Why Would Anyone Want To Ride A Recumbent Bicycle?

Why would anyone want to ride a recumbent bike, you ask? Borrowing from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, let me count the ways:

1. They’re fun to ride.

2. They’re really cool.

3. They’re oh so aerodynamic compared to uprights or diamond frames, (that’s how recumbent riders refer to the bikes that the rest of the world rides).

4. They’re totally made for touring; super comfortable; better view—no need to bend your neck at harsh 45-60 angles; and super easy to haul your gear. (Check out the pannier mounts and panniers in the collage below. Volae Century ES Touring bike.)

5. There’s NO PAIN, anywhere—no saddle sores, no carpal tunnel, no numb fingers, no numb genitals, no sore lower back, no shoulder spasms, no neck pain, and certainly no Shermer’s neck. There’s no pain anywhere, even after riding a 200, 300, 400, 600, or 1,200K miles.

6. Recumbents make it possible to ride for as long as you have time. Over the last 5 years I’ve ridden 10-14,00 miles each year with daily rides ranging from 30-150 miles all while working nearly full time. Racking up those kinds of miles would be tough year after year on an upright given all the stress on various body parts.

7. Not everyone has a recumbent bike and many others have never seen a recumbent before, so they’re great conversation starters (sort of like walking your dog in the city can be a great way to meet people you don’t know). Once given the invitation to talk to a stranger, you have the opportunity to encourage an un-biked person to try riding.

8. Finally, recumbents lend themselves nicely to those of you who have engineering genes and who like to build things.

Yes, but can they climb?

Indeed they can, but chances are pretty good that even the strongest bent rider will be out ridden by a strong upright rider on a hill greater than 6%. But, just wait till the downhill and the flats. The upright roadie will disappear in the bent’s rearview mirror, for certain. On the recumbent you can’t get out of the saddle to transfer the full force of your body weight into the pedals and you can’t use your upper body for leverage assist. Remember though that recumbents typically will have more liberal gearing than uprights.

Adding a recumbent to your stable?

I would hazard that most people get their first recumbent for one of two reasons. Some are bike aficionados who collect cool bikes – the same way that others collect cool guitars, cool cars, cool golf clubs, or other cool stuff. But most, and I’m one of those, find their way to recumbency because of illness or injury. They could no longer do the upright ride and they were unwilling to surrender their love of seeing the world on two-wheels.

I had been a decent marathon runner (3:45’s), squeezing training in from 9:00 p.m. to midnight when our kids were in pre-school and grade school. I also cycled (an upright), but that was mainly a commuting thing I did along with training with our oldest son who rode twice in the USCF Junior National Championships.

Then in 1990 my back gave out and I spent the next eleven years in acute and chronic pain, having multiple back surgeries and challenging rehabs, all while perched on the cusp of disability. In 2001 I told my physical therapist I wanted to try riding a recumbent bike. To this day I don’t know where that idea came from. I don’t remember ever seeing one and I certainly didn’t know anyone who had one. At that point my physical therapy goal was simply to roll over in bed. Needless to say, I was sorely (pun intended) out of shape. But my physical therapist was great. She said, “You get the bike and we’ll figure out how to get you riding.”

Within a month I had my first recumbent – a short wheel base, Vision R40 equipped with a 26” rear and a 20” front… with under seat steering.

Because of my rehabilitation issues, it took me a while to be able to ride my new bike efficiently and for long distances. But in 2002 I did the 500 mile AIDS Ride from Minneapolis to Chicago, and that was just the beginning. In 2003 I took my Vision from Chicago to Seattle to do the Seattle To Portland (STP) double century in one day.

Back home from STP I began shopping in earnest for a bike that was made to be transported, to go places and see things.

I met local legend, Tyger Johnson, at TOMRV, a local two-day ride (Tour of the Mississippi River Valley). He was riding his fully faired Lightning F-40 and the rest is history.

I sold my Vision to buy my Lighting P-38 and started racking up the miles, the destinations, and lots and lots of pure joy.

This is me someplace in Arizona on the transcon with PAC Tour riding the Lightning, sporting a 700c rear and 20” (406) front wheel. I did put a new cluster on the back, 11-34, and new chain rings up front—52-39-26—to help me scale the mountains with greater ease. The bike and I did great—lots of comments along the way, like “Hey, I thought recumbents aren’t supposed to be able to climb!” It’s all about the engine, I’d say, grinning Cheshire-like.

And the bike packs up in an airline compatible suitcase—no overage charges what so ever—just be careful to not put a lot of weighty things in the corners of the suitcase.

Last year I decided to ride solo to our family vacation in the south west corner of New York State from my home in Chicago. I put a trunk rack on the back of my Lightning P-38 and loaded some minimal gear and off I went—5 days, 500+ miles. I was smitten. By day two I was planning four solo tours for 2008—a 500 mile Arizona Tour; a 1,000 mile Tour from home to Georgia; a 300 mile Tour from Seattle to Eugene, OR; and a 1000+ mile Tour from home to Stoddard, New Hampshire. But, I would need a different bike. The Lightning is a SWB (short wheel base) and has a very narrow turning radius, plus it is impossible to put wider tires on it. The widest tire that can go on a medium Lightning frame with a front 406 wheel (there are 16” front wheel options for the Lightning) are 28s – both front and rear.

Much shopping and many conversations later… and the winner was: The Hostel Shoppe’s take-apart Volae Century ES. Its wheel base is 3 inches longer than my Lightning; it can be taken apart and packed in a traditional bike crate box; it has disc brakes, climbs well, is much more nimble than the Lightning and has a wider turning radius. And, because of its longer wheel base it can easily handle panniers off the rear rack or off the Terracycle pannier mounts under the seat.

The touring features include the following (some of which may not “shine” in this photo):

Rotor Cranks
Front fender
Disk brakes
Kick stand
Old Man Mountain trunk rack
TerraCycle Pannier Mounts
3” longer wheel base

On my solo tours this season I’ll be running a Continental ultra gatorskin 26 x 1 1/8 on the rear and a Continental SportContact 20 x 1 1/8 up front. I’ll carry a pair of Schwalbe Stelvio folding tires in my panniers, just in case.

While the Volae doesn’t pack down as small as the Lightning, and there is an oversize airline charge, it is much easier to disassemble and reassemble.

Here are some other links that you might enjoy to whet your appetite to join the ranks of the low riders:

One of the definitive website for all things bent.

Another definitive website for all bent riders.

A wealth of recumbent information.

I don’t know how this guy does it, but if you figure it out, let me know.

For you history buffs, here’s our history, recumbent style.

If you think recumbents can’t go the distance, check this one out.

And if you thought they weren’t fast…

Recumbent touring


0 thoughts on “Why Would Anyone Want To Ride A Recumbent Bicycle?

  1. Robert Gladfelter says:

    I rode across PA with 2 friends. One had a long frame bent. There were many differences in riding(yes, we beat him uphill, but he blew past us on the downhill). I hope to have one someday. There are many options. If you never rode on a recumbent, then make sure you do before choosing as your touring bike. It is different, and if you don’t allow some time to be comfortable with it, you may not enjoy your ride as much. Also, you are closer to the ground compared to an upright bike. Make sure you can be seen along the road. My friend had yellow fairings. Most people will notice just because of the fact that there are not many bents on the road.
    There are many arguments for riding uprights or bents, I say who cares. I enjoy both, just go ride and have fun.

  2. Karl says:

    I Have Pashley PDQ,I bought because my lower back aches a lot when I ride my touring bike more that 5 miles,also I have pains in the next crotch and carpal tunnel,this recumbent is very comfortable,but much slower than a normal bike,I have cycled 1200 miles on a recumbent trike and 1500 on my PDQ,so have developed my legs mussels,but if I cycle say 100 miles I’ll average 14.5 mph on a tourer,but only manage 9.5 on my recumbent,I realise the lightweight racing models are fast on the flat or around an airfield,but for general touring or commuting you’d be better off on a conventional bike,unless you’re not in a hurry,or if you have similar health problems to me.

  3. Rico says:

    Susan, any chance you could comment on trikes, and their placement in touring? I’ve been following trikes and wanted to know if they would be good on tour.


  4. Skip says:

    I’d have to diagree with bents being much slower. I live in Vancouver BC, which is a pretty hilly city, and I ride a Rans force 5 LE. I average about 25-28 km/hr. the bike is equipped with 650c continental gator skins, and weighs in at 28 pounds. It’s light and fast and I beat pretty much all uprights when I am in a rush to get to work. It’s also a pretty decent touring bike, but the 650c tires aren’t great if you are going to be on lots of gravel, they do gravel but it’s not the best. So bottom line the highracers are faster on average than most uprights, the do hills pretty well; I beat most uprights on the hills, except maybe the seasoned racer. They are great for touring, and even better if you throw some mountain bike them if you intend on hitting up alot or gravel.

  5. Bob George says:

    I inherited a Lightning Phantom from my son…and I havent figured out how to ride it yet..but that’s my goal for this year…I am 6’4″, 53yoa, maybe I need to adjust it, moving out the pedals. If you could provide any ideas for first time recumbent riders, I’d love it..I’ve always had good balance..athletic…but it is an extremely weird feeling for me, but I will figure it out! At least I figured out to put the brakes on before trying to get on it!

  6. Kurt Jensen says:

    Ms. Reed, I wonder if you’d mind sending me some photos of your Century fully loaded with bags. I see the collage at the top but would appreciate some larger shots. I’m looking for a replacement for my old Vision R-45 and keep bouncing back and forth in my mind between the Grasshopper fx and the Volae Century. Yes, I know…really different bikes. I love the clean lines of the Volae while simultaneously loving the functional complexity of the Grasshopper. And underseat racks with bags make me swoon. I’d love some photos of your ride.


    Kurt Jensen

  7. Karl says:

    Regarding recumbent s being slower,I am currently in Canada having cycled here from Boston,it took me 8 days,but if I could still ride my touring bike,I would have done it in 5 days,so in my case the recumbent is a lot slower,but a lot more comfortable.

  8. david bogie says:

    Great article! Thanks for helping to spread the word about recumbent touring. I don’t do self-contained, I’m a supported tour-only guy these days. My Easy Racers Tour Easy has 35,000 miles on her.

    david boise ID

  9. Karl says:

    Regarding what I said previously,I was wrong,at first I was slower than when on a conventional bike,but have gradually got quicker so it’s obviously a case of bearing with it until your body is conditioned for recumbent riding,now I am super quick on my recumbent and it’s way more comfortable as well.

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