure. As you weigh the chair options out there, consider your desired range of workouts—if there’s a chair that will allow you to do more versatile workouts, it may be a better fit for a well-rounded fitness plan.
2. Ability to customize
If you’re a racer looking to do just one kind of racing, your chair should also make it possible for you to become a specialist. Here at GRIT, all of the moving parts on our chairs are locally sourced bike parts. What does this mean? If you know you’re only interested in doing street races, you can modify your Freedom Chair to cater to those events. Here’s how:
The GRIT Freedom Chair comes standard with studded 26” mountain bike tires that allow you to ride on just about any terrain (just as folks can ride their mountain bikes on just about any terrain). But, if you’re looking to swap your tires out for ones better suited for your particular style of racing/riding (touring tires, street tires, loose-terrain tires, etc.), that swap is easy and can often shave minutes off of your lap times. And you don’t even need to go back to GRIT to make this swap—any bike shop will have the tires you need.
The drivetrain refers to the parts of a racing wheelchair that actually make it move. Here at GRIT, we offer two drivetrains, one of which features an upgraded freewheel with twice as many points of contact (translation: Easier pushing, higher top speed, better race-readiness). And, if you’d like to use a separate freewheel that GRIT doesn’t offer, you can! We’ll even provide an instruction manual for disassembling our drivetrain so you can add the third-party accessories of your choice.
Swapping out your chainrings allows you to modify the gear ratio, or the relationship between the size of the rear ring (the freewheel) and the front ring (the chain ring). Bump up the size of the chain ring and achieve a higher gear ratio, which is better for street riding. Lower the size of the chain ring and achieve a lower gear ratio, which is better for steep inclines and off-road races.
And that’s just the beginning. Many of our riders, for example, know they only want to train and compete in obstacle course races and go on rides through particularly brutal terrains. Great! The Freedom Chair is designed to encourage that flexibility. But, because it is a true all-terrain device, it is less suited for hyper-specialized races like the Paralympic 400m, 800m, or 1500m dashes (in fact, its mechanical advantage actually makes it illegal for those events).
There are, of course, pros and cons to both versatility and specialization, and this list varies from person to person. Every chair owner will have to consider their personal pros and cons and decide what approach is best for them. Look at true “beach wheelchairs” as a parallel example—their massive wheels make them well-suited for loose sand, but tremendously inefficient in other terrains, for transportation, and even in making it to the sand itself. But, just as true is that these chairs are exactly what some people want. A similar conversation should happen as you select a racing wheelchair, too.
Any category of wheelchair can be a total bear to transport. Whether weighed down by heavy electronics or batteries, impossible to disassemble or fold, or simply massive in size, it can sometimes feel like an Olympic event just getting packing your vehicle up to get there. We think you should be able to take your racing chair to your training grounds (or trails, or hills, or parks, etc.) and to the race venue itself as easily as possible, so you can dedicate your energy to whooping the competition!
First, consider the kind of vehicle you’ll be using to travel with your chair. Some chairs fold up quite well. Chairs like the GRIT Freedom Chair are designed to be quickly disassembled and assembled again, and others are best transported via trailer or vehicle rack. None of these are inherently better or worse than the other, but know what you’re getting yourself into before you ever take out your credit card. How often will you be able to take the chair out? Will you only be able to train once every other week because of how difficult your racing chair is to transport? Is that okay with you?
4. Timely repairing
Another reality of wheelchair racing is the fact that you’ll be putting your chair to the test. It won’t be long before you start racking up the miles in your racing chair, and those miles will often be high-intensity, high-stress miles, so damage is likely. This is to be expected. The other factor here is that highly specialized chairs can be great on a track, but will be “tested” by the other terrains you’ll encounter in your journey to get there. Skinny front casters are fine on a gym floor, but it may only take a few minutes on the trail before they break under the stress of a different environment.
Make sure you’re aware of the repair realities of your chair. When something breaks (and in the racing sphere, there’s a good chance something will), what will you do? How long does it take to get new parts—or, more specifically, how long will you have to pause your training for replacement parts to arrive?
5. Community of support
This of course isn’t something a racing wheelchair itself can provide, but as you start getting competitive with your wheelchair racing, you’re going to have questions! When those questions come up—or when you need advice, or when you want a safe and knowledgeable community to cheer you on, or when you want to share your successes with that same group—having the right forum can make a world of difference.
Wheelchair racing is often seen as an individualized sport. It’s often just you, the road or trail ahead, and whatever grit it takes to get to that finish line. But, we’re human beings, and all human beings need a little love (and help) sometimes. It’s also enormously helpful to ask for tips on tires, parts, accessories, training locations, workout tips, training-diet tips, and whatever else comes up.
Beyond the Pavement is designed specifically for this purpose, and is as wide-reaching as your adventure goals likely are. Talk with other wheelchair athletes, families, and racers about their experiences with different events, chair specs, and more. If it has to do with outdoor wheelchair recreation, Beyond the Pavement is the place to be. Come join the conversation.