There isn’t much to teach about riding trikes. You just sit down and pedal. But we can share a few things.
How to sit down
First, you can, but don’t have to, set a parking brake. Tadpole trikes (two wheels in front, one in back) often have locking brake levers. These brake levers typically stop the left front and right front wheels. Some trikes, like many ICE brand trikes, have a separate lever for the locking the rear wheel. A few have a locking lever for both front wheels and a locking lever for the rear. So lock a brake, or not. Delta trikes (two wheels in back) usually have a locking brake lever on the front wheel.
Typically you step over the “boom,” which is the frame member that extends ahead of the seat. You face forward and then sit down. On a tadpole trike you don’t step over the seat like you’d do on most bicycles because the “cross-member,” which is frame member that goes out to the front wheels, would block your foot from coming up to the pedals. You must stand fore of the cross-member then sit back over it.
If you are not comfortable stepping over the boom due to balance problems, stand with both feet on the left side of the boom (the non-chain side), and then sit down. Once you are on the seat you can lift your right leg over the boom. Some people like to back themselves past the crankset/pedals to get into position. Do this if you are comfortable, but since backing up past the projecting pedals seems like a risk we’d only recommend it if you had pedals that folded out of the way.
If your knees make sitting down a challenge, or if you have a low sitting trike and don’t have good knees, you can install stand-up aids that give you something solid to hold while you sit. These aids can interfere with the foldability of folding trikes in some cases.
It is no surprise that the “how to sit down” section takes 4+ paragraphs. Riding trikes is trivially easy, but getting on and off takes some technique.
The importance of foot retention
On you typical upright bicycle you sit over the pedals and your feet rest atop them. On a recumbent you hold your feet up against the side of them. So it is easier for your foot to slip off. On trikes your pedals are closer to the ground, and on many tadpole trikes your pedals are level with, if not higher than, the seat. So keeping your feet on the pedals takes some attention and the ground is not far away. Foot retention is a great safety benefit, and there is no fear of falling over at a stop because you cannot get your feet down, as is the case with a two-wheeler.
The best foot retention is to use cycling shoes that clip into the pedals. These give a lot of ergonomic benefits, though cycling shoes are not the best walking shoes. If you want to wear your sneakers, heel slings are the best option. These are stirrups that hang from the pedals and goes behind your heel, keeping your foot from slipping heelward toward the ground. Traditional toe straps, that cover the top of the foot, will help with foot retention but don’t address the problem as directly as heel slings. People with muscle control problems, from a stroke or MS, or the like, can get pedals that firmly hold their foot in place.
Tadpole trikes typically only brake on the front wheels. The rear wheel is lightly loaded and usually just skids, though sometimes a dedicated parking brake is built onto the rear wheel. This rear wheel brake can be used as a “drag brake” which controls speed on long descents. This practice is only recommended with a rear disk brake or drum brake, as brakes that press on the rim risk heating the rim on a long descent, risking a rear tire blowout. We find that rear rim brakes are the best parking brakes, which is what most people need most often.
Usually the front two brake levers stop the two separate front wheels. Squeeze both evenly for hard stopping in a straight line. When we set up a trike we make an effort to balance the brakes, so that a quick grab stops the trike without making the trike “fish tail,” or skid the rear wheel sideways into a spin. However, the mechanic’s hands are not yours, and you should check this yourself. Ideally, you should be able to make the rear wheel lift off the ground in a hard stop, doing a “stoppie” as opposed to a “wheelie.” In practice you don’t want to lift the rear wheel, but your brakes should be strong enough and even enough to pull a stoppie on demand.
Braking with just one front brake should be sufficient to slow you down and control your speed. Fishtailing under light, one-handed braking is a problem that we can address. Designers call this effect “brake steering,” and they seek to minimize its presence. Some people think they should brake on, say, the right side to induce a right turn. We say use your handlebars and your steering to make a turn. Your tires will thank you with longer life and you’ll have better control. Anyway, going into a right turn you probably want to make a right turn hand signal, which is best done with the right hand.
A last note on “stoppies” is that they can be a hazard. Learning to control your braking is important. Most tadpole trikes use two front disk brakes which is a vast amount of stopping power, even with cheaper brakes. Drum brakes are more forgiving in a hard stop. Very few trikes, effectively none, use rim brakes on their front wheels. High sitting trikes are more prone to stoppies, as are trikes that have the seat farther forward, closer to the cross-member. But then trikes with low seats set farther back are harder to get in and out of. Reclining the seat back mitigates stoppies by shifting more of your weight back.
Turning and flipping
Any trike can flip if you push it hard enough, but you have to push it. They don’t just fall over on their own like two-wheelers do. If you have any speed at all (remember that everyone is fast going downhill) you need to lean a bit into your turn. If you are turning right, lean to the right, just as you would on a two-wheeler. In a tight right turn, centrifugal force will push your body to the left. Inertia will try to keep the trike moving in a straight line, meaning the inside wheel (the right wheel in a right turn) will try to lift. You need to counteract centrifugal force and keep your weight over the inside wheel. You don’t have to lean much, but you must lean some.
Another aspect in flipping a trike is the lay of the land. In a “banked turn” like on a race track, the road leans you right as you make a right turn. This helps keep your wheels on the ground. An “off-bank turn” leans you the wrong way, and you have to extra vigilant leaning into the turn since the trike itself is already leaning out of the turn. Bicycles don’t have this problems since they must lean to turn, where trikes themselves can’t lean besides what the lay of the land dictates.
Flipping a trike requires some combination of speed, turning, an off-bank surface, and inattention on the driver’s part. A common but unexpected flip comes when you turn off your street to go up your driveway. The inside front wheel hits your driveway’s upward ramp just as centrifugal force is rolling you outward. We’ve known trikes to roll over at low speeds in this case.
We don’t mean to worry you with all this, but this highlights that fourth factor in trike stability… driver inattention. Lean into your turns and all will be well. Know about this matter and you can avoid it.
Delta trikes usually sit higher, which reduces stability in a tight turn. They can also steer tighter, which can be a good thing but can also destabilize a trike if you over-steer. The fact that more of your mass is to the rear of the trike, where the spread of the rear wheels are, does help. In our opinion, if you are getting a very high sitting trike, like with a seat height of over 20″, you are probably better off on a delta. Still, high seats work against trike stability. We’d encourage you to get a low sitting a trike as you can tolerate, from a safety standpoint.
How to stand up
So this is the tough part. At least you have gravity on your side when sitting down.
Lock your brake, then slide a far forward in your seat as you can. Pull your feet back as far as you can. Lean your upper body forward so your mass is over your feet, then lift. You can put your hands on your handlebars, or the front wheel, or on optional stand-up aids if you need it.
Most people don’t explicitly do deep knee bending exercises, so often their knees have room to improve. It isn’t uncommon for some creaky geezer to come in to ride trikes, and we hear them moaning and groaning as they get on and off the first trike they try. But by the end of the visit their knees have adjusted and they are moving on and off low-sitting trikes smoothly and comfortably. Creaky is as creaky does.
Sprightly and rambunctious sorts of trikers can do a “cowboy dismount” where, at the last moment before stopping, they plant their feet on the ground. The trike’s momentum transfers into the rider pops up out of the seat while the trike halts. You can practice that on your own once you’ve taken your trike home with you.
Picking the trike up and loading it in a motor vehicle.
A last tip in tadpole trike handling involves picking it up. Stand beside the seat, looking down over the trike. Your hand closest to aft grabs the far side of the seat, close to the top. Your other hand grabs the cross-member near the wheel closest to you. This gives you a balanced position to lift, with room to bend your knees (lift with your knees!). Keep the weight close to your spine… don’t lean out. You can rest the near side of the seat against your pelvis for additional support. You can rotate the trike up so your belly presses into the seat mesh. This helps you walk the front wheels through a narrow door. Then rotate the trike back to level, which helps get the seat, neck rest, and rear wheel through the door.
Back when the shop had only one door, not double doors, your author got really buff carrying all those trikes around.
When loading the trike into the back of a hatchback, van, SUV or pickup, it is easiest to load it front end first. Most of the weight on a trike is to the front, and once you set the front wheels on the cargo bed you have freed up one hand. Then roll the trike away from you.
If you must load it rear end first you trap yourself between the trike’s cross-member and your car’s bumper. You can back out of this, but then you are supporting the trike’s weight farther from your spine, risking strain. If you must load rear end first it is better to do it with a helper. Standing on opposite sides of the trike, hold the near front wheel and the near side of the seat. This keeps your load closer to your body while you are still at enough distance to not be trapped.
When loading a trike on a roof rack, the same applied. Definitely go front end first. Do everything to get the front wheels onto the roof and then focus on lifting the rear end. Electric assisted trikes are a whole different class of heavy, and you might look into a ramp system (which we sell) to Make Cycling Easy for yourself.