The Worlds Wheelchair Culture
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  Cobra Off Road Wheelchairs

(Story from about.com no writer listed and site no longer on-line)

Wheelchairs have come a long way over the years. Until recently, there were only those big clunky ones, and then the revolution started with faster, lighter designs. When it comes to getting off the beaten path, the off-road wheelchair is built for speed and just about any kind of terrain.

High-tech athletic equipment for people with disabilities is a field that's moving as fast as the people using it. The Cobra, an off-road wheelchair, was designed and built by John Castellano. Castellano is the president, chief engineer, and sole assembly line worker of Up And Over -- the only off-road wheelchair company on the planet building the Cobra. "I came up with an idea back in 1984 after reading an article in Car And Driver on the lightweight wheelchair revolution," he explains. "These sort of serve multiple purposes -- they sometimes serve as a pair of hiking boots and they also serve as a mountain bike; it'll go down virtually anything. You can ride this down the stairs without crashing it. You can crash it, too, if you try hard enough."

A graduate of MIT, Castellano builds the Cobras in his garage near Berkeley, California. The biggest challenge was designing the front-end geometry. It took forty-three computer prototypes just to get it so that it wouldn't plow into the turns, yet still stop in a straight line. The front end of the wheelchair steers with handle bars that's spring loaded to self-center. That means if you're pushing on the hand rims, it will go in a straight line.

 As for the brakes, Castellano says wheelchairs have "a unique situation in that you can't use a regular rim brake on the back wheel because you push with the hand rim. So, disc brakes on the back are almost mandatory. And then when you put disc brakes on the back, you might as well put disc brakes on the front since they work a lot better."

The Cobra sports sixteen-inch knobs in the front and twenty-fours in the rear. It weighs about thirty pounds -- the same as a mountain bike -- and is constructed of aircraft aluminum and chrome-molly tubing. A toe hook and bungee cord let the rider hook up with a biking companion and hitch up hills.

But when the terrain gets vertical, the ride gets fierce. "It's at least as fast as a mountain bike," says John Davis, chief driver of the Up And Over chair racing team. "On some downhills, I can be right up there with them [mountain bikers]."

Paralyzed in a car accident, this ex-surfer-mountain-biker took his Cobra on to the racing circuit and competes in the Kamikaze downhill events right alongside the mountain bikes. "Yeah, the Kamikaze -- Mammoth Mountain -- that's where I got my start about two years ago when I raced that race. That was the first big race I did and people just lost it! They could not believe what I was doing out there, why I was out there. And I'll race the expert men, just sign up along with the bikes and just race against the bikes."

"You know this thing is really a step up for any off-road chair," adds Davis. "I mean, there are some out there. But none have had the technology that John [Castellano] has, and it shows when you ride it. It's like a Volkswagen and a Porsche. This is the Porsche."

 

The Cobra has been clocked at over 47 miles an hour on pavement and is as stable as a goat when hammering in the dirt. "There's this guy in France who just took his for a month-long trip in the Himalayas," says Castellano. They cost about three thousand dollars and each is custom fitted to the rider. "I've built a couple with gun racks on the back," he adds. "I've built them with fishing pole holders on the back, which also get used for tripods." Well, you can be sure when Formula One wheelchair racing arrives, John Castellano and John Davis will be right on the starting line.

Off-roading has gotten so popular, there's now a national racing team. For more information, contact Up And Over engineer John Castellano at (510) 233-1328.