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My Bike

Wade%20On%20Bike%20In%20VietnamI ride a Recumbent Bicycle. This is a far superior bicycle design that's a joy to ride.  It does generate a lot of attention though.  In France, I got everything from a lot of stares to a couple of guys flagging me down to ask where to buy one. In Vietnam, it generates roughly the same amount of attention as I would get riding a conventional bike upside down, wearing orange day-glow spandex togs and a propeller beanie while dragging a mariachi band behind me. It definitely gets noticed, which can be a good or bad thing, depending on your attitude.

The bike is a recumbent, which means the operator sits in a reclining position on a big seat, instead of the dinky little seat on conventional bikes. Picture a guy riding down the road sitting in a lazy boy, and you're on the right track. Recumbent riders are a fairly small group, and have a vocabulary of their own. Recumbents are called Bents. Conventional bikes are known as Diamond Frame bikes.

As of this writing, I have over 1,000 miles on my bike (1,600 km), and I'm very pleased with it and quite convinced I made the right choice.

Update: I did 10,000 km (6,250 miles) in my first year on the bike and am not only convinced that I love recumbents, but also that I have the best touring bike made in the world.

Recumbent Types

Recumbent bikes come in four flavors:
Long Wheelbase, or LWB are as the name implies very long. The operator sits in between the tires. These are good for touring because they're easy to balance, very smooth and very fast, but they're hard to transport and don't handle well in streets. Turning around on them is a real challenge. Also, their weight distribution isn't very good. They're lighter on the front wheel and heavier on the back wheel than a diamond frame.
Compact Wheelbase, or CLWB bents are shorter than the LWB, but still pretty long. The wheels are smaller, and the operator sits partially above the back tire instead of down in front of it. These bikes are easier to learn to ride, and they're better at maneuvering in cities and other tight spaces, but they don't make great touring bikes. The center of gravity is higher, wind resistance is higher and the smaller wheels make the ride rougher.
Short Wheelbase or SWB bents are what I have. They typically have a big back tire, and a small front tire tucked under the driver's knees, but not always. Some have two small tires, which puts the rider very low to reduce wind resistance, but makes the ride rougher. An adjustable boom sticks out of the front to hold the pedals. These handle better in tight spaces than LWBs or CLWBs, and make reasonably good touring bikes as well. All things being equal, an SWB will have a rougher ride than a LWB because the front wheel is closer to the rider so the rider moves up vertically more when the bike hits a bump. Also the shorter frame between the wheels doesn't flex as much when hitting bumps.
  Recumbent trikes have three wheels. These give you an even lower center of gravity than any recumbent bike, and a more stable platform so you don't have to spend as much brain energy balancing. They would make great touring machines, but they're fairly heavy and hard to transport. This is what I was going to go with right up until the last day before I left, when I changed my mind for various reasons.

Wade and Street Machine in Hanoi's Lenin Park

A virtually desrted street in Hanoi

The bike I have is a Street Machine Gran Tourismo.

You can find out way more info about the bike than you're likely to want at the Manufacturers Information Page.

Why Recumbent?

People always ask "Why ride a funny looking bike like that?". Sometimes it's phrased a bit differently, but that's the general question. There are a few reasons:

  1. They're safer: On diamond frame bikes, most accidents involve the rider going over the handlebars head-first. Most bent accidents involve the rider laying the bike down and falling on a hip, or going over the bars feet first. You're also closer to the ground so you have less distance to fall. I've already had a half dozen panic stops on my bent, with no problems whatsoever.  Bents also handle better and stop better, so the chances of having an accident are less in the first place.
  2. They handle better and stop better: Handling is basically an equation involving tire surface area, weight and center of gravity. Bent riders have a center of gravity much lower than diamond frame riders, and with the weight better distributed so they corner much better. This results in blazingly fast downhills with very tight cornering  (if you have the nerve), and quick maneuvering in city traffic. Even if you don't go faster, the better handling makes any corner at any speed safer.  On a diamond frame bike, braking is limited by the high center of gravity.  Bents stop in a significantly shorter distance, and with better control.
  3. They're more comfortable: If you take a look at a diamond frame bike, you're bent over, putting all your weight on either a tiny little seat or your arms, shoulders and wrists. To add insult to injury, you're either bending your head and neck up at an awkward angle or staring at pavement all day. Riding one all day is an endurance challenge that most people just aren't up to. In a bent, you sit on a comfortable seat, with your legs out in front of you, your arms relaxed at your sides and your head at a good angle. You can actually watch the scenery go by. There's no weight at all on your shoulders or wrists, and no neck strain. After six hours on my bent, I feel completely comfortable and have no problem walking a few km to go for dinner. After six hours on my mountain bike, I feel like I'm going to die.
  4. They're faster: Every single Human Powered Speed Record in the world is held by a recumbent bike. There are no exceptions. By this, I mean every short distance record, every long distance record, and every endurance record. This is primarily because of aerodynamics. On a diamond frame bike, over 70% of your total energy at high speeds goes into overcoming wind resistance. Recumbents reduce this through a better aerodynamic profile, so more energy can go into actually moving you along. The only reason diamond frame bikes have any speed records at all is because recumbents are banned from bicycle racing by a few narrow minded and politicized individuals in the U.C.I., which is the governing body that sanctions international bicycle racing. You can learn more in this very good article: The History of the Recumbent Bicycle: Winning Forbidden.
  5. They're cool: This could be a disadvantage if you want to slide through life without being noticed. Everyone notices a bent going by. Until I rode one in Vietnam, I had no idea how much attention one could generate.

So with all that going for them, why aren't there more of them? 

There are a few reasons. They do have a few disadvantages:

  1. They're heavier. My bike weighs 13kg (30 pounds). That's about 50% heavier than a road bike in the same price range. There are a few lighter recumbents available now, but they are a pretty new phenomena and not well proven yet. I didn't pick one, because they don't appear to be tough enough for touring. No matter how you slice it, a bent will always be heavier than a diamond frame bike. They always have more of whatever material they're built out of, and the seat is generally going to be heavier.
  2. They may not climb well. This is actually a disputed fact, but it's at least partially true. The main reason is because they're heavier than a diamond frame, but it's also influenced by the fact that on a diamond frame you can occasionally stand up on the pedals to recruit a different muscle group for power for a few minutes. On a recumbent, there's only one riding position and you use the same set of muscles all the time. Note however, that bents are much faster on down hills and flat ground, so they're generally as fast or faster than a diamond frame when you time the whole ride.
  3. They're not very common, primarily because they are banned from racing. Trek is the only big name manufacturer that makes one so they aren't well known. Also, they aren't mass manufactured, so they tend to be more expensive than diamond frames. The biggest bent manufacturers in the world probably make fewer bikes in a year than Trek makes in a day. My bike cost about US$2,000. It has reasonably good components, but certainly not top of the line. For the same amount of money, you could get a carbon frame Trek road bike, with top of the line Shimano components that's virtually identical to the bike Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France with. Now before you panic, there are lots of less expensive recumbents out there. Mine is one of the more expensive ones, and some are available for less than US $500. And for those of you not in the U.S., check out the manufacturers web pages. Buying one locally is probably much less than the equivalent amount of U.S. dollars converted to your local currency.
  4. You can't do as many tricks with them. You're in no position to lift the front wheel no matter what you do, so you can't hop curbs or do anything tricky like that. They're also harder to get started than a diamond frame, so off road riding is difficult. You can have trouble with curbs or any kind of rough terrain. On a diamond frame bike, you can shift your weight up to remove load from the front wheel, or both wheels when conditions demand it. On a bent, you can't do that, so you have to take what you get. With my fully suspended bent, I don't have any problems riding off a 6 inch (15 cm) curb, but more than that gets a bit squirrelly (trust me on this one). A similarly suspended diamond frame can easily jump off a curb three or four times that height (if you have the nerve).
  5. They're funny or weird looking. This is the alternate interpretation for #5 above.

Riding The Bent

Riding a bent is a new experience, but not as new as you would think. Whatever you do, don't base your opinions on the first hour's ride. It takes a bit of time to get it, but not as long as you would think. I've put lots of people on my bike, and most can ride reasonably well within five minutes.  Bents are inherently more stable than diamond frame bikes, and handle better as well. However, the typical rider has 20-30 years of experience on a diamond frame, and none on a bent. Riding any bike involves a complex set of weight shifts and reflexes. You've been doing it so long you aren't aware of it. When you get on a bent, all of these are slightly off, so a bent seems to be very squirrelly at first. When I first got on mine, I needed help to get the first 10 meters. It felt just like a little kid the first time they shove off on a bike, and start wobbling around. It feels like everything you do is wrong, and you can't escape the feeling that you'll crash and burn any minute. Riding a bent with under-seat steering also requires you to relax your upper body and let the steering flow. You do this naturally on a diamond frame (well, not naturally but you've been doing it for a while). On the bent, when you get in trouble you tend to tense up, and this makes it squirrelly just when you need it to be stable.

After riding it for a couple hours, I got so I wasn't worried about ordinary riding situations, and even got so I could ride off a curb without any worries. Naturally, this made me cocky, so I started riding it in Hanoi Traffic. If you haven't seen Hanoi Traffic, take my word for it... You have no idea. It's the most intense urban riding I've ever been exposed to. Lane markers are merely suggestions, and crossing intersections is a lot like a high stakes game of Chicken. You will routinely have 10-50 bikes, scooters, motorcycles, cars and various other vehicles going through any intersection in perpendicular directions at the same time. You go into the intersection, and just plan on making a hole. You either dodge and weave around whoever is in front of you, or expect that they will do it for you. I rode through this traffic, and some very hairy intersections with less than 100 km (65 miles) of experience on the bent, so it can't be all that hard.

After a while, you get used to the bike and don't have to think about it any more. It becomes reflexive just like riding a diamond frame. You get so you just see the place you want to go, and go there. It takes a while to figure out what the limits are, and so some things still worry you until you get used to them. For example, my SWB bike can easily do a U-turn in a single lane, but I'm still reluctant to do so and won't do it unless I have lots of room to work. I also haven't figured out how fast I can go around corners on downhills. I hope to learn over time, hopefully using something other than the "go faster until you crash and then slow down a bit method."

Once you're used to the bent's geometry, you have to build up your Recumbent Muscles. Bents place your legs in a different position, so gravity acts differently on them, and it takes some time to get used to the new position and pedal as smoothly as you can in a vertical position. Even if you are a relatively fit rider you'll have some training to do. I have a relatively simple approach to training. It consists of two steps:

  1. Get on bike
  2. Ride a long way
  3. Go to step 1

Who Should Ride One

Naturally I think that everyone should ride these. However, there are a few people that should be especially interested:

  1. If you liked biking at one time, but gave up because it beat you to death, then recumbents are for you. They are much more comfortable than diamond frames, and could be just the trick to get you back into it. The bicycle is the single most efficient transportation device ever invented, bar none. Anything that gets more people out of cars and onto bikes is a good thing. Every km you ride on a bike saves the environment just a little bit, and extends both your life and health by a bit.
  2. If you're touring like me, they make a lot of sense. No sense killing yourself just to ride a few thousand miles on a bike.
  3. If you have any injuries preventing you from riding, definitely check out bents. They're orders of magnitude easier on your shoulders, wrists, neck, back, buttocks and ahh... those other parts that get injured or sore. There are also several types of recumbent trikes that are powered by the arms, or by both arms and legs for people with leg injuries that want to go faster.
  4. If you just want to go fast. That was the original motivation for me getting one. I hate it when people pass me on a bike. 

If you think you might like one, but are afraid of just looking too weird or having to deal with too much attention, my advice is to bite the bullet and do it. Trust me on this one.

More Info

Recumbent bikes and other human powered vehicles are covered extensively by the International Human Powered Vehicle Association. This organization supports human powered vehicles in all sorts of ways. They hold officially sanctioned races for bikes, human powered boats, submarines and other things. Their races don't make any artificial rules about what kind of machine you can use, except that they don't allow any use of wind power, or stored energy of any kind. Other than that, races are fair game. They hold races for both faired and unfaired vehicles. People can and do participate in IHPV races with diamond frames, but they generally lose. Their web site is an excellent reference if you want to learn more about recumbents.

There are also several other good sources of information. The best way to get started is to look at the IHPV's Recumbent FAQ. You'll see I obviously lifted the graphics from them (thanks guys). They have some more info, as well as listings for a recumbent magazine and other links. The IHPV also has a reference page listing every recumbent manufacturer in the world, so it's the best place to start researching.

If you live in the Bay Area or anywhere in Central California, I highly recommend the dealer I bought my bent from. It's Zach Kaplan Recumbents in Alameda, and you can reach Zach Kaplan himself by email at, or by phone at (510) 522-2368. Zack's a small one-man shop, and he's very knowledgeable and experienced with bents. He has a dozen or so assorted bents in his shop at any time, and he has enough knowledge and experience to point you to the right machine for the riding you want to do.

Another good way to learn about them is to talk to a recumbent rider. Most bent riders turn into Raving Bent Fanatics in short order, and have no problem talking the subject to death.