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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