Let’s take a test ride:
So, what’s it like learning to ride a recumbent 2-wheeler? It is impossible to convey this in writing, but we can tell you what we tell our customers as they are poised for launch on a test ride.
We are not addressing trikes here. They are much simpler to ride, but we’ve written some notes here.
1. Select a bike that is easy to start. There are two ways of keeping a recumbent from falling down. One is to have the feet planted firmly on the ground. The other is to be pedaling, with the feet planted firmly on the pedals and the lower back planted firmly against the seat back. That moment where the feet must change mode is the most difficult moment in cycling. Ironically, it is what everyone must do first.
The easiest recumbents to start have a seat that allows the rider to put a foot firmly on the ground without sliding too far forward in the seat. The pedals are also close to the ground, so the step up to them is fast. The best bikes to learn on are upright sitting long wheelbase bikes with low pedals and not very pulled back handlebars, like the EZ-1 or EZ-Sport. Even if you are looking for something lighter than an EZ, we will probably start you on one of those.
2. Fit the bike properly. Some of our customers protest when we begin adjusting the seat or handlebars for them prior to their test ride, claiming that we shouldn’t trouble ourselves. However, one cannot appreciate how a bike rides if it is improperly sized. Anyway, one can go about anywhere to test ride an improperly set-up and badly fit recumbent. Why not let the experts fit you expertly? It really does make the bike easier to ride.
3. Get on. It is a good habit to hold a brake as you get on. The bike can roll backwards when you drop into the seat. Riders of upright bikes are used to leaning forward and swinging their leg back and over the saddle, but obviously that won’t do. Instead you’ll step forward, lifting your leg nearest the bike over the frame.
Now to the riding. We give you lots of do’s and don’ts here, but the truth is that once you are familiar with the bike, you can ignore all this advice and get the bike started in as sloppy a manner as you please. Below is just the best way to do it.
4. Get the bike in a low gear. We’ll check if the bike is in a suitable gear for an easy start.
5. Get a pedal at “12 o’clock,” which is straight up. Maybe a little closer to you than 12, but not farther. Improper starting pedal position is the #1 mistake new riders make. Left or right foot doesn’t matter, but you want your raised knee cocked back and ready to push forward, over the top. Put your foot firmly on that pedal, and grab a brake.
While you’re sitting there, loosen your hold on the brake and push the pedal to let the bike roll forward a couple of inches. Your knee straightens a bit. Now roll the bike back and you knee bends. Ideally, you want to start with your knee bent to about 90 degrees, or something like that, depending on your knees. You’ll have an easier time getting your foot on the pedal with it farther forward, but a better start with the pedal farther back. But you see by this exercise that you can adjust that.
So if you have trouble bending your knee you can use that technique. Have the up pedal forward of 12 o’clock, put your foot on it, and then let the bike roll back a few inches to bring the pedal into the right position. The lower your seat is the easier it will be for you to roll the bike around like this.
6. Put your lower back firmly into the seat back. This is where your leverage will come from. No leverage means no momentum from the pedals. No momentum means no balance. If you have to slouch to reach the pedals, stop and move the seat up a centimeter.
7. Lean your upper back into the seat. You won’t do this initially without coaching. For one thing, you will be nervous and you’ll naturally tense up your shoulders. “Just relax” is the obvious advice, but we know how useless it is to give tense people such advice. Just be aware of the need to get the shoulders back against the seat. Also, leaning forward is the natural thing on an upright bike, because it puts more weight over the pedal. But on a recumbent the power stroke is a push forward over the top of the pedal stroke, and leaning forward interferes with this as well.
Leaning back serves two important purposes. First is that the feet must be forward to reach the pedals, so the body must stretch back. Second is that the balance controls in your head can be closely connected to the bike through the shoulders. If you find that you keep wanting to lean forward in the seat then we should set the seat back to a more upright position.
A counter-intuitive fact about balancing a bicycle is that a lower center of gravity makes balance harder (notice how a mountain biker stands up to creep over challenging terrain), and the higher you connect to the bike’s frame (not just the handlebars), the better your balance will be.
8. Keep a light grip on the handlebars. This is another relaxation thing that new riders will forget in the stress of learning. Upper body stiffness doesn’t help steering control, and the quicker you can get your hands relaxed, the quicker you will understand the bike’s handling.
It’s like this… a bicycle never balances, it is always falling over one way or the other and you are always correcting. You just stop noticing this after a while. The point of step 7 is that you must sense what the bike is doing, which way it is falling, and the point of step 8 is that your steering is actually what keeps you balanced by gently steering into the fall. You must relax your upper back to truly sense the bike, and you must relax your grip to steer fluidly. On an upright bike you feel the bike with your thighs on the saddle, but you don’t have that on a ‘bent.
9. Look at where you want to go. That is to say, don’t stare at the pedals or front wheel. You probably will glance at the pedals to make sure your second foot gets on them, but you know that you need to be looking at where you want to go. Your balance follows your gaze, so you want to look where you are going to orient it. You can get sloppy with your gaze once you have mastered the technique, but even then, if you get into a tricky situation, focus your gaze on where you want to go and away from what you are trying to avoid.
10. Remember that acceleration is what keeps the bike balanced. It doesn’t take much, but without acceleration, the act of balancing will eat up your momentum. Also, the faster the bike is going, the easier it is to balance. Bear this in mind now since you won’t be able to think of much during the moment after take-off.
11. Now push off with the foot on the up pedal. The foot goes over the top and starts to pull the pedal downward, bringing to other pedal into position to receive the second foot.
12. DO NOT push off with the foot on the ground. This is the #2 novice mistake, and you’ll see other teachers telling you to do this. Sure you might get it going this way, but you’ll begin to develop a bad habit. Learn it right the first time, please.
Why is “scootering” or “draising” like this a bad idea? Scootering disconnects your upper back from the seat. It reduces your control, and it disconnects your lower back from the seat, reducing leverage. You are then doing a splits pose at 4 mph, so you must yank your foot back to the pedals. This blows your pedaling stroke at the critical first instant. Any momentum you gained from your scoot will be lost by the time the second foot is on the pedal. But then everyone tries this move, at least once. Riders who habitually make this slow, weaving start never realize just how fast recumbents can start. If you are trying to cross a busy street you don’t need to be fast, but you need to start fast.
13. Get your second foot on the pedal. If you have difficulty lifting your knee, we might need to recline the seat some, or put shorter crank arms on the bike. You have your whole first pedal stroke to accomplish this feat of coordination. Sustained power for honing in your steering comes once that second foot it up.
14. Look at where you want to go, and wobble crazily toward it. You were probably staring at your pedals a moment ago, so get back to what you looked at before. Don’t worry if the bike is dancing up the street like a drunken buffalo, just advance it that way towards where you want to go. You’ll get it soon. Relax your shoulders. Let it wobble.
15. Accelerate gently, or not so gently. Even if the bike is still wobbly, get the speed up so that you become more stable.
16. Don’t forget where your brakes are. This is easy to do when one’s mind is occupied, and especially if one isn’t familiar with hand brakes. But you might feel like you need them, so remember where they are.
17. Bring it to a stop and hold the brake, then plant your feet. Get your feet near the ground in preparation for a stop, but don’t plant a foot too early. If the bike is still in motion, you will pull your foot back under the seat and go crashing over. Keep hold of a brake until your feet are planted.
18. Center yourself at the moment of stopping. Improper braking with sharply turned handlebars can cause the bike to roll sideways as you are trying to get your feet. It is not uncommon for a novice to need to stop when aborting a sharp turn. The steering should be straightened up as the last act, and focus your gaze forward. Be centered when you stop. Tandem riders should take particular note of this.
19. Get off by stepping forward. Or, for more laughs, you can swing your leg backward, leaning far forward (see step 3), smacking your leg smartly into the side of the seat, and then fall down with the bike. This will amuse adolescents, or the adolescent-at-heart. Dismounting the just the reverse of mounting. Step forward, moving your up foot over the frame ahead of the seat.