Introduction

I’ve liked bikes and bike culture for quite some time. Went through a Lycra phase years ago, but who are we kidding, I’m no athlete. Now I embrace a more relaxed version of cycling, or maybe that’s just aching middle age speaking to me. Regardless the reason, there are few things I enjoy more than riding my bike, whether I’m winding along scenic routes in NJ and PA, roaming around town, or commuting to the office.

Beyond just general cycling, a few years ago I discovered I like weird bikes. I mean really weird ones, known as recumbent bikes (or ‘bents). These contraptions allow you to remain in a laid back position while you pedal. They hold many advantages (and certainly some disadvantages too) over “regular” bikes. Unfortunately the heyday of recumbents has passed*, but I do believe there’s still a valuable place for them in the cycling community.

I said they were weird didn’t I? This is my first recumbent bike purchased in 2017. Though it’s been heavily modified since this picture was taken, I still ride it today. I’ll be writing more about this particular bike and others later.

Welcome to thelaidbackcyclist.com, my name is Mark. I’m a neuroscientist by training, so I guess I like both brains and bikes. And while I’m just an enthusiast, I hope you’ll find something interesting here. Who knows, maybe there are some future ‘bent riders out there who don’t know it yet.

.

.


*I should be more specific: The 2-wheeled recumbent bike has been steadily declining in popularity. The 3-wheeled recumbent trike, on the other hand, is quite popular nowadays (relatively speaking).

The Psyclists explore the local trails

This past weekend the Psyclists got together after a month hiatus to brave the 90+ degree weather for a 14-mile excursion from Princeton to Lawrenceville.

We first rode through the comfortably shaded Institute Woods, and then picked up the D&R Canal Towpath southbound until we reached the Lawrence Hopewell Trail (LHT) connector. Here we were met with our first construction detour where we had to ride 0.5 miles along Meadow Road to Princeton Pike instead of following the LHT through the office park to reach Princeton Pike. Not a big deal, but just be aware of that small detour and follow the signs.

About a mile later we encountered our next obstacle: The LHT through the Lawrenceville School campus was closed due to construction. Getting around this one is a bit trickier, but all you need to do is make a left to go behind the field house and then travel on the grass along the south side of the pond. Eventually you’ll end up on Woods Drive which will let you traverse the campus. The upshot is you get to ride through the most scenic areas of the campus before reaching Lawrenceville Village.

In the village there are a few snack/drink options including Starbucks, the Gingered Peach, and the Purple Cow Ice Cream. We decided to turn around there, but one could continue to follow the LHT northward into Village Park and beyond.

The trails were in excellent condition, but we did struggle at times on the D&R Towpath where the gravel and sand would get a bit too deep for comfort. There isn’t much you can do in those situations beyond slowing down and trying to keep the bike steady to push through the gravel without wiping out. This is also where having wide tires, especially on a recumbent, is beneficial.

Next week we plan to explore some more of the LHT between Pennington and Lawrenceville.

Here’s our Garmin route for anyone interested in this ride.

The heat wave couldn’t ruin this group’s fun !

MINI revisited: It’s electric!

While e-bikes can be a divisive topic among cyclists, it’s hard to ignore their increasing popularity. Admittedly it took me some time to warm up to the idea. Do I still get a workout? Is it “cheating”? After test riding an upright e-bike, I realized my worries were unfounded and it was time to transform the MINI once again. This time into an e-recumbent bike suitable for just about any terrain.


E-assist options

Azub offers attractive e-assist builds with Shimano Steps or Brose. The electric motors are integrated into custom booms, wires run internally, and the battery is mounted on the rack. Unfortunately, Azub can’t sell an e-assist upgrade (probably licensing-related?). Thankfully there are plenty of after-market options. While they won’t look as sleek, they’ll be a fraction of the cost if you don’t mind a little DIY work.

Some e-assist kits place the motors in the rear or front wheel hubs while others place them at the cranks (i.e. mid-drives). Two popular mid-drive manufacturers are Bafang and TongSheng. Both seem like good choices, and in the end, I decided to get the TongSheng TSDZ2 motor.


TSDZ2 specs and features

The TSDZ2 has a small form factor yet puts out an impressive 500W of power and 100Nm of torque. The 8 lb motor assists at up to 28MPH and/or 100RPM (you can always go faster but the motor won’t assist you). It can be installed on any bike that has a standard 68-73mm bottom bracket.

The most attractive feature of the TSDZ2 is the torque sensor which provides a more natural pedaling feel. With a torque sensor, if you pedal gently you get a gentle assist, and if you pedal hard the motor will assist more. In contrast, without a torque sensor, a motor will give a flat level of assist as long as you are pedaling. The torque sensor obviates the need for brake sensors to cut power since the motor is quick to respond when you stop pedaling.

While the motors are widely available, I purchased a recumbent-specific kit (the ECO+) offered by Eco-Cycles. They provide cable extensions to accommodate long recumbent frames, and a boom clamp specific to your boom diameter for securely mounting the motor. Eco also offers additional upgrades, including a software upgrade (OSF upgrade) that allows for custom assist levels and higher RPM assist.

The kit I chose included a more durable PEEK plastic gear inside the motor unit, the SW102 small LCD screen, and a 42T chainring to handle moderate hills. I skipped the throttle option in favor of always having to pedal. I also passed on the custom software upgrade to keep things simple.


Installation

My local bike shop installed the motor onto the boom for me, and I installed the rest myself. I used zip ties to run three cables along the bike. One cable ran up the steering assembly to the display screen. Another cable ran to the back chainstays for a speed sensor. The third cable ran to the battery. I mounted the battery (52v 13ah Jumbo Hailong Shark; 11 lbs; 30-60 mile range) beneath the seat with the versatile T-Cycle universal battery mount.


Riding with e-assist

It’s no wonder e-bikes are so popular. With the pedal assist, I no longer have to worry about how hilly a particular route is before I go out. I still have to work to get up those hills, but I can get there faster.

I can choose from four assist levels (eco, standard, super, turbo). With the torque sensing system, at each assist level, the system will add a percentage of the power you are outputting. So if I’m putting out 100 watts while using the first assist level, the motor will add 40% (or 40 watts) to the output. That percentage keeps going up at each assist level, so you can decide how fast you want to go at the output you’re producing.

Another benefit I had not anticipated is being able to quickly clear intersections from a stop. Cars don’t have to wait for me to get up to speed, and I can spend less time worrying about them getting mad. Relatedly, I can also be more patient since slowing down or stopping for others isn’t such a big deal when I can get back up to speed easier.

It’s only been a few weeks of riding my electrified MINI, but I can safely recommend e-assist to anyone looking to enjoy more time on their bikes without fearing those hills.

The Contraption Captains

The following excerpt is from “Bike Snob” by the popular bike blogger, Eben Weiss:

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.


Admittedly, when I first read this I felt seen.

A lovely decal from my family

The Psyclists’ first spring ride

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.

Here’s our Garmin route for anyone interested in the ride.

Cycling with your child

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.


Child-in-front seating

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 Kazam Kangaroo mounts to a bar that ran along the top tube, thereby maintaining a good central weight ditribution on the bike that made handling easier.

Child-in-rear seating

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.

The Thule Yepp Maxi was well built and seemed comfortable enough for the little guy to fall asleep on many rides.

Bike trailer

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.

Here’s our first attempt with the Trail Gator tow bar and a Woom 4 kid’s bike. I think the stability of the towbar could be improved if the faux seat post was a bit taller to match the height of a regular bike’s seat post.

Bike review: Azub MINI

A happy new bent rider picking up his bike at Jersey Bents in Hamilton NJ (the shop has since moved to Berlin NJ).

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.

Basic specs

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.

The MINI as it originally arrived with above seat steering.

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.

Comfort

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.

Drivetrain

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.

Brakes

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.

Top-down view of the under seat steering setup where you can see both the brake and shifter cables protruding out and looping back in.

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.

Carrying capacity

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.

Final remarks

The same MINI after a few years of upgrades and a new paint job.

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.