Why get bent?

Why would anyone ride a recumbent bicycle? … it’s not for everybody.

It’s been almost two years since I splashed some hard-earned cash on a shiny new recumbent. Since then, I’ve built three of my own, joined a club which does regular social rides and competed in the OzHPV Challenge. That’s probably enough time and experience to organise my thoughts about this fringe area of cycling and to make some observations. I’m not going to evangelise here. Nothing but the facts, folks.

Recumbent riders are generally looked on as wierdos, not only by the public, but by most other cyclists. And it’s not to be denied, there are some quite eccentric people riding recumbents who design and build their own bikes. (Usually not as eccentric, though, as the strange guy we met recently who’d built a “bike” out of an oil-filled house heater.)

In my area, at least, the average recumbent rider is well into middle age. He (and most are male) will tell you that he enjoys the comfort. He’ll probably also bend your ear about how aerodynamically efficient recumbents are and how they were banned from mainstream cycling events by the world cycling body, the UCI, back in the 1930’s for being too fast. He’ll tell you that the all world speed records for human powered vehicles are held by recumbents – at speeds unmatchable by even the greatest riders of “normal” bikes.

The truth, though, is that the average recumbent you will encounter riding the streets will not be nudging any speed limits. Most of the “street” recumbents have reasonably low aerodynamic drag, but only at about the same level as a normal cyclist in a racing crouch. It takes a fairing to get any better than this. As a result, since the rider is usually a middle aged social rider, not a triathlete, they’re usually not real fast. And of course, once you have to climb a hill, the extra weight and lack of ability to stand up and “mash” the pedals puts the recumbent rider behind the upright bike in speed.

Bikes like my own lowracer, being relatively light and very laid back, do provide a speed boost though. Even with an older non-athlete like myself on board, it’s quite easy to keep up with groups of younger, fitter upright riders on the flat. But they lose me on the steeper hills unless I can tuck in behind and let their slipstream suck me along!

So, why ride a recumbent then? It probably comes down to these factors:

Comfort: This is a biggie. Usually after 100km-plus rides, I’ve got tired legs, but the rest of me is fine – no sore back, neck, shoulders or backside. It’s the reason I started recumbent riding in the first place. Any distance over 20km on the upright bike would leave me with aches in places I’d prefer not to discuss.

Attention: Its nice to ride something that gets attention. To the undiscriminating eye, most upright bikes look pretty much the same as they go by. But a recumbent catches the eye and makes you special.. Kids under 14 yell out “Cool Bike!!” as you ride by. Middle aged men will come over and engage you in conversation about the bike. (Unfortunately, you also get laughed at and cars honk at you all too often.)

Safety: Motorists give you a wider berth than a normal bike, which has to be a good thing. It’s also easy to fit a rear view mirror to most recumbents where it’s easy to see traffic behind. Nevertheless, a safety flag is a good accessory to have.

Speed: Only if you have the stamina and the bike for it. But it can be fun occasionally leaving the upright bikes in the dust (as long as you get far enough ahead that they don’t pass you on the next hill!!! – how humiliating!)

Modesty: You don’t need to wear lycra and padded shorts. You can of course, but if you haven’t got the figure for it, you can avoid the embarrassment.

Personal satisfaction: Building and riding your own bike successfully can be a major buzz.

What’s the down side?

New recumbents are expensive. There’s no way around it. The commercial manufacturing volumes are so low that there’s no economies of scale for a recumbent bike builder. There’s no $200 Chinese “Huffy” in the recumbent market. Of course if you build your own, it’s cheaper in dollar terms, but expect to spend a lot of hours on the process.

Hostility: Occasionally you will run into folks who are just plain hostile to recumbents. Recently when I was buying some parts for the recumbent tandem, everything was going fine until the bike shop owner asked me what kind of tandem it was for. The moment I uttered the word “recumbent”, I got a very frosty “you should be riding a real bike” reception, and I’m sure the parts price ended up inflated.

Transport: Many recumbents, particularly trikes, aren’t quite so easy to carry around with a car or to fit on public transport.

Outsider factor: you will not “fit in” with groups of riders with “normal” bikes very well. Recumbents can be used to draft a peleton, but unfortunately they don’t provide much if any boost to a rider behind – it’s a bit unfair. Also, it’s less easy to chat with an upright rider alongside.

Update: For some extra information, see my web site at http://www.aerialpursuits.com/misc/bents.htm


4 Responses to “Why get bent?”

  1. 1 hoffmand October 2, 2007 at 12:25 pm

    I wonder if we have any in our little podunk? Comfort sounds like a convincing argument to me; if I ride a regular bike for more than a few miles, my groin goes numb! Doubleplusungood.

    I came looking for your sponsorship gizmo, ms. I’ll keep looking.

  2. 2 microsoar October 2, 2007 at 3:25 pm

    Doug: You could try Robb Rasmussen’s “Sioux River Bicycles and Fitness” at 501 & 503 Main Avenue, Brookings – they could possibly tell you if there are any recumbents near you. I think a trike would suit you. Googling seens to indicate that Sioux River’s been recumbent-friendly in the past. (some bike shops are totally dismissive of anything but mainstream bikes).

    The sponsorship stuff is at https://microsoar.wordpress.com/2007/09/14/sponsor-me/

    Lurkers take note!!!!

  3. 3 jhalbrook October 2, 2007 at 4:15 pm

    What a fine post! I couldn’t have said it better myself. Bravo!

  4. 4 microsoar October 2, 2007 at 5:39 pm

    awww, shucks, ’twere nothing. (blushes).

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