What is a Recumbent Bicycle?
To begin, let’s talk about what a recumbent bike actually is. Many cyclists have encountered them either out on the roads or in their local shop but haven’t actually taken the time to get to know them.
Recumbent bikes at the most basic level are bikes which place the rider in a reclined seating position as opposed to an upright seating position consistent with everyday normal bicycles.
From here there are variations but the overall concept is the same. These bikes are often favored for their ergonomic designs which reduce the amount of stress that a rider’s own weight places on the points of contact with a bike.
On traditional bikes, a rider’s weight comes down onto three contact areas: the sit bones, the hands, and the feet. The majority of the rider’s weight comes down over the sit bones where they make contact with the saddle.
What a recumbent bicycle does is recline the rider into a seat (not a saddle), effectively spreading out the rider’s weight over a larger surface area that makes contact with the bike.
This is their main benefit which I will talk more about later, but for now let’s explore a little more about the types of designs under the umbrella of recumbent bikes.
There are two to three standard designs for recumbent depending on who you talk to. They are broken down into short wheelbase, long wheelbase, and recumbent tricycles. Technically a tricycle is not a bicycle but they are close enough already that they are worth taking a look at as well, especially if you are in the market for a recumbent of any type.
Short wheelbase (SWB)
Short wheelbase recumbents put the wheels underneath the rider with the crankset out in front of the fore wheel. Often times to make the fit more comfortable, builders have worked a telescoping feature into the tube that the crankset is on.
The advantage of this style so far as I can see is that the two wheels will often be the same size. This will mean you only have to keep one extra tube with you when head out on rides.
Long wheelbase (LWB)
Long wheelbase recumbents put the front wheel in front of the crankset. These differ from short wheelbase recumbent in that they often run a larger tire in the back and a smaller one in the front.
This is not always the case but more often than not; the reason being that if you had a large 700c in front of you it would be blocking your field of vision as you ride.
Finally, tricycles are the third style. These bikes almost always have the crankset out in front the wheels with that same telescoping feature I mentioned before.
Designs do differ though. There are some in which a singular rear wheel is connected to the drive train and the rider sits over a chassis with both front wheels out to the sides used for steering. This creates the need for two bearing assemblies (kind of like headsets on a traditional bike) to allow for each wheel to turn.
The other type of tricycle design is where the drive train is connected to differential gear and axel to which two rear wheels are connected and the rider steers with a singular wheel out in front of the crankset just like on a normal bicycle.
These designs often place the rider into a more upright seating position but still have him in a seat as opposed to a saddle.
So we essentially have four designs for recumbents and each has its own advantages or benefits. Before we talk about each one’s strengths and weaknesses let’s talk about the top 5 benefits of recumbent bikes overall.
Most evidence is anecdotal (meaning not coming from a panel of scientists and peer reviewed articles) but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valid.
There is a small but very adamant market for recumbents and you are going to find out why. Some of the reasons may have already been mentioned but I will go more in depth as we break it down.
Top 5 Benefits or What makes Recumbents Better
1 – Saddle Weight and Stress Injuries
The biggest and most important reason, the whole reason why recumbents were designed in the first place is completely ergonomic.
As we get older, our bodies can’t take the same amount of stress day in and day out doing the activities we love.
Cycling is no different. With all of rider’s weight coming down on the sit bones, hands and feet. After years of riding this isn’t an easy task for the body anymore.
A recumbent seating position undoubtedly stress different muscle groups but it will relieve the stress on the bones, tendons, joints, and ligaments as you spread your weight over a larger surface area. This is a pretty logical conclusion.
As with anything there will be an adjustment period for your body. When I rode one I noticed that a lot more stress was put on my core muscles and that I was using my hamstrings more as opposed to my frontal quad muscles and butt.
This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; it was just different from a regular bicycle and I am sure any rider would be used to it after a few rides.
The rider’s weight does not come down on any soft reproductive tissue so he won’t have to worry about any loss of blood flow or nerve numbness.
Depending on the style of handlebars the rider could be using different muscles there as well. Most of the short wheel base models use steering levers down at the rider’s sides which I admit were actually really comfortable.
I don’t imagine getting any fatigue over long rides because none of my weight was coming down on my hands.
Long wheel base models use handle bars just the same but because of the reclined position they kind of stretch back over your core as you ride and you pull against them as opposed to having your weight come down on top of them.
2 – Back, Pelvis and Legs
So reason two is also an ergonomic reason. With the rider in a reclined position lower back and pelvis issues are often remedied.
Riding a regular bike, the rider will often have to lean forward to make contact with the handlebars putting some stress on their back and pelvis. This stretching can lengthen the distance between vertebra, put stress on bones and muscles that weren’t meant to bear any load, and also create problems with nerves all throughout.
One rider complained of hot shooting pains coming down from the small of his back, through his left leg and down to his foot. He said the pain immediately went away after switching to a recumbent bike.
Over time all of these things just start hurting anyway and if you can increase the amount of time you stay active without pain then it will ultimately benefit you in the long run.
If you can bike without pain then you will ride longer and that is definitely a plus. You will see more, you will be able to cycle more consecutive days, and you will be happier because you are active and not in pain.
3 – Speed (No Not that Late 90’s Keanu Action Movie)
Believe it or not, recumbents are actually faster.
The speed record for a human powered vehicle was set on a recumbent bicycle. There are a few reasons for this, but the main one being that it had a pretty awesome aerodynamic fairing (I will explain soon).
In general, the recumbent position creates less vertical surfaces that air pushes against as you are riding. Imagine a traditional bicycle, the rider is completely vertical, creating a wall in between where air is and where it is trying to get to.
When reclined, the air and wind just glides over the top of the rider making riding even in the most dastardly head winds not that bad.
Backtracking a little bit, a fairing is large aerodynamic shield of sorts. Sometimes it is thick plastic piece that mounts to the front of a recumbent and other times it is a stretchy piece of fabric that covers the entire bike effectively smoothing out any harsh surfaces or corners that wind my push against.
This helps the rider in a few different ways. By blocking the wind it helps the rider be more aerodynamic and ride unencumbered. With less wind pushing against the rider it also helps to keep them warmer on some those cold winter rides. It can also keep moisture and debris from getting on the rider as well.
4 – Riders with Disabilities
Inclusiveness. There are more hand crank recumbent models than there are hand crank traditional bikes. If you have or know someone with a disability and they cannot operate a traditional bike then do some research into recumbents and hand cranks to see if you find something that will work.
Bringing cycling to everyone is a personal goal of mine and if it can lift the spirits or help provide activity and movement to folks who couldn’t ride otherwise I’m all for it.
5 – Safety
Safety. This reason is kind of up for debate, or at least to me. Every blog and rider I have seen and heard from like to point out the distinction between visibility and safety. So, recumbent are extremely safe, especially recumbent tricycles.
You will never slide from take a turn too fast or go over the handlebars from a spastic break hand. All in all yes these bikes are much safer when you don’t take into account some of the other concerns that come with riding.
Depending on the design, the rider is much less visible to cars and the rider has much less visibility and movement on the bike itself. The rider must rely on mirrors to look behind them or tempt traffic by scooting out beyond where a normal bike could see from.
If you plan on riding some nice country roads where cars can see you from a long distance off then recumbent are perfectly fine. I just wouldn’t recommend them for riding in town.
So we have our five benefits, but that isn’t the entire story. We should look at some of the counter arguments for recumbents.
The Counter Argument – Costs
Argument number one against recumbents is that they are very expensive. When I went in to look at some while I was doing research for this article, the cheapest recumbent was around $1,800.
Now that isn’t bad for a mid to high end road racing traditional bike but for something that you will just be cruising on for your weekend ride, I personally wouldn’t spend the money.
So that was the cheapest, I would say the average was somewhere around $2,400 and for recumbent tricycles the average was around $3,600. Now, if comfort is worth that much to you and this is the only way for you to continue riding then make that investment.
However, as with all things costs do not stop once you get the bike home. You have to factor in maintenance costs and replacement parts as well.
Because there is a very small market for recumbents and there are only a handful of manufacturers and shops that work on them, maintenance costs are often much higher than regular bikes.
Recumbents (especially tricycles) have so many more moving parts than regular bikes and this increases the potential for failure. With multiple chain tensioners, Teflon chain tubing, multiple headsets and telescoping cranksets things can get pretty complicated pretty quick.