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Recumbent Folly

November 27th, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

I am sure my post on Moultons managed to annoy some devotees, and that is to be expected. I would have been annoyed to read it a while back. Now dear reader it is time for me to tell you why I think that recumbents are a folly on a grand scale. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the concept, let’s lie the rider back and reduce frontal area, and reduce the pressure on the butt. But once you move into the world of recumbents you move into an area of high cost for return and to be honest they rarely seem to deliver on all they promise. Let is compare apples and apples first.

Recumbent bikes and upright bikes.

The upright bike has been around since 1885 when the first River Safety bicycle appeared. It has been fine tuned into an efficient and high performance machine. Originally made with simple steels, then alloy steels, now frame materials range from the common alumnium alloys, to exotic composite frames and a small niche market of alloy steels still exists (cause remember Steel is Real). If anything there is an element of boredom in the upright world because it is the same basic designed that is simply tinkered with.

Now if you want to look at something different then we enter the world of recumbents (bents). Check out M5 or Optima to get an idea of the Euro bent world. Then check out Lightning or Easy Riders to see the American bent bikes. These are fantastic looking machines and show variety in design.  But they all cost a bloody fortune to get anywhere near the weight and performance of a $1500-$2000 upright. My Jamis Quest with its Reynolds 631 alloy steel frame weighs in at a touch over 9 kg. Most of these recumbents will be lucky to tip the scales at anything much under 11 kg for a medium size bike and if they have suspension as a number do then 15 kg may be the weight region. But to gain these weights we are dealing with expensive recumbents. In Australia they will cost around $5000; that’s a serious piece of cycling gear. Now I have only owned one recumbent bicycle, it was an M5 Shockproof and it looked cool (well for a recembent) but to be fair I never gave it a chnace. A few rides showed it to be twitchy with its tiller style steering and the seat wasn’t all the comfortable. It certainly wasn’t the armchair comfort you think you’ll get. It was a lot of money that didn’t offer the returns I hoped for.

Recumbent Trikes

Now in Australia recumbent trikes are more popular than bikes. In part due to the success for the world renowned Greenspeed tricycles. These are fun to ride, and were started by Mike Burrows with his Speedy tricycle which was the original iteration of the now famous Windcheetah trike. So with trike most are tadpole trikes, that means they have two wheels in front and one at the back. That means a long chain from the pedals to the drive wheel. Also to facilitate steep climbing many use  a hybrid gear system with a 27-30 speed dérailleur setup mixed with a 3 speed internal hub gear. This means a total of 81-90 gears, with massive overlap but a really low gear and a very high top gear. This arrangement though introduces massive drag into an efficient dérailleur mechanism. My first trike a Greenspeed GTR had the hybrid gear setup and I always felt it stodgy to ride. Get rid of the internal geared hub and my average speeds improved by 2 km/h straight away. Furthermore internal geared hubs are heavy, so a heavy trike weighing around 16-18 kg is heavier again with these hubs. So it is better to go a pure dérailleur setup and deal with the more standard gear range.

But the real killer with trikes is that the cheap ones (around $3000!) are damn heavy, around 18 kg, now that is double the weight of my current bike. Oh you can get lighter ones but they are dearer again, upwards to $5000 and $6000. My second trike was a Greenspeed GLR, this was more like a land luge. Low and fast and “only” around 14 kg. But it was heaps dearer, and nothing I have ever rode raised the ire of fellow road users more than this. Car drivers hated it cause it was low and they happily yelled abuse at me. Which made the whole riding experience even less satisfying. In recumbent publications you often read about the delightful comfort but I can’t say I found that. They aren’t arm chairs or car seats. They are hard in some ways and often bend your shoulders up, so you can look straight ahead because the lower the trike is the more stable it is to corner on. But it is not super comfortable.

So you’re thinking of a recumbent and you think why should I? Well don’t buy it imagining an armchair ride, you won’t get that. Don’t buy it for speed, particularly trikes because they aren’t faster (except maybe downhill). They aren’t better to commute on and they are like a mobile tanning bend in summer; you really get baked on hot days. And for all this you pay around twice what you would for an upright (upwrong as the recumbent riders say). There is a reason why recumbents have never displaced the upright, it isn’t just racing circles driving the upright’s dominance. It is simply that in spite of the upright bike’s foibles it still is overall the better cycling device for the average person. Oh and finally you look odd! No other way to say it, you are out of the ordinary, people will notice and they will comment.

Now say you want to ignore my lacklustre experiences with bents, and you are hell bent (pardon the pun) on one, go and see Ian Humphries at Flying Furniture. A good guy, and a recumbent evangelist who will have plenty to try. Maybe you’ll have a better experience than I did.

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