‘It’s just a bike that has been flipped upside down’: Mel Nichols and her handcycle
Paralympian and handcycling world record holder Mel Nicholls shares the story of her epic rides with her hand-powered cycle
Photography Joseph Branston
‘It’s just a bike that has been flipped upside down,’ says para-athlete Mel Nicholls of her distinctive-looking handcycle.
‘The frame is made specially to be a handcycle, but the components are standard. I use the same as whatever works on any other bike.
‘I haven’t had many issues in finding bike mechanics to work on it,’ she adds. ‘It just takes someone who has an open mind and can work outside the box a little bit – although it can be quite interesting getting the gearing lined up because the chain and derailleur are upside down.’
Nicholls has been using her hands to propel herself around ever since a series of strokes, the most recent in 2008, left her unable to walk without a crutch or use much of her left side.
She competed in wheelchair sprints at the London Paralympics in 2012 and in Rio in 2016, before switching to wheelchair endurance racing and placing first British female at the London Marathon in 2019.
She also took up handcycling and in 2019 set the world record for completing Land’s End to John O’ Groats in under seven days. But her most recent challenge was a world first: handcycling 7,700km around the coast of Britain.
The long way round
Nicholls started her round-Britain challenge on 7th August 2021 in her home town of Tewkesbury, and finished 75 days later on 21st October.
‘I had looked at handcycling around Britain a few times, but people don’t do it because it’s really hard. There are a lot of short, sharp hills, which are difficult on a handcycle because you don’t get the momentum you would on a normal bike.
‘It was really important to me to show people what a handcycle can do. The best thing was hearing kids talk about the bike and say, “Oh I want one, that is the coolest thing ever.” I loved it. The bike doesn’t look like disability equipment – it looks like a cool bike.
‘Handcycling around Britain was a completely different type of challenge to anything I’ve ever done before.
‘I wanted to go clockwise and stay as close to the coast as I could, but in some places like the Lake District, where it was really busy, I had to adapt my route.
‘I also didn’t plan too far ahead and kept the route very dynamic in case a road was closed or unsuitable, or I missed my turning. I hate going backwards.
‘I’ve seen places that I would never have seen in my life,’ Nicholls adds. ‘The west coast of Scotland was dreamlike. The roads are long and mountainous but not super-steep and they have epic views.
‘I cycled the equivalent of going from the UK to the Japanese sea – how crazy is that?’
Nicholls took the bare minimum with her: two small bags, her crutches and a spare pair of waterproof trousers.
‘I took crutches with me but lost one off the back of the bike. I figured it was less weight. There were times when I could have walked up faster, even on crutches, than I cycled up a lot of the hills, but as long as I was moving forwards I was happy. I’d rather do two miles than nothing at all.
‘I was really lucky throughout the challenge as people were so kind, always offering me food, and so many people came to ride with me.
‘My SRAM eTap wireless died in Wales, which I’m pretty sure was down to the torrential rain. I put a call out on social media and people came to the rescue. It was rebuilt to manual and the next day I was back on the road.
‘I only got four punctures – admittedly three in one night, which was fun – and a broken spoke, so all in all the bike did pretty well.’
It wasn’t just the bike that needed to put up with the harsh conditions. ‘When it’s really wet, because I’m so low down I get a lot of spray from other vehicles and off my front wheel.
‘It just pours over me. There’s no way of putting a mudguard on a handcycle, so you end up lying in a shallow tray of water.
‘Sometimes if a lorry is carrying something gross like fish, and water comes out the back of it, it’s like, “Urgh, I can taste that.” Not good.
‘For a lot of it I was in such a brain fog because I was beyond exhausted. Trying to plan the next day or to do anything that wasn’t simply turning the crank was a massive effort.
‘At one point I couldn’t work out how to change gears as I was so tired I was hallucinating. But no matter how tough it got, it was amazing to be out there, whatever the weather, travelling by human power.
‘Being outside really makes you feel alive. I felt the healthiest and happiest I have in years.’
Not all smooth running
While most people were kind and welcoming during her challenge, Nicholls says she did experience abuse from other road users.
‘I felt a lot of aggression and negativity from drivers, particularly in the southeast of England. It definitely didn’t help that I was doing it during the petrol crisis.
‘A lot of people were shouting at me to get off the road and use the pavement or cycle path instead. I mean, I would use the cycle paths if they were accessible, but a lot of them have barriers and bollards that mean a handcycle, a trike or even a cargo bike cannot physically access the path.
‘It’s really frustrating because these barriers go against the whole point of having dedicated cycle paths, which are safe places for everyone to cycle on. Of course there are also some great cycle paths in the National Cycling Network.
‘Charities such as Sustrans, which is the custodian of the network, are working to reduce these barriers, but it doesn’t happen overnight. I would much prefer to be cycling on a cycle path than on a busy road – I just can’t.’
It’s not only the physical barriers that can impede handcyclists. A handcycle like Nicholls’ can cost around £15,000.
‘Handbikes are expensive. There are only a handful of manufacturers, and they’re not easy to get hold of. Plus, handcycling in Britain is nothing like it is in Europe or America, where they have big racing scenes that raise the sport’s profile.
‘That’s a shame, as my bike gives me total freedom and I’d love other people to get that same feeling.’
Model: Carbonbike RevoX
Wheels: 650b American Classic Alu handcycle wheelset with 23mm Continental GP4000S tyres
Groupset: SRAM eTap (until this failed in North Wales and was built back to mechanical with a mishmash of Shimano Ultegra, 105 and Deore)
Crankset: Triple 48/39/27 with SRM power meter