We’ve talked you through the basics of learning to ride here. Now let’s look at some of the experiences people have with riding recumbent bikes.
Getting comfortable on several bikes:
Novice riders often feel most comfortable with the last bike they ride, even if that bike has a longer learning curve. By the time they have ridden that bike, they have grown more comfortable with riding recumbents and are finally getting down to the fun. Bear this in mind if you find yourself drawn to the very last bike you try, just to make sure that you give all your choices a fair shake.
Steering and handling:
We hear a lot of speculation on the part of first-time riders as to why the recumbent handles differently than other bikes, or what different steering technique one needs. The fact is, there is no difference in the way the bike steers, but folks have to rationalize sometimes. One leans into turns as usual and steers oneself out of the lean. Steering theoreticians often settle on the smaller wheels as the culprit, or maybe a low seat.
But this speculation stops once the person becomes comfortable on the bike. At that point one just gets on the bike and balances it. Lower sitting bikes are more difficult to balance at very low speeds due to the low center of gravity, but bikes that low are mainly for track or highway riding where speeds are higher. Under seat steering requires one to lose the habit of pushing the handlebars away from or pulling them toward the rider, as they don’t pivot in that direction.
Any recumbent bike we sell, no matter how long, can turn about in the street. Longer ones won’t turn around in a alley or a single lane, but shorter bikes can. The technique for tight turning is no different than it is for any other 2-wheeler. You need to look sharply in the direction of your turn and then steer toward what you see. As the bike comes around, you can look farther into the turn, and the bike follows. Long-wheelbase bikes can turn as tight as you want with no conflict between the front wheel and the pedals.
Most short wheelbase bikes have “heel interference,” in which a heel can strike a sharply turned front wheel at the bottom of the pedal stroke. This takes everyone by surprise at first, but one quickly learns to either pause in pedaling or to twist the heel outward at the bottom of the pedal stroke. Some racing recumbents can suffer from “pedal interference,” where the wheel actually contacts the pedal, but we don’t sell anything like that, and if it comes up we can address it by putting on shorter crank arms.
Bikes with “open cockpit” or “superman” handlebars can have the handlebar contacting you knee in a tight turn. Such bikes don’t have the best low-speed maneuverability, and are made primarily to go fast in a straight line. You might not be able to pedal through a turn on such a bike.
The power stroke on recumbents differs from other bikes in that the rider gets leverage off the seat back. Also, the legs used for this power don’t have to do double duty holding the rider’s weight, which is all on the seat. This gives two results. One is that higher speed pedaling (higher cadence) is easier, since the rider can throw their legs freely in front of them. Second is that lower cadence, higher torque pedaling is more fatiguing. If you try to get your power by pushing hard against a pedal that has lots of resistance (in a high gear), then your knees will take a lot of compression force. Your body will not lift upwards to reduce this compression as it can on an upright bike. You get all that leverage from the seat, which will not move back, and people have more than enough power in their legs to hurt their knees.
New recumbent riders should be aware that they need to recondition themselves for faster pedaling in a lower gear to achieve their desired speed. This is especially true for those not used to multi-speed bikes. At higher cadence, the same amount of force is sent through the legs, but it is transferred more quickly about in the leg, keeping particular ligaments or muscles from fatiguing under too much continued pressure.
To help you get your mind around “cadence,” first consider a “walking cadence,” which is about 60 RPM. A walker does a left-right step in one second. Not surprisingly, lab tests have shown that this cadence is the most efficient for delivering human power in that range of power (about 0.1 HP, or 75 watts). It is also the most natural cadence, and 1-speed, balloon tire beach cruiser bikes are geared to be pedaled at about this speed. However, people putting heavy use on a multi-speed bike typically use about a 90 RPM cadence, particularly recumbent riders. In the long run, the fatigue caused by the force across the knee wears out the low-cadence rider prematurely, while a higher cadence rider can keep going and not hurt. This avoidance of self-inflicted pain is perhaps most sensible thing that anyone has ever learned from bicycle racing.
As a physical feat, high cadence pedaling requires agility, but not strength. This is good, since strength is limited to rather restricted portion of the population and it is only good for certain tasks, like lifting barbells. Agility can be learned through conditioning, even by the old, the weak, or the disabled. It is also more useful in daily life.
The point of shifting gears on a bicycle is to maintain a proper cadence. Bear this in mind as you climb a hill. It is that best cadence that must be preserved.
The business of powering a bicycle ergonomically is most important climbing hills. It is best to determine a range of gears that allows you to climb the hills that you commonly deal with, using a low enough gear that a high cadence can be used on the steepest sections. The gearing range on any bicycle is adjustable by changing parts. We do this at Easy Street all the time.
On traditional upright bikes, when speed in climbing is a consideration, riders may stand up in the seat. Their pedaling is low cadence, and they heave the body and bicycle left and right against each other. This creates enormous torque, giving a fast climb and beat up knees. For the most part, one cannot do this on a recumbent. There are tricks for getting more force on the pedals, depending on the bike’s design, but on most, one climbs by staying in the seat and spinning in a low enough gear, getting speed by increasing cadence
If you ride with a group of cyclists and you want to take your recumbent out with them, everyone should be able to stay together provided that the other riders do their climbing by spinning as well. Otherwise, the recumbent will probably be outdistanced on the hill. Similarly, the recumbent rider needs to limit their own speed in headwinds or downhills, where their aerodynamics makes a bigger difference in speed.
Other random thoughts
“This feels twitchy.” But then twitchy is good. First of all, you don’t want a bike that steers like a truck. You need the steering to respond quickly on demand for stability at a range of speeds over a range of conditions. The sudden, irregular twitchiness comes as the bike responds to the rider’s sudden, irregular twitchy demands. Initially, we want to let the bike wobble its own crazy path. Keep an eye on your destination and accelerate gently. Give your brain stem a chance to get familiar with the bike, and your conscious mind will get it in due time. The wobbling, and the associated twitching, goes away as the rider relaxes and sees what inputs result in what outputs. Let it wobble.
“What if I crash?” Then the bike will fall down sideways. We don’t have much direct experience with spectacular crashes, but the advice that comes from others who have is that the best thing to do is stay in the seat, on the pedal (clipped in, if applicable) and let the bike take the first hit. The seat frame, handlebars, and pedals can all absorb some of the initial impact with the ground, saving you some of roughing up. The greatest concern is keeping your leg from swinging back under the seat, which can injure your ankle. But even in this case, its better to injure that end of the body than the other.
Being propelled forwards, over that handlebars, is not a concern. Even though the rider sits as if they are in a car, the bike is not a car and doesn’t have a flat front. In a sudden stop, the back end of the bike will try to catch up with the front. The bike turns sideways and the rider falls over, somewhat in the original direction of travel.
The point is that imaginary crash-test dummy experiments done while staring at pictures of bikes on the internet won’t tell you much about how the bike will go down in an fall.