Published: Silent Sports, March 2000 - Revised, February 2015
Author: Rolf Garthus
Part I: Why a Recumbent?
About how many miles can you ride in a day? Five? Fifty? One hundred? When you've reached your limit for the day, what makes you want to stop? Are your legs tired or do you quit because something hurts? If you answered, "Because something hurts.", then it’s time to try a recumbent. Recumbents aren't just a little more comfortable; they are totally comfortable. You're sitting on a comfortable seat, with no pressure on your wrists, butt, neck or shoulders. Your back is fully supported and at the end of the ride, nothing hurts. Plus, there are some added bonuses. You don't have to sacrifice aerodynamic efficiency to be comfortable and you have a great view of the scenery. As a result, you will ride more get more exercise and all the health benefits that go with it.
Most people find it's easy to learn to ride a recumbent bike and many have increased their riding mileage since switching to a recumbent. Recumbent trikes have no learning curve and are becoming very popular. See my article titled “Why A Trike”.
Long rides on upright bikes are uncomfortable for many people. On upright bikes your legs hang down around the seat. Make the seat big enough to be comfortable to sit on and it chafes the inside of your legs. Make it small enough so it doesn't chafe and it's not comfortable to sit on. There is simply too much pressure per square inch. Of course you can take weight off your butt by leaning forward onto your hands, but then your wrists, hands, shoulders and neck feel the discomfort. Sitting up straighter takes the pressure off the hands, but puts it back on the butt and makes the rider less aerodynamic as well. The diamond frame bike industry is working hard to try to make an inherently uncomfortable design more comfortable.
Recumbents, on the other hand, position the rider so the legs do not hang down around the seat. Now the seat can be made large enough to reduce the pressure per square inch. The result is total comfort with a natural head position and no weight on the hands, arms and shoulders. The rider is in a very aerodynamic and comfortable "recumbent tuck". The feet and legs are placed up in front of the torso to achieve great aerodynamics while in a comfortable position that can be maintained for well over a hundred miles. You always have a full view of where you're going and your center of gravity is lower for greater stability. You can see a long way ahead of you at all times, enabling you to ride more defensively. Recumbents are so stable that I have had two dog encounters and not crashed either time. I hit one broadside at slow speed and the other was a glancing blow at about 15 mph from a large playful puppy that actually bent my rear derailleur. I don't think I could have stayed upright on a regular bike in either case.
Many people think recumbent riders sit so low that automobile drivers cannot see them. In fact, your eye height, on a recumbent, is about the same as it is seated in a sedan. (Think Honda Civic or something similar) I have never had the feeling that automobile drivers could not see me.
First time recumbent bike riders frequently feel a little shaky, but most can ride without tipping over almost immediately. An unsteady, wobbly, feeling for the first mile or so is normal and then you will quickly become accustomed to the new position. It usually takes about forty to fifty miles to feel as confident on a recumbent bike as you did on your regular bike. You will be using a slightly different muscle group, so plan on several months before your "recumbent muscles" are as strong as your “upright bike muscles". Because of pain free riding, people tend to increase their bicycling mileage on a recumbent and more miles means stronger legs and even easier riding. Bike shoes and clipless pedals are highly recommended and will allow you spin, which is a much more efficient way to ride. When you have mastered the spinning technique in your new riding position, and developed your recumbent muscle group, you will find that you will climb about as well as you did on your upright and you will be amazed at how fast you can ride on the flats and rolling hills.
Not all recumbent bikes are designed for maximum efficiency. Some are designed to be easier to learn to ride with a more upright and less aerodynamic position, while others are designed for speed. All the human powered speed records, including the DuPont Prize for breaking 65 M.P.H., are held by recumbents. Francis Faure set speed records for the mile and kilometer in 1933 on a recumbent. The faster recumbents either have the crank set elevated to about the height of the seat, or have lower crank sets but are designed to work well with a fairing. Putting a fairing on your bike, however, means carrying more weight up the hills and taking the fairing off every time you need to transport your bike on your car. The Volae Team is an example of a bike that is very fast without a fairing.
Recumbents, like people, come in a variety of shapes and sizes. You can choose from bikes with a long wheelbase, a short wheelbase, over seat steering, mid seat steering, under seat steering, suspension frames, rigid frames, small rear wheels, large rear wheels, tricycles and tandems. The best recumbent for urban riding may not be the best for rural riding. Sport riders value different features than leisure riders. Tall people prefer bikes that shorter people may not be able to ride. When shopping for your first recumbent find a shop with plenty of demos and a safe place for extensive test riding. You will need to get out of "the parking lot" and ride awhile. Plenty of riding time is helpful in getting past the short term issues of handling and balance, so you can focus on the important long term issues like performance, seat comfort and ease of transportation. Shop personnel that have experience riding and selling recumbents are invaluable.
I made the switch to recumbents in the late 1980’s due to problems with my neck and shoulders. Doctors told me I may need spinal surgery. I stopped riding regular bikes and switched to recumbents 100% of the time and two things happened: I started going on longer rides and within one year I was almost totally symptom free from the neck problems without surgery. The problems have not returned. My wife Barb, on the other hand, did not have physical problems that would keep her from riding an upright bike. She was riding about three thousand miles a year and didn't feel she needed or wanted a recumbent. In the mid 1990’s, we took our first recumbent tandem ride on a Double Vision. The ride was a fairly long one, about eighty miles, with a tough head wind for the last thirty miles or so. She couldn't believe biking could be that comfortable and she got her first recumbent two days later. We sold her carbon fiber road bike several months later. We both feel that we are faster on our Volae Team recumbents than we were on our uprights. Our aerodynamic body position is a little better, at all times, on our Volae’s than we would experience on aero bars on an upright bike. Neither one of us would be able to stay on aero bars on an upright bike for very long.
Bicycling is a great sport on any type of bike. It's as healthy for the rider as it is for the planet. Today, many are rediscovering the joy of biking by riding recumbents. Also, those who had never enjoyed biking before are now riding many miles on recumbents. Total comfort on a highly efficient bicycle is allowing an ever-increasing number of people to experience the rewarding adventure of biking.