Walking aids for people with disabilities or chronic illnesses tend to be straightforward: canes, poles or crutches for modest assistance, a rollator for more support, and then a full-on walker (tennis balls optional). But there is another radical option: The Alinker, the world’s first walking bike.
You know you are on to something different, even radical, when a security guard rushes you in an art museum waving his hands for you to stop. “Do you need that device?” I nod. “Multiple sclerosis. I can’t walk without it.” Instead of replying with the clichéd “carry on” and a wave, the guard provides an instant review of my walking aid, which admittedly looks nothing like an aid at all.
“Very, very cool. I’ve never seen anything like it. Wow. What the heck is it?”
It’s called an Alinker, a revolutionary 3-wheeled walking bike (retail approximately $2K) developed in the Netherlands for people who have mobility challenges. Barbara Alink was inspired to create the device by her mother, who—facing a future of using a walker—stubbornly proclaimed “but over my dead body will I use such a thing.” Her mom wasn’t an outlier or rebel. Hardly. She’s human, and, like many of us, she felt that she would look disabled hunched over a walker. “When I discovered that,” says Barbara, “it became my challenge not only to develop a better functional device to improve walking, but also to design something that would invoke a more positive reaction from others. I wanted to make something that would make the user feel happy and proud.”
Barbara sent ActiveMSers an Alinker R-volution to test—not for a week, but for a few months—in order get a better sense of how the device reshapes public life with a walking disability. The extra time was needed and welcomed. We took the Alinker on the road, in museums, on the trail, and in the grass. We stuffed it into cars and SUVs, and even into bathrooms (it’s a bit of a tight fit!). We raced it on the flats, sped down hills, and climbed steep banks. These are our findings.
Fit and Finish
I’m a gear snob, I’ll admit it. I appreciate when something is built solidly, smartly, right. First impressions of the Alinker when I unpackaged and assembled it (about 5 minutes): I couldn’t find my darn socks—they knocked them straight off. Trick design, quality parts, thoughtful components, the whole package. The Alinker snapped open easily with a twist to lock it in place (beware not to pinch fingers), the handlebars pop on and cinch with a quick Allen-wrench tightening, and the quick-release wheels just slide on. The Alinker, without an awkward Dave dude with MS muddying up its sleek lines, is a study in design. But marvels of innovation can’t be called marvels if they sink when they hit their first iceberg. And admittedly there were a few bergs lurking, namely the fact that I was not the ideal user due to my gimpiness.
These are minimum recommended requirements for potential users of the Alinker R-volution:
Have some ability to walk i.e. command over leg movement.
Be able to get on and off i.e. ability to lift a leg over a saddle.
For the medium frame be between 1.65m and 1.80m tall.
Be cognitively aware of your environment
Be cautious if the potential user’s mobility is too compromised. If there is any question concerning safety, we recommend arranging a trial supervised by a physical therapist
For starters, getting onto the Alinker looks trickier than it is, but admittedly you do need a bit of mobility. From behind the saddle (with the brake engaged), I grabbed the handlebars, hitched up my good leg, and slid onto the saddle. It might take a touch of trial and error to get the right saddle height—too high and you can’t get on, too low and you are less efficient at walking. (The Alinker team provided good recommendations for setting proper saddle height.) Once you’re sitting down, pop off the brake and you’re off! Propelling yourself is as simple as putting one foot in front of the other, but to really get moving, you’ll want to lean a bit forward and get into a rhythm. You’ll know it when that happens—when you get that burst of freedom you haven’t felt in years. Vroom! Turning is quick and easy, but it should be noted that the turning radius is larger than the one on a walker or wheelchair. There were times when I’d do a three-point turn to manage tight spaces. (Of course you can also just straddle the Alinker and pick up the entire thing to turn it.) Braking is currently not the Alinker’s strong suit, but after extensive testing, I found it doesn’t have to be. Your own legs break your momentum in most cases just fine. In fact, I rarely touched the brake when riding except maybe on steep hills to help prevent me from rolling backward. Mostly it functions as a parking brake that locks on with the push of a button.
The Alinker has the strong potential to rewrite your experience of what it means to be disabled. It will improve your walking distance many times over.
You’ll remember fondly your first ride on the Alinker for a number of reasons, and your rear end will have its own set of memories, ones that likely will gravitate toward the less pleasant end of the spectrum. Until your hiney gets acclimated, something cyclists are quite familiar with, “butt” and “hurts” will be used in the same sentence at least once or twice. Fortunately, that goes away with time in the saddle, the developers assured me, and they were right. Comfort is improved by a suspension seat post (included standard) to better absorb bumps. On long rides, padded bike shorts would be helpful, but are by no means necessary. My longest rides stretched well over two hours, but they were broken up with standing up in the saddle for short times which seemed to do the trick.
Unassembled you could fit the Alinker into some car trunks, but realistically that isn’t ideal on a regular basis. We strongly recommend testing it with your vehicle before purchase if you plan to transport it in the trunk or in the back seat. The Alinker will, however, fit easily into the back of an SUV, minivan or hatchback when the device simply is folded down (super easy), especially with the wheels removed, which pop off quickly with the press of a button on the hub (like many quick-release wheels on wheelchairs). The Alinker weighs a touch over 26 lbs (12 kg), a bit heavier than your average rollator (15-20 lbs); a weight certainly manageable for many, but a noticeable difference.
The ride and the experience are two very different things. First, and most noticeably, you are at eye level. You don’t kink your neck looking up at artwork or looking up at the nose hairs of your buds (trim those suckers!). How totally refreshing to have a conversation face-to-face! And then there’s the gawking. The open mouths. The pointing. Honestly, it’s like driving the latest
Lamborghini or dating a super model who also happens to an international movie star/humanitarian and is conveniently in the passenger seat of your Lamborghini (not that I’ve done either one of those things). Heads turn, questions get asked. Your inability to walk worth a damn? Furthest thing from your mind. The Alinker also handled dirt trails just fine, even off-kilter ones, allowing me to get deeper into nature. Just taking an evening stroll with my wife at speeds above 1 mph was beyond uplifting. In testing it in a variety of situations, it was most at home outdoors on pavement, gentle trails, and sidewalks. Hills and slopes and rocks and grass were manageable with care, but not ideal. Indoors it managed fine in large spaces (say museums or convention centers), but it is not appropriate to use in your home. Restrooms? You’ll likely need to leave it outside the stall or the bathroom entirely. And then pee fast lest wanna-be joyriders get any crazy ideas!
The Alinker has the strong potential to rewrite your experience of what it means to be disabled. It will improve your walking distance many times over. The Alinker will even change how the public perceives you and your handicap. But there is a catch. To extract maximum benefit from the Alinker, there is a right rider and a wrong rider. You should be able to walk short distances, ideally over a mile (about eight blocks), with minimal or no aid. If you mostly use a walker, I would hesitate to recommend the Alinker—it is not a replacement. Alas when I tested the walking bike, I was on the more disabled end of the spectrum. For me to get into a good gallop, I had to abandon my right leg. It was just too uncooperative, so I either rested it on the front cross member or just hitched it into the air (the latter is preferred, as I could tilt forward more, so I could put my left leg in a better position to apply maximum force). Hills were a bit tricky for me due to the extra strength needed to ascend them. And because I couldn’t walk far (maybe a quarter mile on forearm crutches at the time), my legs ran out of gas on the Alinker after a mile or two. In those cases, I propped both legs up on the cross member and got a push from Laura until I recharged.
Even so, I adored the freedom, that feeling of being a rock star able-bodied person, even if it was more short-lived than I would have preferred. But that’s life with multiple sclerosis or a chronic disability. You have to adapt. And the Alinker will help many of us do just that, and for some brilliantly so.