The standard bicycle is one of the great examples of human invention. It’s difficult to imagine how much pleasure and utility value it has added to human experience over the decades. However, upright bicycles have not really evolved at all in the past 100 years. They are basically still the same shape and work in the same way. Given how much technology has moved on since 1900, this is quite surprising.
It is my belief that one of the main reasons for this is the banning of recumbents in racing and the restriction of what was considered a legal bike by the UCI in 1934 when an early recumbent rider started winning races. The imposition of rules on what sort of bike was allowed in UCI sanctioned races was very limiting, and the same rules are basically in place today. The UCI has effectively stifled innovation in the racing bike industry and as a result, racing bikes are not really that much different now than they were at the end of the 18th century. Sure they have changed, but not in any fundamental way.
The bike industry is driven by the pro peloton to a large extent, so people ride what the pros ride, because that’s what the stores sell. The pros have very little choice about what they can ride because the definition of a UCI legal bike is very strict, so the trickle down effect ensures that the bikes reaching the consumer rider suffer from the same rigid design constraints.
Todays bikes are made out of space age materials, have aero frames, are very lightweight and so forth. But they are basically still the same bikes that were used back in 1934.
Recumbents on the other hand, despite having been banned from UCI events, have evolved massively in that time. They have had their ups and downs but the lack of rules has meant innovation has been king. Nowadays, there are a bewildering array of different types of recumbents – High racers, Low racers, Stick bikes, Euro bikes, Short wheelbase, Long wheelbase, Front wheel drive, Rear wheel drive, Fixed BB, Moving BB, Trikes, Quads and Velomobiles to name but a few. Within these categories are a plethora of different designs, all of which have their own set of ‘features’. You can choose from tiller steering, aero bars, ‘gunner’ bars, under seat steering and more.
There is a recumbent bike for everybody from an elite level ultra cyclist setting world records to the casual rider who needs something comfortable and reliable. Riders with balance issues, for example, can continue riding well past the point where uprights become dangerous by moving to trikes. There is so much choice and diversity that the bikes of the upright world start to seem very stale and generic. They might be made out of carbon fiber and weigh 5KG, but they are still essentially all the same.
Upright bicycles, for all their incredible benefits, do have a few drawbacks that most riders experience to some degree or other. Specifically, anatomical issues can arise such as:
- Pain in the hands and wrists
- Sore neck and back
- Pain in the groin / butt area
In extreme cases, perching all your body weight on a small saddle / handle bars can lead to sexual dysfunction and permanent nerve damage. Back pain is common, and even if you don’t suffer from any of these problems (please tell me your secret!) the fact is you spend most of your day staring at the road in front of you instead of up and out at the scenery.
On a recumbent, once properly fitted and adapted to riding it, the only pain you will experience is the sore legs from having done a much longer ride than you were able to do on your upright. You will arrive at your destination with no hand or wrist pain, no back pain and having seen a much richer view of the countryside by virtue of the fact your are lying back and looking upwards rather than down at the road. Because you are lying on the seat, your body weight is spread out over a much larger area and back pain becomes a thing of the past. I have actually found the recumbent riding position helpful in rehabilitation of old back problems.
Some of the questions I get asked regularly about riding recumbents are:
- Are they hard to ride?
- Aren’t you scared being so low to the ground?
- How do you get up hills?
- Aren’t recumbents slow and for people who can’t ride uprights?
- What the hell was that? (usually as I scream past people at warp speed on a descent)
Are they hard to ride?
Riding recumbents definitely requires a retraining of both the body and the mind – they are very different from uprights in a number of ways. Muscle recruitment in the lower back, glutes and thighs is very different from an upright bike and requires months if not a year or more of adaptation before you start to see comparable speeds and powers. Balance is more difficult due to the fact you are lying on the seat and have very limited ‘body English’ to employ. The more reclined you go, and the more aero you get by lifting the Bottom Bracket higher, the harder everything gets, so if you go from an upright bike to an aggressively reclined ‘aero’ bike such as an M5 Carbon High Racer or other racing recumbent then yes you are in for a bit of a shock when you first try to pedal it away.
All the instincts and little movements you have spent your whole life honing subconsciously on your upright no longer apply and you have to learn them all over again. Most people recommend you spend a while in parking lots learning slow speed skills before you go out on the road. I went straight for the 20% hills of Kintyre on the Fuego just a week or so after getting it, and my first real baptism of fire was cycling from Tarbert to Skipness with 2 Radical banana bags full of shopping. I fell off so many times I actually thought about selling the bike again. Probably not the best way to approach learning a new skill! I was a stubborn fool though, and refused to go to easier tarmac. I got there with perseverance and a bit more care and attention. There is no reason why you can’t learn to ride a recumbent sensibly and without any falls. Find an empty parking lot, learn gently and slowly.
The two things that make it harder are the lack of body English, and the fact you cannot easily look over your shoulder when you are laid back. You solve the first with many hours of low speed practice, and you solve the second with a mirror. Once you have learned all the little nuances you need to ride confidently, it is no harder than riding an upright, and a lot more fun.
Aren’t you scared being so low to the ground?
Being on a low recumbent in particular can give rise to a perception of danger. When cars go past you they sound louder, tyre noise is much louder and you feel a lot more exposed. Visibility in traffic, particularly when filtering at junctions and when there are parked cars in the way, can lead to you being less visible than on an upright.
However, on the open road, cars will tend to give you more space than they would if you were on an upright bike. There is some kind of psychological effect in play, where the less common the object, the more the driver pays attention.
In traffic, particularly on a low racer or trike, you will be low enough that filtering becomes more dangerous and you should ride accordingly. You can put flags or LED whips on the back of your bike to give you more visibility. There’s no doubt that a recumbent is harder to spot in heavy traffic though. Ride defensively and hold your space.
I have ridden the Fuego through Edinburgh Festival traffic and as in all cycling, being sensible and proactive is the best plan. There’s no need to get into trouble on any bike if you understand the dangers and take steps to mitigate them before they happen.
How do you get up hills?
There is a general perception amongst both recumbent and upright riders that recumbents can’t climb. I would argue that recumbents don’t climb hills, people do. So if anything, people on recumbents can’t climb.
When I first started on the Fuego, I couldn’t believe how slow I was going up hills. Every incline felt like somebody was dragging me backwards. The only thing to do was select a low gear and spin away. Over time, I developed more recumbent leg muscles and started to get quicker, but still nothing amazing.
After about a year, and in conjunction with some structured training, I noticed that suddenly I appeared to go through some significant adaptation and climbing became much easier. I was starting to put in times similar to what I would have done on my pre-recumbent days.
The general accepted wisdom is that a recumbent rider has the advantage on inclines up to around 6%, then the upright takes over. So on very hilly terrain an upright will be faster.
I do believe there is a physiological difference when you are lying down on a bike, and that it is more difficult to get the same level of power output. I don’t know the reason for this, but suspect that we are evolved to be upright and work best in that position. There are riders out there who claim the same power output on both recumbent and upright, so it definitely can be done. I think it is mostly about training and adaptation. That has certainly been my experience. With 6 months’ structured training I have taken my FTP on the recumbent to not far off 300W, which isn’t too bad. I’m sure it can go higher yet. I’ll revisit this post at the end of 2018 and see where I am.
The Cruzbike is a unique design, in that the bottom bracket is attached to the steering mechanism and can move from side to side as you turn the bars. This allows you to pull on the bars and ‘pull’ power through the pedals using your upper body. I was amazed at how effective this can be for honking over rollers, much like an upright rider standing up and swaying the bike from side to side to get more power. This is not possible on a fixed bottom bracket design. Of course, more power means more stress on the body which means more lactate and a higher heart rate, so it is not like you are getting anything for free. It does mean though that you can cycle power between the legs and the torso on long climbs and give the legs a bit of a break.
Aren’t recumbents slow and for people who can’t ride uprights?
Some recumbents are slow, some are not bad, and some are blindingly fast. The market seems to be swinging towards trikes and e-assist platforms, and most of the recumbents you will see are not particularly fast by design. Kind of like the equivalent of touring bikes or hybrids – they are not meant to be fast because they are designed for utilitarian use and comfort.
Many people cannot ride uprights for physical reasons or because they have balance issues for example. Recumbents do provide an answer for both of these groups. This does not mean they need to be slow though!
Bikes like the Cruzbike V20, Schlitter Encore, M5 CHR and Optima High Baron (to name a few, there are many more) are all very fast 2 wheeled bikes. Trikes such as the ICE VTX or Catrike 700 are also pretty fast, although due to the fact they have more frontal area they have a higher aerodynamic drag and therefore aren’t quite as fast as the 2 wheeled high racers such as those listed above.
What the hell was that?
Bikes such as the Nazca Fuego are very aerodynamic. It also has rear suspension and is quite heavy. All this means that when you hit a downhill, you can get up to scary speeds very quickly. The suspension keeps you planted on the tarmac on rough roads and the weight helps your momentum. 50 mph is a regular occurrence, and if I geared the bike higher I know I could get it faster.
It can be a hoot screaming past upright riders who are huddling over the bars trying to get aero on a descent. The shock of seeing something fly past 2 feet off the ground at 50 mph has led to some colourful language if I hadn’t made my approach known…
There are very few things that can keep up with the Fuego on a descent, including most upright bikes. The very strongest upright riders will outpace me if they really try hard and can get very aero (I’m pretty middle of the road in terms of power and I’m in my forties after all), but ye canny change the laws of physics, and aero drag goes up at the square of speed. The aero profile of the Fuego is considerably smaller than most upright configurations. So the faster I go, the bigger the advantage I get!
So what are the downsides of riding recumbents? There are a few.
Lack of Maneuverability
There’s no question that recumbents are not so maneuverable as uprights. At low speed they are much more difficult to handle, as you cannot employ body English to wiggle at slow speed. In general the lack of body English manifests itself as an all round more difficult handling experience that requires practice to overcome. Riding up very steep hills at very low speed can be challenging on more reclined recumbents. When I first started riding the M5 CHR, it took me four attempts to successfully ride the bike up the 20% Talla hill south of Peebles. You can read about that here.
Most models with large front wheels suffer from ‘heel strike’, caused by the foot and front wheel occupying the same physical space. This means if you turn the wheel too far your foot can catch the wheel. In the blog post I linked to above I crashed on a steep hill first time out on the M5 as I didn’t realize how much overlap there was. Some models are more affected than others, with the general rule being that the more aggressive and aero the bike is designed to be, the more overlap there is. You can mitigate the problem to some extent by using pedal extenders, but really the only thing to do is be aware of it and ride accordingly. It doesn’t generally become a problem until you are making sharp turns at slow speed, at which point you need to make sure you keep your foot out of the way. With time, you develop awareness and skill in doing this until it becomes second nature. A steep switchback is the ultimate heel strike challenge. You may need to either sprint and then coast the turn or pedal one legged with the inner leg unclipped and out the way. If you use pedals with a lot of float you can swivel your heel out enough to get round most corners without unclipping.
Note that some aggressive upright race bikes suffer from ‘toe strike’ which is basically the same thing. Recumbents all have some compromise in one way or another. It’s part of the deal you must accept for the glorious comfort, aero advantage and view that you get.
The Loner’s Bike
It is very difficult to ride a recumbent with a group of upright riders. This is because you will be too fast down the hills, and too slow up the other side. Unless you are very strong and are happy to ride the brakes down and then power hard up, you will find yourself yo-yoing back and forth in order to keep the same average speed. The dynamic is just too different.
In events, most upright riders will be OK with your presence as long as you don’t try to draft them in the group. Recumbents don’t really belong in a group of uprights – it messes up the group dynamic and could potentially be more dangerous. Also, the front-most part of a recumbent is the chainrings which could cause a lot of damage if you crashed into someone.
I think recumbents are more of a loner’s bike. Embrace that! If you want to ride in a group, find some other recumbent riders or stick to the ass hatchet upright. If you want to do long days out on the road by yourself, you can’t beat the comfort and view of the recumbent.