Sometimes it feels like travelling with a wheelchair is a bit of a mobility gamble; they seem to be prone to malfunction. If they malfunction when you’re in your home country you know where to go to get it fixed (as much of a pain as this can still be). If something falls off of your chair in the middle of an unfamiliar country it starts to get a bit more problematic.
Of course proper wheelchair maintenance goes a long way towards keeping you rolling smoothly and although I get my chair serviced yearly, plus some extra fiddling as and when it’s needed, I still regularly encounter things that just aren’t working the way they should. Unfortunately I have neither the technical knowhow, nor the hand strength to complete even the most basic maintenance tasks. My housemate once came in to find me sobbing, with three dislocated fingers and the tire off my wheel surrounded by knives I was using as tire levers. I have since purchased tire levers but of course I’ve never had a punctured tire again. It doesn’t help that all the different parts on my chair seem to require different size tools, which appear to be a mixture of imperial and metric sizes…there’s a limit to how much I can actually carry around with me at one time.
Currently in my kit I have: WD40, an air pump (but it doesn’t have a gauge so is only really useful in an emergency) various different Allen Keys that I’m not sure what they fit, some mini wrenches that although came with my chair appear to fit nothing, tire levers (that I might have lost) and a spare inner tube (that lives in my car, so not much use there). I now also own some pliers, as I seriously needed them in Ghent. As you can see, my toolkit is a bit haphazard and this might be part of the problem!
I hadn’t even got as far as Ghent when we realised we had the first wheelchair problem. My handlebars are height adjustable and can be tucked in. They stay down most of the time so I don’t catch them on things or end up being pushed by random strangers (yes this happens…frequently) but I bring them up when I need help from friends. Despite the fact that I thought I had solved the issue of one side not raising anymore the second we tried to put them up the handle wouldn’t budge. Steph tried to do an emergency fix by using my swimming membership keyring to unscrew the lever, but unsurprisingly this didn’t work. Luckily our accommodation was five minutes walk from a bike shop (PLUM) where you can usually find someone with the tools and transferable skills to fix a chair. These guys were extremely helpful and manage to get my handlebar up for me, although they didn’t make it look easy. They also pumped up my Freewheel for me which I hadn’t realised was totally flat until I got there. Whoops!
I decided to take my Freewheel with me because I had been warned that Ghent was full of cobbles. I’m still undecided whether it’s a good thing to travel with or not. The Freewheel works by lifting your casters off the ground by a couple of inches and using a bigger tire out the front to roll over uneven terrain. I had a lot of problems with it bending my footplate originally but once that had been fixed I can say it does do what it says on the tin. However, it also changed your centre of gravity enough to make me feel quite uneasy. It can’t be much of a change at all but being tipped back by those couple of inches constantly gives me the feeling like I’m going to go over backwards. I’m sure if I used the wheel more I would get used to the tipping point though and this would no longer be an issue. The second problem I have with the Freewheel is the increase in turning circle; I think it must nearly double my length. This makes it basically impossible to use on any form of public transport (especially at rush hour, that was a BIG mistake), the only option being to lean right forwards to take it off and try and carry it awkwardly on your lap. It does come with a back clip but this is useless if you’ve got a rucksack back there. I think where it really excels was allowing me to be pushed by Steph without the constant fear of being faceplanted. I’ve been faceplanted more that once and it’s always painful and always embarrassing. At the end of the trip she stringed it up into her backpack so I didn’t have to cart it back across London.
On our way back to the train station I had wheelchair malfunction number two. This time it was just a screw coming loose on the Freewheel so we sat down in the middle of the pavement and fixed it. Without a screwdriver this was a tad challenging so I guess that’s the next thing I’ll add to my kit.