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What is a recumbent bicycle?

A bicycle where you sit back in a full seat with your legs in a horizontal position. This puts the body in a position where there is less wind drag from the legs, but still maintains the optimal angle between back and legs as on a conventional bicycle, provides a more comfortable riding position with no weight on the wrists, and provides a natural view looking forward.

The standard "diamond frame" bicycle design evolved over time from basically a "horse with wheels" (hence the seat is called a saddle) and the design is a result of that heritage.

If you study where the energy goes in riding a bicycle you will find out that at speeds over 25 km/hour, 90% of your energy is used to overcome wind resistance, only 10% goes to bearing friction and rolling resistance. Cycling into a strong headwind you become very aware of that fact!

To design a really efficient bicycle (i.e. one that goes fast with just moderate effort) the only way you can achieve it is to cut wind resistance. The only practical way to do that is to reduce what is known as frontal area (as car manufacturers do now). The almost vertical position of your body on a standard bicycle is not the best position you can be in for aerodynamic drag, hence racers bend over with their backs flat and arms tucked in to reduce wind resistance - this works, but it can be uncomfortable, squeezes the diaphragm making breathing less efficient, puts a lot of weight on your hands and wrists, and to see forwards requires craning your neck upward in an unnatural position.

The body over the pedals does seem to be good for producing power for going up hills and acceleration, a place where standard bicycles have an advantage, also helped by there slightly lighter weight.

If you do research (on the Internet, for example) you will find out that every bicycle world speed record, from 200 metres to the 3,000 mile Race Across America, are held by faired recumbents (recumbents with a fibreglass or carbon fibre aerodynamic shell). The fastest bicycle in the world is the Varna Diablo recumbent which broke the official world speed record on October 6, 2001 achieving the incredible speed of 80.55 mph (130 kph) (on a level road with no wind!)

A recumbent gives a very comfortable riding position, with no weight at all on your wrists, and you look naturally forward with no neck strain. If you ride a recumbent and then go back to a bicycle you will realise why recumbent riders are so enthusiastic about their bikes. Other advantages are that braking is about 20% better because much greater force can be put on the front brake - a recumbent will not toss you over the handlebars even with the front wheel locked. Falling on a recumbent is almost a non-event as the distance to the ground is so short and the seat frame fully protects you.

All of this of course begs the question, why aren't there more recumbents around if they are so great!

The answer is quite surprising. In the early 1930's, just before trains and cars became really popular, the bicycle (and horse) were still the main forms of transportation. Bicycle racing was a major sport and the Union Cycliste Internationale (U.C.I.) was a powerful agency governing every aspect of bicycle racing. In the late 1920's a French inventor designed a "velocar" and realised a two-wheel version of this machine (looking very similar to the 'modern' recumbent bicycle) should do well in bicycle racing. In fact, it did so well, not only breaking the world bicycle speed record, but also winning a number of major UCI races with a Class 2 rider, that his recumbent was banned from UCI racing because they felt it had an unfair aerodynamic advantage. The UCI felt it was the rider that mattered, not the machine, an attitude that is still very prevalent in the UCI today (and nothing wrong with it, except its unfortunate effect on bicycle design). The result of this was that bicycle manufacturers would not make recumbents because all the money and prestige was in the UCI approved diamond frame bicycle. This ruling by the UCI exists to this day! In fact, the ruling is even more restrictive now with tight controls on aerobars and aerowheels etc. So ironically, because recumbents are so fast they never got developed.

Because of this, a small group of "techies" continued with high performance bicycle development and international racing for unrestricted bicycle design. They are known as the "International Human Powered Vehicle Association." The president of the Association is Dr. Paul McCready, also President of Aerovironment, the company which designed GM's high performance "EV-1" electric car. The members of this group are also those who manufacture recumbent bicycles for the public today. Recumbent sales have tripled in each of the past two years. Demand is so high backlogs are being reported on the Internet of two months for most models and as much as six months for the Lightning F-84, a new version of the P-38, which is made of carbon fibre, has full suspension on both wheels, a full seat and weighs just an incredible 19 lbs.

Recumbent bicycle myths and reality: There is a concern recumbents have difficulty climbing hills. There is some truth in this as most early recumbents were of the long wheelbase design and they typically weighed twice that of a standard bicycle and hence were slow to get up hills though they were very fast downhill and on the flat. This has changed with the recent popularity of the lightweight short wheelbase recumbent. Most recumbents still weigh a few pounds more than standard bicycles and so do suffer to some extent going uphill.

Standing on the pedals for extra power climbing hills? In fact, the full back support you have on a recumbent allows you to push the pedals with greater force than simply pushing against your body weight. It is like pushing a sofa or piano with your back against a wall. There is an advantage on a diamond frame for long hills where the use of your arm and torso muscles can be utilized. Losses going up a long hill are retrieved to a large extent on the down side as a good recumbent will typically hit 75 kph where a standard racing bicycle would hit 56 kph, for example.

Racing cyclists often question the small front wheel but in fact on a smooth surface with high pressure tires it makes virtually no difference, and at very high speeds (50 km/hr up) it is better to have a smaller front wheel because the aerodynamic advantage overcomes the rolling resistance disadvantage. In the recumbent world, many new models now come with suspended 20" wheels front and back. With suspension, there is only a slight advantage to larger wheels (they are heavier and have more aerodynamic drag).

Another concern about recumbents is visibility. Research done in California found that the unusual shape of a recumbent caused drivers to notice recumbents more than regular bicycles! In heavy traffic I can see visibility being a problem but not on bike paths or the open road. Commuters on recumbents usually use a red flag, or small strobe light on a pole.

There are practical reasons why recumbents are not popular. Because they are manufactured in small volumes, they are expensive, being mainly hand-built. Their R&D and advertising budgets are minuscule. They are mainly produced by technically inclined people and hence their function takes priority over sex appeal - not good in today's fashion oriented marketplace. Having talked with hundreds of people about recumbents I know a major impediment to their acceptance is that people generally do not know recumbents are faster (not surprising as recumbents do not look fast). Also the public have no way to try out a recumbent and feel how incredible it is to sit fully supported on a bicycle. They do not know how and where to purchase a recumbent. Non-speciality bicycle stores will not carry them because in today's competitive marketplace it would be too expensive to carry an item that is not fashionable. It is very much a chicken and egg situation.

People have concerns also about the learning curve for riding a recumbent. The high performance recumbents do take getting used to, though no different to getting used to a standard bicycle if starting from scratch, but transitioning does require a few weeks of concentration.

It may surprise you to know that there are dozens of manufacturers of recumbent bicycles in the U.S., and many more in Europe. The huge popularity of the recumbent exercise bicycle in fitness clubs is a good indicator for the future. A number of North American mainstream bicycle manufacturers, Bike Friday (Green Gear) and Trek for example, build recumbent bicycles.

In conclusion, recumbents are more comfortable for long distance riding and provide better visibility with the head in a more natural position for looking forward. The typical unfaired 'street' recumbent will usually be as fast, or faster, as a good road bike on the level, faster downhill, but slower climbing hills due to additional weight and more limited use of different muscles. On hilly terrain the standard road bicycle will generally have an advantage in overall speed at a cost of comfort and visibility.

What do they cost and how can I purchase one? Recumbents can be purchased for as little as $350 (US.) Good recumbents are now available from $650 (US) like the BikeE or Linear Mach III or high performance recumbents such as the Vision or Rans recumbents for around $2,000. Top end recumbents such as the Gold Rush Replica or Lightning R-84 sell for $3,000 to $9,500 (US.) Another option is to purchase just the frame (a good frame will cost $1,000) and transfer your existing components to the frame, or have a bike shop do it. Most recumbents use standard bicycle components for everything but the frame. To know which recumbent to purchase to suit your requirements see the references below. They can be purchased by mail order direct from the manufacturers very easily. Cost of shipping is surprisingly inexpensive (typically $70 for UPS or Fedex, including insurance.)

Consider that thousands have transitioned from diamond frame bicycles to recumbents, but few have gone from a recumbent to a diamond frame...

Recumbent Cyclist News (Best Magazine for Recumbent Bicycles)

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