Rise of the Recumbents
Did you know that the human powered land speed record is 83.13 miles per hour? The record came from a specially designed recumbent bike. Dutch cyclist Sebastiaan Bowier pedaled a streamliner up to that incredible speed for 660 feet in Battle Mountain, Nevada. I remember watching his narrow rocketship like ride on television and thinking, what made his bike go so fast? It was a mystery I had to explore.
Terri and I visited Vite Bikes & Trikes, a relatively new shop on Venice Island, Florida. The owners are John and Jacquie Schlitter. John is an ultraendurance record holder who has been in the recumbent industry for 35 years. He is the first person to complete the Race Across America (RAAM) on a recumbent. His wife Jacquie has also competed in RAAM and holds several records of her own. They were the experts who introduced us to this unusual style of riding.
We had never even seen a recumbent until we started riding in Florida. Here you witness packs of them cruising along in the early morning sun. The riders are laying back, feet in the air and they are making good time with what appears to be little effort. They ride fast and look comfortable.
"Recumbents have lots of benefits," Explained John who cited many examples. "They are more aerodynamic, they are faster, they use different muscles, they are closer to the ground and thus safer in many ways." The aero argument is indisputable, you are laying back so you have less of a surface for the wind to hit. The more swept-back a bike is, the smoother it slices through the air. The muscles used are more than just your quadriceps. You also use your hamstrings, hip flexors, glutes and more of your core. As for safety, well, you are closer to the ground but most bad bike accidents include a car or truck so we'll leave that one alone.
So let's talk styles. Unlike upright bikes, recumbents have a wide selection of styles that employ a lot of creative adjustments. They are known as non-standard designs. There are long and short wheels bases, different wheel sizes, over, under and center seat steering. They have front wheel drive, rear wheel drive, low racers, high racers and mountain bikes. There are tandem recumbents, trikes and even bikes that fold up to fit in your car. There are so many designs from all over the world, you will likely never even find them all.
My wife and I just wanted to try a few of the basics. Many people are nervous about how to begin but rest reassured, they won't put you on something scary. We hopped on the least intimidating starter - the trike. Terri and I were fitted to two Catrike three wheeled hot rods and we took off down the road. With a lever on each side, brakes and shifters only a finger flick away, these were super easy to learn. Terri and I started racing almost immediately. They felt like an adult version of the big wheels we had as kids.
Next up were the two wheeled versions. Jacquie started me on a Bachetta Giro which had a 26" back tire and 20" front. After an explanation about how best to balance and turn, it only took me a few seconds to get it up and rolling. A few figure eights later, I was right at home. Then I stepped up to a model with two 26" wheels. It sat a little higher but worked using the same basic principles.
Jacquie was impressed with my ability to keep these bikes balanced so she pulled out a truly challenging creation - a front wheel drive Cruz Bike. This was awkward to get started. Each pedal stroke nudges the front wheel in the direction of its push. I was shaky but got it up and running like all the others, sort of. Once we had overcome the initial hesitation and actually started riding these funky machines, a whole new world of possibilities was opened to us.
Let's talk history. Recumbents have been around since bicycles began but most people leaned towards the easier to build diamond frame design. However, they never could have known where cycling was heading as personal transportation or as a sport. If individuals back in the day could have seen the difference between a modern top of the line upright bike and a similar level recumbent, they might have changed their minds. The recumbent is smoother, faster, does less physical damage to the body (Especially in the long term) and requires less effort.
Let me clarify the biggest difference. The standard upright bike is built on pain. They didn't intend it but there is now an entire industry that creates one product after another meant to lessen our discomfort. We wear padded shorts, padded gloves and cover our skin in Chamois cream. We get professionally fitted to our bikes to lessen the likelihood of repetitive stress injuries. It hardly helps though. On an upright our bodyweight is resting precariously on our sit bones, our feet and our hands. Every bump that shakes the frame rattles through our bones causing further unease. Overcoming that pain, for whatever amount of time is required, is what makes you a bike rider.
What if you didn't have to suffer in quite the same way? What if your pain came not from the seating position and grip but rather only from your effort? That is a pretty strong pitch for a better creation. If it hurt to drive cars, you can bet someone would have changed that game very quickly. So wouldn't you also think that people would clamor for a bike that hurts less? Due to the expense and difficulties of innovation plus the stubbornness of cyclists, recumbents represent only a tiny fraction of the bike market. This is also partly about tradition. Uprights won the initial popularity contests and are so well established that anything new will suffer a long and difficult path to prove itself as an equal if not superior product.
Drawbacks: Don't get me wrong, while these bikes have come a long way they are still far from perfect. Recumbents require a lot of balance, most have a huge turning radius and each bike demands a distinct set of skills. They are more difficult to transport, they are more difficult to start from a dead stop and some types have visibility issues. The big problem for most people is the price. Currently they are very costly, usually 50% higher than a similar level upright. However, the Schiller's are promoting their own brand of bike which is considerably less expensive while maintaining a high standard of quality.
I won't attempt to tackle the full battle between uprights and recumbents but I will say this, if you asked me to commit to a 70 mile road ride and I had to choose between a traditional upright or a recumbent, it would be no contest. I'm not sure I have what it takes to complete a trek like that on an upright but I would love to try it on a recumbent. The sleek comfort alone would encourage me that it was possible. The number one thing that stops most people from trying such long rides is the physical pain. Take that away and you have more bikes on the road.
Terri and I had a blast playing with the trikes and I drew great confidence from riding the two wheeled versions. These bikes are way too expensive for me but my mind has been opened. Considering how often I switch sports, this experience might turn out to be very valuable in the future.
Visit Vite Bikes & Trikes for your own test ride:
Watch the video below to see how Terri and I got along on our rides and check out our photo gallery here: