Arrive, September/October, 2002

Get Bent

Lying Down On The (Biking) Job

They look like lawn chairs on wheels. They're low-built, with a small front wheel and a slighly larger rear, one, a reclining seat and handle bars on a high stem post. They're called recumbent bikes - bents for short - and they're coming to a town near you.

Or maybe they're already there. Now that recumbents are factory-produced, they're showing up on more and more bike paths and urban streets; they're particularly popular with middle-aged males. Recumbents are as comfortable as they look. No more sore backs and necks from bending over your bike's handlebars and trying to keep your eyes on the road. No more sore wrists, because on a recumbent your rear takes all the weight. They're easier to steer in a headwind. Recumbents are also more visible to motorists, since they stick out like sore thumbs in bike traffic. What about speed? They're at least as fast a regular bicycle, so take note, Lance Armstrong.

The two most popular recumbents made today are Easy Racers and BikeE. The BikeE, and some Easy Racers, are upright recumbents. The rider sits in a more upright position than the reclined position of other recumbents, such as the RANS and most Easy Racers. The highter-end recumbents are more streamlined and come with a full or partial shell, which boosts speed. Hit the road, mountain biker.

They look new-wave, but recumbents are almost as old as the bicycle itself. In 1905, P.W. Bartlett, a bike-makeing Brit, rolled out the first mass-produced recumbents. Other manufacturers, including Peugeot, soon tried their hand at producing them.

On July 7, 1933, Francois Faure broke the world record for bicycling in an hour, covering just over 45 kilometers on a recumbent. The ease with which he did it - and the fact he was considered a second-rate racer - was too much for the Union Cyclist Internationale, which governed bicycle racing. They declared the recumbent officially not a bicycle. That decision cast a long shadow that lingered for decades.

It took another fast cyclist to bring recumbents back. In 1986, Fast Feddy Markham, driving an Easy Rider recumbent with a carbon fiber shell, captrued an $18,000 prize as the first person to do 65 mph on a bicycle. His achievement kick-started mass production of recumbents.

Of course, recumbents have their downsides, and cost is one. Prices start at around $600 and climb, with a really decent bent costing about $1500. Then there is that embarrassing side effect known as recumbutt (soar rear end), the result of putting all your riding weight on your backside. Bents also weigh more than regular bicycles, and pedalling up hills can be a problem.

But what you lose in climbing power, you gain in flat-out speed. The current speed record for a recumbent is 78.64 mph - not bad for a lawn chair on wheels.

C2002 Peter D.A. Warwick

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