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Recumbents offer riders benefits over conventional bikes

By Dawn Hewitt
Hoosier Times
Bloomington IN

Perhaps you've seen those crazy-looking bikes around town, or touring along country roads - bikes in which the rider is seated as in a chair, legs pedaling out in front, rather than underneath his or her body. Those bikes are called recumbent bicycles, so named for the position of the rider. But why do people buy these human powered transportation gadgets? What's wrong with a "regular" bike? Do these people just want to own the latest invention, and demonstrate their radical streak?

"Not at all!" said Kevin Atkins, who has owned several brands and different models of recumbent bikes. "Recumbents have lots of advantages over regular bikes."

First and foremost is comfort. Consider this: If bicycle seats were so very comfortable, we'd furnish our homes and offices with them, replace the bench and bucket seats in our cars, and line our front porches with them. Instead, most serious bikers wear well-padded underwear or tights before they embark on a long bike ride.

Atkins explained, "Sometimes people will ask me 'Isn't that thing uncomfortable?' This always takes me by surprise - it's a cushioned lawn chair on wheels. How can it be uncomfortable? My best guess is that they think that I'm holding my legs up using my stomach muscles. I'm not - when you ride a recumbent, you're pushing the pedals, and they are holding your legs up for you."

Recumbent riders, sensibly, see advantage to concentrating their body weight on their butts rather than on their groins. The body position and seat of a recumbent bike is inarguably more comfortable than the vertical position of a standard bike, with its skinny little, hard, pointy, wedgie-inducing seat.

Another advantage of recumbent bikes is aerodynamics. At least on declines and flat surfaces, they can beat the fastest racing bikes. Granted, they're not as fast going up hill, because you can't stand up and "pump" on them, as you can on a regular bike. Still, recumbent bikes are more torpedo-shaped than conventional bikes, and they have set speed records for human-powered vehicles.

Aerodynamics is not just about speed, however, and few local riders own recumbents for racing. Aerodynamic design is about the energy and effort required to achieve speed. With a more aerodynamic bike, you don't have to pedal as hard to attain the same speed as with a less aerodynamic machine.

So why aren't recumbent bikes winning the Tour de France? It goes back to 1933, when a second-rate French cyclist started beating the biggest names in biking because he rode a recumbent. The French bike racing commission banned recumbents from all sanctioned races, so they lost popularity. Even today they are not permitted in international bike races, despite the fact that recumbents frequently break biking speed records in time trials.

A third reason to prefer recumbent bikes to regular bikes is safety. Recumbents are lower to the ground, so you have a lower center of gravity. If you do fall, you don't fall as far.

Furthermore, on a standard bike, accidents often involve flipping head first over the handle bars suddenly going from a vertical position to a horizontal one. On a recumbent, your feet are in front of the rest of your body, and you ride in a fairly horizontal position. Accidents usually result in the rider tipping onto his side rather than flying head over heels.

A strong conventional bike rider may not have a head start if she gets on a recumbent bike because they use different muscle groups. Recumbent bikes concentrate effort mostly on thigh and calf muscle groups, and you can't change position when those muscles get tired.

In climbing hills, when conventional bikers can stand up and put their full body weight into each half-turn of the pedal, or tilt the bike from side to side to use different muscles, a recumbent rider must stay in the same position, and just keep pedaling. Still, in his first Hilly Hundred, Atkins often found himself passing other bikers on climbs.

Recumbents come in many different styles. One type has standard bike handle bars at shoulder level. Another has the handle bars at the side of the seat, so that the rider's arms are at his side, in a very natural position, but which can seem foreign to someone accustomed to a regular bike. Recumbent tricycles, four-wheelers, tandems and tandem trikes are all on the market.

Unlike upright bikes, the sizing, fit and feel of recumbents varies tremendously from model to model. In general, two-wheeler recumbent bikes are classified by the length of the wheelbase. Long wheelbase bikes have smooth rides, are fast and stable, but maneuverability can be tricky. Short wheelbase bikes have the front wheel underneath or a little ahead of the rider's knees. These have responsive handling, and are easier to fit on a bike rack. Recumbents with compact long wheelbases and conventional handle bars are easiest for beginners. These bikes are responsive and stable and usually have a higher seat, making them more visible.

Atkins owns a tandem (built for two) recumbent tricycle for touring with friends. He and his partner, Kelly Sax, own a pair of recumbent bicycles that can be easily dismantled and packed into suitcases. Once the bikes are assembled, the empty suitcases transform into tag-along trailers. Last summer the couple toured the Montreal area, from the rural countryside to city center using only their human-powered vehicles. Atkins also owns a solo recumbent trike, which is the bike he uses most, for commuting to work, riding in the Hilly Hundred and rural tours with friends, and just about anywhere he chooses to travel using pedal power.

Atkins can often be spotted at the Bloomington Community Farmers Market, letting people test ride his recumbent tricycles. "Almost anyone can ride the trikes - you don't have to learn to balance, just sit down and start pedaling. They always come back with the famous 'recumbent grin,'" he said.

Visibility is a frequently mentioned drawback of recumbents. Because they are lower to the ground than conventional bicycles, riders are often lower than cars and therefore more difficult to spot. Many recumbent bikers put tassels or flags on antennas attached to their bikes to make themselves more visible. But because recumbents are eye-catching in their unusual shape, most riders believe they stand out, and are easy to see. Rather than being invisible, drivers notice them more than "common" bikes, most recumbent riders claim.

However from the seat of a recumbent bike, visibility is excellent. Because the rider is in a sitting position, she just naturally looks forward. On a regular racing bike, riders must lift their heads to look forward and are often more comfortable looking down.

Steve Dodds rides both a regular bike and a recumbent, but finds the recumbent provides a more leisurely ride, and a "commanding, 180 degree view" that a conventional bike just doesn't allow.

"Now that I ride a recumbent to work, I find that I arrive looking up - literally!" Atkins said.

"Before I bought my first recumbent, I rode to and from work but even those couple of miles left me with sore wrists, crotch, and a pain in the neck, and on rides of more than a few miles, those pains were intolerable, especially the wrist and neck, plus I'd get lower back pain. Friends would ask 'Do you want to ride in the Hilly Hundred?' and I'd think 'Are you CRAZY? ... I bought a Linear brand long wheel base recumbent in 1996, and rode the Hilly for the first time. ... I was hardly even sore after the second day - tired, but not sore. Now I want to ride across the country someday."

One thing recumbent bicycles are not well suited for is off-road riding, or riding on loose/slick surfaces. The low center of gravity, and the fact that the rider's upper body is not free to move quickly combine to make it difficult to recover from a loss of traction under either wheel. A recumbent trike or quad (four wheel) can be ridden in these conditions, but unlike a bicycle, the quad will be running in two "tracks" and a tricycle will have to run in three. This means, for example, that riding a trike through tall grass or deep snow, you'll be plowing three separate paths. So for off road riding, conventional mountain bikes and even hybrids have an advantage.

Unfortunately, recumbent bikes are expensive, and you can't go to Wal-Mart and buy one for $100. Brand new, bottom of the line recumbents cost about $450, however recumbent owners frequently "upgrade," and used ones are easy to find on the Web.

Along with the Bicycle Doctor, Bikesmiths on South College Avenue in Bloomington sells recumbents. Bikesmiths has a recumbent on display in the store window. Owner John Smith built a recumbent bike in 1975. For many years, though, he disliked the recumbents available commercially because of repair issues. Most recumbents have chains that are at least twice as long as in conventional bikes, and despite his bike repair expertise, "working on them was scary," he said.

Atkins agreed. "It can be hard to find a bike shop that is happy to work on a recumbent. You may have to learn to be your own bike mechanic, especially if you buy an exotic bike or trike not sold by your local bike shop."

But the technology and design of recumbents has improved. As coach and sponsor of the Bloomington High School South solar bike team for five years, Smith plans to advise the team in building a solar recumbent for this year's contest because of the bike's aerodynamic advantages.

Smith said as longtime bikers age, they often seek "comfort bikes" to keep up their hobby and exercise, and so he sees recumbents as the biggest growth area in the bike industry.

Dawn Hewitt
reprinted by permission of Dawn Hewitt and the Hoosier Times

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