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8 Things To Know About Touring On A Recumbent Bike

August 22nd, 2011 28 comments


Trevor on a recumbentWe haven’t had a chance to do many long bike tours this year, but the upside of sticking close to home is that you can plan all kinds of mini weekends, like beer trips to Belgium and – last weekend – a trial lesson in cycling on a recumbent bicycle.

This weekend was actually the idea of our friends Trevor & Simone. They researched places where you could rent ‘bents and this led us to the lovely farm of Wim & Marianne, in the southwest corner of the Netherlands.

Our goals for the weekend were pretty simple. We decided to camp at the farm, rather than carry our gear on the bikes, and to go just a short distance each day. The idea was to concentrate on learning how to ride these bicycles, rather than worry about luggage or where we’d sleep at night.

We were also just curious to see if recumbents were as comfortable as we’d been led to believe. For several years now we’ve been hearing how they’re the ultimate in touring comfort – no pain anywhere, just tired legs after a long day on the bike.

Two days of lessons later, here’s what we learned:

Andrew nearly falls1. It’s Really Not That Hard. Wim was our teacher, and he started us off with simple instructions. ”Put one foot on the pedal. Look straight ahead. Now push, not too hard, and you’ll start moving.” At first, we didn’t get it. We wobbled. We fell. We had several near collisions with a hen house, a table and the field.

After a couple tries we wondered if we were really cut out for this, but 15 minutes later it was a different story. We could almost steer in a straight line and Wim was now jogging alongside our bikes; no longer holding us steady but staying close just in case we took a tumble.

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2. The View Is Amazing. We immediately loved the perspective of cycling on a recumbent bicycle; a wide open view of the road. For the first time, we were looking up instead of down from the seat of our bicycles. Cycling on a recumbent was a bit like fitting a wide angle lens to our eyes. And the seat provided a nice place to relax when we stopped for a break.

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3. A Rear-view Mirror Is Mandatory. We also recommend a rear-view bicycle mirror if you’re riding an upright bike, but sometimes on an upright bike you can get away without one. Depending on the road conditions, and your own riding ability, you might be able to turn around easily and see what’s behind you. On a recumbent bike, it’s much harder to do this – if not totally impossible. So if you’re going to get a recumbent bike, plan on getting a mirror to go with it. Because you’re relatively low to the ground, you may also want to put a tall flag on the back of the bicycle, to increase visibility.

4. Relax. Relax. Relax. The first time you take a recumbent out for a ride, you may be tense without even realizing it. If you’re carrying a lot of tension in your shoulders, you get sore and the tension can follow through to your steering, making the bike seem twitchy and unstable.

When people try out our bikes, we usually end up yelling out to them to relax their shoulders.      -Becky, owner of a HP Velotechnik Street Machine

5. Try Before You Buy. Just like any other bicycle, you don’t want to buy a recumbent until you’ve spent a few days testing out all the options. We learned all too quickly that the bikes we were trying were built more for racing than long distance touring. The more aggressive posture of the seat made it hard to relax, and we felt this most in our necks and shoulders. If we’d tried out bikes designed for touring, the seats might have been wider, more upright and easier to get used to for recumbent newbies.

If you’re looking at a recumbent, here are some of the design variations you’ll have to choose between:

  • Steering – There are ‘bents with steering above the seat and below it. We tried both, and felt that steering below the seat was more comfortable. Our arms felt less cramped this way.
  • Seat Position – Some recumbents are more upright than others (and even an inch can make a big difference in how you feel on the bike).
  • Seat Style – Some seats are wide and made of mesh. Others are narrow and made of foam.
  • Length – Longer recumbents (long wheelbase) have the cranks behind the wheel. They give a smooth, stable ride but can be hard to maneuver, especially in city traffic. You can also get shorter recumbents that put the pedals way out in front of the wheels. These models corner sharply and are compact but are also harder to keep in a straight line.
  • Wheel Size – Recumbents can have 20″ wheels, 26″ wheels or one of each.
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6. You May Need Different Clothes. On a ‘bent, your face is angled towards the sky more than on an upright bike, and this makes a hat and sunglasses all the more important. You probably won’t need bicycle gloves since there isn’t any pressure on your hands. Traditional bicycle tops with pockets in back (or in fact any jacket with a back pocket) will be useless, since you’ll be sitting on the pocket! There are some recumbent-specific tops available, with pockets in front.

I have cycled about 20,000 kilometers on both a recumbent and an upright bike during the last couple years. Many times people ask me which one is best but so far I can only say they both have pluses and minuses. I really like to do easy country riding on a recumbent, but for city rides with many stops and starts, smaller roads or off-road a normal bike is my preference.     -Marija Kozin

7. Recumbents Attract Attention. They may have been around for over 100 years but for many people a recumbent bicycle is still a novelty. Even in the Netherlands, where everyone is a cyclist and cycling is hardly a novel way to get around, we still got lots of comments about our ‘bents – and we only cycled 40km on them. This is great if you like talking to people but if you’d rather not be the centre of attention, a recumbent might not be the bike for you.

8. Uphills Are Slower (But Downhills Are Faster). Going uphill on a recumbent can be a bit of a shock the first time you try it. You can’t stand up to pedal so it’s harder to really put your weight into the hill climb. It’s better just to relax and take it slowly. The only time this really bothered us was when we had to climb to an intersection, stop, look for traffic, and then keep going uphill. Getting started again was tough. Once you’re over the crest, you have aerodynamics on your side and chances are you can zip past the upright bike riders!

Do you have some tips for new recumbent riders? Leave a comment.

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27 Responses to “8 Things To Know About Touring On A Recumbent Bike”

  1. I can relate to the ‘relax the shoulders’ comment (to all your comments, actually). A recumbent is a different experience indeed :-)

  2. Thank you for the article. I’ve always wanted to know what it was like to ride a ‘bent and they sound like they do need a bit of getting used to!

  3. Rik says:

    I totally heart recumbents, though they definitely have their strengths and weaknesses. Thoroughly recommend tracking some down and spending a Saturday afternoon having a blast; you won’t forget it!

  4. Bob Baxter says:

    I have owned 3 different recumbent bikes but most of my riding is in town and uprights are easier to handle in stop and go situations. I have owned a tadpole trike for 4 years and it combines the comfortable position of the two wheeler with the ease of handling of an upright. A trike is ideal for loaded touring, if you tire on a climb you can stop and rest and then start pedaling again. You can’t do that on a bent bike, they are almost impossible to start on an uphill–even unloaded.

  5. christine holmes says:

    Great summary. I have always wanted to try a recumbent – now I will do so with some understanding of what to expect.

  6. Rik says:

    Here are some “recumbent shops” in, or near, London…

    FUTURE CYCLES
    Run by an awesome chap (Ian) who will spend time with you explaining everything. Lots of recumbent’s to try and adjacent to a national cycle trail (converted railway line). Worth travelling to.
    http://www.futurecycles.co.uk/tuition-and-hire.html

    LONDON RECUMBENTS
    Based in two parks in south London. Their expert, Oliver, is only present on weekdays which is annoying if you want to learn more about, or buy, ‘bents. Reasonably easy to get to.
    http://www.londonrecumbents.com/

    BIKE FIX
    Very central but also very elitist. Will be uninterested if you’re new to ‘bents. They do have bikes that you can hire/try and are very easy to get to. Central London roads though.
    http://www.bikefix.co.uk/shop/

  7. When I first tried bents in 2007, I went to a bent store at Austin, TX. I tried all types from short wheel base to long wheel base from several manufacturers. It felt awkward to ride with extreme incline just starting out. I found I liked the longwheel better for my big body. The LWB felt like a Cadillac, so to speak. I did not found it hard to maneuver at all; I could turn in the same space as a SWB. The more uprigth riding position was more comfortable, but Mike Librick, owner of Easystreet Recumbents warned me about riding to much uprigth. He said that, if you use a full UR position, you will be sitting on your butt muscles. If you use to much force in your ride, you will suffer a painfull Recumbent Butt AKA “Recumbutt”. The solution is to find a balance between UR and reclination that is comfortable. Another caveat is the crank height. On SWB, the CH sometimes put your feet at chest level or higher, which could give problems, specifically numb feet to people with poor circirculation, like myself. But they are fun to ride

  8. There is also the choice of suspension on recumbents. When I did my New Mexico bike tour (which I did on a MTB), we went to an abandoned section of route 66 which was basically an 8 mile washboard! A companion was using an unsuspended bent and he suffered so much that he got the SAG. The bike I was using only had front suspension, so I also suffered. There are fully suspended bents that take the burden of less than perfect roads. HP Velo and Cruzbikes fully believe in the concept of full suspension. Cruzbikes have front wheel drive and owners claim that they are better climbers than normail SWB bents.

  9. Phyllis says:

    My family is getting ready for recumbent lessons from me on my Rans V rex, which is going into its 6th year with me (and 10k plus miles of road rides, a couple of centuries and weekday commuting). This article will help me explain it a bit.

    One other item that I learned from Rick Steele at Gold Country Cycles, http://www.tandems-recumbents.com/recumbent-bikes.html, who sold it to me, after coaching me through 5-6 hours of test rides on multiple models, on a recumbent, it’s harder to correct your balance with your body because you don’t have all that upper body to use. Another reason to relax.

    Oh and did I say how much fun it is to ride downhill, even really steep ones?

    • When I tried recumbents the first time in Texas, The V-Rex was one of them. Although I said I preffered the feel of the LWB (The Rans Stratus), the V-Rex I tried also was great… until I fell when I got overconfident!!! I had a recent elbow surgery so the fall scared me to death! But looking back, I would not mind adding a V-Rex to my stable!

  10. Ken Shirk says:

    In the past year my wife and I have been riding tandem bents. We’ve logged about 3000km so far and we love it. We ride mostly on trails but also do a fair amount of riding on rural roads. Bents are not very good for city riding where you have a lot of stop and go. One of the best bits of advice I was given was to hold the handlegrips as though they were over ripe bananas. I’ve learned that shifting is much more critical on a bent than on an upright since you can’t compensate by standing up. We can ride all day and the only part that of us that is tired at the end of the day is our legs. We currently ride a Rans Screamer with a DaVinci gear system.

  11. Ray W. says:

    I fully agree with Bob B. regarding the recumbent trikes. They are great for loaded touring albeit slower than any 2-wheeled bike but whose in a hurry when touring? The right gearing takes you over any hills, no balance issues, great at intersections, can easily eat, drink, read maps etc. while riding. With the side handlebar bag your camera is handy as are snacks. The down side is they are a bit wider and tougher to get into motel rooms, you need a first floor room. You guys should try them out, I think you’d be pleasantly surprised!

  12. Becky says:

    I thought I’d add a bit about hills – I do agree with your statement in general, but not all bents are created equal. Some really suck on hills, but others are not so bad. Our bikes (HP Velo StreetMachines) have hard seat backs, and we have an upright enough posture, that we can tackle hills to about a 15-18% grade – after 18% our shoulders start to slide off the back of the seat, loosing any leverage that we had. We actually can put more power into the hills based on raw strength because we can push against the seat back – that being said, if you are new at it, you risk hurting your knees – you certainly need to be used to the bike before you tackle hills aggressively.
    I highly recommend anyone considering a recumbent to find a good shop that carries several models and lets you try them. We found one (the bicycle man in Alfred New York) and spent three days trying out bikes (we created a series of blog posts starting here – http://goingeast.ca/blog/2008/04/03/i-want-to-buy-a-bicycle/.
    Hope you are able to find a comfy bike!

  13. I made the switchover to recumbents back in 2001 and I’m not been on an upright since then. I’m on my third recumbent. Since April 04, 2001, I’ve cycle-toured almost 114,400 miles (183,023 KM). My latest recumbent, which is an Easy Racer/Sun
    EZ-Speedster-AX short-wheelbase touring recumbent (27 speeds, disc brakes, over-seat steering) has almost 41,400 miles (66,100 KM) on her since April 2007. Her name is “Alice” because of it’s aluminum frame. Currently Alice and I are on a bike trek around America. Since April 6th of this year, I’ve toured almost 5,000 miles (8,000 KM). Even with the total weight (camping gear, food, water, etc) being around 120 lbs (54.5 KG), I’ve been averaging 60 miles (100 KM) per day.

  14. amber says:

    Very nice review. I’m loving the pictures! They really depicted what it is like to ride a recumbent. They are lovely bikes that offer a ton of benefits.
    I found this to be helpful for newbies: http://recumbentbikeinfo.com/2011/how-do-i-ride-a-recumbent-bike The site also has a how to video for trying a recumbent out for the first time.

  15. meika says:

    If you are a bird watcher, recumbents are just perfect. You can see so many more than from a normal bike.

  16. Paul says:

    I ride a StreetMachine GT which I love. What you need to appreciate is the different natural pace of a recumbent. On a hilly route, you are slower up hill but faster on the flat, down hill, and into the wind. So riding with kids, loaded upright tourers, and other ‘bents is fine.

    The comfort is wonderful. Not just because of the seat. Because you push horizontally, there is no suspension bounce. This allows a very soft setting for the suspension. I can ride normal speed on unpaved roads, fully loaded, in comfort and without worrying about damage.

    You don’t notice the load so much either, because you ever swing the bike between your legs anyway.

  17. Hi, great article and one I can very much related to having bought a recumbent back in May.

    I’d thoroughly endorse the try before you buy. I tried the one I bought over several test rides totalling 5-6 hours of riding. I went to London Recumbents in Dulwich Park which Rik mentions above. I’d also add that Oliver there is very friendly, helpful and knowledgeable – highly recommended. Also, Dulwich Park has a large, traffic-free road which runs all the way around the park. Perfect for learning to ride a recumbent – especially at the beginning when wobbling all over!

    Regarding bents in traffic and cities… I eliminated many recumbents because I didn’t feel comfortable being so low down. The HP Velotechnik Spirit however is somewhat higher up than many – on a par with a driver in a normal car (ie, not those ridiculous 4x4s). Because of the constant stop/starting of commuting on a bike in London I also went for a Rohloff Speedhub – trying to start in a high gear is not easy if you’ve just had to brake quickly, but with a Speedhub a simple twist of the handle while stationary and I can go to any gear I want. It’s been a great combination and I’m now building up the miles per week.

    My friends and family wanted to keep track of how I was getting on with this strange contraption, so I started a blog: http://www.theadventuresofdaveandbob.wordpress.com where I also explain why I went for a bent.

    And after a few months of riding it, I really couldn’t imagine riding anything else.

  18. Kevin Butt says:

    I ride a Tour Easy, which is a long wheelbase recumbent. The seating position and pedaling position is such that I manage in stop and go traffic every bit as well as on my upright – if not better.
    I have a Lightspeed 650c upright and a Cannondale Silktour 700 touring bike. I used to have a hardtail mountain bike outfitted with a larger chain ring and town and country tires.
    Since getting my Tour Easy (http://www.easyracers.com/toureasy.html) I haven’t ridden the other bicycles much. I gave my mountain bike to my 23 yr old son and I have let my 22 yr old son use my Lightspeed I’m not giving him a $4500 bike, even if it is 12 years old).
    I can climb hills with the Tour Easy, albeit more slowly than on the uprights. Coming down hill I can go much faster than even on my lightspeed. And it is by far more stable safe. I have been over 45 mph and have felt sold, comfortable, and safe. I can do an emergency stop without being catapulted over the handlebars.
    On my lightspeed, I once had to do an emergency stop at about 35 mph due to a car pulling in front of me. I ended up standing my bike on its front wheel and having to feather the front brakes to not go head over heals. This was scary. Much safer on a ‘bent!

  19. Alonzo Savage (Alphonsodondoogleberry) says:

    I’ve owned an ICE ‘T’, the trike from Ice before the Advewnture for four years now. Yes recumbents can be slow on hills and my old legs enjoy a rest part way up a long slog of a hill. But unlike my two wheeler that I used to ride, I can sit and have a drink, enjoy trhe view, then set off again easily. If you live in the UK try contacting Kevin at Dtekhpvs ( see ICE dealers page) to try out one of his stock of over 150 different recumbents.

  20. Iain says:

    like many others here – I’m a bent convert. I regularly commute to work on a Streetmachine in London UK. I bought the bike for touring but since I live in London, had to practice. That was odd at first but then I got hooked, so it became my number one choice for getting around the city. If you’re new to bents, you’ll need to build muscle in the right places – about 6 – 14 weeks depending on how much you ride.
    Communting-wise, sure I can’t get through thick traffic as fast as on my uprights but then again – I you know, I really don’t care because I’m so comfortable and chilled. My journey time to work is plus or minus 5 mins over a 4 mile stretch. What I lose on jams I more than make up for with speed and I get where I’m going with a much better quality of riding experience. Driver reaction is much more friendly, they notice me give me a wide berth and I’ve had many warm chats with drivers stopped at traffic, I’ve rarely done that on an upright – I think that’s to do with body language – the open posture of a rider on a bent is non threatening and I’m about eye line with a driver.
    Apart from comfort – safety is the key gain for me. I can stop on a sixpence even from speed and the worst that has ever happened with a full emergency stop from speed is I’ve stood up and sat back down again. I’ve been over too many handlebars on uprights to really apprececiate what a big difference that makes. I know I’m less visible in some circumstances and my riding is better for it.
    I’ve been ridiing a bent for about ten years and cycling for about 35 years. I love my Streetmachine and when I can afford it will get a folding recumbent so I can easily take the bent experience with me anywhere. Getting on to a bent was like my first discovery of the joy of cycling all over again and somehow riding one keeps that joy fresh and present with every ride :)

  21. Rik says:

    @Iain: I absoluteness concur, sweet distillation. See you around town =)

  22. Jimm Pratt says:

    The best way to tackle hills is with a lower gear and high spin rate. Less stress on the knees and you can (with practice/training) climb as fast, or nearly so, as an upright bike.

    Then again, part of the appeal of ‘bents is in the relaxed seating position and better visibility of your surroundings. Sometimes more enjoyable to casually spin up hill if you have no time-table to worry about. You’ll make up the lost time on the other side, anyway! :)

  23. Mark Gregory says:

    I’ve been bent for over 13 years now. I’ve owned both swb and lwb and find that in general I like the lwb better. But I also recognize that a bent is a personal thing – yours has to fit YOU. I have a Longbikes Slipstream – which is one of the original form facter bents out there. The finest touring/long distance bike I’ve ever ridden. I also own a Gold Rush Replica – one of the FASTEST bikes I’ve ever ridden. Both lwb. I know that hill climbing is like anything else bent – a learned process as well as dependent on the bike you’re on. On my Slipstream I find that I have no problems climbing, but I do gear way down and spin. On the GRR – that sucker will CLIMB. You still have to keep the cadence up, as you can easily blow out a knee if you’re not careful and push too hard, but keep the cadence up and you’ll be fine.

    Oh, and yes, mirrors are essential – I recommend the Take-A-Look – best mirror I’ve seen.

    Mark

  24. Didi says:

    I am looking to rent a couple of recumbents for my brother and I to try in the North of England (Yorkshire). Anyone know any rentals in this area please

  25. Glen says:

    The two negatives with lwb recumbents are slow speed handling (granny gear) and the issue of sun-baking horizontally on a bright sunny day but my backside rules the roost and doesn’t want to see another diamond frame saddle ever again.

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