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Vienna Pedaler: More Alternative Cycles: Recumbent Trikes

Trust me, these aren’t your kids’ tricycles -- they are high performance, lightweight human powered vehicles.

Trikes, you say?  Trust me, these aren’t your kids’ tricycles. And they’re not the type of upright, “grocery getter” trike you’ve probably seen around retirement communities, with a big basket, being pedaled slowly to the store. No, a recumbent trike is typically a high performance, lightweight human powered vehicle. And they are a heck of a lot of fun.

The recumbent tricycle is probably the newest, fastest-growing segment of the recumbent market. I’ve seen more new trike buyers come through our store every year, and the ratio of trike to bike buyers has steadily tilted toward the trike side of the equation. Why is that? Why would someone choose a trike over a bike?

Well, the first and most obvious answer is stability. Think about it: The very reason your mom and dad probably started you on a trike can also be an appealing feature to adults -- it’s virtually impossible to fall over! Yes, it can be done ... I’ve seen the results ... but those are extreme situations. For the most part, with a modicum of care and common sense, you can keep all three wheels planted on the ground, and you safely on top, with no effort or thought.

Even in trickier situations, things that might upset your balance on a bike, a trike can sail through without trouble. A tire blowout at speed on a two-wheeler can be frightening, even dangerous, but on a trike you are much more likely to be able to maintain control and stay right side up. Likewise, navigating tricky surfaces, such as dirt, gravel, or even ice, is much easier with three wheels than with two. And get this... you never have to put a foot down when you stop.

Three wheels and a lower center of gravity can also be a great help to folks with any sort of balance issues. We’ve seen a number of people who have had strokes or other medical conditions that affect balance become very happy trike riders. Even those with limited use of one or more limb can often be set up to enjoy riding on a recumbent trike. There are even hand powered trikes out there, commonly called “handcycles” for those who cannot use their legs. The possibilities opened up by the addition of a third wheel are amazing.

But let’s not forget one of the main reasons people try, like, and buy recumbent tricycles ... FUN!  It’s true, while they may look a little strange, and while your initial thought may be “trike = boring,” trust me, they are an absolutely blast to ride! Many of them handle like a human-powered sports car, able to turn at amazing speeds, and zoom along on level ground and downhills, often faster than your friends on conventional bikes. And that “strange” appearance? Most trike riders I know tell me that when people see them zip by, they call out things like “cool bike!” more often than not.

Now, some technical details.

  • Recumbent trikes are divided up into two broad categories - delta trikes, and “tadpole” trikes. A delta has one wheel in front, two wheels in back, the configuration you probably first imagine when you hear the word “trike.” A tadpole, on the other hand, has the two wheels in front, one in back. In both cases, it is most often the front wheel or wheels that steers (though there are exceptions). 
  • In broad terms, a delta is better suited for more sedate riding, and is easier to get on and off of (though “in and out of” might be a more accurate way of putting it with a trike). A tadpole is typically lower to the ground, and therefore a bit more sporty in handling, and less likely to tip. Of course, being lower, mounting and dismounting takes a bit more effort.

There’s a lot of variety now in trike design, however, so the lines are not so firmly drawn between the two types.

But what about visibility? Lots of folks ask us about that, as well as asking about the width of trikes and whether or not they are safe to ride in traffic. There’s no denying that they have a lower profile, so it’s highly advisable to equip a trike with a flag or other device to alert drivers and other cyclists to your presence. Rear view mirrors are really a must I think, so you can stay alert to what is behind you. A brightly colored helmet will make you more visible as well, as your head is the highest point of the main body of the trike.

That being said, don’t let fear get the best of you. Most of trike riders I know tell me drivers DO notice them quickly, in part because they are a rather uncommon sight on the road (the “what the heck is that?” factor can work in your favor).

As for the width, if you look at the trike and rider combined, and then compare it to the width of a conventional bike, at say, the riders' shoulders, the difference isn’t as great as you might at first think. But do exercise care and caution when riding on the road: maintain a steady, strong pace, behave predictably, and signal your intentions. 

With a reasonable amount of preparation and care, a recumbent trike can give you fun and exercise, in safety, for years to come. There are many, many variations in design details, too numerous to mention here. The best thing to do is to find a place to try them out. Visit a shop, borrow a friend’s, or ask one of those folks you see on the trail with a big grin if you might try it out. Before you know it, you might join that happy club.

Anne42pt2 August 03, 2012 at 04:28 PM
I admit, they look like a heck of a lot of fun. I've always been one of those people who is happiest on a classic, drop handlebar road bike and who still rides in the kinda hunched over mode like a 1930s Italian racer. That's why I'm used to, it's comfy, and I like kickin' it old school. But, the people I see on trikes seem to be having so very much FUN that I've been quizzing anyone willing to tell me about their ride. They look like a blast to be out riding. And cycling is partly about transportation and exercise, yeah, but the fun element is pretty big with most of us. Thanks, Tim!

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