Trikes for Paraplegic Bikers
Two Paralyzed Veterans Put their Mark on the World of Motorbikes
By Dianne Renzulli the public affairs assistant for the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association
Motorbike riding is more than a pastime, it's a life-long passion for Terry McGovern, an Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association (EPVA) member from Greenlawn, N.Y., and Louis J. DuPilka, EPVA's one-man Wheelchair Repair team at the Castle Point Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Castle Point, N.Y. McGovern has been interested in motorbikes ever since, as a 13 year-old, he and his friends began building lawnmower engines into their 1969 Stingray bicycles - the bicycles that were the rage of their day with big banana seats and high handlebars. Since then, McGovern's interest in motorbikes has taken a natural progression from bicycles to dirt bikes, and from little Yamahas to the king of all motorbikes, the Harley-Davidson. DuPilka's interest in motorbikes has grown naturally from his interest in all things mechanical. At work and at play, DuPilka enjoys tinkering and adapting just about any device that he uses on a regular basis from lawn mowers to wheelchair equipment to motor vehicles.
Taking on the Beast
McGovern started work on his life's project, a 1949 model Harley-Davidson, before he went into the Navy in 1974. At that time, he was mainly remodeling the motorbike and continued riding it after he got out of the service in 1979, and right up until he was paralyzed by a stab wound to the back some years later. "I was riding my motorbike that night when it happened," says McGovern. "And, I swore I would ride again after that."
McGovern has been riding his motorbike for about two years, although he has been gathering parts for it, and planning and building it for about 10 years. "Every bracket, every bolt and tab, I had to fit and customize and cut, sand, drill, weld and sand again. Usually with something custom, it doesn't go as planned and you have to do things a couple of times before you get it right."
DuPilka's road to his current motorbike project began long after his period of service in the Vietnam War from 1964-1968. But the process has been no less rigorous. He bought his hybrid three-wheel motorbike, called a tryke, a year and a half ago with the idea of adapting it to fit his needs. "When I bought it, it was pretty well shot," he says. "It was previously owned by someone who was not a wheelchair user. I had to redo everything. There isn't a part that hasn't been touched."
For DuPilka, it has been one of his many adaptive projects since sustaining a spinal cord injury in a car accident in 1979. Since that time, he has been trying to adapt his own equipment, as well as serving as EPVA's Wheelchair Repair technician for the past seven years in Castle Point, N.Y., where he uses his knowledge of adaptive equipment to help other people with specialized needs.
"I like riding too much for anything to stop me. If there's something that I use on a regular basis, I try to adapt it to make it easier to use and more convenient," says DuPilka. "I needed a form of transportation to work that was convenient, affordable, and fun. So I began it out of necessity."
The Long Road
From start to finish, McGovern and DuPilka have done almost all but the welding work on their motorbikes by themselves. Professionally, both men have jobs that tap into their mechanical abilities - DuPilka in EPVA Wheelchair Repair and McGovern at Nassau Appliance in Merrick, N.Y., rebuilding and repairing electrical motors and appliances. But, although this mechanical knowledge has helped them, both have learned most of what they need to remodel their motorbikes on their own.
"Since I was a teenager, I rode with a group of about 20-30 friends. Everybody had bikes and built motorbikes together. That's the way we grew up: you don't buy it, you build it," says McGovern. "I totally tore the bike down and rebuilt it, and put my trademark on it."
DuPilka agrees about the importance of your environment on developing an interest in motorbike riding. "It's a social thing to ride a bike," he explains. "I ride on motorbike rallies for cancer and other causes, called poker rallies. You go about a 100 miles and have to go to various checkpoints, and then have picnic at end. My brother has motorbike too, and I have a group of friends that ride motorbikes and go out on weekends."
In addition, he was drawn to the project by the lure of making something that was his own creation. "This bike is a Heinz 57 mixture. It's got a Covair car back end, and a front end that's a Suzuki motorbike. It's been all rewired and reworked, with my brother Johnny's help on the welding of the dashboard and a boat shop's work on the canvas cover that covers the wiring in front."
McGovern's motorbike, like DuPilka's project, is what motorcyclists call a tryke. Years ago, in the 1960s, McGovern says police had three-wheel motorbikes called "police specials." In his quest for parts, he found an old police tryke, and tore it apart, took rear end off, and built a frame to fit him so could get on and off it easily. As a tryke, his motorbike gave him more stability at the price of some speed.
"You plan on being safe as you can, so it's built for comfort not speed," says McGovern. "It's a big tryke and the motor is working hard if go much faster than 55 mph. Since it's got a long chopper front end, it can be tricky to handle. So if you're not comfortable, just slow it down. McGovern's tryke weighs in at about 1,000 pounds. It uses L-60 Slotted Crager wheels, that are very fat and give good stability but put a lot of surface area on the road so the bike works harder.
DuPilka bought his tryke with stability and comfort in mind, as well. And, although the temptation for speed is there, he never takes his tryke over 65 mph because faster speeds make it more likely that he can be thrown off balance. "When you have high level paraplegia, you have to make sure that your position on the bike is secure," he says. "One way to do that is to make sure that your body can handle the speed." DuPilka has to be especially careful because his tryke's powerful engine comes from a 1967 Covair six-cylinder car, and is twice as big as a Harley-Davison motor with 2,600 cubic centimeters.
Equally important for safety are properly redesigned controls. Both DuPilka and McGovern use hand controls to replace foot function. McGovern installed a jockey shift with an extension for the clutch on the left side, near his left hip. On the right handlebar, he placed controls for the hydraulic drum brakes and a throttle. DuPilka's controls for both rear and front wheel brakes, and throttle and shifter, are on both sides of his handle bars, while a Suzuki power brake is placed lower down on his right side but within reaching distance.
Another key feature for the wheelchair user is finding a way to carry the wheelchair to your destination and assemble it onsite. McGovern first adapted his wheelchair to fit his motorbike, while DuPilka adapted his motorbike to fit his chair. McGovern customized his wheelchair so that he could take it off in one piece, fold it up and throw it on the back, and strap it down. If he is carrying a passenger, he places the wheelchair on a slide beneath the bike, but if by himself, he puts the wheelchair on a padded box that sits behind the seat. DuPilka already had a wheelchair with quick release wheels that would easily fold-up. In his case, he adapted the mechanism for carrying the chair to fit the exact specifications of his chair. The wheels sit behind the drivers seat in the passenger well, while the folded body of the chair slides onto two carrying rods next to the driver's seat and then straps down to the frame with bungee cords.
Additional adaptive features on McGovern's tryke include a dragster seat so he can pull myself on to the bike without excessive effort, and special foot rests which allow him to strap in his feet. For easy cincture and removal, McGovern uses a Velcro seat belt. DuPilka uses a wheelchair seat belt with metal clasps and Velcro straps for his feet. His feet sit inside specially-designed wells that are a hybrid of wheelchair foot rests with a metal plate extension. Since his bike is a low rider, he sits down on the bike and maneuvers the wheelchair into place from that position.
"The rest is style," says McGovern. He redid the chrome on the engine, installed 8" hanger handlebars that swoop up towards his hands, and a chopper front-end that extends in front of the bike, giving it a streamlined look.
DuPilka's tryke sports a stylish midnight purple with flame decals that can detach and go anywhere. "Wherever I want to have a flame, I can have one," he adds. In addition, he's added Harley-Davidson lights and a Suzuki motorbike exhaust for a speedster look.
To undertake any adaptive motorbike project, McGovern counsels patience and reserving a sizable fund. "If you make it really nice and do it right, you're going to spend money. I have about $14-15,000 into my bike now," says McGovern. "But it depends on your taste and what you want to put into it. If you like bikes and Harleys, you don't really mind the work. You always think, 'That's okay but I want to change it.'"
DuPilka bought his tryke second hand for $2,000, and has put approximately $3,000 into it. "If you want to do the work, it's a real savings to do it yourself. A new adapted motorcycle like this one would sell for about $17,000," he says. "So that's not bad for transportation."
Before any work begins on the bike, both DuPilka and McGovern suggest diagramming the project, and possibly make a blueprint. Secondly, find good people to do the work if you can't do it yourself. Thirdly, find sources of good information. Both men gather tips from friends that ride, while other sources are manufacturers' manuals, magazines, and websites like Brothers of the Third Wheel at www.btw-trikers.org. Finally, make sure your bike is safe before you take it on the road by doing constant maintenance on it. If you don't know how to do it yourself, find a friend or a trusted vendor. Every custom motorbike has to be approved by the State Department of Transportation and registered as motorcycle.
What are the rewards for all this hard work? "It's fun to ride and turns heads like crazy," says McGovern.
Neither man has attended any competitions yet, but neither has ruled it out for the future.
DuPilka is already planning the next bigger and better motorbike project. "I'm thinking of selling this motorbike and making another one or remodeling one," he says. "There's not a lot of adapted motorbikes around, so I regularly look for something I could adapt."
So, next time you're on the road and you see a sporty tryke race past you, don't be surprised if it's McGovern or DuPilka showing the world how to ride in style.