I figured I'd talk to a few people who have recumbent bikes, those
low-slung cycles with seats like beach chairs so you pedal with your legs out in
front of you, and I could slap together the top 10 reasons to ride a "bent."
It turns out that at least five of the reasons are comfort, comfort, comfort, comfort and comfort.
On one level, it's a guy thing. "I started looking at bents because of the articles on the impact of riding (standard bike saddles) on male functioning," said Rick Rehberg of Northboro, who bought a Gardner Martin recumbent last year. "I did not want to put myself at risk."
Discomfort in his neck, shoulders and wrists was a more immediate issue for Rehberg, 55, who works in a software group at Compaq. The bent takes the pressure off all those areas.
"It's so much nicer to end a ride with nothing being particularly sore, chafed or aching," said Glen Pirro of Shrewsbury, another bent convert. Pirro, 48, an art director at TR productions in Boston, and his wife, Karen Saltus, 43, a voice professional for radio and TV productions, both got 21-speed BikeE recumbents last year.
"It's like you're on a lounge chair on wheels," said Saltus, who had found her upright bike increasingly tough on her back. "I don't miss the feeling of barreling downhill practically head first."
On his Ryan Vanguard recumbent, Jerry Campbell, 69, a retired Raytheon technician from Mendon, has a fairing, a curved windshield that adds to the comfort factor in cool or wet weather by warding off wind chill and rain. He rode the bike 21 miles round trip in last Tuesday's nor'easter, to the gym in Whitinsville for a swim. "The fairing does a really wonderful job of keeping you dry," he said.
A fairing makes the bike more aerodynamic, too, but whether recumbents are faster in general than upright bikes is a complicated question. In contests sanctioned by the International Human Powered Vehicle Association, all the land speed records are held by recumbent or semi-recumbent designs.
In a 200-meter, flying-start time trial on a track in California, with a full-body fairing on a Gardner Martin Gold Rush similar to Rehberg's, "Fast Freddie" Markham set a world record of 65.48 mph, in 1983. Chris Huber broke the record in 1992, with a speed of 68.72 mph.
But for everyday cycling speeds, much depends on the rider's training and experience and riding style, the bike's weight and design, and, of course, the terrain.
Typically 5 to 10 pounds heavier than upright bikes, recumbents are sluggish when climbing hills. And you can't stand up to change your center of gravity and use different muscles. "You have to realize that you must sit and spin," says Pirro.
Spinning, meaning pedaling with a high cadence (revolutions per minute) in an easy gear, is kinder to the knees on any type of bike. Rehberg was recovering from a knee injury last year, and "riding the bent has been part of the cure," he said.
There are more than 130 recumbent models on the market, including tricycles and tandems and even knobby-tired bikes with suspension for off-road riding. Specs vary widely; after all, these bikes especially appeal to one's sense of individuality. Buyer's guides and answers to frequently asked questions are available online at http://www.recumbents.com/ and from the bimonthly Recumbent Cyclist News (253-630-7200).
The main choices are long wheelbase (65 to 71 inches), short wheelbase (33 to 45 inches), and compact (46 to 64 inches). Long bents can go fastest on flat or downhill terrain, but low-speed maneuvering on busy streets or narrow bike paths can be tricky. A short-wheelbase bike has quick handling and is easy to transport or stow. A compact, such as BikeE, one of the most popular, is easiest for bent beginners, and perhaps more visible because the seat is higher.
Another choice is the type of steering: under the seat, so your arms hang straight down from your shoulders, completely relaxed; or above the seat, with chopper-style handlebars like a motorcycle.
Trek's introduction of a recumbent model last year is helping to boost recumbent sales, which rose from around 10,000 nationwide in 1998 to about 30,000 last year, according to industry observer John Schubert.
Bents make up an estimated 2 percent of high-end bicycle sales by specialty dealers, said Rick Comar, marketing director for ATP-Vision Recumbents, and are the fastest-growing segment of the market. Bob Froom of 21st Century Bikes in Norwell said bents have about the same overall market share as tandems, roughly 1 percent.
Bob Bryant, whose magazine Recumbent Cyclist News sells about 5,000 copies, estimated there are 100,000 recumbent riders in the country. "The last few years have seen real rapid growth as baby boomers age and look for SUV comfort in their bicycles," Bryant said.
In addition to comfort, recumbents may offer safety advantages. "Safety concerns are no greater than upright bikes," Pirro said, adding, "Recumbent snobs -- who, me? -- call them 'upwrongs.' "
There isn't far to fall from a recumbent seat, which could be anywhere from 6 to 26 inches off the ground. In a spill, a bent rider is likely to land on the hip or leg, whereas an upright rider could go over the handlebars and usually takes the impact on the head or shoulder.
As for traffic safety, Pirro said, "Our line of sight is at auto drivers' eye level."
"Same level as a dog, too," noted Warren Goodnow, 62, a Mendon barber who bought a Tour Easy recumbent last year. He carries Halt! spray just in case.
Rehberg has a bright orange flag to make his bike easier to see in traffic. But many bent riders say any visibility disadvantage from being low to the ground is outweighed by the attention-getting factor. Because they look unusual, recumbents get noticed.
"Kids shout out 'Cool bike!' and people are curious," Rehberg said, so bents are not for shy people. In Pirro's words, "Besides using different muscles, your social skills will be exercised."