How I Ride A Mountain Bike With A Paralysed Arm | The Tom Wheeler Documentary


– Today is a pretty interesting day for me because I get to meet a
mountain biker who’s used tech to overcome a life-changing injury. His name’s Tom Wheeler and he works for Fox
UK here in South Wales. Now back in 2011 he was an
expert level downhill racer, really coming up through the ranks, when he managed to hit
a tree at full tilt. And the injury was so severe
it pulled out all his nerves that control his arm from his spine. Instantly paralyzing him. But Tom’s unlike most
other mountain bikers, he’s a lateral thinker and he’s actually managed to find a way, an ingenious way, of continuing
to ride a mountain bike. And his journey really
is quite remarkable. Hello, mate. – Hey, buddy, how we doing? – How you doing, been a while? – It has. – Mate, I cannot wait to hear this story. There’s so much–
– There’s a lot. – To this.
– Let’s do it then. – Yeah, let’s go.
– Come on, awesome. (metallic blast) (gentle harp music) – [Tom] It’s always been kind of, seeing my older brother race. He was there right when my
driving downhill started so it was always kind of my goal to grow up to be a downhiller. It just felt natural. You know, I’d gone from
being a six year old, on the one side of the tape, watching him and cheering him on. To being like a competitor, almost. My category was made up of Josh Bryceland, Sam Dale, Joe Smith. I mean, It wasn’t an easy category. And that was my expectation was
to be better than them boys. It was in a different league
to what I’ve ever done. I just rode bikes before, but I was starting to do focused training. And man, I thought, well
if I’m going to do it. I finished Uni, I thought
right, let’s do it. Let’s put everything into it. I don’t want to look back and think, I didn’t put my all in. So I went into expert
and then I was winning. So I won Cwmcarn, I won Gethin. It had changed, it went
from being reasonably quick to being someone who’s going
to to be fastest over all, that kind of thing. It was everything I wanted racing to be. It was full package, it was all there. I was like, well I want
to keep this going’, ’cause once you’re up to speed
you just want to keep at it. So I booked into Rheola,
last minute in the week. I never do that. And my schedule’s planned
like months before so I was like, right. And it’s one of them tracks
where I love it but it’s fast. And when you are really
pushing, it can bite you. (gentle harp music) Turned up, I thought, everything’s mint. Everything just feels spot on. Bike’s good, I’m in a good
place, head’s in a good place. It came to the last run of the day. I’m always smiles on the track, ’cause I’m in my element, you know? That’s my favorite place to be. I’m already thinking about
meeting my girlfriend, you know what I mean,
it’s last run in Rheola. But, at the bottom section, I was doing my typical racer thing. Making the most of the way it was taped. And I’d found that you
could run super wide before it really opened up. And your entry speed into the
next section was just nuts. I came in fine, and I was
probably going a bit slower than I was earlier in the day but just on the right side of the track there’s a branch overhanging
the tape and it jarred me. But I think it actually
grabbed a bit of front brake. And it just happened so quick. (crashing) Just straight in. I got super lucky ’cause my
head deflected off a tree and then it went into my neck. My head actually, on the
footage you see it go round and then that, it just, yeah. Blacked out, done. (heart beating)
(gentle harp music) I think I went in and out. And then I was just trying to make, just coping with it I guess,
is the best way of doin’ it. I just never forget saying,
“Stanley just pop it back in.” I just felt my shoulder had popped out. I heard stories of
people popping shoulders, pinching nerves and you lose feeling. I was like, “Just pop it back in.” and he’s like, “It’s not out.” I’m like, “What do you mean it’s not out?” I associated that with
like, it must be out because I can’t feel anything. (gentle harp music) And then it all, yeah. I did the check round,
legs, I can move my legs. I can move my arm. I thought I was moving my
right arm and nothing at all. (helicopter blades whirling) The helicopter came in,
it got me out of there. They say, your mind goes
into a different place so it was very much like, “This
isn’t good but it kind of is. “I’ve got good people around
me, I’ve got familiar faces.” And then yeah, it was a messy couple
of two weeks after that. – [Interviewer] Yeah. (gentle electronic music) – One thing, I was speaking
to my fiance about it and the one thing that got both of us, ’cause we both went down
to see him in hospital and it was just the
positivity straight away. It was the situation he was in which all of a sudden,
you know is life changing. And just the positivity he come out with, there and then, was inspiring. – I worried for a little while about how he would be without racin’, ’cause that’s all he’s ever known. He did his first race in the
year 2000 in Booster Lodge and he was three and a
half, I think it was, in the peewee category. And it played such a major part in him, I didn’t know how it was going to work out but I was always confident it would. – Initially I was like kind of relieved, ’cause I had all this
pressure of racing a bike. And when someone says, “That
ain’t going to happen.” It’s kind of a really odd thing. It’s like well, “That sucks,
but at least I can chill.” (laughs) That kind of mentality. It didn’t last long. – I think it was actually in hospital, so it would be a few days after the crash. It was a case of, “So what
I’m plannin’ is kind of like “an exoskeleton or I seen
Tom Banister use a sling.” So it was straight away,
it was a case of when you’re gettin’ on the bike, not how. – I got one arm, it’s going to be hard. But, if I can balance on a
20 inch and attempt footjams in the garden with one arm,
I can ride a mountain bike. We’ll just make it a bit
easier for me, if I can. – [Off Camera Man] Nice, bro! (laughing) Oh, he’s back. – And then you just got
to whisper it to Chris, he was my boss at the time. – At no point, after he had the accident, did I think, “That’s the
end of Tom’s riding.” I was all for helping
Tom get back on the bike, if he wanted to do it. – So when everyone heard that
I actually wanted to ride one-handed, people wanted to
help as much as they could. Whether it was my brother,
my best mates, whatever, it was like, “Let’s do it.” – He convinced me it was a
good idea and wanted to try it, so we did it. Moving all those controls
to the left hand side. – And before I knew it, I had a full adapted one-handed set up. Well, can’t complain about that. I ain’t got any excuses now, have I? – He had the MotoGP thumb
brake and all sorts of things. Very complicated, very
difficult to get set up. – And then it only really
started to make sense when another rider, Thomas
Banister, he’s local to us, he went out, I got to thank him massively. He went out of his way, he’s
had the injury five years before I did mine, he came
and saw me at my house. And that completely changed everything for my family, and me. We got to see somebody livin’ with it and basically just making life work. Not just that, he adapted his
bike and he was shreddin’. I’d seen some videos and I
was just like, “Holy cow!” So you can ride that hard one-handed? Unbelievable and it was just like, “Well, that’s what I’m going to do.” And straight away that
competitive side of me, well, there’s already
another one-handed rider. I got to be as good as him, or better. And then thanks to him he
just gave me some advice and he mentioned the steering damper. Put me steering damper and my goodness me, what a difference. It went from literally
holding on for dear life, trying to steady the
bars, to whoa, hang on, I can weight the front wheel and I can start to go pretty damn quick. I was holding my body in my position well. – It was only for about a couple of months that I was quicker than him. – That’s when I started
to pick up the progression of ridin’ a bike with one hand, and it stopped being such a problem. And I was ridin’ with Luke, my best mate, and we’re at Cwmcarn. – And we got three
quarters of the way around. And we stopped for a break, and a bloke come up alongside
on his bike and said, “Oh, you’re ridin’ with one
arm, that’s impressive.” – “If you pass me on here,
I’ll go first, if you pass me, “I’ll have to sell my bike, won’t I?” – I looked over and
Tom’s just lookin’ at me, and I said, “No, don’t go!” – And I was like, “Whoa,
shouldn’t have said that, Dude.” – Off he went and I’m shoutin’ after him, and that was it then, he was gone. Within 600 meters, he overtook him. Unfortunately, that
ended with a big crash. One of many. – And I did, I got carried away. And that’s when we
realized the front brake wasn’t such a great idea. So I was givin’ it the
beans, and all the sudden my hand just went, dunk,
away from my brakes. Going about, it’s a quick section, and I just went ploughin’ off the trail. Massive crash, and I was like– – [Interviewer] That’s it. – Done, I can’t be runnin’ that. – And I was always, I never told him, I was always nervous about
this, truly one-handed set up, with one hand in a sling,
and one hand on the bar. At that point I said we had to
go back to the drawing board and rethink it, it wasn’t
going to work, I didn’t think. – Ridin’ with one had
was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Even now when things do to
wrong and my hand comes off, or whatever, it just makes me realize, “Jeez, you got to have
some balls to do that.” And a big thing turnin’ back to riding is I didn’t want to turn
back to this level of riding without it bein’ safe. If it’s not safe, I ain’t doin’ it. – You know, Tom and
I’d always talked about the idea of something around the arm. – Luckily, at the time, a mad Chris Porter was allowing me to create an arm brace. So we just waited a little
while and got the arm brace. – We looked at the injury that Tom had and how we could stabilize his arm so that he could lean on it. And how we could stabilize the shoulder, because at that point,
he still hadn’t built up enough muscle for it to stay in. It was just droppin’ out of the
shoulder joint all the time. So we had an old shoulder,
an old EVS shoulder brace, a neoprene thing for stabilizing, and that seemed to stop
the arm falling out. And I had knee braces made
for the motocycle enduro racing that I was doin’ at that time. And I had them custom-made
by a company in London. And I knew that they did
other types of braces. I’d seen a wrist brace from them before. I was thinkin’, if we
had that wrist brace, and a kind of a knee brace style, carbon brace here for this part. And maybe a shock absorber
for him to lean on, then he could ride really well. – Okay, so this is your current
brace that you’re using? – Yep, the first one, actually. – This is the first, real one, wow, okay. – It’s been modified over the years, but the carbon you see is,
what was, we came up with all those years ago. – So this looks like it’s from
the inside of a knee pad– – Correct.
– Or similar? – Yeah, no Nick Brayless, we got chattin’ and basically after I
went to L’Alpe d’Huez to shoot the Megavalanche. I had so much pain in my shoulder, I was shreddin’ there and I loved it, but I didn’t have all
this stuff yet and this. So I was gettin’ real nasty impacts– – [Andrew] Jarring sort of. – So we came up with
this idea of using this. And this is actually, I
think it’s a knee pad one. – Yeah, okay. – And it’s Soyuz Tec, it takes
a lot of that impact away. And then mixed with the Autobot. This is actually made for
brachial plexus injuries to help with subluxation. But it helps lift the brace
into me, it kind of becomes one. And then working our way
down, you see the damper, probably recognize a
Kashima body tube there. Got to have a Kashima body tube. And it’s a fully custom Fox shock, it’s all made of Fox components. God, I’ve got, I think there’s
stuff from ’98 in there. I think this is an old van
shaft, stainless steel shaft. Just ’cause the brake
away force is really good. So we’re just tryin’ to
emulate an elbow movement. Which is really difficult to do. Like anything on a human
body to actually recreate it, but this was the closest we got. To look at it, it is pretty damn basic. But that damper does a lot of
things which allow me to ride the way I do. Like changin’ body
position and weight in it. Havin’ this soft initial stroke
allows all those movements to be controlled, to some extent. And I know over the years I
made a few other modifications. So this use to be carbon out
front, but I was wearin’ it away ’cause I’d put these
mavic rachets off shoes. They just work really well. And that’s what I strapped down to. So I actually ended up
3D printin’ a piece, so this a flex– – [Andrew] A bit more
flexible, yeah, wow, okay. – So it shapes the hand a bit better. – One of the biggest problems he had was with the disconnection. He was worried– – [Andrew] Gettin’ off the bike. – Yeah, with the crash. – We thought I was going to
full function of my hand back. So we designed the arm
brace with the intention that I’d have enough grip to hold a grip. So all of this interface to the bike was never really thought about. We were just going to
kind of see how it went. So first ride out, I’ll just
put grip tape on the actual handlebar and I had a Fox glove. We put Velcro, my mum
stitched Velcro to a glove. And wrapped it around
and just strapped me up. I was like, “Whatever,” I
couldn’t feel anything at the time and I got on the bike
and just straight away I had that bilateral
control all the sudden. I was like, “Whoa!” Got to the end, got to the car park, took my glove off, and just red. Just worn all the skin
off the bottom of my hand. And I didn’t even know. So it was like, ah, we need
to work out a way around this. – The next thing was about how
on earth he attached himself to the bike and released from the bike. – So that’s where Tom
started his own thing then. With the 3D printer and the NotBroken and tryin’ to make his own parts so that he could make a system
that he could click into. And then go off riding, himself. – So, at the time I had what are called night restin’ splints, which
look a little bit like this. This is beefed up, so the NHS
actually made this up for me. Really good for prototypin’, actually. You heat the material,
shape it to your hand, it’s quite tough. That then, I got pretty
friendly with Mandy at Swansea, she is ace. I was like, “I need one
wrapped round a lock on grip. “I’ve just got a new
bike and it’s baby blue. “So can you do it in blue for me?” And she’s like, “Yeah, of course!” She was kind enough to
make this contraption. So it’s a much lighter
weight, which gave me flex, ’cause at the time we were
actually locking the grip. There was no rotation in the grip. Which, obviously, the wrist
does this all the time. – That’s what you need, actually. – So this actually allowed
for me to have that sensation but with resistance. But it worked, that got me
back riding technical descents. (bike wheels spinning) I was dealin’ with Dominic Eggbeer, who’s a PDO who specializes,
he’s a surgical engineer, and he does 3D printin’ and he’s a biker. So then Dom was like, “Well,
I’ll design one with you.” So, that’s cool. So literally, I dunno him, you know how it’s for a man, like. I used to go up to his house, and he’d just let me sit there. I’d tell him what I
needed and then from that we started designing this kind of thing. Pretty awesome, actually,
when you think about it. This is made on a desktop printer. We were just tryin’ to see the limits of low cost 3D printin’. And that was printed on a £230 machine. – [Andrew] No way. – CNC and doing one off
pieces that are metal if you’re not doin’ it yourself, you just can’t even
begin to start like that. Those parts cost me a small fortune. On another time I was gettin’ a lot better at my 3D designing. – He’s really dug in, he
learned out to do the 3D CAD. He learned how to drive the 3D printers. He learned how the different materials make different types of strength plastics. – And then we got on to,
well, what it is today. What you see here is what is my carriage. So this is what’s on the bar, it looks a bit more like this. So these are all different materials. So what I do is, I start
with what’s called a low cost 3D print material called PLE. You can buy a kilogram
of it for about £15. And that will allow you to
do hundreds of prototypes. So I prototype with that stuff. Size it all up and then yeah,
it basically ends up being good enough then to into your
higher, more expensive stuff. And that’s when Dom
decided he wanted to buy a fancy machine which does nylon with reinforced carbon fiber. – Wow. – So these studs, I’ve got
some on me bike at the moment. If you see little bits of black in them, they’ve actually got carbon fiber in ’em. And the studs on my bike,
which actually have been on there holding me, they’ve done France, done Morgins twice. I’ve been on them for three years. – Wow, that’s significant– – That’s how strong they are. So yeah, massive difference. But the whole process of 3D
printin’ has allowed me to make some really intricate stuff. So this is our latest one. This is called raid in 3D printed, and that’s flex 3D printed. – No way.
– Yeah. And then this bit of mold
is made from silicone but made from a 3D printed mold. – [Andrew] Right, okay, it’s all evolved. – So it’s still using it, but yeah. And then this is what I
call the pop-lock system. Really basic, and it just
relies on a pop on and off. And then you got little
bumpers inside then to change how much it rotates. So that’s like, hopefully,
going to be the first thing I can make available to the public. – Yeah, that’s really smart. – So then you just use a C clamp then, and you’re good to go. You’ve got your full
system to get you riding, basic, like canal paths,
that kind of thing. – We haven’t ironed out all the bugs. Obviously, we’re going to. Tom is client zero, he is the test pilot. I think a lot of the trouble
that we have with the brand and with the product is
that we’re quite visible on social media and online. And I think, rightly so, that people that are in
similar situations to Tom look towards and think we have the answer. And maybe we do, but we’re
still a bit of a time away. We’re not production-ready
and it’s not manufacturable, at the moment, because we’re
still working on things on a 3D printer. I’d like to think we
could move it to a place where we could offer it to other people. That would be, I think
that’s a good legacy, I think that’s a good thing to give back. (soothing guitar music) – You can anyone growin’
up about what he was like when we were younger, and the only thing they’ll say is bikes. It’s not just him, it’s his whole family, it’s just bikes, bikes and bikes. – It gave us some common ground and something that we had in common that we could orientate ourselves around and organize ourselves around. Don’t underestimate bicycles,
they change your life. – All this, this is scary. How do you go from havin’
nothing, no solution, to lookin’ all around the whole world. Nobody else has come up with a solution. – [Andrew] And making your own. – And you think, well, actually, maybe I’m just going to have to make it. – [Off Camera Biker] You all right? You absolutely muppet. – Everyone says, “Oh, you’re nuts!” Well, not, everything’s a calculated risk. Just like racin’ was,
it was all calculated. Just unfortunately on
that day, it went wrong. Thought I’d spend the
rest of my life going, “I’m not doin’ that.” Although I’d have a go,
and I’d rather have a go. (laughing) – [Rhys] From where he
was before the accident to where he is now, two completely different individuals. All with the same kind of traits
so, self-driven, motivated, focused, determined. – [Luke] Driven, either way. Whatever time, always driven. Very passionate about
bikes and just hands on with everything, no pun intended. – I think Tom’s biggest problems are not his physicality anymore, he’s come to terms with that. I think it’s the constant
nerve pain that you get when you get an injury like that. That’s the biggest thing for Tom. He wanted to be there,
he wanted that company, and the camaraderie, he
didn’t want to sit at home and mope and be depressed. So we didn’t let him. (gentle guitar music) – One thing which does
bother me about it is, when you crash on something, whether you’re learning the right trails, trying a new line, if you crash it, you get up and you try again. And that’s a way of puttin’ it behind you. I never finished my run. (gentle music) So we’re just heading to Rheola, the place where I crashed in 2011. So I’ve not actually been here since. – [Off Camera Man] How
do you feel about it? – It’s an interesting one, I didn’t know how I was going to feel. But at the top of the
track there’s a mast, and you can see it from quite a way out. And I’d seen it, and I
think the scary thing about comin’ back here isn’t
the fact that I’m scared of ridin’ the track, it’s
just, it was such an eye opener for how easily and how
quickly it can go wrong. (gentle piano music) I think this is it. It doesn’t feel like eight years ago. Like it literally feels like yesterday. All right, I think I’m
going to have go up there and have a roll down, guys. – [Off Camera Man] Yeah, ooh. It only took seven years, buddy. Seven years in the makin’, I guess. Are you guys ready? Let’s do this! (upbeat rock music) (laughing)
(cheering) Whoo! (laughing) Whoo! You were nearly grinnin’. – Yeah. Awesome, innit? Cheers, dad. – What Tom Wheeler has
managed to accept, tackle and overcome against
all the odds really is, well it’s frankly, staggering. And although I’ve met
Tom many times before at bike events and even at Fox UK, actually hangin’ out
with him for a few days has really made me realize
what a unique guy he is. And how well positioned he is. And as for him out ridin’ on the trails? I’m literally blown away, I
can’t believe what he’s capable to do, with the system
that he has developed from an astonishing amount
of research and work and sheer persistence. I think it’s absolutely
amazing what Tom has achieved. Now if you want to find out
a bit more about his bike, this bad boy right here,
you’re going to have to tune in to GMBN Tech next week. And we’re running a bit
of a special pro bike and we’ll be chattin’ to
Tom about all the details of that set up on his bike. Now if you liked this project
and you want to see us make some more long form
content here, on GMGN Tech, let us know what you’d like in those in those comments below. And as always, please
give us a huge thumbs up, especially in this case, if you love what Tom Wheeler is doing. I’m going to put some
links to what Tom does is the description underneath this video. And watch this space for some
more cool content comin’ up. Cheers, guys.