July 07, 2011

Bicycling S & M


The silver and yellow contraption illustrated in the first photograph accompanying this article is, in fact, a bicycle. It is of the type known as a "recumbent,” or simply a ‘bent to some riders of such machines. This particular machine belongs to me. The manufacturer, Rans, builds these bikes and light aircraft at their factory in Hays, Kansas. It is their V-Rex LE model and is of a sub-category of recumbents known as a short-wheelbase recumbent.


The second bike, in blue and silver, is my wife’s bike, also made by Rans. It is the Stratus LE model, and is—obviously—a long wheelbase bike. Very serious cyclists will notice that both bikes have racks—bicycling heresy! We ride the bikes to work regularly and have to carry our lunch and other goodies. Besides, the racks weigh almost nothing and provide a handy place to hang a taillight; live with it. Before I go on, here are some links to sites I’ll mention in this post (and some I won’t):

(1) Go here for a New York Times article on how traditional bike seats actually damage portions of the body you don’t want to be damaged (yeow!).

(2) Go here for the Rans website.

(3) Go here for the Lightning website.

(4) Go here for the TerraCycle website. They manufacture the highest quality idlers—wheel/guides for chains, important on recumbents—in the business and have some really neat accessories too.

(5) Go here for Aerospoke Carbon Composite Wheels. Very cool.

The common bicycle, or an “upright” as polite recumbent riders call them (less polite recumbent riders refer to them as “wedgies.” I’m sure you can figure out why.), has been around for centuries, and uses pretty much the same double triangle design as early bikes. Despite their more modern appearance, recumbents have been around for at least a century.

Why don’t we see them in the Tour de France and other bicycle competitions? They’ve been banned for a century primarily because of the 10-15% aerodynamic advantage they have over uprights. There are other reasons that I’ll get into shortly.

With uprights very well developed, capable of substantial speeds, very light, high tech, capable of accepting an incredible range of accessories, and for most riders, relatively inexpensive, why recumbents? After all, even entry level recumbents will cost around $1000 when entry level uprights of the most common types typically go for no more than $400. The V-Rex and Stratus have a MSRP of $1595, and as such, are excellent buys in the recumbent world. Our bikes are substantially more expensive as we’ve chosen to add carbon fiber wheels, racks, flashing taillights, and in my case, upgraded brakes and brake levers, rear derailleur and shifters, and a handlebar and stem that better suit my body and riding style.

Recumbents are more expensive primarily because they are manufactured in far smaller numbers than uprights. There is little or no economy of scale in the recumbent industry. Most are essentially hand built, and demographically, those who buy them tend to be more experienced riders who expect greater quality in the components that make up the bike and understand that they will have to pay for them. At the same time, they will usually ride their bikes much more than the average bike owner, and expect to own them much longer with all of the attention and maintenance that entails. Most recumbents don’t gather much dust in the garage or basement.

My experience well illustrates why a growing number of people prefer recumbents. In my 30s I was a police officer and had always been an athlete. In my first civilian police job, I bought my first serious road bike from a serious shop, a Raleigh, made in England, with only six gears in the cassette (the gear cluster on the rear wheel) and two on the chainwheel (the gear cluster to which the pedals are attached). My V-Rex has 9/3 respectively, which is common for contemporary recumbents. The Raleigh was high tech in its time, and I labored mightily to develop my skills, but was always hindered by the realities of uprights.

I suffered substantial discomfort in the crotch, and on longer rides (exceeding 30 miles), real pain. I often experienced numbness in the crotch and even the penis for hours after rides, and sometimes, days. At that age the second “P’ was the favorite part of my anatomy, and having sprightly responsiveness in those portions of my anatomy was an issue of some urgency (it is only slightly less so today), but part of the esprit de corps of the road cyclist has always been the mastering and overcoming of pain, so I soldiered on, numb as I sometimes was. I also experienced pain and numbness in my hands, arms, back and neck, particularly whenever I “got on the drops,” or gripped the lowest part of handlebars to establish a more aerodynamic posture. I know that some people think such things really don’t matter, but even subtle aerodynamic advantages produce real, sometimes amazing, speed differences in bicycling. The pain was so severe that I could not long maintain that posture, and if I couldn’t, I wasn’t destined for bicycle racing glory. Watching the Tour, you’ll notice that even the world’s most elite cyclists don’t spend a great deal of time on the drops, doing it only when the greatest possible speed is necessary, such as in time-trails, and they all use aero-bars for that.

Still, I bought into the macho image of bicycling, but that didn’t stop me from looking for more comfort as well as greater speed. I eventually bought an American-made Trek with a bonded aluminum frame—very hi-tech at the time--the best components I’d ever imagined, and experimented with a variety of saddles of various configurations and with various kinds of hi-tech paddings that were then coming on the market to address the problems that virtually every serious bike rider experiences. I had gloves with gel-filled palms, shorts with gel-filled inserts, and even aero-bars (they clamp onto handlebars and extend forward, with pads for the rider’s forearms), which allow a rider to get into an aerodynamic tuck with less pain. I had 8 gears in the cassette and three in the chainwheel, so I could go faster and climb steep hills more easily, but still, all of those technical goodies only slightly delayed the onset of pain and numbness. The NYT article at the beginning of this post explains the problems in some detail, and women are affected too.

As my career took even more of my free time, I rode less and realized that I was riding less in part to avoid the pain, which lasted for days after each ride. I wasn’t getting any younger, and that played a part in recovery times.

Then one day I answered a domestic violence call in a well-to-do neighborhood at a lawyer’s home. I ended up under attack by the lawyer and much of his family, and though the bad guys ended up in jail, I ended up with a neck injury, which plagues me to this day. I’m far from an invalid, but when I turn my neck, it usually sounds and feels like a bag full of gravel. I used to think that people who complained about neck and back pain were just not tough enough. I don’t harbor that delusion any longer. As part of my rehabilitation, I tried to ride my bike and discovered that apart from all of the other issues, there was no way I could be on the aero-bars for any length of time, and forget the drops; my neck simply would not tolerate it. I had a choice: quit riding altogether or find another type of bike that would not aggravate my neck.

My first recumbent, carefully researched, and the first recumbent ever ordered (specially ordered in my case) by my local bike shop was the legendary Lightning P-38. Light, fast, and ridiculously comfortable, I discovered that once again I could ride 30 miles or more and step off the bike tired, but without pain, in fact, feeling pretty darned good. In fact, I just hopped on the bike and did a 24 mile ride on winding mountain roads the first time I rode it. Not a good idea for most people, but my local dealer had never sold or rode a recumbent, and I had never owned one, so what did I know? Like Nike used to say, I just did it.

It was not until I rode my P-38 for the first time that I realized how much of the strength of our upper bodies, arms and hands we use in riding any upright. No wonder I ended up so sore all over all those years. The key to recumbent riding is to completely relax your upper body from the waist to the tips of the fingers. Gently rest your hands on the handlebars—no death-gripping the bars--and particularly, work to completely relax the shoulders. The minute you adopt upright techniques, you’ll find yourself all over the road and once again building up tension and soreness. You’ll also discover that recumbents use slightly different muscles and use them in different ways than uprights.

The P-38 was a revelation! It accelerated effortlessly and handled like the F-16 of the bicycle world. Think about turning and you were already halfway through the turn.

In various organized centuries (100 kilometer or mile rides), I learned about recumbent realities. The best upright riders can out-accelerate you when climbing hills. They can stand on their pedals, rising off the saddle, and use their body weight to help drive them up hills. You’ll see tour riders doing that in the mountain sections. Recumbent riders can’t do that, but they can press against their seats with their lower backs, use one hand to help press down on one thigh (alternate, of course), and develop very smooth pedaling techniques. Even in my old age (57), I routinely pass a great many younger upright riders when hill climbing. On flat sections, the recumbent aerodynamic advantage---you’re always in an aero-tuck—means that I can keep up with much younger and inherently faster riders. It is on the downhills that the recumbent aero advantage becomes really obvious. Start a recumbent and upright downhill at the same time without pedaling and the recumbent will simply run away from the upright. The aero advantage is that real and obvious. If you want to amaze and annoy upright riders, really pedal when going downhill and you’ll pull away from them like a missile coming off the rails of a jet fighter. With a recumbent, you can also pedal and accelerate through corners with sharp lean angles. Do that on an upright and you’ll whack your inside pedal on the pavement and actually lever your rear wheel off the ground and it’s hamburger city.

The P-38 and V-Rex are short wheelbase bikes. The advantages of that design are great maneuverability, shorter overall length and easier portability on commonly available bike racks. Such designs usually require a smaller diameter front tire such as the proprietary 16” on the P-38 and a 20” on the V-Rex. Smaller diameter wheels are easier to accelerate, and this is quite obvious. The first few times I accelerated from a stop on the P-38 I laughed out loud out of surprise and delight.

Small front wheels also keep the chainwheel and pedals from being too high above the seat and keep the seat height—above the pavement—lower. That’s important. Some people have a problem with foot numbness if their feet are higher than their butt on a recumbent, and if the seat height is too high, it makes the bike unsellable to people with shorter legs as they tend to topple over when they have to stop unless they stand completely upright. If the bike fits, you only have to drop one foot and lean slightly to that side. Interestingly, despite having a very low seat height, the design of the P-38’s seat—which is ridiculously light and comfortable--almost requires longer lower legs.

My wife went for a long wheelbase bike because she is one of those people who experiences foot numbness, and long wheelbase recumbents tend to position their chainwheels below the bike’s seat. While she can handle the seat height of a short wheelbase bike, she prefers a lower seat height, both of which the Stratus provides. Because a long wheelbase bike must have more frame material than a short wheelbase bike, it will virtually always weigh a little more.

One long-wheelbase problem is finding a rack that will easily fit. I had to alter my rack with longer metal arms, but I have the tools to do that sort of thing. That’s not the only transport option, of course, but something to keep in mind. To fit both of our bikes on the rack, we have to remove the seats, but the Rans design makes seat removal, adjustment and replacement quick and easy, which is not true of every other make and model.

I loved my P-38 and rode it 14 years. My only real complaint was that I could not get a carbon fiber front wheel because of the odd wheel size (I prefer Aerospoke wheels). That, and the only tire I could buy was the mediocre quality Moulton model stocked by Lightning for many years. They now have a much better Bridgestone tire. I’m no longer a 6’, 155 lb, nothing but legs and lungs kind of guy like I was in high school, and when you’re heavier, you tend to need to have your spoked wheels regularly re-trued. That’s true to a somewhat lesser degree for any rider. With composite wheels, that’s not an issue. They are a bit heavier than the lightest spoked wheels, but I’m far past the age when a few grams, ounces, or even pounds, make any real difference. Yes, I am aware of weight in components, but I don’t obsess over it.

Last year, the P-38 was getting a bit long in the tooth. It was still a great bike, but before long, I was going to have to get some new components, components that would be costly on an old frame with only eight gears on the cassette (contemporary road bikes have nine). Back to research and I discovered Rans and the V-Rex. It’s a bit heavier than the P-38, but with the 20” front wheel, I could have composite wheels front and back and much greater choice in front tires. It’s easily as comfortable as the P-38, handles 98% as quickly and well, and while not quite as fast, is more than fast enough. I used to tell upright riders who inquired about the P-38 that the bike was a lot faster than I was. That’s still true of the V-Rex.

Another factor was cost. A new P-38 runs about $3200, and the V-Rex, only $1600. True, with the accessories and upgraded components I added, the V-Rex ended up costing nearly that much, but it has features I very much wanted that the P-38 lacks. Still, if I was a young speedster in need of a recumbent, the P-38 would be my first choice, or if I had money coming out my ears, I’d spring for Lightning’s carbon fiber-framed recumbent which is obscenely light and fast. I have no doubt that a great many riders would be very happy with the V-Rex as it comes from the factory. Even if you are a young speedster, Rans makes the V-Rex with a titanium frame—very light—and provides a “hot-rod” kit of replacement components that shaves even more weight from a stock V-Rex. Rans makes a wide variety of recumbents in many price points, and I find something satisfying about buying from a solid America company. Rans also has a great accessory catalog with just about anything a savvy recumbent rider might want. There are several other fine manufacturers of recumbents, which you can easily find through a web search.

Oh yes, two other reasons why bike race organizers don't want recumbents: These folks tend to be very traditional, and the international cycling organizations are dominated by the Europeans. Also, Imagine the difference in endurance and day-to-day strength and ability to perform between upright riders whose teams have to hire masseurs, compared to riders of recumbents. In no time, for at least some races--depending on terrain--everybody would be riding recumbents. That would be harmful to the upright bike industry and related interests.

Clipless pedals are pretty much a recumbent necessity, as your feet will tend to slip off the pedals without them. Remember: Your feet aren’t directly over the pedals on a recumbent with your weight bearing down on them. For most riders I recommend the Shimano (the Japanese company that leads the market in bike components) SPD mountain bike standard. With mountain bike shoes, the clips—male part-- are recessed in the soles of the shoes and allow you to walk more or less normally when off the bike. With the Look-type or other road bike pedals and shoes, you end up clomping around like a skittish pony. Check out the two types in a bike shop and you’ll see what I mean. Serious road riders wouldn’t give a second look at mountain bike gear, but a lot of them are weenies anyway (just kidding—sort of). It’s wise to have the shop loosen the pedal spring strength a bit and to practice starting and stopping, particularly at slow speeds, in a large parking lot before venturing out into the wide, wild world of traffic. That will keep you from coming to a stop, forgetting you’re clipped in, and flopping on your side. On a recumbent, you don’t have nearly as far to fall, so such things tend to be embarrassing rather than damaging. You can get straps and toe clips, but they do the same thing that clipless pedals do, just not nearly as efficiently or well. They are, however, cheaper.

Keep one other fact in mind: You’ll likely have to travel to try or buy a recumbent. Most bike shops don’t stock them and wouldn’t know where to order them even if they were inclined to order them. Even the shops that do stock recumbents tend not to have many on their showroom floor. Check the manufacturer website for their dealer locator lists and be sure to call ahead.

Recumbents are obviously more expensive than comparable (if such a thing is possible) uprights, but there is little economy in a much cheaper upright that you don’t ride for all of the reasons I’ve listed here. Being able to climb into rather than onto your bike—there is a reason that recumbent riders refer to their “cockpit”—with the knowledge that you will not be in pain during or after the ride and will be able to concentrate on a solid workout, or simply an enjoyable jaunt, is priceless.

Unless you’re really into pain in the crotch area and elsewhere, in which case I have no idea why you’re reading this website instead of one more specific to your needs, recumbents are an elegant and fun option.

Posted by MikeM at July 7, 2011 09:11 PM

"A Man For All Seasons"!

Posted by: Carol Bowers at July 8, 2011 01:50 PM

I hate to jump back to an offhanded remark, after all that lovely information-- on the other hand, you were VERY thurough, so I don't have anything to add besides that it seems like mirrors are a much more likely option on a recumbent-- but I really, really, REALLY wish the "serious" cyclists up here thought that a rack on a bike was heresy. Seattle area, spend way too much time dodging idiots in 40MPH zones with a trailer and freaking horse panners on the back of their little bicycle. (Switching between riding on the road and riding on the sidewalk depending on where the green light is, not signalling, swerving across half the lane when they are sort-of on the road, and forget about them actually being in the bike lane if there is one....)

Posted by: Foxfier at July 8, 2011 03:22 PM

Dear Foxfier:

Thanks for your comment! If you'll look closely at the left hand bar ends on both bikes, you'll notice rear view mirrors. I can't imagine riding without one, or a helmet, for that matter.

I agree on your observations. On one hand if bicyclists fully obey the rules of the road, drivers want to kill them--and often accidentally do. If they don't, the police want to ticket them. Don't get me started on red light sensors bicycles can't trigger. Still, common sense goes a very long way toward happy mutual co-existance.

Posted by: Mike Mc at July 8, 2011 04:50 PM

Nothing wrong with racks or fenders. While I rarely ride now, (not yet this year in fact), I have 4 working bikes: 2 traditional racing bikes, (an old team bike and a cu$tom bike), and two bikes with fenders, one of which has a rack. Oh, and DiNotte lights.

They all have their purposes. If I rode them.

As a matter of fact, the rack/fender bike got a lot of 'cool bike' comments from many racers when I first put it together, originally for commuting and sloppy weather riding. It is now a 20 year old bike, with just about the frame, seat and bars left from original, but still looks 'cool'. And it is my favorite bike of the 4.

There was a lot of sneering in my old racing team about tourists and how much noise they made due to the stuff they carried. Like tools, spare tubes etc.

I never understood that. Those tourists were cycling fans, why sneer at your supporters and fans? Then I realized, most of them were leftists just like Hollywood elites or Manhattan-ites, who sneer at anyone that is not them.

A big reason I no longer ride.

Posted by: tomwright at July 8, 2011 06:38 PM

Wow, come for the guns, stay for the recumbents!

I'm a 55 year old, 6'4", 205 lb man who rides an upright bike, a Giant FCR2 flat-bar road bike (with a rack! But no fenders, I draw the line there, honest). I'm not into the machismo, I have good bike trails and country roads next door to the house, and I just pedal. I'm on the road after work for 12 to 20 miles four nights out of five, and on the weekends it's 20 to 35 miles a day. In the winter it's an indoor exercise bike.

I'm serious but not obsessive about it. I like a good bike but I can't spend $4K on one. I don't have a lot of pain issues with the upright but I am getting older, and there's no way I can do the drops any more.

So I write all that to ask this: for touring the way I do, should I look at a short- or long-track recumbent? High or low? I want a sturdy bike that lets me do the cardio I need to do, and I'm not going to be road-racing anyone.

My local bike store guy is good at what he does but sniffs at recumbents, so I'm going to have to travel to find one.

Any advice appreciated!

Posted by: Steve White at July 9, 2011 09:07 PM

Dear Steve:

Glad to have you! Don't worry, more guns are on the way.

Sounds like you're like me in many ways. As you can see, I'm a Rans fan, and I've found them to be very sturdy and well built. My guess is you'd prefer a short wheelbase bike because they do turn and handle substantially more quickly than a long wheelbase bike, and the higher chainwheel is actually more aerodynamic. Check the Rans catalog online.

The V-Rex would be a good choice for you, and with waterbottle mounts, a pump and other little incidentals like that, I'm sure you could be riding one for well under $2000. Rans also makes a model called the Enduro that is several hundred cheaper and would also work well. One of the issues with short wheelbase bikes and long legged people is that you often--with any make and model--find yourself bumping your knees against the underside of your handlebars. One of the best things about Rans is their extensive catalog of accessories that will allow you to swap a variety of stems, bars, etc. to dial in exactly what you need. When they're properly adjusted, your knees will miss by about 1/2 inch--as long as you're smooth and relaxed. In fact, it's a good way to remind yourself to be smooth and relaxed.

The V-Rex does come with decent components from the factory. I upgraded to Shimano gear basically because I'd come to like the feel of it over the years with my Lightning, which comes with a very high level of components, thus the $3200 base price.

I must warn you, however, that once you ride a good recumbent, you'll probably never ride your other bikes again. You can ride recumbents on gravel, but because of the weight distribution and the inability to shift your weight, they're a no-go for any reasonably serious off-road stuff. On the road, you'll find yourself grinning like an idiot and notice people waving and smiling at you all the time.

I hope this helps. If you need more specific information, e-mail me directly via our "about the authors" section.

Posted by: Mike Mc at July 9, 2011 09:39 PM

Mike Mc: thanks for the info!

Yes, it seems a short wheelbase bike would be the way to go. I've seen the ads for Rans and for Volae, which also looks like they have a few models to try. The problem is that neither has dealers anywhere near me. In fact, of all the dealers around me (far south suburban Chicago) not a single one does recumbents. I see the occasional recumbent rider on the trails I frequent, so I'm going to have to ask them where they got their bikes!

Posted by: Steve White at July 10, 2011 08:42 PM

Dear Steve:

Glad to help. May I suggest that you try two internet methods of finding bikes? First, go to the websites of any make of bike and check their dealer list. Rans, for example, lists five in Illinois including one in Chicago proper, all with addresses, phone numbers and e-mail contact information. The other option is to google recumbents for your area, using a variety of combinations of words. That will usually turn up dealers as well.

Remember that with short wheelbase bikes, if the bars don't quite work, if the stem is curved near the top, merely turning it 180° and reinstalling the bars can often get you the space you need. If you try a V-Rex I think you'll find it has all the adjustability you need.

Posted by: Mike Mc at July 10, 2011 09:32 PM