Published: Silent Sports, April 2000 - Revised February 2015
Author: Rolf Garthus
Part II: Which Recumbent?
The first article of this four part series discussed the advantages of recumbents. This article provides information about the different designs of recumbents to help you find what's best for you.
When I started selling recumbents nine years ago, I mistakenly thought there was such a thing as the "best recumbent" for everyone. However, it seemed that every time I thought I had it figured out, the very next person in the door had a compelling reason for needing something different. Some were too short for my "best bike". Others came from an area where the road surfaces begged for suspension. Injuries forced some people to choose another model. Many people spend all their time riding in an urban environment while others ride almost exclusively in rural areas. The moral of the story is different people need different bikes.
Short Wheel Base (SWB) or Long Wheel Base (LWB) bikes
Short wheelbase bikes (SWB) are usually lighter and have more responsive steering. Most people like the more responsive steering but it can take a bit longer to get used to. Short wheelbase bikes typically have higher cranksets, which position the rider in a more powerful pedaling position as well as a more aerodynamic position. Transporting these bikes on the top or back of your car is as easy as transporting a conventional bike. Short wheelbase bikes may have disadvantages for some people. If you plan on riding soft gravel roads on a regular basis, we highly recommend a trike with wide tires. A SWB disadvantage for some is that the rider sits over the front wheel resulting in a higher seat position, which makes it harder for short people to get their feet to the ground.
Long wheelbase bikes position the rider between the wheels allowing the rider to sit lower and making it easier for medium to short riders to put their feet solidly on the ground at the stops. Most LWB bikes and CLWB bikes have a crankset that is significantly lower than the seat. The resulting riding position is less intimidating for some riders. The longer frame typically has very forgiving steering providing a good choice for riders who find the SWB steering a bit quirky. LWB bikes allow short riders to ride a bike with larger, more efficient wheels. Long distance touring riders like the fact that front panniers can be mounted to most LWB bikes. Finally, there is no heel overlap of the front wheel on a LWB. LWB bikes also provide a smoother ride on the bumps. However, lack of weight on the front wheel has caused LWB front wheels to skid out during sharp turns.
USS versus OSS and MSS
Over Seat Steering (OSS) or Mid Seat Steering provides a better place for a handlebar-mounted rear view mirror and a computer than under seat steering (USS). A rearview mirror is a necessity since turning around to look backwards while on a recumbent is almost impossible. OSS and MSS also make it easier to "walk" your bike. It's surprising how often you will get off your bike and want to push it somewhere. Into the garage - down a crowded sidewalk to a favorite coffee shop - into the local bike shop for repair - etc.
Under seat steering, is extremely comfortable and much easier to ride than most people think. Getting on and off the bike is also easier since there is no handlebar in your way. You can mount a mirror and a computer to the USS bar but they are slightly harder to use. Steering preference is a personal decision and there is no right or wrong.
Mid Seat Steering combines the best of both OSS and USS. The hand and arm position is about as comfortable us USS. The aerodynamic body position is as good as OSS. Also, “walking” your bike and installing accessories are as good as OSS. Most riders today prefer MSS.
Several years ago, a design and engineering team from a large conventional bike company flew in from California to test ride recumbents and talk with me about recumbent design. They had the same questions that many have about SWB, LWB, suspension, etc. We all took a different recumbent and went for a ten-mile ride after which we proceeded to exchange bikes with each other. During the exchange process, one of the designers said, "I already know we don't have to make a suspension model". The others agreed. Recumbent seats reduce the pressure per square inch to such a great degree that hitting bumps is simply not the problem that it is on an upright. Keep in mind that they were riding on relatively smooth roads in a rural environment. You may still want suspension if you live in a city with lots of chuckholes. Riders with physical problems may prefer suspension because they experience discomfort from bumps that others don't feel.
The downside of suspension is added weight, added expense and greater mechanical complexity. If you're looking for efficiency in a rural environment with reasonably smooth road surfaces I recommend a rigid frame bike. For really rough roads or city riding where efficiency might not be as important suspension can be great. Here, again, you need to test ride both and see what works for you.
Crank / Bottom Bracket Height
On a recumbent an aerodynamic tuck is achieved by placing your feet up in front of your torso. The manufacturer actually builds the amount of "recumbent tuck" into the bike during the design phase. Positioning the crankset at the optimal height relative to the seat places the rider’s torso in draft of the area of turbulence created by the spinning feet, knees and handlebars.
Seats come in many shapes and sizes and so people. The trick is to match your anatomy to the seat that fits you best. Some seats are made with a hard pan base or a slung material base. Some remove easily and some do not. Seats can recline or position you more upright. Remember that the more upright you sit the more pressure there is on your butt which may cause problems on longer rides. If you plan on car topping your bike look for a seat that's easy to take off and put on. Recumbent seats make great bug catchers and ruin gas mileage if left on the bike when transporting your bike on top of your car.
See my “Why a Trike” article on this site.