In the next few posts I’ll review the major design choices and terminology of 2-wheeled ‘bents.* These won’t be exhaustive in-depth technical reviews, but by the end you should be able to ID almost any recumbent you see by one or more of these defining features.
One of the most visible differences between recumbents is the length of their wheel base. Specifically the location of the crankset (where you put your feet to pedal) relative to the front wheel determines whether the bike has a short or long wheel base.
Long wheel base (LWB)
When the crankset is positioned behind the front wheel, it pushes the front wheel farther out and gives you a long wheel base recumbent. For the most part, the LWB ‘bent is an entirely American phenomenon, and I suspect that has something to do with the US’s immense size and love for the open road. These bikes are ideal for long tours, and I like to think of them as the Cadillacs of recumbents. Their long wheel base helps soak up the bumps without the need for complex suspension. Their cranks are positioned lower than the seat height (i.e., so your feet aim downward), making them easy to learn. The seats are relatively upright to give you a good view of the road ahead. The frames are often made of steel, and can handle heavy loads. They typically have a larger 26-29” rear wheel paired with either an equally large front wheel or a smaller 20” wheel.
The physical dimensions of a LWB do pose some potential problems. For one, the wide turning radius gives it a slow response time and doesn’t make a LWB suitable for narrow and windy bike paths. One also needs quite bit of space to store such a long bike, and of course transporting a LWB can be problematic without a large SUV, pickup truck or minivan.
Unfortunately the LWB is a dying breed with only seven companies currently producing them. With so few remaining I feel compelled to list and link to each of them. They’re each quite unique and beautiful designs. We’ve got the Bacchetta Bella, the Carver Ti-Glide, the Linear Limo, the Longbikes Slipstream, the Rans Phoenix, the Recycled Recumbents Mach 2, and the Sun Seeker EZ Sport. While the used market is full of classic LWB bikes, those interested in a LWB should really consider keeping them alive by supporting one of the remaining companies.
Compact long wheel base (CLWB)
The CLWB, as the name suggests, is a shorter LWB bike with a small 20” rear wheel and even smaller 16” front wheel. The crankset is located very close behind the front wheel. Back in the late 90s and early 00s, they were the most popular type of recumbent as they were low cost and very easy to maneuver, transport, and store. The most popular recumbent bike of all time was the Bike-E, a mass-market CLWB sold at many bike shops across the US. Sadly by 2010, lower priced trikes started to become popular, squeezing the already niche entry-level recumbent market into oblivion. You may still be able to find a new Maxarya or Sun EZ-Classic, but otherwise you’re relegated to finding a used Bike-E online if you want a CLWB.
Short wheel base (SWB)
By bringing the wheels closer together and putting the crankset out ahead of the front wheel, you get a relatively compact and versatile recumbent bike. If LWB ‘bents are the Cadillacs, then SWB ‘bents are the Corvettes. They are not much longer than a standard DF bike, and most of them can be transported on standard car bike racks. Some SWB bikes allow for more sporty positions with reclined seats and higher cranksets, and have more responsive steering compared to their longer counterparts. They are lighter and faster compared to LWB ‘bents, and their frames are usually made out of aluminum tubing or carbon fiber.
The SWB may be a bit difficult to learn to ride. Your feet are higher off the ground, the steering may feel more “twitchy” compared to a LWB, and you’ll experience a bumpier ride with the front wheel pulled in much closer to you. You also have to keep an eye out for “heel strike”— when your heels hit the front wheel during slow speed tight turns. Routing the long chain from the very front of the bike to the back in a way that does not interfere with the steering or the rider can lead to very complex chain management with multiple idlers and chain tubes to guide the chain. You’ll find there’s quite a variety of SWB styles where differences in wheel sizes, suspension, and drivetrain placement will dictate the ride quality and purpose of the bike (racing, touring, commuting, etc).
Today there are probably a couple dozen SWB brands worldwide. In the US you have Bacchetta (recently acquired by Bent Up Cycles), Cruzbike, Lightning Cycles Dynamic, Linear Recumbents, Metabike, and Schlitter. International brands with US dealers include Azub (Czech Republic), HP Velotechnik (Germany), M5 (Netherlands), Pelso (Hungary), and Performer Cycles (Taiwan). Beyond that, there are some very interesting European brands, but unfortunately they don’t have a US presence.
In my next posts, I’ll delve a bit deeper into the diverse selection of SWB bikes.
* Again: not a recumbent expert, just a slightly obsessed fan. So if you are an expert reading this, please leave a comment if you spot anything incorrect or have anything to add.
So you’re saying there are no Chevy Corvairs or AMC Gremlins among recumbent bikes? 😉
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The first time I knew about recumbents was with a DIY design by R.Q. Riley: the Ground Hugger XR2. It was a carbon-fiber version of his original steel design from 1969. Check it out!
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Very cool! If only i had the skills to build something like that…