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More On The Bike

I wrote my previous bike page after I'd ridden about 200 miles (300 km). Now I've ridden well over 2000 miles (3200 km), so I think I've learned a bit and I'll expand on what I had to say before.

Here's a quote from my journal entry of January 22, 2001: "I Love This Bike. It's a beautiful piece of machinery."  I haven't had anything happen to change that opinion, and I'm now firmly in the recumbent camp. I doubt that I'll ever do any serious cycling on a diamond frame again. The only conceivable situation that would get me back to a diamond frame bike would be off-road cycling. A recumbent is definitely not good in that situation, but on anything that passes for a half-assed road, they work great.

Update: It's now January 22, 2002 and I've ridden the bike 10,000 km (6,250 miles).  I'm still in love with it.  I also road off-road in Russia and found the bike to work quite well in rougher conditions than I would have expected it to.  Anything short of hard-core mountain bike terrain is fine.

First off, I can assure you that one does get used to riding the bike. After a few weeks, I got to where riding is as reflexive as it was on my diamond frame. When I need to steer somewhere, I just glance at where I want to go and I'm there. This is particularly good on bad roads. The short wheelbase makes the bike turn very quickly at low speeds. It seems much quicker on turning than my mountain bike was, and now that my reflexes are up to par, I can dodge around potholes as well or better than I could on my mountain bike. One also gets so the balancing and normal riding of the bike doesn't feel weird. Oddly enough, I was in a situation where I had to ride a mountain bike for a couple of blocks today, and I found that to be a bit strange.

Braking on my bike seems to be much better than on my mountain bike. I've had a couple of panic stops, with the most intimidating one being from 45 kph (28 MPH), in a small town in central Vietnam where I was going much faster than anyone with any brains would have been. In all cases, I didn't truly panic, and applied the proper amount of braking, but I was in a definite hurry to stop. The bike slowed down and stopped in a very controlled manner, and I in a much shorter distance than a diamond frame would have. There was no real danger of going over the handlebars, and I felt like if I was in serious trouble I could have laid the bike down much more readily than any other kind of bike. All in all, I'd have to rate the braking very good.

The comfort I mentioned works just as well in practice as it does in theory. I routinely ride my bike for five to eight hours at a stretch, and at the end of that I feel great. I can remember similar rides on my mountain bike that left me feeling like someone else was riding the bike, and dragging me along behind on a rope. Now, a real biker might point out that all I would have to do is keep riding a diamond frame, and I'd toughen up and quit being such a crybaby. That's true, but I still believe that anything that hurts less when you're not toughened up is a good thing, because it's doing less damage to your body even when you are toughened up, and besides that why be in pain when you don't have to.

Another thing that I didn't anticipate is that this design seems to handle a light rain better (in heavy rain, you're going to get soaked no matter what you do). My legs and feet are up out of the splash from the wheels, so they stay much dryer than they would on a diamond frame. I also have fenders and a seat protecting my back, so I don't get as wet back there either. I rode for several days in light rain with no protection other than a Gortex jacket that goes down to about mid thigh. At the end of the ride, I was essentially dry except for being sweaty. The fun part is that in the rain, I routinely ride through puddles just for fun. The water misses me, so there's no penalty and it's kind of fun to do it when the other riders can't without getting soaked. I guess you never quite take the boy out of the man after all.

I'm not sure exactly how fast the bike is. As theory predicts, I'm faster than the diamond frames in some types of riding, and slower in other types. Climbing steep hills, I'm definitely slower but I can't really say by how much. All of the riders I was with are stronger riders than I am, so I have no idea how much of my slower speed is due to my conditioning, and how much is due to the bike. It's certain that on steep climbing at least some of it is the bike, but I tend to think most of it is conditioning. On the ride from Nha Trang to Dalat, which consisted of 110 km (72 Miles) with a climb of 1,400 M (4,800 Feet) the other riders beat me by well over an hour. On smooth and level roads, or gently rolling hills the bent is very fast. I literally fly along, and the other riders can't keep up despite their better conditioning. I've been riding on good roads in Australia for a few days, and find I can manage a pretty good clip for long periods of time, despite the fact that I'm carrying along my fat ass and over 50 pounds (22 kg) of gear. On downhills, I could go faster to make up for the slower up hills, but that presumes that I have the nerve for it. It turns out that the other riders had a lot more nerve than I do, so they beat me out on the steep down hills as well. We end up with all the wild diamond frame riders bent over the handlebars to get good aerodynamics and go faster, and I'm behind them using my brakes to slow myself down to the speed I'm comfortable with. For most of the trip, I was either with the pack or a bit behind, despite not being in as good of condition as the rest of the riders. One other thing to consider on the subject of speed is that it can be measured in km/hour or km/day. I'm absolutely certain I can ride this bike comfortably for at least an hour longer than I could a diamond frame, so in the km/day measure it's definitely faster, at least as far as real world speed for a touring bike is concerned.

Update: I've done a tougher ride than the Dalat-Nha Trang ride in South Africa.  The distance and elevation gain were about the same but I was carrying 22 kg (50 pounds) of weight I didn't have in Vietnam, did it in several hours less time, and didn't need Etienne to give me oxygen at the end.  Climbing now seems to me to be about the same speed as a diamond frame would be, or if there is a difference it isn't much.

Everything I said above applies to any SWB recumbent, and most of it applies to any recumbent. I'd also like to say that I'm very happy with the Street Machine (or "Strange Machine" as Jacques has dubbed it). Any bike is going to be a compromise, and I think this particular bike is a very good compromise for the kind of touring I'm doing.   It's a bit heavier than I'd like it to be, but the combination of the suspension, braking and other factors makes it a very good touring bike. At first, I thought an SWB recumbent wouldn't be very good for touring, but I've changed my mind on that score and would recommend it without reservation. When most people think of touring, they think of the long distances you're traveling between cities, but forget that riding around in the cities is one of the funnest parts of the trip. I think a LWB recumbent would be great between the cities, but you'd hate it any time you had to ride anywhere in urban areas.

One factor that bears mentioning is that recumbents attract a lot of attention. I had no idea how much before I started. It attracts a lot of attention even in France and Australia where I don't otherwise stand out, and an inordinate amount of attention in a country like Vietnam where even multi-speed bikes are rare and big bearded white guys stand out quite a bit anyway. The attention can be good or bad, although for the most part I think it's good. It's an excellent way to interact with people that you'd otherwise miss out on. I've literally spent days here in Vietnam hanging out with people that originally started talking to me because of the bike. It's also a great way to get help with directions or breakdowns. All  I have to do to be surrounded is stop somewhere that has some population. In fact, the population even seems to be optional. I got a flat tire on highway 1 about 10 km from the nearest town, in a place consisting of nothing but rice fields. By the time I got the tube out (about 3 minutes), I had seven people standing around watching the operation. There were over a dozen by the time I rode off. I've also heard of cases where people got free lodging by just stopping in a town and talking to people that were interested in the bike.

Update: This factor remains true.  I'd have to say that 80% of all people I interact with on this trip are talking to me because of the bike.   I've also gotten free lodging because of the bike, but suspect I would have gotten it with any touring bike.

At first the attention is a bit overwhelming, but after a while you get used to it (maybe even addicted). Most of the time I like it. I occasionally wish I had a cloaking device that would make me look like a local on an ordinary bike so I could just ride in peace, but not all often. The reactions in Vietnam take many forms. The most difficult thing to get used to at first was that lots of people outright laugh their asses off at me. Sometimes this involves pointing their fingers and rolling on the ground. In the U.S. this would be a sign of ridicule, so I was a bit put off by it at first. I eventually found out that the Vietnamese people are just very exuberant, and this is their way of showing pleasure and approval, not ridicule. If they're laughing at you, it's a good thing. Think of it as a smile escalated to the next level, or like someone looking at you and saying "Whoa, Dude!!", and you're on the right track. Once I understood that, I began to enjoy the attention. Riding for one typical block in Saigon typically involves at least two people either on the sidewalk or another vehicle either laughing at me, saying something about the bike ("Number 1" is popular, or "Very Good"), or just giving me a thumbs up. It's not at all uncommon for me to actually speak a few words to 50-100 people in a single ride.

The only consistently annoying thing that happens is men will come up on moto-bikes, and shadow me. They'll either ride alongside me and stare at the bike, or they may clap me on the shoulder (which is a bit disconcerting at 30 kph), or they'll try to get me to crank it up to see how fast the bike will go (40 kph - 25 mph on level ground), apparently not realizing they're the 10th person that day to do so. I'll also occasionally get a whole pack of them riding on either side of me. This is OK for a couple of minutes, and I don't mind someone satisfying their curiosity in a reasonable way. However, this gets very tiresome after a while, since I was previously riding along in peace minding my own business, and now I have to listen to someone else's noisy moto-bike, and or dodge around a bunch of people that are riding too close on either side of me to be safe. Some have been so persistent, I've had to stop abruptly or yell at them just to get rid of them. Another common thing is for someone on the sidewalk to fake jumping out at me abruptly or throwing something at me to see if I'll flinch (I don't). These annoying behaviors don't happen all that often, but I'd say I've been seriously annoyed on average about once or twice per week during the trip (both in Vietnam and Australia), although there are usually a few days that are problem free, and then a day that seems to be loaded with jerks.

Note the use of the word men in the above paragraph. That's deliberate. All the phenomena described are absolutely without exception 100% male. Nothing like this has ever happened with a woman in any country I've cycled in even once. In fact, after due reflection, I've found that most of the really annoying things I encounter while traveling are perpetuated by men, and that's not just because I'll tolerate more from women. That probably says something.

All in all, I'm very glad to be riding a bent, and don't plan to ever go back. I enjoy the attention, I enjoy the bike, I don't beat my body up every day, and I meet a lot more people than I would otherwise. I think I'd meet quite a few people with a diamond frame, but it just wouldn't be the same.