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).

Recumbent types: Cadillacs vs Corvettes

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.

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* 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.

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?

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.

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*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).