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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.

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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.