by Torrey Nelson for radbike.net
Recumbent bicycles, often referred to as “bents”, differ from upright bicycles primarily in the type and location of the seat, but also in the location of the pedals. On an upright bicycle the rider is perched on a small wedge shaped seat above the pedals. On a recumbent the rider sits in a large seat with a backrest. The pedals are located in front of the seat, so the rider’s legs extend forward to reach the pedals.
To understand the recumbent bicycle and its current position in society, you need to understand a bit of history. The recumbent bicycle is, like most other bicycle designs, a 19th century invention. A traditional bicycle mimics the rider position of a horseback rider. Perhaps this is why people on bikes are called riders and not drivers. With comfort and luxury as their motivations, the first recumbent designers let go of the horse model and based their designs around the chair instead. Although they only represented a fraction of bicycle sales in the 19th century, bikes such as the Challand did make their mark.
In the early 20th century recumbent innovation continued and expanded. No one would make a bigger mark in recumbent design before World War II than Charles Mochet. Charles Mochet built small cars and pedal cars. He soon adapted his pedal car designs and made recumbent tricycles and bicycles. The bicycle was known as the Mochet Velocar. The Velocar’s seat could fold back to allow for better aerodynamics. Second-class track racer Francis Faure tested the Velocar and liked it. On July 15, 1933 Francis Faure beat the hour record, completing 45.1 km (27.9 miles), using the Velocar. On February 3, 1934 the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) voted 58 to 46 to ban recumbent style bikes from standard competition. They could race in special class races but could not compete in the major races which of course have the larger prizes and greater media attention. Racers in major events from this time forward are required to use the less efficient upright diamond frame design. With racers always using the upright style bike to race, most people assume the upright bikes are the most efficient. What they don’t realize is that more efficient designs are not allowed. These rules continue today and even in the most prestigious races such as the Tour de France, recumbent bicycles are outlawed.
However, even without a race market, recumbent bicycle development continued throughout the 20th century. In post World War II East Germany, Paul Rinkowski continued to develop the recumbent bike, however, East German officials refused to allow his designs to be put into mass production. This is just another example of the failure of planned economies, and another set back for recumbent bikes.
In the 1960s Robert Q. Riley designed and patented the Ground Hugger recumbent bicycle. When he couldn’t find a manufacturer to mass produce his design, he started selling plans to home builders through Popular Mechanics magazine. Robert Q. Riley still sells plans for the Ground Hugger and an updated carbon fiber version called the Ground Hugger XR2 through his website.
In 1968 David Gordon Wilson started the “Man powered land transportation competition” with safety, comfort and usability as the top goals. W. B. Lychard was the winner with his “Bicar Mark III” recumbent bike. Wilson worked to improve the Bicar design with the help of builder Fred Willkie and after a few attempts they came up with the “Wilson Willkie”. Via builders Richard Forrestall, Harold Maciejewski and their company Fomac the “Wilson Willkie” would lead to the development of the “Avatar 2000”. Fomac built and sold the Avatar 2000 starting in 1979. Christopher Walken rode an Avatar 2000 in the 1983 movie Brainstorm, a science fiction classic about virtual reality. After Fomac ended Avatar 2000 production, Dick Ryan, an early partner in Fomac would later build the Ryan Vanguard based on the Avatar 2000. While Dick Ryan is no longer in the bike business, the current Longbikes Slipstream is one of numerous designs that find their roots in the Avatar 2000. David Gordon Wilson has authored a number of books on human powered machines including Bicycling Science.
In the mid 1970s there was a growing interest in building more efficient bicycles that could achieve higher speeds. The International Human Powered Vehicle Association (IHPVA) was formed March 28, 1976 to push and develop human powered vehicles of all types, not just bicycles. A big part of the IHPVA was the speed competitions in both the United States and Europe. In 1982 the “Blue Bell” broke the 200 meter one person sprint record with a speed of 61.91 mph. The Blue Bell was a fully faired modified version of an Avatar 2000. The odd thing was the Avatar 2000 was built for comfort not speed.
In the late 1970s Easy Racers began production of the Tour Easy, a long wheel base recumbent with over seat steering. Easy Racers has been continuously building the Tour Easy ever since, which makes them the longest running recumbent builder in the world. The Tour Easy, designed by Gardner Martin, is one of the most popular recumbent designs of all time.
The 1980s were a healthy incubation period for recumbent bicycles. In the 1980s more companies started to spring up including Linear and Rans. On May 11, 1986 the Gold Rush was the first bike to go over 65 mph unassisted by gravity, wind, or a drafting vehicle. The Gold Rush was built by Gardner Martin of Easy Racers and ridden by Fred Markham. As a result, they were winners of the DuPont prize and Fred Markham became known as Fast Freddy Markham. Easy Racers and Fast Freddy have continued to race, and on July 2, 2006 Fast Freddy broke the hour record with a distance of 53.43 miles in one hour.
The 1990s saw more growth and innovation in recumbent bicycles. Designs from the 1970s and 1980s matured and improved, while new companies emerged. The 1990s marked the first time many people even saw a recumbent. Recumbent Cyclist News magazine began publication in 1990. However, the big event that brought recumbent bicycle information to the masses was the World Wide Web, and Internet community news groups. This made it much easier to learn about recumbent designs and models. Unfortunately, after a few hours of reading about recumbent bicycles on the Internet, most people found very little in terms of recumbents at their local bike shop. And if they did find anything, it was always very expensive.
Now in the 21st century, there are more choices, higher quality, and more price points in recumbent bikes. However, recumbent bicycles still remain a niche market. Currently, in the United States a lot of high end bike dollars are going towards traditional road bikes. The success of Lance Armstrong has sparked a new road bike craze, not seen since the release of the movie Breaking Away. Ironically, the current road bike craze is a direct result from the 1934 UCI decision to ban recumbents. Had recumbents not been banned, Lance Armstrong would have raced the Tour de France on a recumbent and so would all the other racers. Lance testified to this fact in a 2003 press conference. Had Lance been allowed to ride a recumbent, all the Lance wannabes would also be riding recumbents. It is interesting how a decision made over 70 years ago can still sway buyers from one product to another. History may control us, but we control the future.
In most areas of cycling such as speed, endurance, comfort and utility, recumbents have been proven to be technically superior. However, the two areas where recumbent bicycles have not been able to technically surpass their upright counter parts is in the area of BMX and mountain bikes. While decent trail ride recumbents have been built, I have yet to see one that can do everything that a high end BMX or mountain bike can do. An off road recumbent can handle gravel and dirt trails just fine, however when it comes to jumping stumps, rocks and logs the upright variants with a skilled rider do better. Upright off road riders can use wheelies, bunny hops, and jumps to get over obstacles. I’ve yet to see recumbent riders pull off those kinds of tricks. So there is always room for improvement. I wouldn’t mind seeing an all wheel drive fully suspended recumbent quadcycle some day. That sounds fun to me.
Recumbents are not just for speed and racing. They are also much more comfortable. The fact that upright bicycle seats are only found on bicycles should be a clue. You don’t buy small wedge saddles to use as seats for your living room. The recumbent seat has a comfy cushion seat with a supportive back rest and so do the chairs in your living room. Often when a recumbent rider stops to take a break, they will just put their feet down and stay in their seat to relax. On the other hand, upright riders almost always get off their seats. Many upright riders find they need special padded shorts in order to survive their bike ride. I’ve done 50 miles in blue jeans with no problems on a recumbent bike.
There are many different types of recumbent cycles. Builders have built an almost endless list of recumbent cycle permutations. The number of wheels, location of the pedals, location of the drive wheel, location of the steering, type and location of seat can all be different. Odd thing is, most of the permutations if done correctly actually work well. For this reason, many different designs have persisted through the decades.
The long wheel base (LWB) recumbent has its front wheel in the front, then the pedals, then the seat, and finally the rear wheel. Contrast this to the short wheel base (SWB) recumbent which has the pedals in front, then the front wheel, then the seat, and then the rear wheel. Then there is the compact long wheel base (CLWB) which has the front wheel in front, then the pedals, then the seat positioned above the rear wheel.
Since there are so many styles of recumbent bikes, it is best to test ride as many as possible before you purchase one. For this reason, it is important to have a well stocked recumbent bike shop in your area. However, quality recumbent bike shops are few and far between. For this reason, people without access to a local store will have to base their research on written reviews. Fortunately, there are many bike reviews on the Internet and also mail order vendors.
Although the fastest way to get on a recumbent bike is to purchase one ready to go, many people choose to build their own. During many points in the recumbent bike history, the only way to get a recumbent bike was to build your own. Today, people build their own for many reasons, such as to save money, or out of pure enjoyment, and other times because no one builds the exact bike they want to ride. From my own experience, I recommend buying a recumbent you can ride right away, even if you also plan to build your own. For the beginner, building can take far longer than anticipated and you really need something else to ride while the paint drys ...
Cycling is now needed for transportation more than ever. Cities are building more bike paths and bike lanes. They are providing more bike parking and safety classes. Higher gas prices, the climate change crisis, and the need to build denser people friendly cites all point to more cycling. The most efficient and comfortable cycle, the recumbent, will fill this need. In the future we will see more choice in recumbent designs. We will see recumbents designed to carry cargo and pedal cars enclosed to protect the driver from the weather. In fact, many of these recumbents have been already built. It is just a matter of time before they reach mass production. And as more and more recumbents are used for transportation, more and more will be available for recreation, and vise-a-versa. It is time for the consumer to set myths and misunderstandings aside and request recumbent bikes from their local bike shop. The best way to educate the public on recumbent bikes, is to have more and more of them on the roads, so much so that recumbent bikes are viewed as the normal way to go.
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© Copyright 2006 by Torrey Nelson Productions