Every summer I write an article or two about one of my passions: bicycling, and more specifically, recumbent bicycling. I’m not a bicycling fanatic. I don’t shave my legs, nor do I spend all my spare time either riding or in bike shops trying to figure out ways to shave just a few more grams off the weight of my bike. My hopes of winning a bike race died decades ago when I realized I was always going to be too large, heavy and have too much upper body musculature to compete with the guys that are 5’8”, weigh 155 pounds, and are nothing but legs (shaved) and lungs. A few grams, indeed, a few pounds, mean essentially nothing to me.
So I ride as aerobic exercise, and because I enjoy being outdoors and because it’s fun. I ride a recumbent because, due to a neck injury incurred many years ago when I was playing cops and robbers, I cannot–physically–ride an upright bike. I’m no invalid, but my neck no longer has the flexibility or endurance necessary to efficiently use a fast upright. I’m not happy about the neck, but very pleased with recumbents.
Why recumbents? In The Bicycling Wave Of The Future, I explained:
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.
I wrote that in 2013. As you might imagine, prices have gone up, and entry level recumbents are now in the $1800 dollar price range. This is so for several primary reasons. Recumbents are essentially handmade, and are made in much smaller numbers than upright bikes. Uprights, particularly lower priced bikes, are made with obsolescence in mind, and use cheaper and shorter-lived components. Recumbents tend to be sold to older riders, people who will tend to regularly ride them, and who are able and willing to pay for a higher level of components and longevity. Few recumbents gather dust in a garage.
The advantages of recumbents are many. They are much more comfortable than uprights, and much easier to ride for long distances. They have a built in aerodynamic advantage. Riders on many recumbents are always in an aerodynamic tuck of the kind that requires upright riders to get down on the drops (the lowest portion of their handlebars) or accessory aero bars. Recumbents do not cause damage to the sensitive tissue of the crotch–a problem for men and women–nor do they make hands go numb. Take the link back to my earlier article for a general primer on recumbents.
This article is focused on an experiment I just completed, designed to reveal the advantages and disadvantages of the two primary types of two-wheeled recumbents: short and long wheelbase bikes. The first photo at the top of the article is a short wheelbase recumbent known as a Rans V-Rex, my daily riding companion. Rans hasn’t manufactured that bike for several years now, preferring single main tube construction in all its short wheelbase machines. In fact, Rans recently sold its bicycle business–the new owner is continuing with the same product line under the same name–and the original Rans folks are now focusing on making light aircraft, as they always have. The new company website is available here.
The next bike is a Rans Stratus, a long wheelbase bike still manufactured by Rans. This is Mrs. Manor’s bike.
The experiment consisted of riding each bike on an approximately 15-mile course near the Manor and compare the qualities of each type of bike: short v. long wheelbase (SWB v. LWB). The course was comprised of paved city streets, and a broad mixture of flat stretches, brief but steep ascending hills, one long and steep descending stretch, and a variety of types of hilly terrain with many 90° turns and several stops for traffic lights. Both bikes have pedals of the Shimano SPD (mountain bike) pattern, with pedals with the clips on one side and a flat surface on the other, the better to accommodate street shoes for trips to work (we don’t live far from school, and it’s easier not to have to carry and switch from biking shoes).
I had, upon occasion, ridden Mrs. Manor’s bike, but usually only for short distances to be sure my adjustments to this or that were done and working properly. Conventional wisdom on this topic is that SWB bikes are best for quick handling, speed, all around performance and a more serious kind of rider, serious being defined as people who like to ride and train hard. LWB bikes are best for comfort, long distance touring, and a more laid back kind of rider.
Riding Posture: SWB bikes tend to have the chainwheel–gears to which the pedals are attached–at or higher than the level of the seat. This results in a more aerodynamic rider posture, however, some people tend to have foot problems, such as numbness, with a higher foot position. SWBs also tend to be a bit more difficult when coming to a stop and unclipping as they tend to sit a bit higher. Not a problem for long legged folks, but it is for their shorter legged compatriots. The Stratus has a lower chainwheel mounting, and Mrs. Manor, though not very short of leg, prefers the ease of stops and starts with that configuration.
A related issue is that SWB bikes, because of the position of their front wheels, can actually cause the front wheel to hit the heels of the rider on sharp turns, particularly at low speed. As any recumbent or other bike is less stable at low speeds, this can be a significant issue. Riding a SWB bike, one quickly gets used to it and learns to compensate, but it is an issue. This is obviously not a problem with a LWB bike, but it can cause a problem of its own, one shared by uprights.
When sharply cornering an upright, one can’t pedal through the corner because if a pedal hits the pavement at the bottom of its stroke, it will lever the rear wheel off the ground, and centripetal force being what it is, it’s time to get out the buns and condiments, because you’re about to become hamburger. On many LWB bikes, the same problem exists, however, it usually only causes damage to the pedal or crankarm. The long frame won’t so immediately and violently invoke the laws of physics. Virtually all SWBs can actually pedal through a corner. Of course, one must be careful not to exceed the limits of tire adhesion, but it’s actually possible to accelerate through corners, which for the kind of people that go for a SWB, is pretty cool.
Handlebars and Shifters: Both bikes have twist grip shifters, which work beautiful on recumbents. I equipped the V-Rex with much more rigid and narrow bars and stem because I prefer that arrangement, and tucking the elbows against the body is substantially more aerodynamic. As a result, the bike is stable, but if I so much as think about a turn, I’m already halfway through it.
The Stratus has its standard SRAM shifters, which work very well and with little effort. I equipped the V-Rex with pricier and more precise Shimano shifters just because. They are more positive and shift more rapidly than the SRAM units, but for most people, there would be little practical difference.
The Stratus has its standard Rans bars, which are actually pretty neat engineering. They can be adjusted in virtually any way, and the right and left grips can actually be adjusted entirely differently if one had one arm shorter than another or something like that. However, they are wide, and long, inducing the “tiller effect” common to LWB bikes and similar bars. In other words, it takes a relatively large movement at the grips to move the wheel the same distance that a very tiny movement on a SWB bike would accomplish. This isn’t dangerous or odd, but it takes a bit of getting used to. It also makes turning 180° on a standard suburban street something that requires a bit of advance planning.
A SWB bike will obviously make such a turn in relatively little space and experienced riders have a reasonably wide speed range–it must be coasted to avoid front wheel heel strike–with which to work. A LWB bike, because of its longer wheelbase, takes more space to turn, and one must pay closer attention to velocity. Dip below the minimum, and it’s immediate stop or hamburger helper time.
One of the first things riders adapting to recumbents must learn is to completely relax their upper bodies, including shoulders, arms and hands. On their first recumbent ride, they very quickly learn how much upper body strength is required to ride an upright. Using the same techniques on a recumbent will cause one to wobble all over the place and fight the bike like a punch drunk boxer. Relax, and the bike miraculously and immediately relaxes too.
This is why grip shifters work so well for recumbents. A completely relaxed grip places them immediately at hand, and there is little or no possibility of inadvertent shifts. To shift, merely momentarily tighten the grip, slightly angle the wrist, and relax again.
Hills: the course has plenty of both, and they confirmed conventional wisdom. The V-Rex is generally faster, about 1-2 MPH faster in general. This may not sound like much, but in bicycling terms, it’s significant. For the same amount of effort, I can maintain 20 MPH on the V-Rex and only 18 on the Stratus. Part of this is the relative stiffness of the frames. Bicycles in general are efficient because so much of the energy of the rider is transmitted directly to the pedals and wheels. The smaller and stiffer the frame, the more energy is transmitted to propulsion. The Stratus, with a longer and more flexible frame, is not quite so efficient.
A stiffer frame, however transmits more road shock to the rider. The longer, more flexible frame of the Stratus transmits less. However, because of the 2” of padding in the standard Rans seat, and its nylon mesh back, the difference for all but the very longest rides, while noticeable, isn’t significant.
The V-Rex climbs faster and with less effort. The Stratus is no slouch, but it can’t keep up.
One area where recumbents shine is in downhill speed. In organized ride/races, I have a great time on long downhills. There are usually one or two recumbents for every 200 uprights at such events, and on downhills, without pedaling–if upright riders are doing the same–I just run away from them. The aerodynamics of the bike are simply a substantial advantage. The V-Rex is fast downhill. The Stratus, because it weighs a bit more–about two pounds–and because of the more upright riding posture and wider bars, is noticeably slower.
Flat Stretches: Again, the V-Rex has the advantage for the aforementioned reasons. Any aerodynamic issue is much more obvious when facing a headwind. A stiff headwind can reduce cruising velocity substantially on any bike. No matter how strong you are, the wind is always stronger.
Results: There is no question that I was faster on the V-Rex, completing the ride around 10 minutes faster than the Stratus with slightly less effort. Part of this was unquestionably my greater familiarity and comfort level with the V-Rex. I don’t have to think about anything with that bike; it’s like a comfortable pair of well-worn shoes. The Stratus is a good bike, but I’m definitely a SWB body and personality.
Ten minutes for a 15-mile course is significant. All of these times and distances may not sound like much. Riders that routinely do 20+ mile rides know what I’m talking about. If you’re not one of those and want a bit of perspective, take a bike out and try to maintain 20 MPH for two miles. You’ll see what I mean.
Both bikes are very comfortable. The standard Rans seat is an industry standard–a number of manufacturers use it–for good reasons, though it is heavier than nylon sling seats.
It’s no surprise that such things come down to personality, body type and preference. I suppose an automotive analogy would be the difference between a sports car and a family sedan or SUV.
Keep in mind that weight is a significant issue as well. The lightest uprights are in the sub-20 pound range. My V-Rex, admittedly not at all concerned for weight savings–I have a rack, for goodness sake!–weighs about 38 pounds loaded with dual water bottles, a tire repair kit with two inner tubes (20” and 26”), a patch kit and tools, a pump, a rear view mirror, a taillight, and a few other goodies. The Stratus, similarly equipped, weighs about two more.
Why such a difference? Recumbents need more than two times as much chain, chain guide rollers (idlers), and usually, much more frame material. With the general exception of SWB high-racers, they also have much lighter–skinnier–wheels and tires and other components. The V-Rex and Stratus have carbon fiber Aerospoke wheels. They’ve very high tech and relatively light, but not as light as the lightest upright wheels with just a few spokes and tissue paper tires. We paid the extra freight–they’re over $300.00 each–because they’re so reliable and durable. No regular re-truing of wheels for us. We also use Schwalbe Marthon Plus tires, which while relatively heavy for their size, are puncture resistant and last for several year. I can fit flats quickly, but I prefer riding.
Recumbents are a significant investment–we have over $3000.00 each in ours–but if you want a bike you’ll actually look forward to riding, and after a long ride, get off smiling–there is nothing that compares. In terms of training, a bit of extra weight is not necessarily a bad thing. Oh yes, and retaining long-term “sensitive area” function and sprightliness: priceless.