I was skeptical of SoftWheel’s Acrobat wheels when I first saw them. Suspension built into a wheel? It seemed like a gimmicky sort of idea, something that’s good for marketing copy, but unlikely to function well in the real world.
Admittedly, part of my skepticism was due to my own ignorance. How does that even work? I thought. Does the rim flex? Seems like that would be pretty sloppy for pushing. It took me until I actually pulled a demo pair of Acrobats out of the box to realize how they work: Aah, the hub flexes within the rim. That makes a lot more sense. I felt pretty dumb, but also a little excited to try them.
I’ve been thinking about getting a suspension chair ever since I spent the better part of a year in Latin America, where sidewalks are full of gaps, cracks, and bumps, and I spent a lot of time dropping off curbs. All that jarring put my low back in a state of continual dull ache. I began to regret not bringing a chair with suspension. But suspension adds weight to a chair, and chairs with it are typically bulky in the wrong places when you pull your frame in and out of your car on a regular basis. South America is one thing, but given the drawbacks, suspension seemed unnecessary for the States.
Recently, my wife and I bought a house in a neighborhood with a distinct lack of curb cuts and numerous uneven sidewalks. I take my dog and 6-month-old son for a lot of walks and there are plenty of days that my back would appreciate a softer ride.
The first thing I noticed when I pulled the wheels out of the box isn’t necessarily a positive: they’re heavy. At 4.8 pounds for the aluminum version, they’re almost three times the weight of a Spinergy Spox wheel. SoftWheel, however, claims that their wheels are actually more efficient to push than a regular wheelchair wheel. They even have graphs to prove it.
I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the graphs, but in my testing, the force required to push my everyday chair with the Acrobats on both flats and hills felt very similar to pushing with Spinergy’s. Considering they have three shock absorbers built into each wheel, that’s a pretty impressive feat of engineering.
The weight is more noticeable when I break my chair down to put it in my car. But even though they’re heavier than my regular wheels, it’s not like lifting 5 pounds into my car is a strain, and it’s definitely less of a pain than lifting a frame with suspension built into it.
The folks at SoftWheel told me the wheels would take a few days to break in, but I actually noticed the suspension as soon as I took them for a roll and dropped off a curb. It was a whole lot less jarring than it normally is. For the first few days, I only noticed the suspension for curb-sized drops or hitting larger bumps at speed.
As the wheels broke in, the ride did become noticeably softer. All the bumps, cracks and drops on my daily pushing routes were noticeably smoothed. All in all, the wheels performed exactly as I’d hoped. By switching wheels, my chair felt like it had built in suspension. When the time came to wrap up the demo, I didn’t want to take them off and send them back.
Which brings us to price. You can get a pair of base model Acrobats from Numotion for $1,800. That’s a lot of money for a set of wheels, especially considering you can get pair of Topolino carbon fiber wheels that weigh 1.3 pounds per wheel for just under $1,000. Whether or not Acrobats are worth $1,800 is situational. If you spend a lot of time wheeling over rough ground, or if you have significant pain issues that a softer ride would benefit, they’re certainly cheaper than buying a wheelchair with built-in suspension. And they offer the same benefits with less downsides than a suspension frame.
NuMotion offers a free 10-day demo of Acrobats. If you’re thinking about upgrading to a softer ride, they’re definitely worth a test. The general public can purchase SoftWheels directly from NuMotion, 877/876-5332; www.shopnumotion.com, and veterans are invited to purchase them from Ki Mobility, 715/254.0991; www.kimobility.com.