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Bike Check: Tommy Wilkinson's Ultimate Setup For One-Armed Riding

Nov 26, 2021
by Henry Quinney  

Tommy Wilkinson is a name you may well know. World Cup photographer, race organiser, agency-runner, and affable charismatic joker are but a few of his titles. In 2013, Tommy sustained a life-changing injury that pulled all the peripheral nerves out of his spinal cord. This meant he lost the function of his right arm entirely. In fact, they were detached with so much force that they actually damaged the central cord at the C3. Interestingly enough, a consequence of Tommy's injury, and a testament to the complications of the human body and its nervous system, is that whilst Tommy still has full mobility in his left leg, he no longer feels temperature and has lost much of its sensory function.

After the injury, Tommy wished to get back on his bike quite quickly. However, the consequences of the injury were far reaching. It took him around six months to learn to walk again and it wasn't until a trip to New Zealand many months later that things really clicked with bicycle riding again.

Tommy rode the Old Ghost Road on a modified Giant Reign by Paul "Pang" Angus, who's a friend from their days on the Clan DH team. For Tommy, this seems to have been something of a watershed moment. It got him back out there, enjoying the trails with friends. Although that bike did an admirable job, there's a large gulf between that setup and Tommy's current one.

With the help of SRAM, Tommy has worked out several key changes that have large knock-ons in terms of both ease of use and ultimately performance, and isn't that what we're all aiming for?

The Build

This was a true custom build.

A mid-travel trail bike offers a good compromise for Tommy and the technical trails he likes to ride.

The SRAM Code's master cylinder displaces enough oil to operate both Level calipers.


Frame & Wheels

Tommy rides a size large Santa Cruz Tallboy CC. When I asked "travel?" Tommy "yes, it will happily do 15 miles on a Sunday morning". With the top draw dad-jokes out the way and onto the suspension, the comparatively micro measurements are 120mm in the rear of the bike paired to a 150mm fork. Ample for a trail bike. Tommy stands at 182cm and runs the bike in its low setting.

The main draw of the bike is the one-sided brake and the steering damper. Steering dampers are common in other two-wheeled pursuits although less so in mountain biking. They essentially mute the trail feedback and aid stability. Think of it a bit like hitting a curb with your wheel - the handlebars act as a lever to magnify this force and the Hopey headset will help resist that sudden jolt. Similarly, it will add a degree of weight and precision to rider inputs.

Tommy runs Zipp 3Zero Moto wheels shod with Maxxis Assegai and DH2 combination. Tommy uses the Tyrewiz and 22PSI front and rear. The Zipp Motos are a wheel famed for their vertical compliance, and it seems very fitting for this application.

Headset & Cockpit

The Hopey damper sits external to the fork steerer.

To the left, to the left. Even with a flurry of World Cup XC riders using AXS, this is surely one of the best applications of this kind of technology.

Everything is held securely in its place, either by tape or band.

Tommy uses not only a steering damper but also a whole contingent of parts from SRAM. The AXS Reverb seatpost he uses is 150mm in drop.

Brakes

Clean as a whistle that's been recently boiled in Dettol.

The single-sided brake lever is the Code RSC and it manages to operate two SRAM Level two-pot calipers. Because of the Code's comparatively large master cylinder, it means it can displace enough oil to operate both calipers. A ramification, which is something of a double-edged sword, is that it's unlikely to achieve the piston pressure to lock either wheel. This, according to Tommy, works well but it is something you have to consciously set up for. He now spends less time with the bike undergoing hard braking and tends to brake for a longer duration at a lower intensity.

To have this system running optimally, Tommy feels it needs to be run with a lower amount of lever throw. This isn't just a preference for braking feel but also because, with just one hand having to provide both grip on the bar as well as operating the controls, the different bite point will affect Tommy's hand, wrist and subsequently body position.

There is a 200mm rotor on the front of the bike and a 180mm one on the rear. The Level T calipers use SRAM sintered pads.

The all important brake divider.

Suspension

Trail ready with 150mm Pike Ultimate...

... with a Deluxe Ultimate rear shock.

Tommy explains that because of his rather unique demands, fork setup can be tricky. He tends to weight the fork in a more passive manner, and subsequently find that there is quite a small window in terms of setup. The performance is there, it just takes some tinkering.


Drivetrain

Sram AXS XO Eagle on shifting duties. Tommy uses a 32T chainring with 165mm cranks.

Burgtec Penthouse MK5 pedals were the fruit of a late night foray into Ebay by Tommy.

Tommy found that the lack of left-sided rear shifters to be a sticking point, let alone running both brakes and a dropper from the same side. Initially, Tommy ran an upside-down gripshift. Whilst this did help it also had two main problems. Firstly, it meant his outer fingers were having to do even more gripping on a shorter length of grip. It also meant that whilst braking and using his weight to drive the bike through compressions, His wrist could begin to rotate on the mechanism and it would also start changing gear. Neither of which were particularly helpful.

Instead, he now uses the AXS lever which controls his dropper and the Blips system to control his gears. The blip buttons, which are more commonly found on road bikes, have been incorporated to the cockpit and held securely with simple electric tape where needed.



To follow Tommy and his adventures, you can find him on Instagram.


91 Comments

  • 42 0
 The ingenuity is amazing, especially when he dives into mtb's history of dead end technologies (like the steering Damper) to make this unique project bike work.
  • 8 0
 My wife is in a very similar position. And similar nerve damage although her damage was from compression of the spinal cord. We have been trying to get the dual control brakes from hope but they won't sell to us direct and the local distributor does not seem to carry them. In her case her right hand is stronger than left so shifting location is fine with dropper control on the right. Similarly she does not have internal temperature control so we always carry disposable hand warmers. Fingers crossed we can get the brakes figured out soon as back brake only is scary on any steep trails.
  • 5 0
 @fabwizard: try here is for the duo levers. I’ve purchased from them and had no issues with delivery to Montreal. Looks like they have some in stock.
www.tartybikes.co.uk
  • 2 1
 @rugbyred: thanks . But we need the ones with one lever controlling two calipers.

Left hand doesn't work.
  • 2 0
 @fabwizard: sorry. Try contacting them. Really helpful. Maybe they could order it for her. Good luck with the search.
  • 2 0
 @fabwizard: You're after the 'Tech 3 X2 Uno' in right hand, then. Tech 3 is the lever (you choose which side), X2 is the model of calipers, Uno means it's one lever actuating both calipers. I imagine NRG Enterprises would import them for you if you were ready to put a deposit down at your LBS.

www.nrgenterprises.com
www.hopetech.com/products/brakes/cross-country/tech-3-x2-uno
  • 4 0
 @fabwizard:

This is definitely the way to go, a shop that is a dealer will be able to special order them for you. Last I knew Hope is around three months out on new orders.

I have done a few setups for a customer with the Tech3 Duo. Prior to this we had him setup using a pair of stacked SRAM brake levers. He is much happier with the Hope configuration because of the adjustability and lever positions. Since he has a left hand setup we had to run the AXS shifter upside down, on the top. Fortunately Hope makes matchmakers and the shifter functions well for him this way. On his road bikes they’re converted to flat bar and configured for synchro-shift, AXS is really a game changer in that regard.

If you are having a lot of trouble getting a brakeset send me a DM and I’ll see if I can help out!
  • 1 0
 @fabwizard: Hey you could 3d print one of those hose junctions. I think you might be able to make one that will last a few runs, might have to change once in a while but why not right?
  • 1 0
 @frreride4life420: While as a able bodied person i may try, my wife would kill me if her brakes failed, she has been through enough trauma, another bad crash due to brakes may stop her from riding anymore.

Also, one thing to point out is this type of system would result in 1/2 pressure to each brake.
  • 1 0
 @fabwizard: The other people to speak to with an insight into the adaptive biking world might be Bowhead Corp (www.bowheadcorp.com).
I have met them a few times and they are a good crew.

Also get hold of Hope directly, whilst they are larger than they used to be, I found them excellent to deal with when I wanted some custom stuff done in 2001 (wow twenty years ago).

And as far as small scale machining for the brake adapter if you don't find anyone you trust locally then reach out to James at "The Fix" in Whistler or Pete Fowler at "Pinner Machine Works" in Whistler. They have both made excellent small parts for myself and a lot of other riders in the past.
  • 19 0
 I belive hope produce brakes to be controlled with 1 hand over two brakes;
  • 3 0
 @TommyWilkinson have you seen that? Pretty cool setup Hope has for one hand braking
  • 5 0
 Whole thing looks sram sponsored so unlikely for him to use that
  • 3 0
 @vemegen: indeed, but... it's not like sram lacks the resources to create something similar
  • 4 0
 @AndrewHornor: I suspect that Hope's in house machining capabilities are more suited to one off projects like that than the casted pieces made by sram (or probably for sram by a third party).
  • 6 0
 @AndrewHornor: Yeah, I looked at it for a while. I really really like being able to ride with 1 finger braking again which I couldn’t do with the Hope set up. I suspect the Hope set up is more powerful though. Always a trade off.
  • 2 0
 @TommyWilkinson: I just stack a pair of levers on the same side. One finger on each lever and you can modulate front versus rear with full power. I have done this setup with both Hope and Sram. Simple and no mods required.
  • 2 0
 @kathwill: the problem with the nerve damage is the dexterity to control two levers is lost. For example if my wife uses her left/front lever she cannot let go of the brake unless she stops and pulls her hand off.
  • 3 0
 @kathwill: that’s what I used to do for a few years but found on the really steep stuff I just couldn’t hold on. I struggled on Danimal due to this but would like to head back and try it now with the single lever. I found It makes such a difference to the levels of arm pump having just one finger removed from the bars. But, before I my current set up, I did just crack on with the stacked levers. As you say, not so bad really.
  • 1 0
 @TommyWilkinson: is the brake splitter a 50/50 or there's a different ratio between front and rear brake pressure? I guess playing with the rotor size or calipers could probably work in a similar way too.
  • 1 0
 @TommyWilkinson: I'm glad to hear it's by your choice and not just SRAM allowing hope to outdo them haha. That makes total sense, I would not really want to do 2 finger braking either!
  • 6 0
 when i used to race in the pearce cycles events back in 2003 etc there was a lad that had one arm ,his was missing from just above the elbow and he had a system whare it locked in to the bar and an alloy forearm with an ingenius hinged elbow with some sort of wire connecting the forarm to the upper to limit the movement.he had two hope m4 brakes on one side set up at different lever pull distance from the bars and used different fingers for brakeing.he was a crazy guy hitting the jumps at bringe wood and the rock section when it was a challenge wonder if he still rides.
  • 11 0
 He was called Tom too. Tom Smart. I remember him from NPS races. He was pretty quick!
  • 1 0
 @TommyWilkinson: there was an article about him in MBUK. He rode a Rotwild, if I remember. The article was titled "one arm bandit". At that point his prosthesis was basically a lifting eye that he hung off the end of his bar. Like a total legend.
  • 1 0
 @norbert-sendtressangle: I think I remember him on an Ancilotti too. He had a couple of photos in Dirt mag as well....What a guy!
  • 1 0
 @TommyWilkinson @GrandMasterOrge I hope his CV is just that photo
  • 1 0
 I remember a one armed rider in mbuk in the late 90’s, he called himself “the crip who rips”
  • 1 0
 Met a guy at student nationals in 2002 or 2003 at hamsterley (from memory) who had similar. He had a ball joint on the LH bar that he clipped his prosthetic into. He had a crash on a road gap next to us and it overtorqued the joint and he had to force it straight again. Bloody fast rider! Nice bloke as well
  • 6 0
 I've seen a few one-handed bikes before and I'm wondering why the rider doesn't cut the bars down on the side that doesn't get used. Wouldn't having less bar on one side be an advantage in tight spaces?
  • 2 0
 Some folks may still have two contact points even though the controls are one-sided.
  • 38 0
 I like having it for one main reason; with limited spatial awareness on my right side, the bar can be very handy for hitting things before I do.....
  • 3 0
 I suspect it makes the bike a pain to move around as well when your not riding it. I remember seeing an interview with a one legged rider years ago who was asked why he had two cranks and it was because other people occasionally rode his bike! Sometimes basic practicality is a consideration
  • 3 0
 This is weird reading this story with the name "Tommy" everywhere. I had a spinal cord injury resulting in my left hand becoming fully paralyzed (and 80% paralysis in left leg) in 2017, name is also Tommy, also riding a TB4... with a very crowded cockpit on the right.

@TommyWilkinson what is that brake splitter you are using or was it custom built? I looked into Outbraker but the thought of one brake failing and all brakes fail freaked me out. I currently have G2 RSCs stacked (and the Hope Tech 3 X2 Duos on a different bike) with an upside down dropper lever.. luckily my left hand atrophied into a fist so it pseudo-grips the bars on the left. I feel like I'm thumb-wrestling my bike sometimes with everything so spread out but does the trick for now.
  • 3 0
 Beginning to be thankful I didn’t call my little boy Tommy! (Excuse the dark humour if it’s not your bag…). Maybe we need a T to the power 4 article!

I have an outerbraker, but I was extremely to be offered this Sram custom before I got a chance to use it. Sram custom made the splitter but I assume Outerbraker would work in a similar way.

I stacked Codes for 6 years or so, and it was fine, but the single lever has been an eye opener. I also think really hard about the long term implications of an altered grip position and strain on the hand that a stacked set up causes. The single lever, I hope, will protect the long term health of my only hand. Biking is important, but I can’t work if I end up with a very arthritic hand.
  • 2 1
 @TommyWilkinson: Ha! Yeah the name should die alongside my left-sided nerves. I have some cadaver's C6 fused into my neck, so telling people I'm part dead inside now gets a laugh every 12th try.

The arthritis bit is a good point... Didn't think too much about that. The X2 Uno by Hope seems to be a similar concept to your deal (not sure if these came out around the same time as the dual lever single caliper X2 Duos..) www.hopetech.com/products/brakes/cross-country/tech-3-x2-uno

Always pondering ways to make it cozier..

Cheers,

Tommy V4
  • 2 0
 @sci-biker: The fact you guys can laugh about this with a good attitude is simply awesome. You should definitely continue all the corny dark humor jokes you can manage.

But yes the Tommy thing is a bit creepy.
  • 3 0
 @sci-biker: I had not seen the X2 uno. I like the look of that.


1 in 12 is quite a hit rate. I suspect the percentage of people who meet living, or unliving, experiments is less than 1 in 12. When people ask "I'm alright" I usually reply that I'm 2/3rds left these days. Never gets much of a response. When I tell people that I might get it amputated, pickled and framed that does usually get a response, but not quite as I imagine it in my head. Oh well!

As for the arthritis.....probably best to enjoy first and consider second.
  • 1 0
 @TommyWilkinson @sci-biker I use the stacked as well, I've tried a splitter but really value being able to modulate both brakes separately at 100% of it's power. Also being a trials rider, having the ability to modulate is key. I also felt more strain on my hand using a splitter versus having to brakes, they set up naturally enough for me that I have no issues with strain. I also use a double brake lever setup on my road bike, which I've won a National Championship with.
  • 1 0
 @coppellstereo: Are you stacking the brakes for any particular reason? And are you referring to any particular hydraulic splitter? I used the problem solvers mechanical splitter at one point and that thing was pure pain. The Hope X2 Duo is actually phenomenal for two levers and they're super easy to engage. It doesn't take nearly as much effort compared to my two stacked Sram G2 RSCs.
  • 1 0
 @sci-biker: I stack them because of my physical disability. I used the Outbraker for the Hydraulic splitter and then for the mechanical I've used my own that I made as well as the Problem Solvers. Stacking them is way better for me than a splitter. But I'd love to get my hand on the Hope version, but my current setup works just fine so I haven't pulled the trigger on the Hope brakes.
  • 1 0
 @coppellstereo: Thanks for the insight! The Hopes are definitely sweet. If my bike had Shimano I'd make the switch since Shimano's calipers are so big and don't stack well. Never owned Hope stuff in the past, but I guess they have their following for a reason. Cheers.
  • 3 0
 @TommyWilkinson I met you in Queenstown as you were just dialling in the double brake-levered gripshift Giant, and while this final build is great ingenuity, and I’m so stoked you’re still riding, I am a little disappointed you haven’t cut off the other half of the handlebars yet.
  • 2 0
 Cheers dude! Time can wait until I go for the 0.5 chop. I feel it should be reflective of my body, which has got me thinking. Now, where's my chainsaw?
  • 3 0
 Tom seems to be a really popular name for this type of injury,
there are two riders ive bumped into with adapted bikes because of losing the use of an arm.
Tom Wheeler and Tom Banister and now Tom(my) Wilkinson...
  • 5 0
 Used to race against Wheeler and know him fairly well. Bannister I didn't know before my wee accident, but he's awesome. Unbelievable how he rides.
  • 4 0
 hope tech offers an interesting solution for one-handed braking

www.hopetech.com/products/brakes/cross-country/tech-3-duo
  • 6 2
 Amazing engineering to make it work, even more amazing the determination to keep riding. Let’s see an action shot!
  • 1 0
 I wonder if there are some problems with the same force applied to both calipers while riding (fall over the handlebar)... Maybe a 180 rear and a 160 front disc?? I was thinking years ago to mechanical brakes, and the front a little bit spongy compared with the rear brake.
  • 1 0
 @TommyWilkinson great build - could you maybe share which manufacturer builds the brake divider? I´ve client in the shop who maybe needs to change to a solution like that. I´ve already looked up some solutions, but most of them come from companies I´ve never heard of and if your´s work it would be very helpful.
  • 2 0
 I run a similar but with a pinch pad for your knees . The pinch pad it was hands down is the best upgrade I have made . Made jumping possible again , rock gardens most of all the stuff you shouldn’t be doing with one arm
  • 1 0
 @TommyWilkinson have you had any issues with the Hopey damper rotating in the upper headset cup on harder impacts? I had one on my Pivot Switchblade (with the ZeroStack 44mm adapter plate), and it would never stay put, so I've been riding one-handed without any damping for a year now. Super sketchy.
  • 1 0
 Friend ofine got a brachial plexus injury from a track day crash an lost the use of his arm. Doctors did nerve tissue surgery an gave him back the use of his hand... He can twist a throttle... So he still rides superbikes!
  • 2 0
 And you would be amazed as to what he actually does ride with it..... #HtVFO
  • 1 0
 this is rad! Keep charging @TommyWilkinson! I know its not the same but I had a really bad wrist injury, and find a lot of inspiration in stories like this! thank you!
  • 2 0
 Very inspirational and innovative article. I hope this helps others with disabilities get out riding
  • 2 0
 Super clean Tommy! Really need to catch up for a ride. That wireless set-up looks well good.
  • 2 0
 Deffo! I was in S Wales last week but sans bike. Fancy some Risca / Cwmcarn hits!
  • 2 0
 Spent some time filming with Tommy at the croft one day, such a nice guy! Bike looks awesome dude!
  • 1 0
 Can we get a shot or short video of him actually riding the bike? All this and I'd really like to see how it gets put into motion.
  • 2 0
 I'll try and get something lined up for you.
  • 3 1
 I wanna know more about that steering damper
  • 2 0
 www.hopey.org

I have a couple in my parts bin from the distant past. Very cool design that did exactly what it was supposed to do. Made it harder to get deflected off centre, but would come back to centre with no damping.
  • 1 0
 honestly - seemed gimmicky before I tried one... until you ride with one for a while/ get used to it.. and then go back to not having one.
it's super helpful for tech sections/ highspeed chop/ places where people tend to over grip with their hands and sections where keeping your line is more difficult. it's nice because the harder the impact the more it works to help, but for slow movements like with you hands it has mush less resistance.

I'm not saying it's for everyone, but it's definitely helpful for a specific rider type

I don't have one these days, but seeing this article makes me want to get one again!!!
  • 2 0
 NoFrontBrakes needs this brake adapter! super cool
  • 1 0
 He sure does!
  • 1 0
 Me too. The brake divider could fit right to the lever and It could look cleaner??
  • 1 0
 Who was the guy in the ultimate freeride challenge who had one arm back in the day?
  • 1 0
 Hell yeah! And Tommy is also an awesome photographer. Always had a huge respect for you man!
  • 1 0
 Not sure why the external damper is needed when this exists: canecreek.com/product/viscoset
  • 3 0
 Tried it, but it doesn't have the same levels of damping sadly.
  • 1 0
 @TommyWilkinson: Ah, good to know! Dialed rig dude.
  • 2 0
 @TommyWilkinson huuuuuuuuuuuuuuhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
  • 2 0
 Huhhhhhheeeeeeerrrrrrrrrrrrreeeerrrrrrrrr . I shall be blowing the Huck Wizard shell as soon as I’m able….,
  • 1 0
 Hope literally makes a 2 in 1 brake lever… also we need that AXS shifter remote
  • 1 0
 Good going Tommy.
I’d turn the T fitting 90deg for more elegant cable route
  • 1 0
 Awesome build!! Looks rad.
  • 2 0
 Awesome, inspirational!
  • 1 0
 Break divider for all bikes ????! Save weight
  • 1 0
 how does he keep his right hand on the bar?
  • 3 0
 I don't. It lives in its own little world.....If you'd seen me racing the 2008 World Cup in fort William you'd have probably been asking "why doesn't he keep his hand on the bars...." as I came flying out of the woods sans bike.....
  • 1 0
 @TommyWilkinson: I ride one handed as well(strap non operative hand to the bar). Have you tried running two sram brake levers on the same side?
It works really well with the match maker set up, dropper and shifter all operable with one hand.
Probably even better with your electronic setup!
  • 1 0
 Props to Tommy for getting back on the bike.
  • 1 0
 is the Hopey damper still available?
  • 1 0
 Right side of the bars is making Dangerholm quiver in his Lemmys.
  • 1 0
 Love the brake divider,so simple yet so brilliant
  • 1 0
 New Cannondale brand ambassador for LEFTY fork! - I'll show myself out...
  • 2 1
 "whilst breaking"
  • 1 0
 Breaking, braking... I mean, if you're gonna write e-mag articles...
  • 1 0
 What a boss!

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