“You can laugh at them now, Wesley,” my biking buddy Liz had told me a decade ago on a group ride, “But someday youre going to be one of those old guys on a recumbent.”
Well, that day has come. I’m a certifiably older, slightly goofy guy on a recumbent. On my first sandwich delivery of the day, the front fork on my favorite touring bike had cracked, folded and failed. I crashed in the middle of a brand new bike lane, and dislocated my shoulder. After I crashed I dragged my bike to a light post one-handed, locked it up, and walked the remaining block to make the delivery. I got a ride back to my car and drove myself to the emergency room for an $800 relocation session. I was achingly aware that I needed a way to keep pedaling, keep working my job and keep buying groceries. As soon as the Percocet and Advil had kicked in, I had texted my shade-tree bike engineer buddy, Byron, who builds and flips recumbent bicycles out of a trailer park by the Great Dismal Swamp. “Byron, I need a recumbent, fast. It’s gotta be comfortable and it’s gotta have some cargo capacity. Waddayagot?”
I had ridden recumbent bicycles before, in one fashion or another. My mom had bought a BikeE recumbent in hopes that it would help her carpal tunnel syndrome. I had taken it for a brief ride, but being almost a foot taller than her, I didnt really fit the BikeE. My mom never adapted to the handling of her recumbent and found it cumbersome to transport, and ended up selling it. Several years ago I had built a tandem tow tricycle for a bicycle parade, which I had piloted in a relaxed, foot-forward, beach cruiser position.
As it turned out, my buddy Byron had just the bike I was looking for. The vinyl shed next to his mobile home was a cycling pack rats haven: wheels and forks and frames shared space with a drill press, an oxyacetylene welder, and a truing stand. Byron showed off just the bike I’d had my heart set upon ten years ago, when I thought the pain in my hands would force me off my touring bike: a Burley Canto, circa 2002.
Made in Oregon by a worker-owned company, the Burley Canto combined a beefy steel frame with standard, stock Shimano components. The asymmetrical tires, 26″ in the back and 20 in the front, allowed for a reasonably upright position. The frame extended past the bottom bracket to a second steering tube, allowing the Canto to be converted from a Short Wheel Base (SWB) to a Long Wheel Base (LWB). The longer the wheelbase of a bicycle, the plusher the ride. And conversely, the shorter the wheelbase, the more agile the handling. This is why beach cruisers arent nimble and BMX bikes arent smooth. Byrons Burley Canto was set up in SWB, and the handling was different, if not disconcerting.
I felt like I was riding a Lazy Boy welded atop a BMX bike. The handling was quick, but my feet were disconcertingly right in front of me. I was staring at my feet turning circles. My coordination was all off. I dumped it. I jumped off and ran it out a couple more times before I figured out how to launch, and then land, a recumbent. Learning to ride a recumbent was like learning to ski or skate. It was an exercise in neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to create new networks of neural connection, or learn. During childhood, the brain is constantly doing this. But in adulthood, the brain creates fewer new networks and relies on preexisting networks. It’s easier to learn to ride a bike or play the piano as a child than as an adult.
“It’s like watching a toddler stumble around,” a studio mate had remarked as I wobbled in figure eights in a parking lot. But after ten or twenty hours of riding, I felt basically proficient: I didn’t fall over at most traffic lights. I could ride down a curb. My launches and landings were mostly smooth. I could ride down a sidewalk without crashing into shrubbery. I was creating new neural networks. Just as with my upright bikes, the more I rode, the better I got.
Wear a good pair of hiking boots the first time you take a recumbent for a ride, and ride somewhere soft. If you dont like sharing your awkwardness publicly, stay away from parks. Riding a recumbent requires a similar, but different, set of skills than riding an upright “normal” bike. Your brain and body know how to balance a bike, but the body language that you are used to using doesnt apply the same. The center of gravity on a recumbent bike is lower, while the center of effort is both higher and farther from the center of gravity; On an upright bike, you stand over the pedals. It feels natural for your feet to move underneath your hips. It is an intuitive balancing act that some riders can extend into track stands, where their bike remains horizontally motionless but balanced.
Dont be surprised if you “run it out” the first time you hit the front brakes hard on a recumbent. Most upright bikes have more weight over the rear wheel than the front. That’s what makes wheelies possible.
On a recumbent more of the riders weight is on the front wheel, and with a short wheelbase bike the riders feet will be in front of the front wheel. A fistful of front brake on an upright bike will launch a rider over the handlebars and onto the ground. But a fistful of front brake on a recumbent will just launch a rider upright, to land on their feet and run off their extra momentum. Low-speed accidents on a recumbent are more likely to harm a riders pride than their skin. Recumbents can stop remarkably fast, and skilled riders will “pop up” dramatically at the last second as the bike halts, transforming forward momentum into standing upright.
As with all my bikes, my Burley didn’t stay stock for long. I swapped out the handlebars and pedals, added a rear rack, fenders, old school thumb shifters, a front disc brake, and most importantly, upgraded the front wheel. The tires that originally came on my Burley were skinny and bald. They tended to twitch on cracks and debris. I found it all but impossible to ride over curbs with just a 20″ front wheel. I had on old 26″ suspension fork lying around from another project, as well as a disc brake and a decent 26″ front wheel. It took me a couple of hours to install a new front fork. The taller fork and wheel raised my reclining angle even further to the back. But after having ridden a recumbent for a couple of weeks, I had become more dexterous and confident, so the further adaptation wasn’t too challenging. The now symmetrical tires made the bike more stable in turns at all speeds. The handling was more natural and akin to my “real” bikes.
Behold, The Jimmy Bike:
The flat, sea-level street grid of Norfolk, Virginia makes for fast riding on a recumbent. Along the south edge of Old Dominion University campus is a long, wide street with two radar speed signs. On my fully-loaded Burley, I’m routinely clocked by the radar sign at 21mph. I get paid to ride” freaky fast,” and tipped in cash. On my recumbent, I’m living proof that neuroplasticity pays.
Don’t Miss Rolling Recumbent Part 1!
Wesley Cheney bikes for family, fun, profit and necessity in Norfolk, Virginia. He writes about bikes and kilts at Foto by Wes and (re)builds bamboo bikes and bamboo kayaks at 757 Makerspace. When he is not delivering sandwiches for Jimmy Johns on his bicycle, he aspires to earn (another) Bachelors in Music Education at his alma mater, Old Dominion University. Wesley loves leather saddles, full fenders, helmet-mounted lights and mirrors, platform pedals, front racks, double kickstands, and vintage friction Suntour Command shifters. He warbles on a flugelhorn, sings bass in the choir of Christ and Saint Luke’s Church, and studies ukulele under the amazing Skye Zentz.