On 26 March 2011, Tom Wheeler entered a race that would change his life forever. A horrific crash at Rheola in South Wales left him with a paralysed right arm. As someone who’s been racing and riding bikes for his whole life, he was determined not to let his injury stop his enjoyment of the sport. We caught up with him nearly a year after his accident to find out how he’s adapted to riding one-handed.
BikeRadar: So Tom, just to recap, how exactly did you injure yourself?
TW: I decided last-minute to enter the first WDMBA round at Rheola, as it’s always a really good track and I hadn’t raced there for ages. It was a good weekend riding and I was feeling faster than I’d been in a long time.
On the last run of the day I was showing some lines to a younger rider, cruising down and checking out different sections. There was a branch overhanging the track that I’d been aware of and pre-warned other riders about earlier in the day. My hand just tapped the branch and I remember riding the handlebar, tapping the brakes and then it goes blank. It went from having a good time on my bike with my friends to a serious situation fast.
What was the damage?
I experienced serious damage to my brachial plexus – a set of five nerves that exit the spine at the neck and control your arm. In my case, I’d torn four of the five permanently out of my spine, leaving my right arm completely paralysed. The one nerve still remaining has been grafted with nerves from my leg and side and may give me some limited movement within my bicep and forearm. I spent close to two weeks in hospital, with three MRI scans which themselves were pretty daunting, and then spent 13 hours straight on the operating table.
It was a horrible feeling lying on the floor after the accident trying to work out what had happened. It was a messy situation to be in and I’m just glad I’ve only lost the use of my arm – I could have lost so much more.
The first couple of weeks after leaving hospital were so hard. I went from being a super-active guy on the bike four or five times a week and in full-time work to a guy who couldn’t stay awake for more than a couple of hours and found it extremely difficult to dress himself. Every day is hard but I’m just so glad to be recovering and back at work. I still love mountain biking and don’t plan on stopping any time soon. It’s actually pretty rad riding one handed!
You’ve modified your bike for one-handed use. How were your first few rides?
I’d developed a custom MotoGP rear thumb brake system with Chris Porter and Tim Smith at Mojo Suspension [where Tom works ed] and it was working well. The Hopey steering damper was keeping my front wheel straight, I made a few small tweaks to my suspension setup and after three rides I was gradually getting the hang of it.
A Hopey steering damper makes it easier for Tom to control the bike one-handed, while a MotoGP style thumb lever is used to operate the rear brake
I started by riding some flat turns and just gradually learnt how to hold my position on the bike and built my confidence from there. Learning how to control my brakes was the hardest thing but after a few sessions it all fell into place. When I was able to feather the rear brake with my thumb while doing a wheelie I knew things were coming together!
What’s the next step for you?
A carbon fibre brace is being developed with the help of Ability. It’ll be kitted out with a custom-made Fox damper that the guys at Mojo are currently working on. The brace will allow me to have a small amount of support on my right-hand side. My hand will be in contact with the bar via an electromagnetic system which will be manually operated, enabling me to switch the magnetic force on and off, and disconnect from the bar when need be.
It’s a project that we’re really excited about and the dream is to be able to manual my bike again. If Chris has anything to do with it, we have a high chance of it becoming reality.
Since we met up with Tom at Mojo, his carbon brace has been completed. “Even on my turbo trainer it makes things easier,” he tells us. “I’d totally forgotten what it felt like to have support coming from the right as well… Loving it!”
A detailed look at Tom’s modified Orange 5 can be seen in this month’s Mountain Biking UK magazine (issue 276), on sale today. To see him in action, check out the Tom Wheeler Project videos by Eyes Down Films: www.eyesdownfilms.tv/wordpress/category/documentary.