Well over a hundred years ago the bicycle realized its current form, and it has remained largely unchanged ever since. However, there are some intrepid souls who refuse to accept this, and who embrace alternative designs for human-powered wheeled vehicles. And by far the most popular alternative “bicycle” is the recumbent.
The recumbent strikes fear into the hearts of nearly every non-recumbent-riding cyclist. If you’ve ever seen a dog growl at a plastic bag caught in a shrub because the dog thinks it might be some kind of weird animal, then you understand the reaction. Cyclists all notice one another, so when we see something that looks somewhat like a bicycle yet places the rider in an odd position with his feet kicking at the air like he’s defending himself from an attacking eagle we become confused and disoriented. And when animals (including humans) don’t understand something they become angry and defensive.
However, Contraption Captains mean no harm, and they’re simply operating machines they feel are superior to regular bicycles because they’re potentially faster and they don’t require the rider to sit on a narrow saddle. Of course, they also can’t negotiate tight corners, they’re heavy, they’re difficult or impossible to lock to poles or bike racks, they’re unwieldy and can’t easily be stored in small apartments or offices, they don’t climb hills well, and they require big tall flags since they’re below automobile hood level. Yet none of these things keep the Contraption Captains from polishing their helmet mirrors, combing their beards, packing a day’s worth of supplies in their fanny packs, and taking to the roads.
The Princeton Psychology/Neuroscience cycling group dusted off their bikes and reconvened after a long winter.
Today’s route took us along the scenic D&R Canal towpath from Princeton to Rocky Hill. From there we crossed to the other side of the canal and looped back with a stop at PJ’s Pancake House in Kingston for some coffee and snacks.
Interesting sightings included a few dozen sunbathing turtle, some hissing geese, and a great blue heron flyby.
In total, we rode 13 miles– most of which were flat except for the steep hill along Rt 27 into Kingston.
With a kindergartner on the verge of riding a bike on his own (I think it’ll happen this summer, but let’s not jinx it), I thought it may be fun to review the various contraptions (there’ve been many!) I’ve used to bring him along on rides ever since he could hold his little head up. Some of these child carriers won’t safely work with a recumbent bike or trike, but I did manage to adapt a couple of them as you’ll see.
When my son was one year old, it made the most sense to have him in front of me within eyesight and also within reach in case of a fall. At that time I was riding a Surly Straggler that was set up as an upright and comfortable commuter.
I chose the Kangaroo by Kazam because unlike other front child seats that mount directly to the steerer, the Kangaroo mounts to a bar behind the head tube. This bar runs along the length of the bike and is secured to the seat tube at the rear and the head tube at the front. I like this design because it prevents the child from being a counterweight which would make steering more difficult.
The following year we tried the Thule Yepp Maxi rear seat. A unique feature of this seat is that it can mount directly onto a luggage rack or to the frame’s seat tube with a special attachment. In my case, I didn’t have much confidence in the strength of my rear rack, so I opted to mount it to the seat tube.
The seat is made of lightweight, high-quality foam-like material that provides both comfort and built-in suspension. The footrests are adjustable and have shielding to prevent little feet from hitting the rear wheel.
When I bought my first recumbent, I was hoping to attach the Yepp Maxi to the bike, but decided against it. While I did find one instance of someone mounting a rear child seat to the rack of an Azub recumbent bike, it didn’t looked particularly safe to have so much weight on the rear rack.
Bike trailers are safe, all-weather solutions to bringing a child along on a ride. They mount to the rear axle of your bike with a small hitch attachment and work as well on recumbent bikes as they do with regular bikes.
My son enjoyed some rides in the comfort of a Burley Bee bike trailer, not unlike a little king being pulled in his chariot. Unfortunately, he got bored and lost interest. I don’t blame him. In the trailer, you don’t feel the wind on your face, and you’re too far to chat with Mom or Dad. I’ve met families that routinely use bike trailers, but it wasn’t working for us.
Pedaling “Weehoo” trailer
The Weehoo is a single-wheel bike trailer where the child is seated in the recumbent position (!!) and has a set of functioning pedals in front of them. The seat position can be adjusted fore/aft, and it comes with useful features like a removable canopy and panniers for storing snacks and a jacket.
Because the Weehoo attaches to the seat post of your bike, it won’t work with most recumbent bikes. That being said, I was set on using this (after all, it was a $20 Goodwill find by my wife!). Because my Azub MINI’s frame is open in the back to receive a rack, I designed a faux seat post that could be inserted into the frame in place of the rack, and had it fabricated by a local machine shop.
The best thing about the Weehoo trailer is that the child can pedal if they want to and feel like they’re participating in the ride. This was a game-changer for my son. He had a blast and learned how to pedal without the fear of falling.
Tow bars and tag-alongs
Both tow bars and tag-alongs attach to your bike’s seat post. A tow bar, such as the Trail Gator, lets you tow your child’s bike, while tag-alongs are essentially bikes without a functional front half.
We’re currently experimenting with the Trail Gator using the faux seat post on the Azub MINI. So far it seems to work reasonably well, provided the tow bar is attached as high as possible on the seat post (otherwise the entire setup is too unstable). Generally, I think the tow bar is a better option than a tag-along since it allows the child to “detach” and ride solo when they want and then be towed when they tire out.
One other device worth mentioning in this category is the FollowMe Tandem. It’s similar to a tow bar in that it allows you to pull the child’s bike. However, instead of attaching to the seat post (which limits its use with recumbent bikes), it attaches to the rear axle and seems much more stable. The FollowMe Tandem should work with just about any recumbent bike as well, as long as the rear wheel is at least 26”. Sadly, because my current recumbents are both 20”, I can’t try one out at this time.
The MINI was my first recumbent, and I’ve ridden it regularly for the past four years. Now I’m riding a similar bike, the Azub Origami, that I’ll review in a future post. Be forewarned, given the significant time I’ve spent in the saddle with the MINI, this will be a detailed review.
By 2018 my back problems convinced me it was time to stop riding a regular bike and seriously consider a recumbent. After a few months of internet research (mainly on the popular BentRiderOnline forums), I decided on a bent for leisure riding and commuting: one that had full suspension to smooth out the ride, and small 20” wheels to reduce my falling distance. I (incorrectly) figured falling was inevitable having never ridden a recumbent.
The MINI is a short wheel base (SWB), compact dual 20″ aluminum frame recumbent with rear and optional front suspension. It’s about as long as a standard bike (165 cm) with a wheel base of 109 cm, so it can be stored in relatively small spaces. The MINI is known to be easy to ride and master, quite maneuverable, and have good acceleration due to the small wheels. These characteristics make it best suited an urban/commuting environment, but it can also handle itself off-road.
I configured the bike with a few upgraded options: disc brakes (Avid BB7), air suspension (MEKS SASO front and SR SunTour rear), SRAM dual-drive drivetrain, carbon fiber seat, and above seat steering. Unfortunately, right around the time I received the bike, I was affected by ulnar nerve issues originating at my elbows and making it difficult to use the above seat steering. Thankfully the steering on Azub bikes can be easily switched, so I contacted Azub and had them send me an under seat steering (USS) system to swap in.
The bottom bracket is positioned just slightly above the level of the seat bottom, making this a comfortable touring bike while still allowing good power transmission from the legs. The full suspension was very plush. The frame and fork allowed for wide tires, such as the 2” Big Apples to further improve comfort. I don’t know if the upgraded rear air shock absorber feels any different from the standard spring shock, but I had no complaints about it. The shock absorber even had a lock you could reach around and engage while riding up a steep incline to cut out any loss of energy from the minor bouncing “pogo” effect as you pedaled.
The hard-shell seat fit like a glove and could be reclined to around 35 degrees. When first starting, I had the seat positioned closer to 45 deg. and slowly reclined it as I became more confident. The seat’s incline and fore/aft position can be changed on the fly with convenient quick-release skewers. The Azub headrest does a decent job but is difficult to adjust without a small wrench on hand.
I should mention that the Azub SIX and Azub MAX are almost identical to the MINI. Their main difference is the wheel sizes. The MINI is 20×20, the SIX is 26×20, and the MAX is 26×26. I test rode them all, and while I was not tall enough for the MAX (I felt uneasy having just my toes reach the ground at a stop), I did consider the SIX until I realized that the larger rear wheel on the SIX prevented the seat from reclining as much as on the MINI. If you’re considering similar bikes, the SIX and MAX are worthwhile options, especially since the larger rear wheels allow those bikes to have both higher gearing and less rolling resistance over large obstacles.
The SRAM DualDrive (DD) system consisted of a 9-speed cassette/derailleur along with a 3-speed rear internal gear hub (IGH). The system provided an ample 540% gear range and kept the front of the bike clear of multiple chainrings and a front derailleur. The drivetrain is controlled with one hand using a combined twist (for the 9 gears) and trigger shifter (for the 3 IGH gears) on the right side. A rider can fine-tune the gear range by swapping out the single front chainring.
As a first-time bent rider, it was easy to see why Azub offered this drivetrain option. Starting from a dead stop on a recumbent can be tricky, especially uphill. Incorporating an IGH allows the rider to shift to a lower gear while at a complete stop. So you can get out of a bind when you find yourself at a standstill and in the wrong gear.
The DD system worked reliably, but unfortunately, SRAM decided to discontinue them in 2017. Probably the biggest concern I had with this system was the fragile plastic click box that connected to the IGH via an equally fragile pull rod. Instead of the DD system, Azub now offers a nearly identical drivetrain by Sturmey Archer.
The Avid BB7’s are popular brakes that work well without much fuss. They don’t provide much range when you want to feather the brakes, but they have plenty of stopping power.
Azub mounts the brake levers on the USS handlebars in the “correct” orientation. By that, I mean when you grip the levers your pinky finger is closest to the end of the lever (as it would be on a regular bike). This provides the rider with a more natural feel when squeezing the levers, but it also means you end up with unsightly brake cables protruding out the ends of the handlebars and looping back in. In contrast, HPV orients the levers on their USS bikes the opposite way so that the brake cables follow along the handlebars as they exit the lever (yeah yeah I know I’m being picky here). As much as I like the lever orientation that Azub uses, I’d rather have less cable clutter and I did in fact change the lever orientation later for a cleaner look.
Ride stability and steering
The MINI is stable at both low and high speeds, thanks to the long wheelbase. I’m able to keep a fairly straight line even while climbing steep hills. The bike also handles itself at high speeds. My comfort level maxed out around 32 mph during some fast descents. I found its stability made it easy to learn how to ride and I never fell over. Also, being able to modify the steering ratio of the USS handlebars is a lot of fun allowing you to dial in the steering exactly how you like it.
Despite its small appearance, the MINI is rated at 275 lbs. The way the rear luggage carrier integrates into the main frame of the bike is clever. You can mount a trunk bag and a pair of pannier bags on the carrier. If you don’t need the carrier, you can slide it out of the frame and insert a plastic plug on the end of the frame. For more capacity on long tours, Azub offers additional side and bottom carriers as well.
Weight and custom upgrades
My biggest complaint about the bike was the hefty weight. Sure it wasn’t designed to be fast, but the bike weighed in at an impressive 45 lbs. I wanted to lighten up the bike, not just to help me get up those hills, but also so that I could lift the thing onto my car. So over the years I replaced many of its components with lighter counterparts.
I ended up replacing the stock wheelset with Velocity A23 wheels, the disc brakes for v-brakes (Paul Components), and the DD drivetrain with 11-speed road components (SRAM RED 11-32 cassette, rear derailleur, and bar end shifter).
For the front of the drivetrain, I was planning on a standard 34/50 double but soon realized my upper gear range would be severely limited by the small rear wheel (maxing out at 84 gear inches). Instead, I opted for a popular 2-speed front IGH, known as a Schlumpf Drive. This gave me the equivalent of 30/75 in the front (727% range; 18-125 GI).
I also replaced the front fork with a carbon fiber (CF) Bacchetta Johnson fork, and the aluminum front boom with a CF version from HPV. Since most of my riding was on the road, the loss of front suspension wasn’t too detrimental to the ride quality and the switch to CF provided significant weight savings.
Sizing up the competition
Besides the MINI, there is one other bike available stateside that is fully suspended with dual 20” wheels: the HPV Grasshopper FX. Fortunately, the only recumbent shop in NJ was a few minutes away from me at that time, and I had the opportunity to test ride both bikes and agonize for weeks trying to decide between them. They are similar bikes and either one would have been fine. One major difference is that the Grasshopper can fold up. In the end, I appreciated the design elements of the MINI and found its seat a bit more comfortable. I also liked that the Czech company has a reputation for making their bikes rugged and overbuilt for heavy world touring.
When all was said and done, my MINI ended up weighing a more manageable 30lbs and being an even more pleasurable bike to ride. Since switching to the Origami a few months ago, I’ve swapped most of the above upgrades over and returned the MINI to nearly stock form.
The MINI is currently on loan with a recumbent-curious friend. I’ve been considering selling it, but after writing this review I’m having second thoughts. Maybe I can make some space to keep it. After all, suspension recumbents with USS are a rare breed nowadays.
Thanks to the good folks at Azub and Jersey Bents for answering my non-stop questions about their bikes.
The handlebars on a recumbent may be mounted below the rider so that their arms hang in a relaxed position. Known as under seat steering (USS), this is arguably the most comfortable and least tiring steering position since you’re not reaching up to grip the handlebars. That said, it can be a bit trickier mounting/dismounting a bike with USS without practice, and you’ll be less aerodynamic when riding since you’ll have a wider profile against the wind. It’s also worth noting that USS is more mechanically complex and expensive, often requiring non-standard bike parts including a tie-rod to link the bars to the fork (known as indirect steering). There are a few USS bikes out there with direct USS steering where the handlebars connect directly to the steerer with a stem (just like a regular bike but inverted), but the handling can be a bit too twitchy with direct USS steering. In contrast, indirect steering often allows the rider to fine tune the feel of their steering by changing the placement of the tie-rod to adjust the steering ratio.
Personally I’ve found USS to be the ultimate design in recumbent comfort. My first recumbent came with above seat steering (ASS- see next section below), and I immediately had to switch it to USS because my elbows were giving me problems. Despite the comfort, USS did get annoying when I needed a good place to mount accessories like my GPS. Having USS also made it harder to walk my bike since I had to bend over it a bit to steer it, and I needed a wider space for parking or storing the bike. My elbow pain improved a few years later after a couple surgeries (cubital tunnel release and ulnar nerve transposition), and I did switch back to ASS without much of a problem mainly for the sake of convenience.
When the handlebars are mounted over the rider’s lap and they have to reach up to them, the bike is known as having above seat or over seat steering (ASS or OSS). Compared to USS, ASS is more aerodynamic and generally easier to learn. You’ll have some choices regarding the shape of the handlebars: “praying hamster bars” that keep your arms in a tight position close to your chest versus “superman bars” where you are gripping onto wide bars in what is called an “open cockpit”. The superman bars are more ergonomic since they keep your hands/wrists in a neutral position where you don’t have to rotate your wrists to hold onto the handlebars. ASS does require your arms and shoulders to be more engaged compared to USS, so your arms will tire after a while. Unlike USS, you’ll have plenty of room on the handlebars to mount accessories such as mirrors, bells, and lights, but you may also have worse visibility with the handlebars blocking your line of sight (especially if you are in an extreme horizontal position).
There is a less common type of steering out there known as pivot or center steering. On these bikes, there’s a pivot at the center of the bike, allowing you to steer the front wheel by leaning. These bikes may come with side bars to help you lean into a turn, and may have no handlebars at all! I’d love to try such a bike one day, but the only center steering bikes I’m aware of are old Flevobikes from the Netherlands.
Last November I covered the various types of recumbents based on length. To review, the long wheel base (LWB) ‘bents are super comfy machines made for putting in long touring miles in a fairly upright seating position, whereas the short wheel base (SWB) ‘bents tend to be more versatile bikes used for racing, commuting, or just about anything else.
The SWB versatility is largely due to the variety of designs out there. Today I’ll cover some designs as they relate to the rider’s seated height from the ground.
You’ll often hear SWB ‘bents categorized as low-, mid-, or high-racers. Low-racers seat you very close to the ground— so low that you can balance yourself by placing your palms down. They’re aerodynamic and fast bikes that are good for flat tracks, but have fallen out of fashion in the recumbent community. A low-racer is difficult to ride given the seat’s nearly horizontal position, and isn’t too visible to traffic on the road. Builders are forced to get creative with the drivetrains and complex chain lines given the limited amount of space between the rider and the ground. They often have a small 20” or 16” front wheel paired with a larger 700c rear wheel. Performer Cycles and M5 still have some low-racer options.
High-racers are also fast bikes, and offer much better visibility in dense traffic. They tend to be light-weight and have simple, straight chain lines. They have dual 700c wheels, and their frames are usually American-style “stick frames” exemplified by Bacchetta or European-style “s-frames” such as the Pelso Brevet and Schlitter Freestyle. The largest disadvantage with high-racers (especially stick frames) is they don’t easily accommodate short riders. If you are under 5’9” or so, you’ll likely have trouble getting your feet down at a stop on a high-racer. The problem is as you slide the seat position forward along the frame’s tube to be able to reach the pedals (which are positioned at an elevated level), you are also sliding the seat higher from the ground. The S-frame design helps alleviate the problem a bit by sloping the frame tube down. Most recently, Metabike introduced a novel multi-tube high-racer design (the Mystique) with a seat height that allows riders as short as 5’6” to get their feet down (being 5’8”, this particular bike is appealing to me as I’ve always wanted a high racer but I’m not tall enough to feel safe on one).
Given the high seating position and bottom bracket (i.e., where the pedals are), high-racers aren’t made for off-road terrain where you may need to quickly get your feet down to avoid falling over (that being said, there is one crazy exception out there).
The Bacchetta Corsa (left) and Pelso Brevet (right) are two examples of modern high-racers with dual 700c wheels. Note the respective stick and s-shaped frame designs, as well as the simpler chain lines requiring only one idler under the seats.
As you may expect, mid-racers fall between the two extremes. They’re the most popular choice of SWB ‘bent since they offer much of the visibility and aerodynamics of a high racer without limiting rider height. You’ll find options for racers, commuters, and tourers in this category, along with a variety of options in wheel size, suspension, seat type, drivetrain, and steering to accomodate all sorts of riding and terrain. Take a look at Azub, HPV, Lightning Cycles, and Performer Cycles for good mid-racer options. Most of my recumbent bike experiences have been on mid-racers, and my current everyday bike is a commuter-type mid-racer design (I’ll talk about it in a future post).