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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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Rolling Recumbent, Part 1: The Utility of Recumbents

Recumbents.

You’ve seen those oddball, laid-back bikes being ridden by slightly goofy guys (yeah, it’s usually guys). They’re smiling. They’re waving. And they’re looking suspiciously comfortable. Recumbents are practically the opposite of everything that bicycling is supposed to be about. There’s no crying in baseball, and there’s blessedly little comfort in bicycling. Right? Well, maybe not. From the start, recumbents have been criticized for being too comfortable. They first made a splash on the international cycling scene in 1933, when an enterprising French bicycle manufacturer, Charles Mochet, applied to have his “velorizontal” bicycles certified for competition by the Union Cycliste Internationale, or UCI. The Mochet recumbents had distinct aerodynamic advantages.

Recumbent bicycles offer less aerodynamic drag and more visibility.
Recumbent bicycles offer less aerodynamic drag and more visibility.

For the same amount of effort, a rider can go faster on a recumbent because they’re presenting less wind resistance. Recumbents both look faster and feel faster. Humans have evolved to see small objects in motion as faster than larger objects going the same speed (because small, fast predators were more dangerous than big, slow predators). A Ferrari or a Ducati looks fast just standing still. As in a low-slung sports car or motorcycle, the sense of speed on a recumbent is exaggerated by being closer to the ground.

Because the body isn’t folded over into an inherently uncomfortable position, recumbent riders can be more efficient. Cyclists on recumbents don’t suffer from the neck pain, numb hands and compressed feet that are the bane of traditional bikes. Recumbents are often a recovery vehicle for injured riders, who’ve crashed their “regular” bikes but don’t want to give up riding altogether (including yours truly).

There’s also an argument that recumbents are safer in crashes. Instead of landing on their hands in crashes (or in my case, my shoulder), recumbent riders are thrown forward onto their feet. It’s far easier to “run off” a crash upright than it is to catch yourself on your hands. In a recumbent crash, head injuries are less likely, too.

Some folks say that recumbents are more dangerous because of their lower profile. Supposedly recumbents aren’t as visible as traditional bikes. But ‘bent riders retort that because their bikes are so unique, they actually get more attention on the road. And being at eye-level with automobile drivers makes it easier to notice distracted drivers, as well as make eye contact with drivers.

Paul Morand rode a Mochet recumbent bicycle to victory in the 1934 Paris-Limoges road race.
Paul Morand rode a Mochet recumbent bicycle to victory in the 1933 Paris-Limoges road race.

Recumbent bikes are fast. They’re so fast, in fact, that they’ve been banned since 1934 by cycling’s governing body, the UCI. After first certifying recumbents for competition, the UCI acceded to the demands of traditional bicycle manufacturers and reversed their position. Paul Morand, a piddling Cat-II racer, won the Paris-Limoges race on a “velorizontal” Mochet recumbent, and Francis Faure shattered the two-decade-old Hour Record on a Mochet. Before the next season, the UCI introduced rules that effectively banned recumbents. Ostensibly the decision was made for safety reasons, but economics and tradition played no small part. The state of mainstream cycling has been essentially stultified in regard to rider position and comfort ever since. Bicycle design in the past hundred years has been mostly evolutionary, not revolutionary.

“HORIZONTALLY…Francis Faure seems to be enjoying a siesta in contrast to his competitors…It had to happen! Faure was too comfortably extended, and fell asleep for real…Wake me up when the race is over…The jealous spectators will also demand horizontal seating” Caption from a French editorial cartoon, originally published February, 1934.

The Hour Record, the test of how far a cyclist can ride in a single hour, has been the gold standard for both cardiovascular fitness and technological refinement in bicycling. Time and again cyclists have used new technology to ride faster, be it chain drives, pneumatic tires, tensioned wheels or derailleurs. Francis Faure won numerous times in velodromes on a Mochet recumbent, and broke the Hour Record (which had stood for nearly twenty years) when he rode 45km in 1935, only to see his record revoked by the UCI. Sixty years later Chris Boardman’s hour record of 56km would also be invalidated by the UCI for too-novel technology. Under the new rules even Bradley Wiggins, Olympian cyclist and Tour de France winner, has only been able to ride 54km in an hour in 2015.

Meanwhile, the hour record on a recumbent was set at 92 kilometers by Francesco Russo, nearly twice as fast as what can be accomplished on a “real” bike. While the best sprinters in the Tour de France might be able to reach 60 or 70 kilometers per hour (about 40mph), the record set at the World Human-Powered Speed Challenge in a fully-faired recumbent is 123 kilometers per hour.

Sam Whittingham on his way to setting a new human-powered speed record at the World Human-Powered Vehicle Speed Challenge.
Sam Whittingham preparing to set a new record at the World Human-Powered Vehicle Speed Challenge. Only three human beings have ever reached the “decimach” (one tenth the speed of sound) under their own power.

Recumbents are so fast that they’re banned from Strava. While Strava is supposed to be a motivational community where riders can compare times on road segments, traditional riders complained to Strava that recumbent riders were too fast. Strava now invalidates winning times for riders accused of riding “bicycles with modifications including wind fairings or other means of minimizing drag…The Segment Leaderboards are a coveted and defended area on Strava, and we do our best to keep them fair.”

So recumbents can be fast, but are they useful? Can they carry a load? Again, the answer is emphatically yes. Look no further than Maria Leijerstam’s sprint to the South Pole on a recumbent tricycle. She rode 650 kilometers in j
ust ten days. Her next closest competitor took almost forty days to cover the same distance on a traditional, upright bike. Recumbent bicyclists have won other, non-UCI, events as well, such as the Race Across America. And amongst the randonneuring set, recumbents have a small but devoted following.

Maria Leijerstam training in Iceland on her custom, recumbent, fat-tired expedition tricycle.
Mamas, don’t let your daughters grow up to ride tricycles. Maria Leijerstam training in Iceland on her custom, recumbent, fat-tired expedition tricycle. Maria holds the record for the fastest human being to the South Pole.

Recumbents also make great rickshaws. Several companies manufacture relaxed pedicabs, and bike hackers have also built their own.

Reno Tondelli built himself a better rickshaw in his garage, no doubt inspired by Atomic Zombie.
Reno Tondelli built himself a better rickshaw in his LA garage, no doubt inspired by Atomic Zombie.

Recumbent rickshaws can be seen in Mexico City, Amsterdam, and Berlin, to mention just a few cities. They are stable, comfortable and often assisted by electric power. They look both futuristic and retrograde at the same time.

Sight seeing in a Dutch recumbent rickshaw. The integrated roof keeps everyone dry.
Sight seeing in a Holland in a recumbent rickshaw. Form follows function: the integrated roof keeps everyone dry and cool.

Don’t be surprised to see a Steampunk’d recumbent at your next ‘Con, either. Recumbents fit right into the “what-if,” revisionist ethos of Steampunk cosplay.

A
A “steam bicycle,” in a screenbgrab from the science-fictitious game “80 Days.”

Recumbent bikes are also great family bikes. Having ridden with my wife and my children on several upright tandems and hauled my kids in any number of trailers, I can say that it’s far easier to converse with somebody when I’m leaning back toward them, not leaning forward. My five-year-old son loves his rearward “tail gunner” trailer perspective, and he takes great pride in telling me what the cars behind us are doing.

Recumbents are family, too.
Recumbents are family, too.

It’s true: Recumbent Riders have a goofy grin, a side effect of the Recumbent Rock Star Phenomena: If you ride a recumbent around town, you will smile more and wave more and commune more with your fellow citizens as you hear, every three or four blocks, “That bike is so cool!”

or, “Woah! Check out the bike!”

or, “What the what?!? What IS that? What is that even called? Did you make it yourself? Where can I get one? Is it comfortable? Is it fast?”

Unless you’re antisocial, the aerodynamic advantage of a recumbent that allows you to get somewhere faster is offset by the extra time that you have to spend explaining your awesome ride. Don’t ride a recumbent if you don’t want to be an ambassador of cycling.

But are there downsides to recumbents? Aside from the Rock Star Effect, yes. Foremost is the challenge of learning to ride a bike in a new position. Many recumbents require longer cables, which in turn creates more maintenance. Some components on recumbents may not be regularly stocked at your Local Bike Shop or Walmart. They can be harder to park and lock to a rack. Putting a recumbent bike in your car or on top of it can be a challenge, if not downright impossible. Maintaining a recumbent is its own distinct skill as well. I knew a mechanic at a Local Bike Shop that hated recumbents: they were a square peg in a sea of round holes. They didn’t fit into the repair stands, they didn’t fit well into a cramped repair shop, parts had to be special ordered, the chains and cables were all extra long, and they didn’t stack nicely with other bikes. From this mechanic’s point of view, they were annoying and time-consuming. If you’re going to ride a recumbent, you need to either have decent bike mechanic skills or be willing to pay a good mechanic for their time.

What accounts for the recent recumbent resurgence? In a word, the Internet. While mainstream bicycle development is driven by big money and big ticket events like Trek and the Tour de France, a growing number of recumbent bicycles are being made by tinkerers and amateurs. Websites like Atomic Zombie and Bent Rider Online celebrate those who hack, chop, weld and modify new bikes from odd parts. Instead of buying someone else’s conception of a “good bike,” Atomic Zombies build their own custom contraptions, inspired in no small part by the virtual community of like-minded folks they find online.

So, buck the status quo and be a “bike-sexual.”

Don’t Miss Rolling Recumbent Part 2!

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 Lukes Church, and studies ukulele under the amazing Skye Zentz.