by Steve Malone, February 5, 2000
Recumbents are becoming the bike of choice for a growing number of people in the cycling community. At bikes@vienna we are seeing an increasing number of recumbents along the W&OD Trail and coming into the shop. Recumbents provide an attractive option for many types of cycling enthusiast. For people with health conditions that preclude them from riding uprights, recumbents offer unparalleled comfort. Discomfort in the hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, neck, and back are virtually eliminated. No more tingling hands or strained back. Increased comfort is also appealing to people who enjoy extended tour riding. Competitive riders are attracted to the potential for high speeds that can be achieved on a recumbent because of the aerodynamic riding position. Finally, there are those people who just think ’bents look cool. They have a great appreciation for the engineering and enjoy riding them.
While riding a recumbent is great fun, buying a recumbent can be a challenging task. There are still relatively few recumbent riders and even fewer bike shops with recumbent expertise. You can’t walk into a department store to get guidance. Five years ago you had to stop recumbent riders on the bike trail or travel many miles to a recumbent shop to get information. Today we are fortunate to have the widespread access to a bustling Internet, which provides an enormous amount of data on recumbents. There are Web sites for manufacturers, dealers, and bike clubs. Chat rooms and discussion forums are available to ask questions and learn about other riders’ experiences.
I certainly recommend the Internet as an effective tool for conducting your research; however, the amount of information can be daunting. It is very easy to experience information overload. There are numerous factors to consider and everyone has an opinion. I say “opinion” because after comparing all the technical reviews and testimonials it comes down to how a particular bike feels to the rider. Only after thorough test riding can you make the right choice.
To help you in the decision process, I’ll give an overview of the various recumbent frame styles, configurations and other considerations. Then I’ll discuss test riding recumbents.
Recumbents come in three ranges of frame length: long wheel base (LWB), medium wheel base (MWB) and short wheel base (SWB). Wheel base is measured from the center of the front hub to the center of the rear hub. Wheel base lengths range from 33 inches to 46 inches for SWB, 47 inches to 60 inches for MWB and 61 inches to 70 inches and longer for LWB. Traditional upright bikes fall into the SWB range. Each frame type has characteristics that appeal to different riders. With LWB and MWB frames the front wheel is beyond the cranks and visible to the rider. On SWB frames the front wheel is behind the cranks and is situated under the riders legs, not visible while riding. LWB and MWB frames are generally heavier than SWB frames; however, many riders feel that the larger types provide a more stable, steadier ride. SWB frames are lighter and more nimble. They have a much tighter turning radius and riders appreciate the responsiveness of the steering. Other riders feel that SWB bikes are twitchy. These people don’lt feel as secure while riding SWB.
Within each frame length there are two basic styles. The first is the triangular style with top and bottom tubes similar to an upright bike and the second is the single boom style. Single boom bikes are less expensive; however, they are prone to flexing under hard pedaling, and this flexing robs power. I’m not saying that single booms flex like bamboo poles, but a triangulated frame is stiffer and transfers more cranking power to the chain. Putting science aside, I think the benefit of a stiff frame becomes evident through experience.
A third consideration regarding frames is the material from which they are made. The three most common materials are CroMoly steel, aluminum and titanium. CroMoly is the most common. It is durable, although somewhat heavier than aluminum. Aluminum is light but over time can experience stress fractures. Titanium is strong and light but expensive.
Beyond the frame the most significant feature on a recumbent is the steering. There are two options: under-seat steering (USS) and over-seat steering (OSS). Many people gravitate to OSS because it is an easier transition from an upright bike. The learning curve is shorter and riders ultimately feel more in control of the bike, especially during high speed or aggressive riding. Other people find USS more comfortable. People who prefer USS tend to be those who take long rides, such as tourers.
There are other factors to consider, such as seat construction, handle bar style, wheel size, suspension, and other available accessories. These factors are as important as frame and steering options because the total configuration will affect your riding experience. And riding is the key word. After understanding what options you have, the next important step is test riding.
The initial obstacle people encounter with recumbents is being intimidated. Often when people come into the shop they take one look at a recumbent and are convinced they will never be able to ride it. Nothing could be further from the truth; however, recognizing that recumbents are new experience, it is important to take your time. If you are nervous about riding a recumbent start by just sitting on it. Get used to the feel of the seat and handle bars. Rock from side to side and move the bike back and forth with your feet. The first thing that you will notice is that you are very close to the ground. If you lose your balance you can quickly get your feet to the ground.
If after sitting on the bike you are still uneasy, put the bike in a trainer so you can pedal without worrying about your balance. This is also a good time to set up the bike. This involves adjusting the distance of the seat from the cranks, seat back angle, handle bar position and suspension air pressure. Set-up is very important because people who walk away from recumbents usually had a bad first experience.
For your first test ride I recommend riding in an open area away from traffic and other obstructions. Put the seat back in the most upright position and shift to the small chain ring and the third or fourth cassette cog. Start on level ground or downhill slope. Put the pedal of your dominant leg in the twelve o’clock position and place your foot on the pedal while holding the bike up with your other leg. Engage the brakes to steady the bike while you are getting set up. When your ready, push the pedal, bring your other leg up to the opposite pedal and start riding. If you want a little extra security, ask the shop sales person to hold the bike by the seat for the first several pedal strokes.
Obviously, the bike will feel strange at first. You’ll probably be a little unsteady. You may need to fine tune the bike’s set-up. The key is to stay back in the seat and relax you upper body. This takes some practice. As you get better, though, the ride will become smoother. Once you gain some confidence, take the bike on a longer ride, preferably on a straight, paved surface like a bike trail. Allow yourself time to get accustomed to the feel of the bike. Experiment with the steering and stopping and starting.
Repeat this process with as many recumbents as you can find. With each test ride your performance will improve. Because of this, I strongly recommend you re-ride the first two or three bikes you tested. They may feel quite different from the first ride when you were just learning. Once you have tried all the recumbent variations, you can narrow your choices and take more extended rides (five to ten miles) before making your final selection.
Ultimately, the recumbent you choose to buy will depend on what type of rider you are and what you want out of biking. Educating yourself is the correct first step. If you want to do more in depth research I would recommend starting at the Recumbent and Human-Powered Vehicle Info Center. This site provides a lot of recumbent information and links to many other information sources.
Again, I remind you that it is possible to over-research. You can paralyze yourself with too much data and too many viewpoints. Regardless of how good a recumbent looks on paper, the best bike for you is the one that you can afford and feels the best. A mismatched bike will just collect dust in your garage. So do your homework and when you are ready to test ride please visit us at bikes@vienna. We have the expertise to fit you properly and are committed to helping you make the right choice.
Good luck and happy biking!