You’ve probably seen them out there, on the trail or on the road — those low-slung bikes that look like a lawn chair on wheels. So what’s the story? Why are they like that? Why do people ride them?
To start with, the correct name for them is “recumbent bicycles” (or tricycles, but we’ll get to that another time), or “recumbents” for short. I’ve heard folks call them by all kinds of names, including “those lay-down bicycles," “freaky bikes” and “recombinant bikes”, but the simplest and most correct term is “recumbent.” And therein lies our first hint to the question: “Why?”
If you look it up in www.thefreedictionary.com, you’ll find the word recumbent is a synonym for “lying down; in a position of comfort or rest.” And it’s true: One of the principal reasons folks gravitate to recumbents is because they are remarkably comfortable to ride, even over long distances. Think about it. Have you ever had an aching behind, or sore shoulders or neck or arms or wrists after a long ride? Now look at a typical recumbent: It has a broad, comfortable seat that supports not only your rear, but also your back, allowing you to take weight off your arms as you ride. The image of a “lawn chair with wheels” isn’t too far off the mark.
As a result, many recumbent riders choose them because of prior issues with more conventional bikes. They are also ideal for anyone who has suffered certain injuries, undergone surgery, or deals with medical conditions. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard someone say “I thought I’d have to give up cycling until I found recumbents!”
There are other advantages to recumbents aside from comfort, however. It’s not widely known, but the speed records for human powered vehicles have been held by recumbent bikes for many, many years. To give you an idea of the capabilities of such bikes, the current record for 200 meters, flat, unpaced (not drafting another vehicle) human powered cycles is 83 mph! Granted, that was with a very specialized bike, built specifically for record-setting, but even a “plain vanilla” recumbent can often best more conventional bikes for speed, given riders of equal strength. Why are they so fast? It’s all about aerodynamics. Look at how low to the ground a typical recumbent is, and that’s part of the answer. But also look at the rider position; feet out front, almost lying down, you cut through the air more efficiently than your friends on “uprights” (that’s what recumbent riders call conventional bikes ... that and “wedgies” for reasons we won’t go into)
That’s not to say there are no downsides to this style of bike. Nothing in this world is perfect, and recumbents are no exception. Probably their best-known “weakness” is hill-climbing, and it’s true: few recumbent riders will find they can out-climb a strong rider on a more conventional bike, all else being equal, especially on steeper grades. On the other hand, they typically more than make up the difference on downhills and flats.
Other drawbacks? Well, they tend to be a bit bigger overall than a conventional bike, and a bit heavier, so they can be more difficult to store and transport. But if you really like riding them, it’s worth accommodating the bigger package. You might also find they are a bit trickier to ride, at first, but persevere and you will find it becomes second nature, “like riding a bike” as they say.
There’s no denying they tend to be more expensive than a similarly equipped upright. Some of that is because there are fewer of them made, so there’s not the same economy of scale as with conventional bikes ... and some of it is because there is simply more involved in making them. But as with any quality piece of equipment, you get what you pay for, and a good recumbent can last a lifetime, properly cared for.
One final thing to discuss, and that’s the wide array of designs in the recumbent world. Should this article inspire you to check out your options, you might at first be overwhelmed by all the choices out there. I’d argue that there are far more variations in designs of recumbent bikes than there have been in conventional bikes in a very long time. The standard “diamond frame” bike we all know really settled into a pretty set design long ago, but the recumbent field is full of a vast variety ... long and short wheelbase, large and small wheels, steering above and below the rider, and more subtle variations I won’t go into here.
So how do you know what to choose, or if a recumbent is even right for you? Well, as with ANY bicycle, the proof is in the riding, so the best thing to do is get to a shop that has them. I would be disingenuous if I didn’t reveal that my own shop, , has long specialized in recumbent bikes, but there are other shops as well, including Mt. Airy Bicycles in MD and RBR Recumbent Bicycles in State College, PA. If you think a recumbent might be for you, visit a shop and give them a try. It’s best to set aside a good chunk of time, as you really want to try as many variations as you can. And listen to the shop staff... they can help you narrow your choices and steer you to the bike that’s best for you.