Choosing A Recumbent

By Bob Bryant, 2011
If you’re reading this article, the odds are good that you’re interested in buying and riding a recumbent bicycle. There are many reasons to ride a recumbent. Here are just a few:

Superior comfort
No neck pain
No wrist pain
No numbness or chafing
Easier breathing
Less fatigue
Better view of the road

There are a few downsides to recumbent bicycles as well, such as:

They are more expensive.
Dealers and specialists are rare.
Some models are sold only factory direct
They are heavier than upright bicycles.
They are generally  slower climbing upright bicycles
Some mechanics don’t like working on them
They use more proprietary and special parts

Selecting a recumbent can be an ominous task — and our industry doesn’t make it easy. Recumbents come in all shapes and sizes, with multiple variations, for many different purposes. Recumbents can also be difficult to find, and some are only sold factory-direct. Education and research are vital in finding information about recumbents.  

Types of Recumbents
The most popular types of recumbents have changed over the years. In the mid 1990s compact recumbents like the BikeE, Sun EZ-1 and ReBike were the most popular. Then it was long wheelbases like the RANS Stratus, Sun EZ-Sport and Easy Racers Tour Easy. These days the “typical” recumbent has three wheels. That said, here are the basic types of recumbents available today:

There are two basic styles of recumbent trikes:

This design has two wheels in front and one in back. These trikes come with three 16” wheels (sport models) or three 20” wheels (touring models). There are also a few 26”/20” trikes. They can have linkage (slower, more stable) or direct steering (lighter, sportier), mesh (touring) or shell (racing) seats and the pedals are high. Tadpoles are the enthusiast trikes, with models available for racing, sport, touring, recreational riding and touring. Commuting will depend on whether you feel comfortable on riding such a low vehicle in traffic, and/or how much traffic you have in your locale.

For: Performance-oriented, lighter, and most popular

Against: Low (safety concerns), high-speed handling concerns, and direct-steered models can be very quick handling.

Popular models: TerraTrike, Catrike, ICE, HP Velo & Sun

This design has two wheels in back, most commonly three 20” wheels and the pedals are low-medium height. They look like LWB recumbents with two rear wheels. Delta trikes are mostly entry level, recreational and work trikes.

For: Easy to ride, comfortable and affordable.

Against: High-speed handling concerns, and some models have light front ends, which can lead to traction issues on one-wheel drive models.

Available models: Sun, Lightfoot, Hase & Atomic Zombie (plans)

LWBs are the original and classic style of recumbent bicycle. They are long and low chopper-like bikes that offer a luxurious ride. This design usually places pedals low and behind the front wheel (a few mono-tube models have the pedals placed high and behind the head tube). These limo-like models have wheelsets of 26”/20” or 700c/20”, with a few 26”/26” models. LWBs are the best-selling style of recumbent because of ease of use and affordability. The LWB style is best for touring, sport riding, commuting, and is a great all-around model. LWBs are popular for new cyclists, more casual riders or those looking for a more forgiving all-around bicycle.

For: Easy to ride, easy to buy, unmatched high-speed handling, affordable, comfortable, and an excellent all-around bike.  
Against: Long, heavier, tiller steering effect (some models), difficult to store/haul/maneuver in tight spaces.

Available models: Sun EZ-Sport, Easy Racers, RANS Stratus, Cycle Genius, Linear and Lightfoot

A variation of the LWB is the “compact” or “compact long wheelbase.”  These bikes  utilize a smaller 20”/16” or sometimes a 20”/20” wheel set. The bikes are made more compact by placing the seat rearward, just above and forward of the rear wheel.
Popular Models: Sun EZ-1, Lightfoot Sugar Baby & HP Velo Spirit

The SWB has about the same wheelbase as a road bike with the pedals high and over the front wheel. Wheelset is 26”/26”, 650c/650c, 26”/20” or 20”/20”. SWBs are the enthusiast recumbent models, for speed, racing, sport, recreation, club rides and touring (some models). SWB models can be lighter in weight and more responsive handling and have more extreme riding positions (laid back seats + high pedals). Highracer models can utilize road bike components, thus making them the lightest and most aggressive recumbent style. SWB are popular with bicycle enthusiasts who are transitioning from lightweight road bikes to recumbents.

For: Lighter, quicker handling, sportier, good commuter (fits on bus racks), easy to store and transport, and often better climbing.

Against: Possibility of heel/front wheel interference, knee/handlebar interference, high pedals, more complex design (tighter clearances) and longer reach to the ground.

Popular models: Lightning, RANS,  Bacchetta,  and Volae

This new style of bicycle is a mating of the popular beach cruiser bicycle and a long wheelbase recumbent. Imagine a dual 26” wheeled beach cruiser with a stretched wheelbase and the seat lowerered and moved rearward on the bike. Essentially what you have is a long wheelbase style recumbent with no back rest. The key to the success of this design is all in the seat comfort. A comfortable cruiser saddle or a seat custom designed by the builder is essential. These are best suited for casual riders and bike trail cruisers for fun & fitness, though we are hearing of more serious usage. We just put three of these bikes into our long term fleet.

For: Flat footed at stops, simple, easy to ride/master, easy to find and buy and cheap in comparison to recumbents.

Against: Upright seated position, can be heavier, and no back rest (don’t really need them), some seat bases are smaller or lack foam

Popular  models: RANS, Electra Townie, Giant (Suede), Sun, and Trek (Pure).

Recumbent tandems are available in SWB, LWB and trike styles from:  RANS, TerraTrike, Greenspeed & Sun

Here are some things to consider before buying a recumbent:

Your size and weight
Bike size and weight
Ergonomics/Physical limitations
Where you will ride
Skinny or fat tires
Large or small wheels
Low or high pedals
Mesh seat or hard shell seat

Large riders need a strong frame, large wheels and fatter tires. Light riders can ride bikes with a lighter, smaller frame. There are a lot of bikes for average-size riders (one size fits all recumbents) and some models come in sizes (this is good).  Very tall riders may not fit LWB recumbents (bikes are too long), and very short riders may not fit SWB recumbents (bikes are too tall).

Recumbent Sizing:  Many recumbents are one-size-fits-most, while some come in sizes. They adjust either by a sliding boom (crank) or a sliding seat. Sliding seats are easier to deal with. Once set, sliding booms are manageable, but finding the proper fit requires cutting the chain to the proper length. For this reason, changing settings for different sized riders can be a hassle.

All recumbents are sized by using a measurement called X-seam. To find this measurement, sit on the floor with your back against the wall, legs flat on the floor, extended outward and toes towards the sky. Measure from the floor/wall out to the heel of your foot. This measurement simulates the same measurement on a recumbent bicycle. When setting this measurement on a recumbent bicycle, you should place your heel on the pedal and have your leg fully extended to find the proper seat/pedal extension.

Be forewarned, one-size bikes don’t fit everyone, or at least they don’t fit everyone well.

Be sure to consider bike size BEFORE you buy. Consider where you will store your new bike and how you will transport it.

Recumbents are heavier than upright bicycles. Bicycles with skinnier tires and lighter wheels are easier to propel. Heavier bicycles are faster downhill. The biggest benefit to having a lightweight bike is when climbing hills or when living your bike onto  you cars roof rack.

Low Pedal Height: Imagine a human sitting in the same position that you do when you drive an automobile: back slightly reclined, feel low and out in front of you. This is the most typical riding position for recumbent bicycles and is found on most long wheelbase models.
For: Normal seating position, user friendly.
Against: Possible recumbent butt, some say less power, possible knee interference with some handlebars
Works Best For: Riders with knee problems, bad knees, heavier riders or more casual touring cyclists. This is not to say that it can’t be a good position for the serious enthusiast. A new low+ segment offers a BB height that is above “low BB”, but lower than a “level BB.”

Examples (low BB): Sun EZ Sport, Cycle Genius, Easy Racers, RANS and Bacchetta.

Medium Pedal Height:  Now take this same position, recline the seat back, and raise the pedals up to seat height for a BB that is at about seat height.
For: Relatively normal seating position, can be user friendly, recline seat more.
Against: Still possible recumbent butt, possible foot/toe numbness, possible heel/front wheel interference, possible knee interference with some handlebars
Works Best For:  This position also works well with those having had hip replacements or other similar issues
Examples: RANS V-Rex, Bacchetta Giro & RANS V2.

Note: Perhaps 10% of recumbent riders experience foot/toe numbness on bikes with bottom brackets from level-high.

High Pedal Height: Now recline the seat even more and raise the pedals even higher. This would be a position similar to many recumbent trikes, lowracers and highracers. This position takes most of the weight off your bottom and places it on your back.
For: Aerodynamic position, great for power generation, aggressive
Against: Not quite normal seating position, much less user friendly, possible toe/foot numbness, possible neck fatigue, possible knee interference with the handlebars.
Works Best For: Serious athletic types, club riders, racer types who want a light, fast bike.

Examples: Highracers, lowracers, and most performance oriented tadpole trikes.
Somewhere within these three riding position scenarios you will most likely find one that works for you. I can’t tell you which ergonomic style will work best for you.  Models with low pedals are very user-friendly. Models with higher pedals are for more advanced enthusiasts, though there are many riders of low-pedal bikes who’ve been riding them for decades. You may hear a generalization that all low pedal recumbents are slow. This is not true. There are many riders of performance LWB ASS machines who will argue this point.

Recumbents can be used for nearly every type of riding — just use your head — and choose a bike that best suits your locale and the terrain that you’ll be riding on.

Recumbents need fatter tires because un-weighting your seat over road hazards is difficult, if not impossible. The bikes that have super skinny road tires are selling an unreasonable dream. If you ride on real world roads, increase the tire width you would normally use a few sizes. Fatter tires are more comfortable, less skittish to ride and have fewer flats.

Recumbent bicycles are unique in their use of smaller wheels. While full-size wheels (26” or 700c) are best, it isn’t always possible to use them with some recumbent designs. The most popular wheel choice for a recumbent is the 26” (mountain bike size) rear wheel matched with a 20” (BMX sized) front wheel. This works on LWB and SWB two-wheelers. Two 650c or 26” wheels offers upright bicycle-like road feel, but the bikes can be too high (highracers) or extra long (LWB). Bigger wheels generally roll faster, roll over road obstacles better, and are generally more comfortable (not skinny racing tires). They also provide more gyroscopic feel, like an upright bicycle (some dual 20” SWB models have this as well).

The larger size 700c road/touring wheels are faster, but not as durable as the 26” size. 700c can only be found on a few brands these days, notably the Easy Racers LWB.

Small (16”) wheels are lighter and faster to accelerate, but don’t hold their speed as well. Tires and rims are more difficult to find and wear out more quickly — and they offer a very rough ride in comparison to larger wheels. The primary reason to use 16” wheels is compatibility with a small bike. The 16” wheel works particularly well on tadpole trikes and the front of CLWB to keep the BB low.

STEERING The majority of modern recumbents have above-seat steering (ASS). There are three types of ASS:
T-bar: Like a mountain bike handlebar on a long stem. Examples: Burley, RANS Rocket & V-Rex (called BEGGING HAMSTER position on a SWB)

Chopper bar: Modern aluminum bars that look like they are from a chopper motorcycle or a Stingray bicycle. Example: Easy Racers & Sun and RANS Stratus (2006 option).

Tweener: This means your legs go “in beTWEEN” the double bend “U” shaped bars. This keeps your hands stretched forward and low. It can be more difficult to maneuver in low speed turns.

Under-seat steering: There are a few under-seat steering two-wheelers around, but they are not as popular as they were a decade ago (perhaps due to user-friendliness issues). Current examples are available from Linear and HP Velo.

On three-wheelers, under-seat steering  (USS) is the ideal choice because balance related user-friendliness concerns are not an issue, nor is frontal area. Three wheelers can have direct USS, where independent bars are connected to each kingpin, or indirect which has “U” shaped bars pivoting on a bushing/headset under the seat, connecting to the wheel kingpins by linkage. Indirect offers more refined and stable handling, direct can be quick and sporty.

The majority of recumbent bicycles these days have a composite (or wood on the cheapies) base covered with foam and Lycra. The seat backs are a breathable mesh. This is by far the most popular style of recumbent seat.

High performance and racing recumbents have lightweight composite shell seats with minimal padding. They offer a more firm base to push against, though it may be less comfortable. Euro molded seats have a distinct lumbar curve and are designed to for a very laid-back position.  They are best suited for performance bikes where speed is the number one goal.

Composite shell seats haven’t always been strictly for performance bikes, for many years Easy Racers and RANS used only shell seats. They are lighter, simpler and you can generate more power. I recently rode a 20 year old RANS Stratus the other day and was reminded just how comfortable an original RANS  seat could be.

Mesh seats can be very comfortable, and work especially well on trikes where stand-over height is not a concern. (The wide seat base rails make these seats difficult to use on two-wheelers.)

Seat selection is a personal choice and should be taken very seriously. One seat might not feel good, another might be perfect. Yet another might offer better performance, but less comfort, or visa versa.

Do not underestimate how difficult it may be to lift a heavy recumbent onto a roof rack. Be sure to look into hauling options before you buy a recumbent bicycle. Most SWBs will fit on bumper racks. Larger recumbents may require special racks or even a larger vehicle. If you transport your bike, do this research BEFORE you buy.

A truck or van is the most ideal recumbent carrying vehicle. Other vehicles may work, but may require some careful planning in advance of your bike purchase.

Though streamlined recumbents hold most of the human-powered speed records, recumbents range from slower to much faster than upright bikes. These days it takes a serious recumbent to be faster than modern sub 20 pound carbon fiber road bikes.

The  fastest street recumbent models are the lightweight high- and mid-racers. Partially faired LWB recumbents and lightweight SWB can offer decent performance that is nearly as good.

A recumbent may initially feel foreign to you: too sensitive, overly quick, or it may take you some time to get accustomed to the closer-to-the-ground position. This is especially true for the recumbent newbie. The word to remember is RELAX! Lean back in the seat and enjoy the ride. Many problems can be traced directly to the habit of upper-body stiffness from riding your upright. Allow your body to relax and stay loose.

Trikes are really the best place to start because no balance is required. That said, most people can learn to ride a two wheeler rather quickly, but it may take some time to be proficient enough to head out into traffic. The higher the pedals, the more difficult it will be for a new rider to start out.

For your first ride, be sure you have proper safety equipment and find a quiet street or preferably a parking lot to practice. Be sure that the bike is set up for you, and is the proper size bike for you. Here is how you get on a recumbent:

1. Squeeze one brake lever to keep the bike from rolling and hold.
2. Straddle the boom or frame and lean back into the seat.
3. Familiarize yourself with the controls: be sure you understand how to shift and brake
4. Place your power foot (are you right-handed or left?) on the right or left pedal in the 1:00 position.
5. Power to the pedals as you let go of the brake and achieve balance.

Remember, ask questions if you need to and have a friend run along side of you until you achieve balance.

Ride safe. Most recumbents are lower than upright bikes. While this isn’t such a big deal on a country road, or bike trail, it can be a big deal in busy urban traffic. Visibility = safety; higher is better. We recommend the following safety equipment:

• Rearview mirror
• Safety flag
• Reflective tape and clothing
• Tail light (solid & flasher)
• Head light (if you ride at dusk or dark)
• Bell (other cyclists)
• Air horn (for motor vehicles)
• Headlight & taillight (for ride in winter or at dusk or in dark)

Take responsibility for your own recumbent education, here is how to learn more about recumbents:

• Read recumbent magazines, forums and newsgroups
• Subscribe to newsgroups
• Find a local rider group
• Visit several dealers
• Take test rides
• Ask questions

Another good way to track down local and regional recumbent dealers is to visit recumbent manufacturer websites and see if there is a dealer near you.

Remember to call first before you visit the shop to see what they have in stock. In some cases dealers listed may not stock any bikes.