Guest Article: Bicycling with a Disability, by Quinn McLaughlin

After the crew posted an article about wanting guest authors, I knew I wanted to write something, but I didn’t know what to write about…until this morning.

As some may know, I have a disability called Spina bifida. It is the most common spinal cord defect in the U.S. (editor’s note: spina bifida is a developmental birth defect involving the neural tube: incomplete closure of the embryonic neural tube results in an incompletely formed spinal cord).

Cycling is what keeps me going every day – literally. Since the physical state of a cyclist is almost opposite of my natural physical state I have to work at it every day or, due to the spina bifida, my fitness will more rapidly decline. So, I thought I would write about the adaptations that I need in order to ride, the bikes I use and why I use those particular bikes to keep me and my passion for cycling alive.

My love for cycling started when I was 15 years old. I worked the summer at a Boy Scout camp in northern Virginia and one of the other staff members was a semi-pro level mountain biker. I was just mesmerized at what the guy could do on a bike, so right before the next summer came I bought a GT Outpost Trail and stuck an Indy C fork on it; for the next four years I rode that bike everywhere I could, even through a broken wrist, broken elbow and torn cartilage in my right foot and left knee. Throughout those years my skills developed; however, I still lacked speed due to my underdeveloped legs from the spina bifida. The only adaptation I used at that time was Power Grip straps on a set of Koxx (Try All) pedals. Why? Well, thanks again to my spina bifida, my left ankle rolls in a lot, making clipless pedals impossible to use.
power grips

After I tore up my knee I decided to hang up the bike. I went traveling for a few years, only to gain weight and lose a lot of muscle mass. So, in August of ’06 I picked up a used Diamondback Sorrento. I then had it modified into a commuter with a Shimano 105 crankset and Serfas Drifter tires, and thanks to the owner of a LBS knowing about Knee Savers pedal extensions, I got my first pair of clipless pedals.

How did this help my disability? It opened my eyes again to a simple but very effective way to regain my physical fitness and it gave me a way to deal with starting over after traveling in a nation ruled by the ever-increasing cost of living (biking to work means I don’t have to buy gas or a gym membership).

As for the equipment, the 105 (road) crankset gave me what I call “road competent” gearing until I regained my confidence on the bike. The Serfas Drifter is a serious bombproof tire, so I wouldn’t have to deal with flat tires (1,700 miles without a flat) in addition to the lack of confidence. The Knee Savers are simply a spacer to extend the pedal out from the crank arm — in my case to allow room for my left ankle so it wouldn’t hit the crank arm. Finally, also, clipless pedals. A few reasons for them: we all know about better/more power transfer, and with the lack of muscle that I have in my legs, I will take every little bit of help I can get. Secondly my left leg is about an inch shorter than my right leg, so the clipless pedals keep my left foot on the pedal.

I rode the Sorrento for about 9 months, until I got the “itch” to get back on the dirt again and picked up my Raleigh XXIX. Believe me, thoughts about my spina bifida went into that bike, including the fact that the bike is “conversion ready” and is a 29er. Sure enough, two months after I got it I put a 13-34, 7 speed cassette on it to make it a 1×7. At that point I liked the singlespeed aspect from the maintenance point of view, since there are some days that I fall out of bed because my back hurts so much. There aren’t too many times that I enjoy maintaining or fixing my bikes. Also, with the single chainring, I don’t have to shift, which is good because, due to the previous damage, it is hard for me to shift. As for the 29er aspect, the “Greater Momentum” part really spoke to me, going back to leg strength, it is hard for me to keep up momentum, so just like the clipless pedals, the Knee Saver or the 34t cog, I will take all the help I can get.

To this day this bike is my all time favorite ride. To make it even better, about a month ago I put on an Origin 8 carbon fork and a Thomson Elite seat post, making the bike lighter to help with my lack of muscle and balance.

In October of ’07 I decided that the XXIX was too heavy for me to commute on in the cold weather, thinking of my 10-day stay in the hospital with pneumonia the winter before. So after many years of drooling over a Kona “Jake The Snake?, but knowing I didn’t have the cash I picked up a regular Jake and modified it to a 1×9 (39×11-34) with a flat bar conversion.

Why the Jake? Other than previously stated, it was inexpensive, it’s lighter, more nimble and it can fit up to a 38C tire, giving me a little more cushion for my back. The 1×9 flat bar conversion was because my left arm doesn’t like shifting and I also do not like drop bars. I also get the dampening of carbon (Easton Monkeylite). Also, being able to put on a full-range cassette was very helpful. Lastly I swapped out the rear wheel for a Velocity Glider, giving me even more support since I am more of a seated rider.

Finally, along with my Jake and my XXIX, I also have a single speed On*One Inbred 26er that is rigid, with Felt backpedal pedals and 39-18 gearing. I use this bike as a Dirt/Skate Park bike to hone my balance and strength. With these three bikes I have gone from barely riding 4 miles a day to riding every where and doing everything by bike, in under two years, riding with a smile 90% of the time.


  1. barbated

    Thanks for the post. I mtb a lot in my teens and early twenties. But I had a spinal injury at work. I have a passion for riding but can not mtb anymore. So I have a commuter bike. It still hurts though. Back pain sucks.

  2. Moe

    Thanks for submitting the article. Cycling has also helped me a lot with a medical condition called Ankylosing Spondylitis, which is a form of reactive arthritis. The doctors can’t believe how much my flexibility has improved since I started riding.

  3. Quinn

    Arthritis for me is a big thing too, its 1 big reason i chose to go car-less, I dont have the option i Have To bike, forcing me to stay strong and flexible.

  4. RL Policar (Post author)

    I suffer from Fatty-itis. If I don’t ride my bike, I get fat.

  5. Quinn


    We ALL suffer from that! 🙂

  6. Mike Myers

    It really helps with depression, too. If I lift weights and ride my bike I tend not to slip into a depressive funk. I’m a lot nicer, too.

  7. Steve McLaughlin

    Excellent article Quinn. Keep it up, you have the knowledge and talent to be a good writer. The information is great and several of my friends who also experts in mountain biking agree with everything you have put together.

  8. Ron

    Did you live in Portola, CA when you were a kid and have a brother named Noah?

  9. Quinn McLaughlin

    Hi Quinn McLaughlin, meet Quinn McLaughlin. Now there’s two of us (and I thought I had the unique name thing nailed). Sorry, way off topic, just too random not to note.

  10. Quinn


    I was born in 1980, Yes my family had a house in Portola, and yes, Noah is my bother

  11. Steve McLaughlin

    Just a follow up note: 4 years later. Quinn McLaughlin has a condition called spina bifida. Look it up. It is a friggen miracle he is able to ride a bike AT ALL. A year ago he came down with kidney failure and was on dialysis 3 times a week, then at home 10 hours every day.
    Quinn is the only person I have ever known to overcome dialysis by exercise alone. On his own custom built to his designs bicycles.
    They should make a movie about him.

  12. Bruce

    Quinn, thanks for the inspiring article! I’ve been an avid bike commuter for 20+ years, but things realy took a tumble a year ago when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Been trying to get back into it now that I’ve had my head examined, and your article came up when I searched for using clipless with a disability. Gives me new hope and some good tips to keep me moving forward – very inspiring my friend, and thanks! Hope things are going OK for you… Bruce

  13. Victoria

    Thanks for the article Quinn! I too have spina bifida and have a few choice bikes that I ride with ‘mix match’ of components. I searched spina bifida cycling because I was hoping read articles like yours and/or similar. I know this post is from a few years ago but nonetheless thank you and hopefully I can find other articles like yours.

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