We 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:
1. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.