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Recumbent Bicycles in Four Flavors

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by Sheldon "It Takes All Kinds" Brown
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Recumbents are generally divided into long-wheelbase and short-wheelbase categories, depending on whether the front wheel is in front of the pedal assembly or behind it. Each type has its good points and disadvantages.

Short Wheelbase

Short wheelbase recumbents have a smaller turning radius and greater maneuverability. They have a more equal weight distribution between the two wheels, making front wheel skids less likely. Shorter overall, they are easier to store and transport by car.

On the downside, the short wheelbase designs can have a problem with the drive chain. Unless the rider is seated very high off the ground (by recumbent standards) the chain cannot run straight between the chainwheels and the rear sprockets, because the front wheel will bump into it when it is turned to the side. Most short wheelbase machines have the chain run over an idler pulley or sprocket. Running the lower, un-tensioned run of the chain over such an idler is no problem, but they also usually need to run the upper, tensioned run of the chain over an idler as well. Such as idler has to be very strongly supported, and have excellent, load-carrying bearings. Even the best of them make a significant reduction of the efficiency of the drive chain.

An alternative is to run two chains connected by a jackshaft above the front wheel. Either approach increases the complexity of the drive train, adding friction and adding more moving parts to maintain.

Short wheelbase recumbents often use a 16" or 17" front wheel to improve the chain clearance. Such small diameter tires have a reduced lifespan, especially when they are loaded as heavily as they are in this application.

Long Wheelbase

Long wheelbase recumbents are generally more stable than short wheelbase models, thus easier to learn to ride. They pitch less on rough surfaces. Theoretically, they can stop faster than any other type of solo bike, because the front brake can be applied very hard without any danger of "pitchover". Their chains are longer than those of upright bikes, but no more complicated, with a very straight chainline. The long run of chain even allows the use of cross-chain gears that would cause problems on a conventional upright bike.

Long wheelbase recumbents usually use 20" front wheels,* which are lightly loaded, so the tires last quite a long time. Replacement tires in this size are available everywhere. Some long wheelbase models are compatible with low-rider front racks, making them good for loaded touring.

Long wheelbase recumbents are less maneuverable than short wheelbase ones, more cumbersome when they are not actually being ridden.

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High Bars vs. Low Bars

The other great divide in recumbent design is handlebar location. They can either be above the rider's lap, or underneath the seat.

High bars are mechanically simpler, being attached to the steerer tube by a conventional handlebar stem, and having no additional moving parts. High bar recumbents are easier to learn to ride. The high bars also provide a good place to mount a fairing, bottle cages, cyclocomputers, maps, horns, bells, etc.

High bars slightly complicate mounting and dismounting, and they must be turned very far to the side to steer a long wheelbase machine through a tight corner.

Low bars are more complicated mechanically, because they are not direct-drive.* The handlebars are mounted under the seat on their own pivot, and there is a tie rod running forward to the fork crown. They take a bit of getting used to, but many riders find the position more relaxing once accustomed to it. Low bar bikes may have optional attachment points for the tie rod that allows steering "quickness" to be varied.

Beginners start out with 1:1 steering, but a more experienced rider can increase the maneuverability of a long wheelbase bike by setting the tie rod so that the fork turns faster than the handlebars.

Low bar recumbents can be quite terrifying to first-time riders. The tie-rod linkage is an additional mechanical complication, and requires periodic maintenance and adjustment. Generally low bar recumbents cannot be ridden "no hands".

All four of these designs have real virtues and drawbacks. Each variation is probably ideal for some riders, and all share the general virtues and drawbacks of recumbents.

In October, 2007, Patrick Field from the London School of Cycling emailed me:
On the subject of recumbent steering... Other considerations between high and low bars...

High bars are always more aero-dynamic as they put your arms horizontal in the direction of travel rather than beside the body making it a wider 'air-brake'. If you plan to try and go fast overseat steering is essential.

Low bars are more likely to be damaged in a minor spill. Their extremities usually hit the ground first and the width can put a lot of leverage on the centre mounting. Unlike a classic bike the bars on a sit-down bike aren't load bearing so you can usually bodge a repair at the roadside. In the past I've fixed bars with an aluminium tent-peg, and also ridden thousands of kilometres on underseat bars held together with a fillet whittled from a roadside bush.

I have ridden extensively with both; overseat bars seem like hard work when you're used to underseat steering - 'why can't I just let my arms hang?' - but the most important advantage of riding with high bars is you have somewhere handy to mount your odometer and routing information.

These days, I ride a recumbent trike myself, so I'll add:

Low bars make your armpits get hot in hot weather, due to lack of airflow.

The concern about crash damage with low bars is a non-issue with trikes, though it is with bikes.

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Recumbents and Safety

One objection to recumbents that is frequently voiced is the perception that they are more dangerous than conventional bikes. I do not believe that this is based in reality. Recumbents differ in two fundamental ways from uprights: visibility and crash-worthiness.

Visibility

Visibility is a two-way matter: how well can the bicyclist see... how well can he be seen.

There is no getting around the fact that a recumbent rider cannot see over the roof of cars as well as an upright rider, especially a tall one. On the other hand, a recumbent rider still probably has a clearer field of view than an automobile driver.

Theoretically, a recumbent, being lower to the ground is less visible to other road users than an upright bicycle. To a considerable extent, however, this is offset by the uniqueness of recumbents. Drivers see conventional upright bikes all the time, and often ignore them because they are so commonplace. Recumbents, however, attract attention. If you are really worried about this, you can use a flag.

Crash-worthiness

Most bicycle accidents do not involve other vehicles. (If you are going to crash on a bike, a recumbent is the best way to go.)

If you crash head-on into another vehicle or a stationary object, the feet-first position of the recumbent rider is the best possible one.

If you fall over sideways, you do so from a much lower height.

Add the recumbent's greater stopping power and you have to judge them substantially safer than upright bikes.

(This article originally appeared in the May 1992 issue of American Bicyclist & Motorcyclist. Transcribed by Joel Dickman)

 

*Updates, November 2006

There have been a number of new developments in recumbent design since this artilcle was written, and two major new types have appeared: I really make no claim to be an expert on recumbent bikes, and welcome suggestions/corrections.

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Further reading-Recumbent Links:

'Bentrider Online

International Human Powered Vehicle Association (IHPVA)

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Last Updated: MAy 26, 2012 9:48 EDT by Harriet Fell