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.
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).
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).
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).
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!