Just as I was getting my bike off the carrier, only a couple of cars away, a cyclist pulls up to his car riding a bent. That’s what the cool kids call a recumbent bicycle. I’d seen one here and there, but never up close and personal. So, I started talking to the guy. Asked a few questions. He told me about a couple of websites and started plugging the benefits of laid-back biking. It was good timing. By the time I got back from my ride of less than 15 miles, I couldn’t wait to get off the bike. I love biking. It’s fun, and unless you’re trying to break speed records, even relaxing. But bikes are not ergonomic. After that ride my neck hurt, my hands and arms were tired (even with riding gloves), and no matter how soft the saddle, there’s no getting around the fact that you have most of your body weight resting on a few of square centimeters of crotch. Okay, it has been a while since I rode more than 6-7 miles, but really. My legs hardly felt a thing. My heart rate, breathing, about the same as a walk. No, the problem is sitting hunched over that takes the fun out of riding. And have you noticed how serious bikers go to great lengths to overcome the discomforts—special riding pants to pad the padded seat, special handlebars for resting on your forearms (bending more), and still they’re only marginal remedies. Sitting upright with straight handlebars relieves the wrist-hand-arm issue, but puts more weight on your seat and increases drag. I made a note to myself, if I want to do more biking, I need to learn more about recumbents.
So, I started researching recumbents, reading websites and blogs, checking user and pro reviews, and searched for a couple of nearby dealers. You might think most dealers would have a couple of bents for those weirdos bent on the off-beat. You’d be wrong. Recumbents are still rare, and the few dealers that sell them specialize. I soon found out why.
The closest dealer to me is in Brooklyn. He offers lessons too. And for good reason. Riding a bent is different. Your center of gravity is lower. Your feet are elevated and out in front. You don’t swing your leg over the seat (you could try, but it’d be ridiculous), and because you’re not in the accustomed upright position, your balance is different. It takes a bit to get used to. That’s not all. There’s a special category of recumbent—moving bottom bracket (MBB), or front wheel drive—which adds another unfamiliar handling element. Think about it. You power the same wheel that you steer—double weird.
I made an appointment with Robert (NYC Recumbent Supply, link below) for a lesson. He starts me out on a Cruzbike Quest, one of those MBB bikes. Mind you, I was prepared for a challenge. I’d read about the learning curve, and was ready for some difficulty. An hour and a half later, white knuckled, the beginnings of blisters on my hands from a death grip on the handlebars, and buzzing on adrenaline from 90 minutes of “OMG doesn’t riding a bike since you were six years old count for anything?” and I’m still teetering on the edge between control and wipeout. I felt like a beginner. But you can’t really fall on a recumbent. When you lose your balance the leg on the side you’re falling towards instinctively goes out to catch yourself. I lost my balance many times, only at low speed, never crashed. During the lesson Robert also let me try a conventional rear wheel drive bent. It was slightly easier, no “pedal steer,” but it highlighted how the bigger part of the adjustment is to the sitting back/feet-up balance. Despite being thrown for a loop by the new balance, it was immediately apparent how comfortable the ride was, how powerful the front wheel drive felt, and how easy it would be to ride for hours. I needed to dig deeper.
The next day my arms and my abs were sore from using muscles in unusual ways. However my lower body didn’t notice a thing. Most of that upper body soreness was from me fighting myself. There is more upper body involved in MBB riding, but not that much.*
The next closest recumbent dealer, Jersey Bents, is over an hour away in Hamilton Square, a northern suburb of Trenton, NJ. Made an appointment to test ride a couple of their brands. I was really interested in the Trident T.W.I.G., initials for Two Wheels Is Good. Ignore the grammar, it’s marketing. Trident specializes in recumbent tricycles. Their tag line is “3 wheels good. . . 2 wheels bad!” Cute, eh? In their case, that tag line holds true. What attracted me to the TWIG were two things. Number one, the price. It’s one of the lowest available. Number two, it’s a folding bike, a convenience most don’t need, neither do I, yet, but I consider it a good feature for storage and eliminating the need for a bike rack for transport.
As soon as I sat on the TWIG it felt awkward. Something about the seat position just wasn’t right. The built-in headrest got in the way of the helmet—and it’s not adjustable. It has those high rise butterfly (chopper) handlebars. They may look groovy, but they make steering odd. Gears and brakes are cheap and noisy, steering twitchy. I only rode it for a few minutes, that was enough. Someone didn’t do their product testing before putting it into production. Someone cut too many corners for the sake of profit margin. Someone rushed it on the market to recoup what little half-assed investment they made. Lawrence, of Jersey Bents, was conscientiously tacit about my criticisms, but neither did he disagree. Without hesitation he suggested I try the Bacchetta Giro 20. Got on the Giro—immediately comfortable and natural feeling. Started riding—immediately felt good, even easy. It was the easiest recumbent I rode, cost more than the TWIG, but $300 less than the Quest. Almost bought it on the spot, except there were still reservations. Some features of the Quest easily justify the price difference—disc brakes, 3-speed internal hub gear (instead of derailleur and multiple chainrings), shock absorbers, a unique elliptical chainring that delivers more power at the position where your leg applies the most push, and a semi-folding capability. It doesn’t fold as compact or as quickly as a true folding bike, but in a couple of minutes it folds in half by taking off the seat. Combined they’re A+ features. The Giro had none of those features, and I had concerns about heel strike on the front wheel through turns. The only trade-off? A steeper learning curve.
There was one way to settle this. I had to test ride the Quest again. Called Robert to see if he’d be willing to give me another lesson. I explained to him that I’d ridden a couple of other bikes, like the Giro, and wanted to give the Cruzbike another chance just to see if I was crazy to even consider it. That front wheel drive really threw me.
Second try didn’t prove a whole lot easier. I no longer had a death grip on the handlebars, but I still felt insecure battling the steering against the pedaling. This time, though, Robert rode the Quest 451 along with me. It’s a 20″ wheel version of the same bike. When we stopped midway through Prospect Park, we switched bikes. It seemed easier to ride—less fighting the front wheel. I rode it for a while and asked to switch back just to see if I was imagining the difference. I wasn’t. We traded again. I finished our loop around the park on the 451. (The number, by the way, is the wheel diameter in millimeters.) That was it for my decision. Although the Quest 451 is still more challenging to learn than the Giro, it has features that tipped the balance. (Cruzbike no longer sells the Quest. Newer models have replaced it.)
In less than three weeks of riding, I’m feeling relaxed. My confidence is back. In part, the learning curve on a Cruzbike is getting accustomed to using your upper body. Your arms are involved not only in steering (and balance), but also controlling the slight wiggle induced from pedaling. As you become more adapted to the physical behavior of a MBB bike, you find it becomes effortless. Soon it’s as automatic as riding an ordinary bike. Now, at the end of every ride I have no tired hands, no tired arms, no neck ache, no sore crotch—I’m ready to go right back out to ride some more. This is good. Biking is more fun than ever.
Recumbents sell in numbers barely greater than tandems, and consequently, cost more for equivalent quality. The least expensive I found was 1200 USD. Used bents are few. If more cycle shops stocked bents, I bet sales would pickup and the prices would drop. But fear of the unknown keeps dealers in their comfort zone. Higher prices make them believe the bikes will sit in the show room getting rusty. If only dealers knew what they’re missing, and how they’re depriving their customers.
Which brings up a side issue. We’ve been spoiled by lower and lower prices. I learned long ago that buying cheap, especially tools, always costs more in the long run. Cheap tools perform poorly, break sooner, and make the job you’re trying to do harder, more time consuming, less efficient, and frequently more dangerous. In the end, cheap needs to be replaced, and that means paying twice for the same tool. Why not pay once, spend a little more now, and save more time and money later? Good tools make a job go more smoothly, with less risk of injury. Good tools help to get the job done right. Buy less—buy quality. I’d rather have a few really good tools and toys than a house full of cheap.
I had a bit of a conundrum with this purchase. I didn’t want to buy a new bike if I wasn’t going to start riding more and regularly. I already owned a high quality, lightweight, road bike, but I hardly rode more than a couple times a year. If I’m not going to ride more, it makes no sense to buy a new bike. But, if I don’t get a more comfortable bike, I’m not going to ride more.
So far, I am riding more. Just the novelty? Maybe. Already there’s less resistance to pulling the bent off the rack and getting out for a ride. It’s lots more fun and getting more fun with each ride. I have left & right rearview mirrors that make keeping an eye on traffic easy. The upright head position means I can see the traffic ahead better and enjoy the scenery more. One negative is the lower sitting position. With a diamond frame you’re up high looking over cars; with a bent you’re about eye level with drivers. You can’t see over, so you have to look around. Takes some getting used to, but forces you to be more alert. All told, it makes for heightened traffic awareness and a greatly improved cycling experience. I can’t imagine going back to a diamond frame. Now, I’m ready to try a full day ride.
*Update 17-06-16 : The MBB has more benefits than I originally understood. Number one is the short chain length. It may not seem important, but the longer the chain, the more power is lost. It’s unavoidable physics. I felt that power difference immediately on the Cruzbike, and now I appreciate it even more. Although bents are demonstrably faster on level and downhill, they’re also know to be slower on the uphill. There are three reasons for this. 1) The power lost in the long chain, 2) You can’t get off the seat to use your weight/gravity to help pedal, 3) The ability to tilt the bike in the opposite direction of your down-stroke. This last reason is not one most riders are aware of doing. An experienced cyclist doesn’t even think about it. But notice what riders do when accelerating quickly or pumping hard uphill. They tilt the bike against the downstroke to help put more power into the stroke. This brings us to the Number two advantage of the MBB. Riders can use their upper body to pull on the handlebars in the opposite direction of the leg’s forward stroke to apply more power. Takes a little practice, but you can really feel it. This second advantage is big. I’ve done a few group rides. I have no problems keeping up on the inclines, and pull out ahead on the declines. And I always end a ride feeling great, not even a minor complaint. After two years with the Quest, I’m riding regularly, enjoying every minute, and appreciating the MBB so much, I wouldn’t consider, or recommend, a rear-wheel drive bent. I’ve fully adjusted to the lower riding position, no longer feeling intimidated. Drivers notice me as much as any bike on the road. There are those who argue that bents are noticed more because they stand out. I’d like to see some statistical evidence to support the claim. I can say, I do get attention. Can’t tell you how many times cars slow down to look, take pics, or yell, “Cool bike!” Even had a Harley slow down and ask, “Is that comfortable?” I’d have given him two thumbs up, but I still can’t ride handsfree, though I frequently relax with one hand on my thigh. I feel like going on a bent bike crusade. One of these days bikers are going to get clue. Wedgies bad—bents good.