Youve probably seen them, those odd shaped
bicycles having more in common with lawn furniture than typical bicycles. Perhaps
youre wondering what they are all about and why are there starting to be more of
them around. You probably would like to try riding one some time, and wonder if they are
easy to ride. Or perhaps you just decided to see if this article would explain just what
kind of madness would make a healthy looking bicyclist climb aboard a pedal driven lawn
Im referring to Recumbent Bicycles of course, those sit-down bikes, which are
pedaled with the cyclists feet out in front, while the rider is seemingly relaxing
in a mesh seat looking for all the world like it is no work at all.
In this article Im going to attempt to answer your questions in a balanced way,
because there is a lot of hyperbole both Pro and Con. Let me start right off by saying I
use a recumbent and three diamond-frame (regular) bikes as well as a tandem. I like them
all, and have spent enough time on each of the types to know the faults and well as the
What are these things
Recumbent (meaning seated) bikes have been around for quite a while, but have never
garnered a significant share of the market. The last I heard, they had just slightly more
sales than Tandems, and you know how rare those are. Yet lately you are starting to see
them in increasing numbers.
Recumbents or "Bents" as they are often called in the US and Canada (but
seldom in Britain due to another connotation of the word) started out as a tinkers
project. Often they were, and some still are, assembled in garages out of pieces and parts
of cannibalized bikes by guys with a welding torch in their hand and a gleam in their eye.
Today, there are a couple dozen manufactures of quality production recumbents in the US,
Europe, Australia, and the Orient.
Out of this environment came a few bikes with very nice handling characteristics, a
fair bit of speed, and a great deal of comfort. Comfort seems always to be measured
against the alleged horrors of the regular bike seat, usually with dramatic exaggeration
thrown in for good measure.
Make no mistake about it, the garage mechanics bike and the production recumbents
which descended from them are comfortable. And yes, they are easy to ride, although in
your first five minutes on one you may think me daft for saying so.
Recumbent bikes are DIFFERENT. They ride differently, they
steer differently, starting and stopping is different, and climbing hills requires a
By and large they are quite fun to ride. The "Recumbent Grin" is the most
noticeable attribute of a new bent pilot. (That term "pilot" comes up often
among recumbent riders because the feeling of banking into turns as you swoop around
corners has much in common with feelings you get while flying in small planes).
There are a lot of different recumbent shapes and sizes. Once you break the
"rules" and deviate from the diamond frame design there is little to hold you
back from trying new designs and new shapes.
The two most common classifications of recumbents are based on where the front
wheel is in relation to the rest of the bike. These are short wheelbase and Long
wheelbase. There is arguably a third category called compact long wheelbase, but the
difference between this and the other categories is blurred and indistinct.
Short, or short wheel based bikes usually have the front wheel about at the
riders knees, while the cranks are way out in front. These tend to be speedy bikes.
Sometimes this yields a harsher ride as you are sitting almost on top of the front wheel.
Long Wheel Based bikes have the front wheel out in front of the cranks like a
conventional bike. Such bikes have larger turning radiuses, and some of the smoothest
rides of any bike. These bikes also tend to be the lowest bikes, often having the seat
less than a foot above the pavement.
Within the three above general categories of bike geometry, there are two common
arrangements of the steering mechanism. These varieties each have their own strong points
and near fanatical adherents. Both work, both are easy to learn to use.
Above Seat Steering
Above seat steering (ASS) recumbent have handlebars above the seat, usually about chest
high. This arrangement is often said to be more comfortable for the beginner than is under
seat steering. Above seat handlebars also lead to a more aerodynamic configuration on the
bike as your arms are in front of you and therefore do not present an additional wind
Under Seat Steering
Under Seat Steering (USS) has the steering assembly under the riders seat and
handlebars protruding out from under either side of the seat. This usually entails some
sort of linkage to the front wheel, except in the case of short wheel based machines,
which have the front wheel very close to the rider.
USS is quite comfortable once you are use to it. There is nothing in front of you. Some
riders find this arrangement makes it easier to get on and off, due to not having to duck
under the bars.
Not Just Bicycles
Not all recumbents are bicycles. Some are
Trikes have a special appeal to the touring crowd as you are never at a loss for a
place to rest, and the carrying capacity is great. Plus, your full loaded bike does not
try to fall over the minute you turn your back. Trikes also appeal to those users
with balance problems, salvaging an otherwise lost love of cycling.
There is no learning curve, you can ride one instantly. You can also climb very
steep hills because Trikes have incredible gearing (some as many as 72 gears), and also
because you do not have to maintain enough speed to balance as you would on a two wheel
vehicle. You can set the brake, and stop to rest anywhere without getting off the
Most commercial recumbent trike designs are of the "tadpole" design with two
front wheels and one rear wheel. The trike pictured here is a Greenspeed Touring Trike
manufactured in Australia but sold the world over, available either as completed bikes or
kits to build your own.
Reasons for Recumbents
There are several good reasons to ride a recumbent bicycle. I will cover these below in
But first I would like to mention the fact that often people choose a recumbent after
they have many years of using other bikes, and after they have reached an age where they
are no longer socially insecure. In prior years, recumbent riders were overwhelmingly
middle aged. Lately you are starting to see more young riders, but still virtually no
teenage riders. This may well change, as recumbents become more common, not to mention
One of the most frequently cited reasons for riding a recumbent bike is the comfortable
seat. Many people find the having weight on their arms or wrists is unbearable for longer
periods with advancing age. Others just never seem to get used to a typical bike seat and
find the lawn chair like seats of recumbents more comfortable.
Make no mistake about it recumbents are very comfortable. However, many recumbent
enthusiasts go way overboard in denigrating the typical bike seat, claiming they would
never go back to that "horrible" seat. However, the upright's seat would
not seem so uncomfortable if the rider rode more frequently.
Long tours are especially comfortable on some of the long wheel based recumbents. You
can ride all day and not have any sore spots. Also, as you sit in a more natural posture,
your neck does not get sore. and you see more of your surroundings.
Recumbents are often a way whereby people with repetitive stress injuries to the wrist,
neck, or back can continue to ride bikes. Quite often such injuries make it impossible to
bear any weight on ones hands, as is necessary when leaning on the handlebars. Injuries to
the back or neck can also keep people off a regular bike, but seldom present a problem for
Cycling is still possible with many such injuries if the position on the bike is
changed. The upright seating posture of most recumbents is more like sitting in a chair,
and reduces stress on arms and neck. Offsetting this, often there is additional stress is
placed on knees, especially among new recumbent riders. We will cover this below.
Recumbents hold all human powered
speed records. Period! The worlds cycling organizations, or even national
cycling organizations such as the USCF recognize none of these records. These
organizations have decided that the diamond frame bike (traditional road bike) is the only
device they will admit to the record books. Recumbent enthusiasts insist that this is
because they know that recumbents are faster and would take all records if given a chance.
Of course that's true, but the winners of recumbent records would be the same
world-class cyclists who race in the Tour De France. So a recumbent isnt going to
make you a world record holder. You still need world class legs and lungs.
Therefore the argument that the USCF "fears" recumbents seems rather weak in
that the same super athletes (USCF members for the most part) would still be winning.
The truth is that every sport has the right, in fact the duty, to limit the equipment
that may be used. Equipment that lends a tremendous advantage does not reflect the merits
of the athlete. Sport, after all, is supposed to be a competition of strength and skill
among human beings. Competitors should rightly be limited to similar equipment. There was
a time, sadly long past, when the Tour provided the same bikes to all competitors.
None of the above does anything to diminish the fact that most recumbents are fast
bikes. This is due predominantly to the better aerodynamics of a recumbent bicycle. The
cyclist is usually seated lower, (wind speed near the ground is usually less than found
just a couple feet higher up), and the seating position on most recumbents provides a
smaller wind target than most upright bikes.
This translates into measurably faster speeds. Many cyclists who ride both types of
bike (diamond frame as well as recumbents) report 3 to 8 mph faster average speeds on the
Add to this the low seating position, and the effect is not unlike being in a low slung
sports car. Sitting low to the ground just seems faster than the same speed at a higher
Virtually all falls from a recumbent dump you unceremoniously on your butt next to your
bike. It is almost impossible to go "over the bars" and land on your head. Very
few crashes result in extensive road rash as is often experienced in falls from higher
bikes. Crashes with Trikes are virtually unheard of.
It is possible to slide out in a tight turn, but if you do so on a recumbent, you will
usually have a lot shorter distance to fall than you would from a regular bike.
Because of the novelty factor (see below) recumbents often get more attention and
consideration from motorists.
When was the last time you were able to ride along the road looking up at soaring
eagles rather than down at the pavement ahead of you? On a recumbent bike the view is
wonderful, and you see things you never notice on an upright bike. After a long ride, your
neck is not tired from holding your head up all day.
Bents are just plain fun to ride. Its a whole different experience. Among
recumbent enthusiasts there is something known as the "recumbent grin". You will
see it on the face of every new recumbent rider just seconds after they master the
steering and balance. You bank into corners like a jet fighter pilot. You are riding low
and fast like an Italian roadster on a mountain road. You can stop and rest still sitting
on your bike.
There is also a certain novelty factor in riding a recumbent, which is diminishing with
each year as more and more of them are seen on the road. Still, hardly a day goes by
without some 10 year old blurting out "Cool Bike, dude!" as you ride by.
Motorists point you out to car-mates. Some folks just stop and stare. Everyone smiles and
Recumbent riders end up answering a lot of questions. Many people want to know if they
are hard to ride, how much they cost, how do you steer that thing (especially the USS
bikes), etc. While paused at a stop sign one day, a guy in a pickup pulled up in the next
lane, rolled down his window and asked me "Did your wife put that thing together for
Finally, there are other types of Recumbents that are designed for
people who can't use their legs. These are Handcycles, and are
either "pedaled" with hand cranks or by hand-on-wheel
(like wheel chairs on steroids). These tend to be Trikes, and
some are amazingly fast. There are several companies specializing in
these bikes, such as Greenspeed
, and Varna
, and others. There are sites
that sponsor rides and races.
Reasons Against Recumbents
In spite of all the positive aspects of recumbent bicycles there are some drawbacks.
Not all bents have every one of these disadvantages, but most of them have at least
one. Some are simply perceptions, others are based in fact.
Almost every recumbent weighs more than an equivalently priced road bike. There are
certain exceptions, you can buy a 21-pound recumbent, but it will end up costing you much
more than the 21-pound diamond frame upright bicycle.
Recumbents sometimes weigh as much as 5 pounds more than the same priced traditional
bike. On flat ground, the recumbent will be faster, so who cares about weight? Read on.
Hill climbing on a recumbent is different than on a diamond frame bike. First you
cant stand up and charge up the hill. You have to adapt to a different style of
climbing, namely spinning high RPMs on the pedals in a low gear. (In fact, recumbents
generally improve your spinning skills and make you a better all round cyclist even on
Because recumbents are generally heavier, climbing problems are exacerbated by weight.
In fact one school of thought is that weight is the only reason recumbents are said to
New recumbent riders typically climb slowly until they develop "recumbent
legs". This can take one to three months or more depending on how often you ride.
There is something about the seating position that requires different muscle development.
Im not sure if it is because your major leg muscles are hanging from your bones in a
different maner or because you are sitting on your "gluteus". In either case,
every bent rider Ive ever met agrees that it takes different muscles to get
back up to the same level of climbing performance as on your upright bike. On the flats,
this is offset immediately by the lower drag, but the hill-climbing disadvantage generally
takes much longer to overcome.
However not every recumbent rider agrees that bents climb slower. Some recumbent
advocates dont ride upright bikes much and have become specialized toward the
recumbent. Because of this they cant climb well on an upright and therefore claim
that recumbents climb better than upright bikes. But those riders who switch back and
forth between recumbents and uprights generally agree that recumbents do not climb as fast
as upright bikes.
Above, I mentioned that you couldnt get up out of the saddle to climb hills.
However, just because you climb sitting down does not imply less physical stress on your
Because your back is against a firm seat back, you are easily able to push harder on a
recumbent than you could on an upright bike. On the upright you cant push much more
than your weight. As soon as you do, your body rises up, and the effort is wasted lifting
your body rather than turning the crank.
On a recumbent, you can push against the seat back. You can therefore put more pressure
on the pedals - and your knees. New recumbent riders frequently complain about sore knees.
Veteran bent riders all reply in unison "Gear Down, Spin Faster".
The advice is simple. Downshift to an easier gear, and spin faster rather than pushing
so hard. You achieve the same speed, and its easier on the knees. Your endurance
will be enhanced as well. It takes time to get used to it. A cadence computer helps.
Lower Position and Visibility fears
New recumbent riders generally find themselves sitting much lower than they did on
their diamond frame bike. This can be unnerving in traffic, as it is harder to see around
or over cars.
On most recumbents you are sitting with your head at the same level as the driver of a
modern sedan. This is not that low, but seems like it.
This often leads to fears that you will not be seen in traffic.
The car immediately behind you will see you just fine. The one behind that one (e.g.
second car back) may not see you as well if your bike is low as compared to an upright
bike. This has some ramifications when you are riding beside a steady stream of higher
speed overtaking traffic. Cars may right hook you (turn into a driveway directly across
Most of this is all in the head of the cyclist. The new lower position simply rekindles
old fears of being hit from behind. Once you get used to it the lower position is not a
problem. Defensive tactics used to avoid the right hook work as well on recumbents as on
Difficulty of Rearview
Because you have your back leaning against a seat back, seeing behind you can be a
problem. It requires greater effort to look back, and may involve leaning forward in your
Because of this, most recumbent riders gravitate toward mirrors, either mounted on the
bike or helmet/eyeglass mirrors. The helmet/eyeglass mounted mirrors have the advantage of
no blind spots.
Less Carrying Capacity
Many recumbent designs, most of them actually, have small front wheels. This makes it
difficult to hang front panniers on the bike. Most recumbents can accommodate rear
panniers just fine.
The rear tire of most recumbents is already carrying more weight than the front. This
is true in most, but not all, designs. Some bikes are set up so that the rear wheel
carries 70 % of the weight. You compound this when you add the weight of loaded
panniers. This calls for a high-pressure tire in the rear. Still the bike will be very
tail-heavy. This affects handling, but usually presents no serious problem.
To offset the inability (or simply the uselessness due to small size) of front
panniers, recumbents offer a large area behind the seat that can be used to stow a lot of
gear. Often this area can be enclosed in a cloth-and-wire frame or rigid structure
called a tail cone. This makes an excellent carrying area. Commercial
versions are available, and home built tail cones are constantly being talked up on the
Tail cones generally improve the aerodynamics of the bike, or at the vary least do it
no harm, and provide a large enclosed space for carrying a significant load. They do add
to the weight, but the weight gain is almost always offset by improved aerodynamics that
make for a net gain in speed. Some claims for a 30% drag reduction are made (on top
of the already lower drag of the bike).
Getting Used to a Recumbent
Riding a recumbent is different enough from a diamond frame bike that there is usually
a period of adjustment where you master the skills.
This period of adjustment varies in length for different people and different skills.
The good news is that most people can transition to a recumbent in seconds. My first
recumbent ride was at the Ryan factory. Dick Ryan put me on his own personal bike and said
he would run along side with one hand on the seat back to prevent a crash. After six
paces, he gave up as it was clear that I would have no problem steering and balancing.
Real competency came within a week or two. I had to plan starts and stops, and major
turns for a few days. I had to train my legs. But I could ride instantly.
There are some differences in handling that you might initially be aware of. Let me
cover a few here.
A bicycle is a steer-balanced vehicle. You have to steer to balance. On upright bikes,
you can also lean to steer, and lean to make small balance adjustments.
On a recumbent, your back is against a seat back. This means you can not lean over like
you would on a diamond frame bike. It's possible to do so, but you cant do it quickly
enough to be of much value.
Therefore, recumbent riders rely to a larger degree on small steering movements to fine
tune balance. This comes naturally, as this is one of the fundamental elements of riding a
bike, weather you are conscious of it or not.
You cant simply lean to the left to counteract a slow fall to the right on a
recumbent as you would on an upright. As you start falling to the right, you must turn to
the right. This brings the bike back under you and you are once more balanced.
At first, your rides on a recumbent will be sort of deliberate. You will be conscious
of planning turns, stops and starts. This lasts about a week, varying somewhat depending
on the type of recumbent, and the amount you ride.
Hint: Turns are easier once you understand the concept of
counter-steering. Counter steering means that when you want to turn right, steer left.
This causes the bike to lean to the right (because the front wheel has moved left of the
center of gravity). A lean to the right is followed inevitably by a turn to the right.
Counter steering is usually more effective on a recumbent than and upright bike. (But
used on uprights too).
As stated above, gear down and spin. Even if it means going slower for a while.
better for your knees, and you will be faster in the end.
New recumbent pilots tend to be wobbly when starting out from a standing stop. This is
because you cant jump on the bike and mash a pedal before you are even seated. Some
recumbents are configured so that you can push off with your foot, others are just too low
for this to work. Doing a start smoothly requires that you have a pedal cocked and your
first stroke must be fairly aggressive. Wobbly starts add to the "geeky" look of
the bike, and are something most recumbent riders aim to avoid.
Often this is just an appearance of wobbly-ness as the rider makes
rapid and fairly large steering inputs, but the actual track of the
bike is often just a straight as an upright bike.
Note that the appearance of wobbly starts are also the reason, rightly or wrongly, that recumbents are
banned from many mass-start bike events.
With recumbents, some of the bike clothes and accessories you thought you had to have
are no longer necessary. The first to go are the padded shorts. Not necessary.
In fact bike shorts are not even necessary or particularly desirable. Regular
shorts work fine. Jerseys with pockets in back or water bottle holsters are not
needed. Cycling gloves are not really needed because you will not have any weight on
your hands, nor will you be reaching down to wipe glass shards from the tire. You
generally can't reach the tire.
Most recumbent riders gravitate to clipless pedals, which prevent your foot from
falling off the pedal when you are tired, and improve your cadence.
You will likely want a mirror, and as stated elsewhere, helmet or eyeglass mounted
mirrors work best.
Are Recumbents Better?
Are recumbent bicycles better than the traditional diamond frame? The answer is not
clear because the question is too broad.
They are better in some ways and not as capable in others.
Recumbents are Different. The difference makes for a lot of fun. They generally are
faster on the road than a diamond frame bicycle. Especially on the flats, where they
often enjoy a 30% drag reduction over a the upright. This drag reduction makes for
easier days on long rides. Coupled with the greater ability to push against the seat
back, this drag reduction can yield explosive acceleration and sustained high speed runs.
Recumbents make excellent long distance touring cycles, once you solve the carrying
capacity issues with custom panniers etc.
Since you cant bunny hop on a bent, they are less well suited to trail riding
than are upright bikes. Full suspension recumbents are available and are fairly capable in
rough road conditions. There are some riders who are able to negotiate trails of
moderate to intermediate difficulty on recumbents, but by and large you do not find them
on single track.
Personally, I find that switching between my recumbent and my diamond frame bikes makes
me a stronger cyclist. I exercise slightly different muscles, and different cadences.
Variety is a Good Thing (tm) and one can never be too rich or too
famous or have too many bikes.