www.benlovejoy.com | Wheels | Cycle | Why a recumbent? Why a trike?

Part bicycle, part go-kart, all fun ...

Most people seeing a recumbent bicycle for the first time have pretty much the same reaction: WTF?

Why would someone take a tried-and-trusted diamond-framed bicycle design and change it so radically? Well, the real question is: why hasn't bicycle design evolved in the same way car design has?

The answer is simple: the recumbent design was banned by the the UCI - the international regulatory body for cycle racing - in 1934. The reason? They were too good! A rider considered distinctly second-rate managed to set a new world record on one, and instead of hailing a breakthrough in bicycle design, the UCI banned them from all races. Since consumer bikes are essentially modelled after racing bikes, that decision effectively stalled bicycle design in the 1930s.

Recumbents are faster mostly because they are a lot more aerodynamic. Above 18mph, about 80% of the energy being expended on riding a conventional bike is overcoming air-resistance. Figures for recumbent vary with design (fully-faired models showing the most dramatic improvement), but even touring recumbents are considerably more aerodynamic.

The Dutch Human Powered Vehicle Club did some tests with a gizmo which measures the amount of power a rider is applying. By riding a series of different bikes at a constant power output of 250W, they were able to see what speeds they achieved with each:

The International Human Powered Vehicle Association (IHPVA) holds races that are open to both conventional and recumbent designs; it is rare that a race is won by a conventional bike.

Recumbents have a whole host of other advantages. The most obvious of which is this: which would you rather be sat on for hours at a time?

 

Think, too, about the natural head position while riding a diamond-framed bike: you are looking down at the road a few feet in front of you. Lifting your head to look straight ahead puts strain on your neck muscles. The hunched-forward position makes it difficult to fully expand your diaphragm when breathing. Your back is hunched, your shoulders are forced forward, your arms are held out and your wrists bent back.

On a recumbent, your natural head position is looking down the road, just as it is in a car. Your chest is open and breathing is easy. Your back, shoulders, arms and hands are all in natural, relaxed positions. Steering is achieved while your arms are relaxed by the side of your body.

Your weight is distributed across your buttocks and back, and your head supported by a neck-rest.

Recumbents come in both 2- and 3-wheel form. A trike has an additional advantage: when you want to stop for a rest, you just pull over - no need to dismount, just sit back and relax. My comments below refer specifically to trikes.

All of the above are very good reasons to buy a recumbent, but none of them are the reason I did. The reason I did is that recumbent trikes are go-karts for grown-ups. :-) The feeling you have while cornering is exactly how you feel when driving a go-kart. On an open road with no traffic, you find yourself slaloming down the road just for the sheer hell of it ...

Ok, so recumbents have a lot of advantages, but TANSTAAFL, so what are the drawbacks?

The biggest by far is the price-tag. Diamond-framed bikes are mostly mass-produced, and even hand-made ones benefit from economies of scale. Recumbents, in contrast, are all hand-made in small quantities.

Entry level is around £700, and that buys you a secondhand version of an rather clunky and heavy model. Something nippier starts at around £1200 secondhand. New, the TRICE Q that I have starts at around £1800, and that's for a bare-bones model. TRICE machines are the BMW of the bicycle world, coming with almost nothing as standard: no mudguards, neck-rest, lighting mounts, luggage, etc.

Although recumbents aren't cheap, one of this quality should last a lifetime, and recumbents hold their value incredibly well.

The second major disadvantage of recumbents is they are not easily transportable - but the TRICE Quick Release kit helps there.

The third drawback is hill-climbing performance. Recumbents are faster on the flat, but they are significantly slower uphill. On a conventional bike, you stand on the pedals and let your weight do half the work, something you can't do on a recumbent. However, they are much faster downhill: because you don't have to worry about flying over the handlebars when braking hard, you have the nerve to build up much higher speeds! Your overall pace, then is as fast or faster than a diamond-framed bike.

Ironically, the one drawback everyone thinks they have isn't an issue at all outside of city traffic: the low position making it hard for car drivers to spot you. Yes, that's true in heavy traffic, and I wouldn't personally want to ride one round Hyde Park Corner on a regular basis (though I have done so more than once), but on normal roads, they are actually safer than conventional bikes. Most drivers are blind to ordinary bikes, but that WTF reaction to them works in your favour - most drivers slow down far more, and give me much more room, than on a conventional bike.

Oh, and one final drawback: recumbents are not for shy, retiring types. People smile at you, make 'nice wheels' comments, take photographs and ask the Three Standard Questions (Is it comfortable? Is it fast? Is it expensive?).

Storage is not as big a problem as you might expect - at least, for a single trike. Mine lives in the garage, behind the car, but I have stored it in the house(the small thing next to it is my Brompton):

The two front wheels against the wall, and the rear wheel (QR mudguard removed) held in place by a home-made chock. This had rubber on the bottom, to stop it sliding, and a thin piece of cork matting on the top to provide a non-slippery surface for the wheel:

You can read about my TRICE Q here.

 
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