All Rights Reserved © 2017 Thomas W. Day
One of the less sane things I wanted to do with my retirement spare time is bicycle. And by that, I mean do some serious distance. I have considered myself a bicyclist since I was about five years old. There have been years when I’ve done more miles by pedal-power than on either a motorcycle or a cage, but not lately. I hoped to change that before I’m so decrepit that I can’t do much more than bitch about the kids trespassing on my lawn, if I ever have a lawn. I have had a fascination with recumbent bicycles since I first saw them in California 40 years ago. I’ve always wanted to try one, but, like many cool things, they have mostly been priced out of my income bracket. This winter, I kept my eye on a Burley recumbent that seemed to hold it’s place in Craig’s List without any sign of movement other than a slowly deteriorating price. After I finished wrestling with, hopefully, my last ever complicated state and federal income tax submission, I took the remains of my tax “return” and hunted down the Burley recumbent owner. We came to a price agreement, as the last snow storm of the long 2014 winter started to bury the roads and the seller’s hope of convincing me to buy his bike after a test ride. A week later, the snow finally left the streets for “good” and I started learning how to ride my new toy.
By now, you’re probably wondering what the hell this has to do with motorcycling. Hang in there, it’s coming.
After 500 miles of getting adjusted to a new riding position, I learned a few new things about a lot of two-wheeled stuff. First, the limitations of riding feet-forward have always put me off on motorcycles. The same position on a bicycle provides similar sorts of restrictions. In fact, the things I couldn’t do on my first recumbent probably outnumbered what I got from this riding position by at least 10:1. Thirty years ago, I swapped my road bikes for mountain bikes and have never looked back, until now. Fat tires, a tough frame, and an upright riding position have let me go places I’d have had to walk on a normal bicycle. Many recumbent bikes are even more limited than road bikes. Curb-jumping? Nope. Dirt roads or single-track bike trails? Furgetaboutit. Quick turns, jumping curbs (in either direction), hill-climbing with anything resembling speed, fast starts, any sort of start on an uphill, or predictable transitions from one surface to another? Nope, on all counts. No more quick jumps on the bike, either. My Burley Limbo recumbent was a solid foot-and-a-half longer than my mountain bike and at least 20 pounds heavier. I didn’t just hop on that bike and go for a quick ride. Because of the length and awkwardness, getting a recumbent out of the garage takes some rearranging, strategic planning, and heavy lifting. A recumbent can be a very restrictive bicycle. Most of my friends were surprised I put up with it.
If you have to give up all of that freedom and capability what do you get out of a recumbent? Speed on flat land, downhills, or mild uphill grades. That’s it, but that is a lot. On relatively flat terrain, recumbent bikes are so superior to traditional bicycles that like all superior technology they have been banned from pretty much all forms of bicycle competition. Recumbents were first banned from UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) competition right after the first one was invented by Charles Mochet, in 1934. Oddly and symptomatically, the race organization’s “reasoning” was that a recumbent wasn’t a “bicycle.” Bureaucrats have always had problems counting to two competently. In 2005, Tim Brummer won a US national championship on one of his own Lightening Cycles’ recumbent bikes and the United States Cycling Federation outlawed them immediately afterwards. You have to love the regressive and conservative nature of racing organizations as they do everything they can to make sure race vehicles don’t actually go particularly fast or progress into useful vehicles. Sort of reminds you of our own AMA Racing disorganization or the FIM, doesn’t it? If racing bureaucrats don’t like recumbents, there has to be something useful in the design. The useful part is lowered wind resistance and some improvement in the efficiency of the pedal stroke.
The other advantage that finally pushed me over the edge of my normal buyer’s resistance is comfort. Unlike a motorcycle cruiser, most recumbents have a lawn chair of a seat. No more tiny wedgie triangle cramming its way up my butt. Instead, I have a mesh sling seat that gives me full support from the seat to my upper back. The Burley’s rear wheel is suspended, which removed any impact from road surface defects, but cost a lot in uphill pedal efficiency. I can ride my recumbent for hours without any discomfort other than getting tired. No more back or butt aches, no more numb hands. That is no small thing.
More differing characteristics than I’ve listed here are discussed in some detail are listed on this link: http://www.biketcba.org/TRICORR/compare.html. However, the stuff I have described all relate to the connection I’ve made to recumbents and cruisers. There is no real efficiency upside to cruisers, especially since their designers are inclined to build 700+ pound hippobikes with no real thought for fuel efficiency or lowered wind resistance. The only reason for picking a feet-forward, slouched-back cruiser riding position should be comfort. Since every handling quality is sacrificed for this riding position, you better need it. Like my recumbent bicycle, you are not going to turn quickly and confidently, potholes and other road defects are going to connect directly to your back since cruisers usually have laughable suspension designs, and the high bars pretty much eliminate confident braking. You’ll be limited to riding on only the best roads (freeways), being a near-stationary target for every texting and coffee slurping distracted driver on the road, and being handicapped by poor visibility and a lousy sight-line thanks to the low seat height. To me, that all seemed like too many sacrifices for a marginal improvement in comfort.
As for my recumbent bicycle experiment, in the summer of 2016 I gave up on my Burley Limbo thinking I was done with recumbents. In early April of 2017, a friend who is an experienced recumbent touring bicyclist let me ride his bike and I discovered that many of the complaints I had with the Burley were due to the suspension and the steering linkage. I’m about 500 miles into this new bike and, so far, I’m a big fan. It still sucks on uphills but way less and the improvement in steering stability, especially on gravel roads, is dramatic. However, it appears to be a given that this riding position is limited to ideal road conditions and like cruisers not that practical in mixed traffic situations.