With spring here and summer rapidly approaching, I thought it worthwhile to resurrect an article I first wrote several years and a blog ago. As with last spring, I’ve updated URLs, prices and added some new information and photos.
The silver and yellow machine illustrated in the first photograph accompanying this article is, in fact, a bicycle. It is of the type known as a “recumbent” or simply a ‘bent to some riders of such machines. This particular machine belongs to me. The manufacturer, Rans, builds these bikes and light aircraft at their factory in Hays, Kansas. It is their V-Rex LE model and is of a sub-category of recumbents known as a short-wheelbase recumbent. Unfortunately, Rans stopped making the V-Rex last year after many years. I’ll get to its replacement shortly.
The second bike, in blue and silver, is Mrs. Manor’s bike, also made by Rans. It is the Stratus LE model, and is—obviously—a long wheelbase bike. Circa Spring 2013, its MSRP is $1995. Very serious cyclists will notice that both bikes have racks—bicycling heresy! We ride the bikes to work regularly and have to carry our lunch and other goodies. Besides, the racks weigh almost nothing and provide a handy place to hang a taillight; live with it.
Before I go on, here are some links to sites I’ll mention in this post (and some I won’t) for your information:
(1) Here’s an interesting New York Times article on how traditional bike seats actually damage portions of the male body most people don’t want to be damaged (yeow!).
(2) The Rans bicycle website has all kinds of interesting goodies.
(3) The Lightning website is interesting as well.
(4) Catrike manufactures great tricycle recumbents.
(5) TerraCycle manufactures the highest quality idlers—wheels/guides for chains, important on recumbents—in the business. Sharp-eyed readers will notice that we use them exclusively on our bikes. They have some really neat accessories unavailable anywhere else too.
(6) We also use Aerospoke carbon composite wheels. Though pricey, the more expensive and light weight spoked wheels are equally costly. These are just very cool and offer some significant advantages over spoked wheels.
(7) Hollywood Racks makes high-quality hitch-type racks for recumbents and recumbent trikes.
(8) Angletech in Colorado Springs is one of the best stocked recumbent dealers in the nation. A visit to their online catalog illustrates what’s generally available in the recumbent world.
(9) Bent Rider Online is the premier website for all things recumbent.
The common bicycle, or an “upright” as polite recumbent riders call them (less polite recumbent riders refer to them as “wedgies.” I’m sure you can figure out why), has been around for centuries. The original double triangle frame design persists today. Despite their more modern appearance, recumbents have been around for at least a century in one form or another.
Why don’t we see them in the Tour de France (TDF) and other bicycle competitions? They’ve been banned for a century primarily because of the 10-15% aerodynamic advantage they have over uprights. There are other reasons I’ll get into shortly.
With uprights very well developed, capable of substantial speeds, very light, high tech, capable of accepting an incredible range of accessories, and for most riders, relatively inexpensive, why recumbents? After all, even entry level recumbents are in the $1500 price range when entry level uprights of the most common types typically go for no more than $500.
The least expensive recumbent in the Rans product line is the Enduro Sport. Circa spring, 2013 its MSRP is $1995.
The bike that has replaced my beloved V-Rex is the Rocket, which is actually a reincarnation of an older Rans bike by the same name. It is lighter than the V-Rex owing to its large tube aluminum frame and some careful component choices. Its MSRP is $2395.00.
For comparison, the entry level Lighting Phantom II goes for about $1650.
My V-Rex is actually worth about $3000. While the prices I’ve listed here might seem high to some, these are actually reasonable prices for quality machines in the recumbent world. For any bicycle, the choice of components such as the brakes, derailleurs, wheels, tires, headsets, pedals and other parts not produced by the bike manufacturer, will in large part dictate the retail price. Our bikes are substantially more expensive as we’ve chosen to add carbon fiber wheels, racks, flashing taillights, mirrors, and in my case, Shimano brakes and brake levers, a Shimano rear derailleur and shifters, and a handlebar and stem that better suit my body and riding style. It’s a good idea to keep in mind that high end bikes–recumbent or upright–do not come with pedals. Manufacturers expect that the people who buy these machines will have their own preferences.
Recumbents are more expensive primarily because they are manufactured in far smaller numbers than uprights. There is little or no economy of scale in the recumbent industry. Most are essentially hand built, and demographically, those who buy them tend to be more experienced riders who expect greater quality in the components that make up the bike and understand that they will have to pay for them. This is particularly true for higher end recumbents. At the same time, recumbent owners will usually ride their bikes much more than the average bike owner, and expect to own them much longer with all of the attention and maintenance that entails. Most recumbents—unlike the average bicycle–don’t gather much dust in the garage or basement.
One other issue serious upright riders will surely bring up is that higher end uprights are, in general, much lighter than high end recumbents. This is indeed true, but is offset by the aerodynamic advantage of recumbents, and the fact that they are far more comfortable, particularly over longer distances. Again, remember that recumbents aren’t allowed in formal, sanctioned bicycle races. If recumbents were truly slow, heavy and uncompetitive, surely they’d be no threat to upright racers? One other interesting fact is that fairings are available for most recumbents, which make them even more aerodynamic.
My experience well illustrates why a growing number of people prefer recumbents. In my 30s I was a police officer and had always been an athlete. Early in my first civilian police job, I bought my first serious road bike from a serious shop, a Raleigh made in England with only six gears in the cassette (the gear cluster on the rear wheel) and two on the chainwheel (the gear cluster to which the pedals are attached), for a total of 12 potential gear combinations (boy, that dates me!). Most modern recumbents have 9/3 respectively, which is common for contemporary recumbents, providing 27 gear possibilities. The smallest diameter chainwheel is used only for steep climbs. If you’re needing it, you’re only going to be managing 3-5 MPH. The Raleigh was high tech in its time, and I labored mightily to develop my skills, but was always hindered by the realities of uprights.
I suffered substantial discomfort in the crotch, and on longer rides (exceeding 30 miles), real pain. I often experienced numbness in the crotch and even the penis for hours after rides, and sometimes, days. At that age, having sprightly responsiveness in those portions of my anatomy was an issue of some urgency (it is less so today—age and other priorities creep up on us all), but part of the esprit de corps of the road cyclist has always been the jaunty mastering and overcoming of pain, so I soldiered on, numb as I sometimes was. I also experienced pain and numbness in my hands, arms, back and neck, particularly whenever I “got on the drops,” or gripped the lowest part of the handlebars to establish a more aerodynamic posture. I know that some people think such things really don’t matter, but even subtle aerodynamic advantages produce real, sometimes amazing, speed differences in bicycling, particularly when longer distances are involved. The pain was so severe that I could not long maintain that posture, and if I couldn’t, I wasn’t destined for bicycle racing glory. Watching the TDF, you’ll notice that even the world’s most elite cyclists don’t spend a great deal of time on the drops, doing it only when the greatest possible speed is necessary, such as in time-trials, and they virtually all use aero-bars for that these days.
Still, I bought–at least a little–into the macho image of bicycling, but that didn’t stop me from looking for more comfort as well as greater speed. I eventually bought an American-made Trek with a bonded aluminum frame—very hi-tech at the time–the best components I’d ever imagined, and experimented with a variety of saddles of various configurations and with various kinds of hi-tech paddings that were then coming on the market to address the problems that virtually every serious bike rider experiences. I had gloves with gel-filled palms, shorts with gel-filled inserts, and even aero-bars (they clamp onto handlebars and extend forward, with closed-cell foam pads for the rider’s forearms), which allow a rider to get into an aerodynamic tuck with less pain. I had eight gears in the cassette and three in the chainwheel, so I could go faster and climb steep hills more easily, but still, all of those technical goodies only slightly delayed the onset of pain and numbness.
The NYT article at the beginning of this post explains the problems in some detail, and a more recent NYT article goes into detail on the dangers facing women. To wit:
Spending time on a bicycle seat, which has been linked to erectile dysfunction in men, may also be a hazard to a woman’s sexual health, a new study shows.
Many women who cycle or take spin classes are familiar with the numbness that sometimes can occur from sitting on a traditional bike seat. Bike seats are designed in such a way that body weight typically rests on the nose of the seat, which can compress nerves and blood vessels in the genital area. In men, this raises the risk of erectile dysfunction, something that has been documented in studies of male police officers on bicycle patrol.
But female cyclists have not been studied as closely. A study by Yale researchers in 2006 found that female cyclists had less genital sensation compared with a control group of female runners. As a result, some scientists believe that female cyclists probably are at similar risk for sexual problems as male riders.
This is hardly surprising as the crotch is as delicate and filled with nerves and small blood vessels in women as in men.
As my career took even more of my free time, I rode less and eventually realized that I was riding less in part to avoid the pain, which lasted for days after each ride. I wasn’t getting any younger, and that played a major part in recovery times. It’s awfully hard to be enthusiastic about jumping on the bike for a 50 mile ride when your crotch—and other parts–is still sore and/or numb from the last ride.
Then one day I answered a domestic violence call in a well-to-do neighborhood at a lawyer’s home. I ended up under attack by the lawyer and much of his family, and though the bad guys ended up in jail, I ended up with a neck injury, which plagues me to this day. I’m far from an invalid, but when I turn my neck, it often sounds and feels like a bag full of gravel. I used to think that people who complained about neck and back pain were just not tough enough. I don’t harbor that delusion any longer. As part of my rehabilitation, I tried to ride my bike and discovered that apart from all of the other issues, there was no way I could be on the aero-bars for any length of time, and forget the drops; my neck simply would not tolerate it. I had a choice: quit riding altogether or find another type of bike that would not aggravate my neck–and the rest of me.
My first recumbent, carefully researched, and the first recumbent ever ordered (specially ordered in my case) by my local bike shop was the legendary Lightning P-38 (no, I didn’t have a kickstand; I’m not that much of a weenie. One simply props the bike against something upright or gently lays it on its side on the ground). The P-38 was light, fast, and ridiculously comfortable, and I discovered that once again I could ride 30 miles or more and step off the bike tired, but without pain, in fact, feeling pretty darned good. I just hopped on the bike and did a 24 mile ride on winding mountain roads the first time I rode it. Not a good idea for most people, but my local dealer had never sold or ridden a recumbent, and I had never owned one, so what did I know? I wobbled my way through it and survived. Like Nike used to say, I just did it.
It was not until I rode my P-38 for the first time that I realized how much of the strength of our upper bodies, arms and hands we use in riding any upright. No wonder I ended up so sore all over all those years! The key to recumbent riding is to completely relax the upper body from the waist to the tips of the fingers. Gently rest the hands on the handlebars—no death-gripping the bars–and particularly, work to completely relax the shoulders. The minute you adopt upright techniques, you’ll find yourself all over the road and once again building up tension and soreness. The integral aluminum handlebar/stem of my P-38 flexed like over-cooked linguini until I learned to relax and treat it gently. It was quickly obvious that recumbent riders use slightly different muscles and use them in different ways than when riding uprights. For awhile, I was sore in places never before experienced while bicycling or running, but within two weeks, that went away.
The P-38 was a revelation! It accelerated effortlessly and handled like the F-16 of the bicycle world. Think about turning and you were already halfway through the turn. I spent the first month on the bike grinning like an idiot the instant I set myself into motion.
In various organized centuries (100 kilometer or 100 mile rides), I learned recumbent realities. The best upright riders can out-accelerate you when climbing hills. They can stand on their pedals, rising off the saddle, and use their body weight to help drive them up hills (yes, that uses more energy). You’ll see TDF riders doing that, particularly in the mountain sections. Recumbent riders can’t do that, but they can press against their seats with their lower backs, use one hand to help press down on one thigh (alternate, of course), and develop very smooth pedaling techniques. Even in my old age (59), I routinely pass a reasonable number of younger upright riders when hill climbing (heh-heh!). On flat sections, the recumbent aerodynamic advantage—you’re always in an effortless aero-tuck—means that I can keep up with much younger and inherently faster riders.
It is on downhill sections that the recumbent aero advantage becomes really obvious. Start a recumbent and upright downhill at the same time without pedaling and the recumbent will simply run away from the upright. The aero advantage is that real and obvious. If you want to amaze and annoy upright riders, really pedal when going downhill and you’ll pull away from them like a missile coming off the rails of a jet fighter. With a recumbent, you can also pedal and accelerate through corners with sharp lean angles. Do that on an upright and you’ll whack your inside pedal on the pavement and actually lever your rear wheel off the ground and it’s hamburger city.
The P-38, Enduro Sport, Rocket and V-Rex are short wheelbase bikes. The advantages of that design are great maneuverability, shorter overall length and easier portability on commonly available bike racks. Short wheelbase designs usually require a smaller diameter front tire such as the proprietary 16” on the P-38 and a 20” on Rans bikes. Smaller diameter wheels are easier to accelerate, and this is quite obvious. The first few times I accelerated from a stop on the P-38 I laughed out loud out of surprise and delight.
Small front wheels also keep the chainwheel and pedals from being too high above the seat and keep the seat height—above the pavement—lower. That’s important. Some people have a problem with foot numbness if their feet are higher than their butt on a recumbent, and if the seat height is too high, it makes the bike unsellable to people with shorter legs as they tend to topple over when they have to stop unless they stand completely upright. If the bike fits, you only have to drop one foot and lean slightly to that side. Interestingly, despite having a very low seat height, the design of the P-38’s seat—which is ridiculously light and comfortable–almost requires longer lower legs. It’s an artifact of the seat frame design, a problem the Rans standard seat does not share.
My wife went for a long wheelbase bike because she is one of those people who experiences foot numbness, and long wheelbase recumbents tend to position their chainwheels below the bike’s seat. While she can handle the seat height of a short wheelbase bike, she prefers a lower seat height, both of which the Stratus LE provides. Because a long wheelbase bike must have more frame material than a short wheelbase bike, it will virtually always weigh a little more than a short wheelbase frame. One of the features of the Stratus she likes is the clever, infinitely adjustable handlebar.
One long-wheelbase problem is finding a rack (for transporting the bike) that will easily fit. Hollywood Racks makes several models of high-quality hitch-type racks, including racks that handle tricycle recumbents.
I loved my P-38 and rode it 14 years. My only real complaint was that I could not get a carbon fiber front wheel because of the odd wheel size. I prefer Aerospoke wheels, but the smallest wheel they make is 20″. That, and the only tire I could buy was the mediocre quality Moulton model stocked by Lightning for many years. They now have a much better Bridgestone tire. I’m no longer a 6’, 155 lb, nothing but legs and lungs kind of guy like I was in high school, and when you’re heavier, you tend to need to have your spoked wheels regularly re-trued. That’s true to a somewhat lesser degree for any rider. With composite wheels, that’s not an issue. They are a bit heavier than the lightest spoked wheels, but I’m far past the age when a few grams, ounces, or even pounds, make any real difference. I am aware of weight in components, but I don’t obsess over it, and I’m not going to catch those 5’7″, 135 pound, nothing-but-legs-and-lungs guys and girls anyway.
Two years ago, the P-38 was getting a bit long in the tooth. It was still a great bike, but before long, I was going to have to get some new components, components that would be costly on an old frame with only eight gears on the cassette (contemporary road bikes have nine). I’m easy on components, but anything mechanical will eventually wear out.
Back to research and I discovered Rans and the V-Rex. It’s a bit heavier than the P-38, but with the 20” front wheel, I could have composite wheels front and back and much greater choice in front tires. We use Schwalbe Marathons. They’re not as light and fast as some tires, but we don’t repair nearly as many flats. The V-Rex is easily as comfortable as the P-38, handles 98% as quickly and well, and while not quite as fast, is more than fast enough. I used to tell upright riders who inquired about the P-38 that the bike was a lot faster than I was. That’s also true of the V-Rex, and the Enduro Sport and Rocket too.
Rans makes a good variety of short and long wheelbase recumbents in many price points, and I find something satisfying about buying from a solid American company (they also make light aircraft). Rans also has a great accessory catalog with just about anything a savvy recumbent rider might want. There are several other fine manufacturers of recumbents, which can be easily found through a web search. Angletech in Colorado Springs is one of the best equipped recumbent dealers in the nation.
Another type of recumbent with a very well-developed market is trikes. This is the Catrike Villager, which is representative of the general purpose trikes currently available. It’s MSRP is $2350.
For those interested in much greater speed, Catrike makes the 700 (from its rear wheel size), which it bills as arguably the world’s fastest trike. This is probably not an idle boast. Its MSRP is $2950. I’ve been passed by more than a few trikes in my time, including at least one 700. Notice the much lower, more aerodynamic design. Although trikes are heavier and somewhat slower than comparable standard recumbents, they are indeed a great deal of fun and are very stable.
One accessory likely essential for a trike, because they are quite low to the ground, is a flag, and/or highly mounted flashing LED taillight. That’s a good idea for any bicycle, actually. I use and recommend the Planet Bike SuperFlash, an LED light that is amazingly small and bright with a strobe-like effect clearly visible at great distance even in daylight. It retails for $28.99 and is worth every penny.
Clipless pedals are pretty much a recumbent necessity, as your feet will tend to slip off the pedals without them. Remember: Your feet aren’t directly over the pedals on a recumbent with your weight bearing down on them. For many riders I recommend the Shimano (the Japanese company that leads the market in bike components) SPD mountain bike standard. With mountain bike shoes, the cleats–
male part– are recessed in the soles of the shoes and allow you to walk more or less normally when off the bike. This particular model has a female fitting on both sides of the pedal, making clipping in easier.
With the Shimano SPD-SL or other road bike pedals and shoes, the male portion/cleat extends around an inch below the bottom of the shoe at the ball of the foot and you end up walking on your heels, clomping around like a skittish pony with your toes a couple inches off the ground. Check out the two types in a bike shop and you’ll see what I mean.
Self-designated serious road riders wouldn’t give a second look at mountain bike gear, but a lot of them are self-important weenies anyway (just kidding—sort of). It’s wise to have the shop loosen the pedal release spring strength a bit (it’s usually just one allen bolt) and to practice starting and stopping-unclipping and reclipping–particularly at slow speeds, in a large parking lot before venturing out into the wide, wild world of traffic. That will keep you from coming to a stop, forgetting you’re clipped in, and flopping on your side. On a recumbent, you don’t have nearly as far to fall, so such things tend to be embarrassing rather than damaging. “Clipping in” and out of clipless pedals isn’t hard, just different and requires a bit of practice, but it’s absolutely the most efficient means of power transfer from your feet to the pedals. Once you’re comfortable with the necessary muscle memory, tightening up the spring tension again will prevent premature pedal release.
You can get straps and toe clips–ancient technology–but they do the same thing that clipless pedals do, just not nearly as efficiently or well. They are, however, cheaper, but more clumsy and clunky in general.
Keep one other fact in mind: Some people will have to travel to try or buy a recumbent. Most bike shops don’t stock them, even some shops listed as dealers on recumbent manufacturer’s websites. Even the shops that do stock recumbents tend not to have many on their showroom floor. Check the manufacturer website for their dealer locator lists and be sure to call ahead.
Recumbents are obviously more expensive than comparable (if such a thing is possible) uprights, but there is little economy in a much cheaper upright that you don’t ride for all of the reasons I’ve listed here. Most people have less expensive means of collecting dust. Being able to climb into rather than onto your bike—there is a reason that recumbent riders refer to their “cockpit”—with the knowledge that you will not be in pain during or after the ride and will be able to concentrate on a solid workout, or simply an enjoyable jaunt, is priceless.
Unless you’re really into pain in the crotch area and elsewhere, in which case I have no idea why you’re reading this website instead of one more specific to your interests (unless, of course, you find my writing painful), recumbents are an elegant and fun option. Perhaps the most fun part of recumbents is they naturally draw friendly attention. People love to honk and wave, and kids are drawn to recumbents like bears to honey.
One final reminder worth repeating: recumbents aren’t harder to ride than uprights, but they are different. It would always be smart for new recumbent riders to spend a few hours in a large, empty parking lot to master starting, stopping, clipping into and out of pedals, and turns of all kinds at all kinds of speeds (hint: it’s important to keep speed and momentum up when turning unless you’re fond of close pavement interaction). It’s easy, for example, to make a 180° turn in the width of a common suburban street, but because you can whack the heel of your shoe on the front wheel of most recumbents, that too takes a bit of practice and keeping up your momentum. Particularly important is learning to relax the upper body. Until you’ve mastered that–it doesn’t take long–you’ll engage in a more or less constant wrestling match with a bike that will only flex and never submit.
One thing is certain: ride a good recumbent, and you’ll never want to go back to uprights.