Recumbent types: Steering

Under Seat Steering (USS)

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.

If you’re interested in USS bikes, you have a few options in the US including Azub, HP Velotechnik, Linear Recumbents, and Long Bikes. In Europe you’ll have a few more options with Challenge Bikes (Netherlands), Slyway (Italy), and Flux, Toxy, and Traix (all in Germany). Just note that the HPV Streetmachine and Toxy bikes use direct steering, and may be a bit more tricky to ride.

Above Seat Steering (ASS)

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).

Pivot Steering

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.

Recumbent types: low-, mid-, and high-racers

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.


Low-racers

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.

A Performer Cycles low-racer model. Note the highly reclined and low position of the seat, as well as the complex chain line that requires 3 idlers and protective chain tubes.

High-racers

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.


Mid-racers

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).

Why ride a ‘bent?

The most frequent questions I get about my recumbent bike from passersby are “is it hard to ride?” and “is it comfortable?” As is often the case, the answer to both is “it depends”. Recumbent bikes vary wildly in design and that of course has an effect on learning difficulty. Generally speaking, I think how well you ride a regular diamond frame (DF) bike will predict how quickly you learn to ride a recumbent. I don’t think my daily bike (pictured in my introductory post) was particularly difficult to learn, but I’ll discuss different recumbent bike styles and their ease of use in a future post.

Similarly, if the recumbent bike you choose fits you well and is suited for the type of bike riding you do, you’ll find it very comfortable. But not unlike a DF bike, if you don’t pick the right bike you’ll probably end up dissatisfied.

In today’s post, I’ll delve a bit deeper into the comfort of a recumbent bike and other reasons why someone may want to ride one.


Comfort

If you happen to be middle-aged like yours truly, you may be intimately familiar with terms like herniated discs, spinal instability, back pain, neuropathy, etc. For me, my back pain is made worse by bending over or sitting upright for prolonged periods of time. Now picture a typical DF bike and you can see how the rider’s position could aggravate a bad back.

Most recumbents have an adjustable seat that can be set to varying degrees of uprightness. These seats are large and allow you to sit in them instead of perching on top of a standard bike saddle. Generally speaking, recreational and touring recumbents will have you positioned a bit more upright allowing you to see traffic and your surroundings a bit better, while the racing ‘bents will let you get very horizontal to give you a more aerodynamic profile. I personally find being 35 degrees or less reduces pressure on my spine enough to allow me to ride completely pain free.

Beyond the back, your shoulders and neck are more relaxed, and your wrists and hands no longer have to bear your upper body weight as they would if you’re hunched over the handlebars of a DF bike. But just how relaxed your upper extremities are depends a lot on the type of steering and handlebars on the bike because not all recumbents steer alike (note to self: future blog post topic).

The Rans Stratus (left) and the Schlitter Encore (right) are obviously two very different bikes. The Status is a touring recumbent with an upright seating position and a low bottom bracket, while the Encore is a “high-racer” bike with a very reclined position and high bottom bracket for increased power output.

Speed

There’s a whole other group of cyclists that gravitate toward recumbent bikes because they want to go as fast as possible. While a recumbent bike may be faster on flats and downhill compared to a DF bike, it all depends on many factors like what kinds of bikes you’re comparing and what “motor” you have powering them.

Recumbent riders interested in speed will often enhance their aerodynamic profile by adding a windscreen (or fairing) to the front and/or a tail sock to the back. For example, just take a look at the classic Lightning F40 recumbent with a full body fairing in this video. It may look absolutely ridiculous, but this thing really flies.

For those really interested in speed, they’ll go for a recumbent bike (or trike) incased in a rigid streamlined shell. These are known as velomobiles, and they are the kinds of bikes that set human powered vehicle (HPV) land speed records (currently at 89.58 mph). The amazing thing about velomobiles is you don’t need to be very strong or exert much effort to reach some fast cruising speeds. That makes them quite suitable for people who have long commutes on relatively flat terrain.

I should note that in my experience recumbents tend to be slower when going uphill compared to DF bikes. Unlike a DF bike, on a recumbent bike you can’t stand up out of your seat, mash your pedals down with the help of your weight, and rock your bike back and forth to get up a steep incline. All you can do is sit back and keep spinning those legs. I am overgeneralizing a bit though, and experts will tell you about recumbent bikes that are just as fast or faster uphill than DF bikes (the Cruzbike Vendetta V20 is a well known example).


Safety

Would you rather be careening down a street avoiding potholes and car doors while on a regular DF bike or on a recumbent? Turns out you’ll be safer on a recumbent. Research has shown more severe injuries occur on a DF bike compared to a recumbent bike. On a recumbent, your center of gravity is much lower and you’re traveling feet first. You’re certainly better off crashing with your feet than your head! Plus you can brake much harder without the prospect of flipping over your handlebars and suffering a severe head injury.

Also while you’re on a recumbent, your head is more upright allowing you to spot road hazards and make eye contact with drivers more easily. Not to mention the fact that you’re riding something weird, so drivers will notice you much more readily.

When talking about safety, I have to at least mention the recumbent trike. You can’t fall over on a trike (unless you really push it to its limits on a high speed turn and flip it). So for riders of a certain age, or those with balance problems, or those who exceed the weight limits of a two-wheeled bike, the trike is a very safe option. Many young recumbent bike riders of the 80s and 90s have since graduated to trikes in the past 15 yrs for this reason, leading to tremendous growth in the trike market (and a parallel shrinking of the recumbent bike market).


Style

This is just my opinion of course, but I do think there’s something inherently cool about recumbent bikes. It’s really interesting to see the variety of styles and solutions builders have come up with. In comparison, now most regular DF bikes just look plain boring to me!

Looks cool, right?