Amazing Bikes: Recumbents
All about recumbent bikes, from What is that? to Which one do I want?
Posted by Peter Eland on Thursday 31 Mar 2011
A recumbent is a bike or trike on which the rider sits in a seat instead of on a saddle, and has pedals out in front of them instead of below - the name means 'lying down'. They have a definite Wow! factor, instantly noticed by passers-by, and often rated as "Cool!"
Despite being relatively unusual, recumbents are by no means new. When the bicycle was first developed in the 19th century, all kinds of shapes and layouts were tried, including recumbents of various sorts. Even after the upright style we're familiar with today came to the fore, manufacturers continued to experiment with the recumbent style. French inventor and car maker Charles Mochet produced a 4 wheeled pedal powered car in the 1930s, before moving to tricycles and bicycles, which competed and broke records in both track and road races. However upright bike manufacturers lobbied the sport's governing body, seeing the recumbent posture as unfair, and in 1934 regulations were set out defining the shape of racing bikes, and hence effectively banning recumbents from mainstream competition. Their production continued in a small way, but without the mass development and production available for upright bikes, they remained the preserve of enthusiasts.
However, in the 1970's renewed interest in cycling as a means of transport was prompted by the oil crises of the time and interest in recumbents started to grow again. As people looked for 'new' transport solutions, recumbents gradually gathered fans. The number of manufacturers and owners has been increasing steadily since then, and although they are still in a minority, many manufacturers are now in a position to be able to take advantage of mass production techniques, gradually increasing output and reducing price, while incorporating all the technological and component advances seen in the upright bike world.
Why have a recumbent?
Probably the biggest reason to ride a recumbent is comfort. Instead of perching on a saddle, perhaps hunched over handlebars, and taking weight on your arms, you sit on a seat and spread your weight just as you do in a comfy chair. Your arms are relaxed, and you don't crane your head back to look forward. Where you might suffer an aching back and stiff shoulders as well as tired legs after a long ride on an upright, on a recumbent all you'll have is tired legs.
For some, speed is also an advantage - many recumbents are designed to be fast, and nearly all benefit to some degree from decreased wind resistance, due to the aerodynamic shape of the laid back style. But they are also usually heavier than upright bikes, and machines designed for touring will concentrate on comfort and luggage capacity over speed. Recumbents also tend to be slower going uphill, since riders rely on low gears rather than 'honking' out of the saddle and standing on the pedals. However, once over the top, they often roll down the other side faster, thanks to aerodynamics.
There is another important consideration of course - fun! Recumbents can be a lot of fun to ride, for many reasons - if you're an extrovert, you'll love the attention, and the lower position and different handling can make them feel very exciting even at moderate speeds. As you travel feet first, you can't go over the handlebars if you brake suddenly, and being nearer the ground you have less distance to fall if you do slip or skid, so you may find you are more confident at speed than on an upright.
Are they safe?
One of the first things most people ask is "Is it safe? Aren't you invisible?" which is ironic when they've just pointed and shouted as you go past - if you're invisible, what are they looking at?
It is an understandable misconception perhaps, but any recumbent owner will attest that they are very visible indeed. In fact being unusual makes them more noticeable than an upright bike, as drivers have to think about what it is they are looking at. They also seem to appear wider than an upright bike, even when the difference is small, perhaps because of the bulk of the seat. Drivers generally pass with more care and more space than they might for 'only a bike'.
Pros and Cons
So the pros are comfort, speed, fun and increased 'presence' on the road. But what are the cons?
Recumbents do tend to be bulkier and longer than uprights, meaning that they can be harder to lift and require more space to store. There can also be problems with infrastructure like gates on cyclepaths, bike spaces on trains, cycle carriers on cars and so on. Most recumbent riders were keen cyclists before they discovered the benefits of laid back cycling, and many also own upright bikes for day to day use, in situations when the recumbent might be less convenient.
The low down position can mean that your view is restricted, by hedges in the countryside, or parked cars in town. And as you travel feet first, you may need to edge out a little to see well at a junction. But good assertive riding will help in traffic, as will a flag on a long pole if you are worried about being seen in-between cars. Mirrors are usually fitted, to help you monitor what is behind you easily. If you ride in a group with upright riders, you might find it harder to chat, although it's by no means impossible.
Finally, despite increasing numbers, recumbents are still more expensive than most upright bikes, with relatively small scale production. However, as more owners upgrade, there is an increasing second hand market, which is a good way to start recumbent ownership. Once you have your recumbent, many of the components are standard makes, so upgrading and maintenance needn't be much more expensive than any bike.
Types of Recumbent
There are two main types of recumbent, bicycles and tricycles, with trikes proportionately more common than their upright cousins. Trikes take up more room, both in storage and on the road, but are usually very stable, encouraging riders to corner fast and descend at speed. They are also ideal for people who have physical or balance problems which prevent bike riding, since they don't require balancing, or putting a foot down when stopped. And they can have very, very low gears for hills, since there is no minimum speed required to stay upright.
Unlike most upright bikes, which follow a single basic form, recumbents come in a number of layouts, and which you prefer is a matter of personal taste. The main factors to compare are seat height, wheelbase and steering type. Bikes may be long wheelbase, in which case the front wheel is in front of the pedals, or short wheelbase, with pedals out in front and the front wheel tucked under the rider's legs. Steering may be over-seat, with handlebars above the rider's lap, or under-seat, with handlebars below and either side of the rider's thighs. Wheels sizes vary from bike to bike, and some even have wheels of different sizes, usually with a larger wheel at the rear to iron out bumps, and a smaller one at the front to fit under the frame. Shorter riders may find that smaller wheeled bikes with lower seats are better for them, in order to be able to get a foot down confidently when seated. Bikes can vary from fairly upright to all-out low racers. The more upright, the easier it is for someone not used to recumbents to get on and ride - lower seats can take a while to get used to, and new owners sometimes have to go through a wobbly learning phase.
The more upright bikes tend to be marketed as commuters or day-to-day use bikes. They tend to be long wheelbase and usually have over-seat steering. Examples of this type include the HP Velotechnik Spirit, the Scooterbike, and the Bachetta Bella.
Touring and day riding recumbents tend to be a bit more laid back, with lower seats and higher pedals. There are some long wheelbase models, which tend to give a very relaxed, stately ride, usually with under seat steering. They are long machines though, so take up a fair bit of space and have relatively large turning circles. Current models available include Linear recumbents and the Rans Stratus.
The other main touring style is the short wheelbase, with either under or over seat steering. Many models have rear suspension to smooth out the bumps in the road and racks to take luggage. This style is perhaps the most popular and models are available from HP Velotechnik, Challenge, Optima and Azub among others.
Lower the seat a little more, lighten the bike and ditch the rack, and you have a bike for very light touring, fast day riding, or perhaps even a little racing through the British Human Power Club, or your local equivalent. The rider's position is even more aerodynamic, and steering is more likely to be over-seat. Once again, many manufacturers feature models in this style, including HPV, Challenge, Optima, Nazca and Raptobike.
Finally, there's the lowest of the low, and the fastest of the fast. These are bikes that, like a Formula 1 car, aren't really made for the road, but for cutting through the air on a broad sweeping track. So low that the chain sometimes restricts the turning arc of the front wheel, and the riders are almost horizontal. Manufacturers include Velokraft, M5, Toxy and Optima.
As with bikes, trikes cover a wide range of riding styles, from heavy touring to racing. The main distinction in terms of layout is the placing of the wheels. Tadpole trikes have two wheels at the front for steering, and one driven wheel at the back. (They are called tadpole because of this shape - fatter at the front, tailing off to thinner at the back). The alternative is the Delta layout, with one wheel for steering at the front, and two wheels at the back, with either one, or both being driven. Steering is almost always under the seat, with the handlebars placed just where your hands tend to fall when you sit down. As with bikes, seating can be more or less upright, with the lower seating giving a speedier, more aerodynamic ride.
Most trike manufacturers have machines suitable for touring, which include luggage carrying capacity, a medium to high seat, and possibly rear wheel, or full, suspension. The most upright models, like the Anthrotech, the Catrike Villager and the ICE Adventure are also easier to get in and out of, with the seat up at around knee level. Other tourers are more low slung, with plenty of models from ICE, Catrike, Challenge, Greenspeed and HPV. Suspension is becoming more common, especially on rear wheels, but also on the front.
The lowest machines are the most racy, and again all the major manufacturers have trikes designed for speed in their ranges. Also in this category is the lightweight Windcheetah, from AVD, which features a more unusual steering joystick and models with varying proportions of carbon fibre. The top-of-the-range all-carbon Innesenti is the latest addition to the sporty stable.
The above are tadpole trikes, but there are two main Delta models, the Hase Kettwiesel and the Greenspeed Anura. Both have relatively high seats and access is quite therefore quite easy. The Kettwiesel is single wheel drive as standard, with a differential upgrade possible for two wheel drive, while the Anura has a diff as standard. These trikes both have an added feature, in that they can be coupled together to form a tandem, or even a multi-trike train! The current record is 93 Kettwiesels, forming a train 150m long.
Just as with uprights, a tandem recumbent can be the answer to some people's needs - balancing out the power input from a stronger and weaker rider, transporting older children, or allowing the visually impaired to enjoy cycling. There are tandem bikes and trikes available. Recumbent bike tandems are of a similar length to a standard upright tandem, but a recumbent trike tandem is an impressively long beast, and probably the only cycle likely to attract more attention than a single recumbent!
Tandem bikes available include the Altena Double Dutch and Rans Screamer, while both Greenspeed and ICE have produced tandem trikes.
There is even a recumbent/upright combination, the Hase Pino, in which the pilot sits upright behind, and the stoker has a recumbent seat in front - giving both riders an un-interrupted view and making conversation while riding very easy.
Carrying luggage and kids
A recumbent bike or trike fitted with a rack will usually take a pair of standard panniers for smaller loads, and many have the option to fit additional racks and panniers, under the seat for example. Even on bikes or trikes without racks, special bikes can be carried slung either side of the seat, such as those made by Radical Designs.
If you have more to carry than will fit in bags, you can also tow a trailer. To carry a child, the standard rack fitting seat is unlikely to work - the centre of gravity will be raised considerably, and even on a securely stable trike, the child will be sitting up exposed to the wind. However a child trailer is a perfectly good option. If the little one is old enough to provide some power and wants to emulate the laid back style, there is even a recumbent trailerbike, the Hase Trets.
Recumbents for kids
As the popularity of recumbents increases among adults, kids want to have a go too. Until fairly recently children's recumbents were almost entirely homemade, but a few manufacturers have started to produce models for children. Altena produce a recumbent bike, or if your youngster hankers after a trike, there is the Hase Trets or the chunky BMX styled KMX Karts. Some manufacturers are also producing models scaled to fit teenagers (or smaller adults), such as the Catrike Dash.
How to buy
If you're going to buy a recumbent, you really must try some. Likes and dislikes of the various styles are probably more pronounced than for upright bikes, and you may find you get on very well with one style and not at all with another. So try as many styles as you can, and think about practicalities like storage. This might mean visiting a few dealers, and many recumbent specialists will have various bikes and trikes in stock, with some also stocking secondhand machines, an ideal way to get into recumbents for less money. Recumbent owners tend to look after their machines well, so secondhand ones are usually in good condition. You can find dealers' adverts in Velo Vision magazine, and there are also details of many manufacturers and dealers on our Links Page.
For many people, especially before the number of commercial machines available increased, home building was the only way to own a recumbent bike or trike. Projects ranged from fairly simple upright bike conversions, often using small wheeled 'shopper' bikes as donor frames, to extremely well engineered and complex trikes, built from scratch. If the idea of building your own recumbent appeals to you, there is a wealth of information available online.
One of the simplest methods is to buy a conversion kit like that from Cruzbike which turns a suitable upright bike into a front wheel drive recumbent, with no welding. But if you have some metalwork skills and a sense of adventure, you can buy plans from a site like Atomic Zombie, full of practical and fun projects.
The Velo Vision forum is a good place to ask for advice from other recumbent owners, as is BentRider Online, a forum dedicated to all things recumbent. The British Human Powered Club or the International Human Powered Vehicle Association are also useful sources of information, especially if you are interested in racing, or building your own machine.
Note that each of these guides is something of a work in progress:
we'll be updating, adding links to relevant reviews from the magazine
and more as time goes on. Please do get in touch or leave a comment
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