Everything You Wanted To Know About Recumbents, and Often Asked
When I’m out on a bike ride, I often get asked about my choice and experience of a recumbent bicycle. I’ve now been riding for 15 years, and I’m on my second 'bent. Here’s what I’ve learned.
A few terms: if the front wheel on a 'bent is out front, it’s called a “long wheel base” or LWB. If the wheels are set back with the pedals extending on a boom beyond the wheel, that’s a “short wheel base” or SWB.
Steering on recumbents can take two forms: a traditional, in-front of the rider steering system (“over seat steering”, or OSS), or the steering can be underneath the seat (“under seat steering”, or USS).
I prefer SWB USS 'bents. I’m not saying that’s best, or right or wrong; preferences vary and that’s allowed—just that there’s a wider variety of setups than traditional bikes, where it’s all variations on the common diamond frame.
The most obvious benefit of a recumbent is that it’s not literally a pain in the arse. A chair-like seat is a lot more comfortable than the tailbone-bruising standard bike seat. Comfort was my original reason for interest, catalyzed by my road bike having been stolen.
In practice, the comforts aren’t confined to the butt.
On a regular bike, you’re leaning onto the handle bars, putting some of your weight onto your hands. As you roll, road vibrations—and the shock of any bumps or potholes—come right up through your wrists. Coupled with keyboarding—I’m a software developer—my wrists complained in the summer when I was riding and coding heavily. With under seat steering, my arms are in a more neutral, comfortable position; I’m not pressuring my wrists with my weight, and road shocks aren’t hammering up through my hands—a big improvement. But even with over seat steering, the handlebar pivots where it attaches to the headset (the mount in the frame for the front wheel), so you’re holding the steering without leaning on it, with less road vibration transferred up.
And then there’s the back and neck. Road bikes often invite the rider to hunch over while leaning on the handlebars, necessitating craning the neck back to see what’s coming. The 'bent offers an upright or slightly reclining position, so you’re naturally looking forward. Some seats even have a curvature that provides lumbar support.
As a side effect of sitting upright, I’m invited to look around while I’m riding. I see more of the world when I’m riding on a 'bent.
People often think recumbents will be all custom parts. Not true: they use the same shifters, derailleurs, brakes, chains, wheels, bearings, and cables used by other bicycles. The frame and seat are completely different, but all the components—except for a few idler pulleys, chain tubes and steering linkages—are off-the-shelf bike parts.
The price to entry for a recumbent is much higher than for traditional bikes. But, what do you get for your money? There is no equivalent of the $99 Huffy or Supercycle 2000 in the recumbent world. Anyone buying a recumbent is serious about their cycling. They are probably all somewhat higher priced than equivalent quality diamond-frame bikes, but you need to compare component quality to accurately evaluate the value of a 'bent.
I have a 5-rank scale for component quality: economy, basic, quality, specialty, and high-end. Economy is the junk on the $99 special. Basic is what you find on a few hundred dollar bike; it's not bad stuff, just not great. Quality is what's found in the 4-digit prices. Specialty and high-end parts are for serious cyclists and racers.
In 2002, my Haluzak Horizon ran $2,000 and had all quality components–shifters, brakes, deraileurs, hubs.
In 2017, my Linear Roadster ran around $3,000 and had a mix of components. The brakes were high-end. The shifters and hubs were quality, but the drivetrain was all basic kit.
If 'bents aren’t literally a pain in the arse, they are figuratively. Some recumbents are short enough to fit on a car’s bike rack, but others won’t. And while you might be able to put one recumbent on a rack by itself, but you’re going to need to remove the seat to fit a second bike.
Some short wheel base recumbents fit on front-end bike racks of public transportation buses. My Haluzak did with no issue; my Linear requires releasing the frame lock and slightly bending the frame. When loading the bike, put one wheel in the wheel slot, extend the support brace and hold it up while inserting the second wheel, then allow the brace to retract over the bike’s frame (instead of over the wheel, as on a diamond frame).
Some recumbents fold to shorten their length, which can make transportation easier, but you may need to remove seats and/or wheels before folding.
Lights and add-ons
USS recumbent steering is below the seat, so they lack a place to put lights and speedometers. Dealers offer various brackets that mount on the front, but expect to have to get creative:
- My bell is on the steering, near the left handle.
- Instead of using Linear’s T-shaped bracket, I reused my Haluzak’s double-ring jig that fits inline with the bike better. In the picture (see below), the light (black/gray) is mounted on the upper ring, the speedometer (red) on the lower ring.
- I strap cue sheets over the light with a paper clamp and a scrunchy. In the picture, one dangles off the back half of the light.
- A can of Halt! dog defense spray is mounted on the main beam near the front sprocket, where there are some mounting holes for a water bottle. It is held by stretchy strap, though I plan to add some foam pieces to help hold the can straight and eliminate rattling.
- My rear marker lights at one point clamped to the seat frame, but now just hang by their belt clip over the seat mesh.
OSS recumbents have steering in front of the rider, thus offering a place for bells and speedometers. A front-end mounting bracket may be a better choice for lights so they stay pointed at the road.
If you tour, you’ll need to carry a lot of gear. On traditional bikes, touring cyclists usually have both front and rear panniers, plus stuff strapped atop the rear rack.
On my recumbents, I have a rear rack that can hold panniers as usual. My tent and rolled-up air mattress sit on the rack bracket, against the seat stays, and get bungeed into place. Next, a foam garden kneeling pad sits on the rack to keep my backpack from resting directly on the pannier’s clips. (It’s also a seat cushion at picnic tables and a pillow or knee bolster at night.) A backpack sits on kneeler, the arm straps over and around the seat so the pack hugs the tent/mattress/seat. Additional bungees around the pack secure it and stabilize it laterally.
I have found this to be adequate for my touring needs.