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Rolling Recumbent Part 2: Neuroplasticity and You!

“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?”

The BikeE was an attempt to mass produce and mass market recumbents. Unfortunately it succeed.
Nice try, but no ROI: The BikeE was an attempt to mass produce and mass market recumbents. Unfortunately, it didn’t succeed, due in no small part to the puny front wheel, which made handling squiggly, and amplified potholes.

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.

The Tandem Tow Trike, aka T3, aka Frankenstein. Big enough to haul a small trailer in a Christmas parade for Bike Norfolk. Pilot: Wes Cheney. Stoker: BC Wilson.
Freaky, but not fast: The Tandem Tow Trike, aka T3, aka Frankenstein. Big enough to haul a small trailer in a Christmas parade for Bike Norfolk. Pilot: Wes Cheney. Stoker: BC Wilson. Top Speed: 10kmh @ 150rpm.

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.

My new, old ride: a secondhand Burley Canto short-wheelbase recumbent bicycle.
My new, old ride: a secondhand Burley Canto recumbent bicycle.

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.

Attention DIY'ers: Rewire your own brain!
Attention DIY’ers: Rewire your own brain!

“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.

Your recumbent can't do this... Due to the geometry of most recumbents, wheelies are impossible.
Your recumbent can’t do this… Due to rigid seatbacks, wheelies are impossible on recumbents.

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:

“Quick, Robin, to the Jimmy-mobile!”
The backside cargo box has space for five drinks and a dozen sandwiches. That's enough to feed a hungry board of directors.
The backside cargo box has space for five drinks and a dozen sandwiches. That’s enough to feed a hungry board of directors.

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.

The Bicycle Courier.
“The Bicycle Courier.”

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.


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Commuting with Children

Commute By Bike isn’t only about commuting to and from your work place.  It is anytime you chose your bicycle over a car, or other form of transportation, to get from point A to point B..  You could be commuting for many different reasons..  The library, groceries and school are three top reasons that are often mentioned behind commuting to work.

Carrying Your Child by Bike

Children come in play with these reasons, and others.  Maybe you are one of the forward thinking parents that take their children to work everyday by bike, or to the library.  I nod my head to you as you are not only improving today’s congestion but teaching your children healthy living habits..  There are many different ways to have your child tag along for the ride and today I’ll be covering my favorite ways to carry your child on or behind your bike.

Bicycle Child Seats

One of the most affordable ways to take your child on a bike trip with you is a bike mounted seat.  There are different varieties of these including the rear mounted ones that mount directly to a special rear rack or there are the ones that mount in front of you.

Topeak Bicycle Child Seat

Topeak Baby Seat

One of the most popular that I have seen over the years, and normally your local bike shop carries a variety of child seats in stock.  Another popular brand is the Co-Pilot Taxi & Limo series.  These seats range from $100-150 depending on brand and features.

iBert Safe-T Bike Seat

iBert Child Seat I haven’t personally installed an iBert, but world renowned mountain biker Tinker Juarez has his son in one all the time..  Your child is now within eye sight and you have them safely tucked between your arms.  This is also one of the most affordable styles at there at $95.

Pros: Child close to you for ease, you feel safer and the child may feel more comfortable being within arms reach.  Prices for seats start around $95.
If the bike tips over, as does the child..  Getting on and off the bike with the child on board requires a great deal of skill.  The child is exposed to the elements.  Weight limit of 30-55 lbs.

Child Bike Trailers

The bike trailer is by far my favorite way to carry a child with a bike.  I am biased towards the bike trailer, even over my beloved Xtracycle that is next up..  You’re able to carry up to two children in most popular trailers.  They often come with a mesh sun cover, and rain fly.  Put snacks, a book and a pillow in the trailer for the child and keep them entertained.  For safety there is a 5 point harness, roll cage and a pivot point near the bike so if your bike was to tip over the trailer doesn’t quickly follow.  (It is possible to tip a trailer, but not as easy as the child seats.)

Burley Child Trailers

Burley Cub Trailer

The tried and trued Burley trailer has been around for years.  If you remember I am reviewing the Travoy which carries belongings, not children.  Starting at $249.99 for the basic Burley Bee that holds two children.  There are many models between, but the Burley line ends at the Burley Cub at $589.99.  This is the do all trailer, converting into a jogger or stroller.  If you purchase this at the right time in your child’s life, you won’t need any other type of stroller unit.  I’ve heard stories of people taking these to Disney Land as two children can be tucked away under the mesh sunscreen..  Pack your snacks, groceries or pocket book behind the children in the storage space available.

*One of our sponsors, and BikeTrailerShop, are having a sale starting May 15th on Burley trailers (including cargo and the new Travoy!)

Pro’s : High weight limit, able to use in other parts of daily life, child is safe from user error
Con’s : The child is 3+ feet behind you, trailers are low to the ground so a blinky light and large flag are highly encouraged


The Xtracycle is the vehicle of choice of skilled bike commuters carrying large cargo or children.  Many people have made their own versions of carrying children, but Xtracycle does have the Peapod.  You are able to haul tons of groceries, and a couple children easily.

Pros : Capacity, expandable, ease of use.
Cons: Cost, addiction

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PCH Tour: There

The complete blog series on this tour:
Bike Tour Preperation: Part 1 Destination, Part 2 Training, Part 3 Pack Up!
PCH Tour: There, Biking Back with Burley, The Good, The Bad and The Burley

After months of training, buying gear, and preparation; the day finally came when James and I were ready to embark on a jaunt up the Pacific Coast.

The trip started out very rocky, or sloshy to be exact. We arrived at the train station in L.A. at 9 a.m. on December 17, 2008. We wheeled our Burley Nomad around like luggage and went into a secret back room (with voice activation and a pin pad) to pick up our bikes. It was drizzling, but nothing of a deterrent really; we were ready to ride. Now, we had to get from the LAX train station to Route 1. The light rain had turned into heavy rain accompanied by strong winds. Headed north in 40 mph winds and vertical rain pelting you in the face like small pebbles, this was definitely a first day to remember. We were lucky enough to eventually find the Malibu RV/campsite, and were crossing our fingers that the Nomad stood up better than we did being tethered for hours on end with hurricane-like, elemental fury. To our surprise, most everything was dry. Some things got wet from the water that splashed up from underneath the trailer, but the washer/dryer set up at the RV park was nothing short of a miracle, and ultimately saved my toes from frostbite, and both of us from hypothermia.
Continue reading PCH Tour: There

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Burley Encore Trailer Review

Nathan in a Burley EncoreWe’d like to introduce our newest blog author and Bike Trailer Shop Sales Manager, Dave Herbold aka Gnome of fame. Dave’s first post is kicking off our 4th of July Burley Child Trailer Sale with a review of the Burley Encore that he’s been testing out with his son. So here’s Dave:I’m both the proud father of a 13 month old boy, and a new member to the Bike Trailer Shop company. Since fatherhood arrived along with the inevitable rise in the cost of fuel, bicycle trailers have become an essential tool for everyday day living. Since I’ve started working here, I’ve also had the opportunity to learn quite a bit about trailers, and more specifically, child trailers. Continue reading Burley Encore Trailer Review