Specifying a custom AZUB tricycle

For information specific to AZUB’s 2-wheelers, look here.

Like many high-end recumbent makers, AZUB typically builds your trike to order and gives you lots of choices.  This is a good thing so long as you know what you want and don’t find all these decisions intimidating.  We’ll lay our your major choices specifying the parts on your AZUB.  You don’t have to read all this, we can just listen to your wants, needs, and budget and work up the spec for you.

The basic distinctions

AZUB essentially offers three different trikes, distinguished by what level of suspension you want.  The T-Tris is unsuspended (no shock absorption), the TriCon is rear suspended (suspension on the rear wheel only), and the Ti-Fly is fully suspended.

There are two other trikes.  The Ti-Fly X is a Ti-Fly reconfigured in front to work with larger front wheels, specifically for rugged off-road use.  The FAT is a T-Tris redesigned in the rear end and in the front hubs to accommodate extra-wide tires for sand, snow, mud, or other challenges.

The feel of all these trikes are similar in the seat choices and the handling.  The rear suspended TriCon and Ti-Fly are more stretched out and not as nimble as the T-Tris, and they weigh more.  If you are looking at an electric assist then suspension is likely more worth it, since you’ll be heavier and moving faster, meaning bumps will clatter you around more.

You have your choice in seat height in any of these models.  They all come stock with a low seat, but if you want a more casual trike that is easy to get in and out of, you can specify a high seat adapter on any of the trikes.

You also get your choice in rear wheel diameter on all three.  A 20 inch wheel is more compact, more nimble, and more foldable.  It gives a lower range of gears and is naturally stronger than a larger wheel, especially under hard turning.  a 26″ wheel gears higher using most transmission systems.  Our rule of thumb is if you are the sort of rider who likes to pedal when going downhill, to see what kind of top speed you can hit, then you’ll want a 26″ rear wheel.  A larger rear wheel is also smoother riding, but this only applies to the unsuspended T-Tris.  If you want a fast AZUB trike when you probably want a 26″ T-Tris without the high seat adapter.  However, AZUB does not optimize for speed.  Their designs focus on ruggedness for touring.

All the trike frames will split apart for transport.  You can make any into a folding trike by adding in the folding hinge and a few other parts specifically to make the trike easier to disassemble.  This is best done at the time of purchase, but any non-folding AZUB trike can be made to fold by getting these parts.

Transmission

These are your “gears.”  The primary questions about transmission are:

  1. How wide a range of gears do you want?  That is, do you want to have both really low gears for climbing and really high gears for speed?  A more narrow range of gears can get you one or the other, or something in between.
  2. Do you want the convenience of internal gearing?  Internally gearing lets you shift when stopped and is easier to maintain.  All the complicated bits are inside, making them much rugged.  However, they cost more than traditional derailer gearing.  They usually have a more limited range of gears unless you get really spendy.

Let’s look at our choices as of late 2018.

  • 3×9 derailer gearing.  This is the typical shifting system you see on most bikes.  “Derailers” (often called “derailleurs” if you do Euro-speak) move the chain between different sprockets.  It is the least expensive form of transmission and can be set to have a wide range of gears.  AZUB offers derailer gearing with either trigger shifters or bar end shifters.  We can show you the difference in these shifters when you come by.  Bar end shifters cost a little more.  In terms of gearing range, a 3×9 speed system gets you about a 525% range, meaning your highest gear is 5.25 times “bigger” than your lowest gear.  With a few simple mods we can get this range as high as 670%.
  • NuVinci N380 hub.  This internally geared hub is continuously variable.  There is not a finite number of “speeds.”  It has a 380% range and you can dial any ratio in that range.  There are no jumps between gears and you never lose torque when shifting.  It costs more than derailers and doesn’t have the range, but it is very popular with casual cyclists who don’t plan to attack big hills and like user-friendly feel of a continuously variable transmission.  It is difficult to convey the appeal of this, especially when one is used to using gears on a bike.  But if you are “gear-phobic” and don’t want to shift gears then you should check out this system.  You can widen this gearing range by adding a front derailer, with some restrictions.  (Unofficially, we think AZUB offers this option because their sales staff visited us at the 2017 HOT Rally and saw this mounted on Micah’s AZUB Origami.)
  • Rohloff Speedhub.  There are a lot of internally geared hubs out there, but queen of them all is the Rohloff Speedhub.  Not ones for half-measures, this is the only other stock IG hub option that AZUB offers.  This 14-speed hub has a 526% gearing range, similar to a derailer system.  This is a durable, heavy duty IG hub intended for long-distance touring use.
  • Pinion 12- and 18- speed system.  The Pinion Drive is an internally geared crankset, meaning the mechanism is all up front, under your pedals.  The 12-speed drive has a 600% range and the 18-speed drive has a 636% range, with much finer graduations between gears.

Brakes

  • Drum brakes.  These are great brakes for trikes.  They are weather sealed and very simple to maintain.  They have a soft feel to their stop.  This is good on a trike because you two front brakes doing all your stopping, so if a stop is too abrupt then you can lift your rear wheel.  We especially recommend the larger, 90mm drum over the standard 70mm drum.  It gives better stopping power but still keeps the “soft” feel.
  • Mechanical disk brakes.  By far the most common trike brake option.  Mechanical disk brakes like the excellent Avid BB-7 brake are powerful, user-serviceable, and so common that any mechanic will know their way around them.  If you often need to remove your front wheels for transport they are the best choice.
  • Hydraulic disk brakes.  These are most powered, best modulated (controls of braking power) and lightest brakes you can buy.  They require very little service, but if they do need service they require special tools and procedures.
More

Naturally, they don’t stop there

  • Dynamo hubs are an option that let you run your lights and electronics off of pedal power.  No more finding a plug to recharge.  A great choice for the self-contained outback triker
  • AZUB offers many color choices as standard options, or for an extra fee they will paint it however you like.  They will even paint different parts (frame, boom, seat, rack, swingarm, etc.) different colors.  Nobody else offers this option.
  • Three different seat sizes are available, depending on your torso length.
  • Tires, pedals, and other parts and accessories can all be specified as you want.

As we said before, the best thing is to tell us what is important to you.  Tell us how you see yourself riding.  We will work with you to finish out your AZUB trike.

Specifying a custom AZUB bicycle

For information about AZUB’s 3-wheelers, look here.

Like many high-end recumbent makers, AZUB typically builds your bike to order and gives you lots of choices.  This is a good thing so long as you know what you want and don’t find all these decisions intimidating.  We’ll lay our your major choices specifying the parts on your AZUB.  You don’t have to read all this, we can just listen to your wants, needs, and budget and work up the spec for you.

Top Line and Mainstream Line bikes:  Three of the AZUB bikes we offer, the MAX, the Six and the Mini make up AZUB’s “Top Line” series.  These bikes have really elegant CNC machined frame parts and represent the all the care AZUB can put into frame building.  But if you are on a budget they also make a “Mainstream Line,” which features most of their innovations, the seat adjustability and the arrangement of handlebars and controls, as well as all the choices below, but at about $500 less.

We focus on the Top Line because that is mostly what AZUB exports to the USA.  “In for a penny, in for a pound,” as they say, and once someone specs out a European superbike and waits for it to come in, most of them want all the marbles.  But still, AZUB makes these models so more Europeans (who have better healthcare but less cash) can afford an AZUB, and you can get all the essentials of what you like about a Top Line AZUB in a Mainstream model, and if you aren’t pushing the bike to its limits you might not even notice the difference.

The Ibis, Apus and Bufo are the Mainstream representations of the MAX, Six, and Mini.  The Twin Tandem and Origami bikes don’t have a corresponding mainstream version, nor do any of the trikes.

Now let’s look at components.  In short, there is a standard spec on each model for most items, with exception of the transmission.  Choosing what level of transmission you want is your first and only essential choice.  After that, you can upgrade the folding frame options (if any), rear suspension system, crankset, brakes, tires, and wheels.  We’ll go through each of these, though some of these might not apply to all models.

Transmission:  This specifies the derailers, internally geared hub (if any), shifters, crankset and cogset.  Gearing range is specified as a percentage, showing that the highest gear is xxx% higher than the lowest gear.  For example, many basic 24-speed trikes with a 20″ rear wheel have a range from 19 gear inches up to 95 gear inches.  That is a 500% gear range.  You might not intuitively know what 95 g.i. is, or if it is good enough to keep up with your faster buddies, but if we keep track of that while you do your test rides it will become more clear.  In general, the wider the range of gears, the better, with some specialized exceptions for competition bikes.

This list is in price order for models with no other upgrades.  (This is from their 2017 price list and might be updated).

  • None – You can order just a bare frame without anything except the seat, steering assembly, trike front wheels and suspension parts.  This usually isn’t very cost effective unless you already have the parts you want.
  • Shimano Claris – A basic, entry-level road bike group with an 8-speed 11-32 tooth cassette, and a basic 30/42/52 tooth road bike triple crankset.  537% gearing range
  • Shimano Sora – A better road bike group with a 9-speed 11-34 tooth cassette, and a basic 30/42/52 tooth road bike triple crankset.  571% gearing range
  • SRAM DualDrive 24 – An innovative rear hub that combines an easy-shifting 3-speed hub with an 8-speed 11-32 tooth cassette, with a good quality single 45 tooth crankset.  541% range.
  • SRAM DualDrive 27 – As above, but with a 9-speed 11-34 tooth cassette, with a good quality single 45 tooth crankset.  575% range.
  • Shimano XT – A good quality mountain bike group with a 10-speed 11-36 tooth cassette and a better quality 30/39/52 tooth road bike triple crankset.  604% gearing range.
  • Shimano Alfine 11 – An 11-speed internally geared hub paired with a good quality single 45 tooth crankset.  409% range on one shifter.  Electronic shifting is available as an option.
  • Rohloff Speedhub – An 14-speed hoo-ha oil bath internally geared hub, with the nice 45 tooth crankset.  526% range on one shifter.
  • Pinion Drive – A compact and elegant 18-speed gearbox mounted at the crankset, driving a single cog in the rear.  Totally insane 636% gearing range on one shifter.

Folding Upgrades – Among their bikes, the Origami folds as a standard option.  The Twin Tandem and all trikes come standard with a separable frame (quick disassemble for transport).  Folding hinges are an upgrade.  The TRIcon and Ti-Fly also have an Extreme Fold option for a more compact fold.  The MAX, Six, and Mini bicycles do not fold.

Steering Type – Trikes don’t have steering options, nor does the folding Origami, but all the other bikes have three:

  • Overseat steering – The classic recumbent bike steering, with a short handlebar held close to your chest.  This is versatile, adjustable, and works well when pedaling through tight turns.  This is stock on all the bikes.
  • Underseat steering – For this you hold your hands at hip level, just beside the seat.  The handlebar attaches under the frame and a linkage connects to the front fork.
  • Open Cockpit – This is the newer form of overseat steering, typical on the Bacchetta bikes that we carry.  Your elbows are more extended and your hands reach out to a longer curved bar that wraps around your knees.  It is more comfortable over the long haul and more aerodynamic, but it inhibits pedaling through tight turns.

Front Fork – This is an option on bikes only.  A rigid front fork is standard.  A variety of suspension forks are available, particulars depending on front wheel size and the level of sophistication you want

Rear Shock Upgrades – A coil/oil rear shock is standard on rear suspended models.  This is an oil-filled piston dampened by a spring which is interchangeable based on rider weight.  It is pretty reliable unless an oil seal starts to leak, which is rare but possible.  You can upgrade to a Suntour UNAIR LO-R compressed air shock, which you keep pumped up to an appropriate pressure.  Air shocks are more trouble but much more adjustable.  You can further upgrade to a Fox Float RL, which is a really nice air shock with more adjustability.

Crankset Upgrades – Models with front and rear derailers come standard with a generic 30/42/52 tooth triple crank, using a square taper bottom bracket.  You can upgrade to a more modern and lightweight integrated spindle design with either a 30/39/52 set for speed or a 28/36/48 set for touring with a load.  These cranks are all 170mm long.  They can be shorted to 152mm as an upgrade.  A Schlumpf Drive can be installed instead of a crankset from AZUB, but we find it more cost effective to supply the Schlumpf Drive ourselves.

Brake Upgrades – Linear pull rim brakes, or “V-brakes” are standard on bikes.  These are typical mountain bike brakes and will stop you well, but over the long haul they can wear out your rim, requiring expensive wheel repairs.  Bikes can be upgraded to better linear pull brakes, or to mechanical or hydraulic disk brakes.  Trikes come standard with 70mm drum brakes on the front wheels.  These are long-wearing brakes that stop well even in wet conditions.  They give a soft feeling stop.  Trikes can upgrade to stronger 90mm drum brakes, or to disk brakes, which give a more abrupt stop.  Mechanical or hydraulic disk brakes are both options on trikes.

Seat Upgrades – Bikes come standard with a composite shell seat, which can be upgraded to carbon fiber to save weight.  These have a cushion on top, which can be upgraded to a more supportive Ventisit 3cm thick cushion.  Trikes come with mesh seats only.  A 2cm Ventisit cushion can be added on top of this.

Tire Upgrades – Bikes come standard with Schwalbe Marathon Racer tires.  Trikes come with Schwalbe Tryker tires on 20″ wheels and Marathon Racer on 26″ rear wheels.  A vast array of Schwalbe tires are available, depending on your priorities, such as comfort, speed, puncture protection, the type of terrain you plan cross.

Wheelset Upgrades – Lighter wheels, using more narrow rims, are available as a fairly inexpensive upgrade, suitable for more narrow tires only.  AZUB also makes a proprietary aluminum wheel design called R.A.W. (Recumbent Aluminum Wheels), available separately or as an upgrade.  R.A.W. wheels are light but still suitable for wide tires, and have a striking appearance.

Frame color – Eight stock colors are available, and any RAL color is available as an upgrade.  AZUB offers a unique service called Color Shop.  Using their standard colors you can do multiple colors on one bike, creating a color scheme.  You can stick with a single color, or mix the color with black if you aren’t that daring.  Seat frames, or shell seats, can be painted different from the frame.  AZUB cargo racks can be painted.  You can mix in custom colors for an upcharge, or a matte finish instead of the standard glossy.  Some components cannot be painted, and some have limited color choices from their manufacturer, but AZUB above all other suppliers offers you the chance to create a unique vision for your ride.

More! – It doesn’t quit there, but we will.  Pedals, shifter options, electric shifting, dynamo hubs, ultra-wide range gearing, and so on, are all options from AZUB, depending on other factors.  And there are accessories out the yin-yang for touring, special needs, and comfort.  You’ll go cross-eyed trying to read it here.  Just come in and talk with us.

About tires and tubes

Tires are often the first things buyers choose to upgrade. Your choice of tires has a big effect on your ride. Here we’ll talk about choose the right tire for your needs and making sure it fits. We’ll also talk about inner tubes as well.

Some of the main qualities riders look for in tires are puncture-resistance, speed, and durability. Cost is sometimes a factor, but where you see cost become an impediment is when you start wanting multiple benefits, like speed and puncture resistance.

There are some truly cheap tires out there, but we don’t try to stock them. These tires are made for common, upright bike applications since knobby BMX or mountain bike tires, or slick 700c road bike tires. Most recumbents are aimed at street use and most don’t use 700c wheel sizes. Anyway, we never said we were competing on price.

Some notable tires we sell are:

  • Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires are very puncture resistant and the first choice of riders who don’t have speed goals but want to avoid fussing with fixing flats. Such tires are often chosen for electric motor wheels and rear wheels with internally-geared hubs, since these wheels can be more difficult to remove. Buyers who want a flat-resistant tire on a budget should look at the Schwalbe Marathon, our “working-man’s tire.” The whole Marathon line is strong on durability and having enough tread for reliable stability.
  • Schwalbe Tryker tires (who taught these people to spell?) were designed for tricycles, with a high-durability rubber compound at the centerline of the tread. Since trikes don’t lean, all the wear is along that one line. Tadpole trike steering puts scuff on the front tires, and Trykers were designed with that in mind. They have some puncture-resistance, but that isn’t their specialty.
  • Schwalbe Durano tires are fast tires, narrow and slick (no tread at all), aimed at road racers who are training and riding lots of miles, so durability is their specialty.
  • Schwalbe Durano Plus tires have extra puncture protection, making them long-wearing, flat-resistant, and somewhat fast. As we said, such tires start becoming expensive since they have all three qualities riders look for.

There are other tires besides these, and like anything else on your bike or trike, the key is to talk with us about what you want in your ride, what is important to you, and consider our suggestions.

It is critical that the tire you choose fits your wheel. Or, more particularly, the tire needs to fit your rim, which is the part of your wheel that holds the tire. A tire has two dimensions… its diameter and its width.

Tire diameter must match the rim’s diameter exactly. While there are some common standards, such as 559mm for 26” mountain bikes, or 622mm for 700c road bikes, things get complicated quickly. The “inch” measurement of tires and wheels is quite inexact, often used for different, incompatible sizes of rim. Tires called “20 inch” may be for either 406mm or 451mm diameter rims. “24 inch” tires might be for rims with 507mm, 520mm, 540mm or (perversely) 541mm diameter rims. 16 inch has at least two sizes, 26 inch has at least two. 27 inch tires fit slightly larger rims than 28 inch tires. Keep this in mind when you shop for bicycle tires on your own. If you buy tires from us we might want to know that exact rim/tire diameter so we sell you the right thing. The exact metric measurement is often printed on your tires, but most people don’t notice it. For example, a common 20×1.50” tire would read 40-406. That second number, the 406 in this case, is the critical number.

Width is the other tire dimension, and it isn’t as exact as diameter. The rule of thumb is that your tire’s nominal width should be between 1.5x and 2.5x your rim’s width. The exact width of the rim is measured in some inaccessible place on it using special tools, but it is often printed on the rim. If your rim is 18mm wide then tires between 27mm and 42mm are ideal. The advantage of right-sizing your tire is that if it is too narrow then in a blowout it will fall inside your rim and you’ll be rolling directly on your rim. On a 2-wheeler that would mean a certain fall, and likely rim damage as well. If the tire is too wide it can pull itself off the rim in a blowout, resulting in the same problem. Too wide a tire often complicates rim brake adjustment. Trikes don’t have as many concerns about falls, but they don’t want to damage their rims either.

Inner tubes typically fit a range of tire sizes. The Schwalbe brand tubes we sell are so stretchy, fitting such a wide range, they don’t even try to size them like tires. Again, tell us your tire size and we’ll find the right tube. We sell lots of #6 and #7 tubes.

Tubes are mainly distinguished by the type of valve they use. Mostly we see “schrader” valves, which are the same valves you see on car tires. Also common on bicycles are “presta” valves. Your tire doesn’t care what valve your tube has. Your rim cares, since it has a hole drilled in it for the valve to come through. Presta valves are more narrow than schrader valves, so a “presta rim” will have too small a hole for a schrader valve tube without drilling. Why this difference? Presta valve tend to hold high pressure better. Schrader valves are easier to use. Yes, it’s a pain, but there used to be a whole zoo of valve types, not just two, so count your blessings.

Some inner tubes have special features. If you want to maximize your speed you can seek out extra-lightweight tubes to put in your lightweight tires. Or you can get extra-thick inner tubes for puncture protection. This is a weight-intensive way of protecting yourself, but some riders, especially those with cheap tires, swear by them. We’ve seen more than one case where such “heavy duty” inner tubes went flat anyway because the valve stem broke completely off the tube (no patching that at the roadside). Certain rims require tubes with longer valves. Usually these long valves can only be found in presta.

Riding recumbent tricycles

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.

Braking

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.

Ex-seam measurement

Ex-seam is the standard way of sizing recumbents.  It is a measurement of leg length that takes your hips into consideration.  It will always be more than your in-seam length.  The best way of telling if a recumbent model will fit you is to come in and sit on it.  But if that isn’t possible you can check your ex-seam against the range that is (hopefully) supplied by the manufacturer.

There is a basic method to measuring ex-seam, but it becomes complicated by few variables and manufacturers aren’t always clear about their assumptions.

Here is the basic approach…

Sit on the floor with your back to the wall.  Stretch your legs out in front of you and measure to your heel.  That’s it.

A similar method is to put a book upright against the wall and push your tailbone against that.  Then measure from the book to your heel.

 

Another method, which Sun Seeker and TerraTrike use, has you leaning a board against the wall and leaning back against that.  Measure from the board to your heel.  You will get a shorter ex-seam measurement using this method than the standard method.

It isn’t always clear if you should be wearing your cycling shoes or not.  When in doubt, take the measurement with your preferred cycling shoes on.

Taking an ex-seam measurement isn’t a really sure-fire way of knowing what frames you will fit, as you can see. If you take a measurement without help you will tend to get a too-big number (this has been our experience). In general, we find that people are more likely to come in thinking they are long enough in the legs for some model but find they are too short.  We can reduce leg length on some models by using shorter crank arms or adding cushions to the seat.

 

Shopping for a recumbent trike or bike

We take an active hand helping our customers when shopping for the bike that fits their needs. Of course, some buyers have a firm idea of what they want, but most people are looking for some advice, so first we ask them a few questions:

1. What kind of riding do you want to do? This gets all kinds of answers, but it settles into a few types:
  • Casual riding is for fitness and fun, often on trails, in parks, or neighborhoods.  The riding is the point, not the destination.  Visibility and cargo are of some interest, but often the rider wants creature comforts like a drink holder or phone holder.
  • Highway riding is about top speeds and aerodynamics, with less emphasis on starts and stops. Traffic is simpler, with cars spotting the bike at a distance then overtaking from behind. Cargo capacity may be an option if the rider is considering self-supported trips. Riders expecting to doing 50 mile days on a regular basis may want to invest more money in components which can take prolonged pounding.
  • Urban riding needs fast, easy starts, a high eye-height and the ability to mount flags and lights for visibility and complex traffic situations. Light-duty off-road use and curb climbing also figures into this riding. How well the bike operates on a sidewalk, among pedestrians, is also important, even if you are mainly a vehicular cyclist. Urban riding is distinguished by the where one rides, not why or how far. The dedicated all-weather commuter and fair-weather neighborhood or hike & bike trail rider are both urban riders.
  • Suburban riding is a mix of both types, expecting some riding in crowded highway conditions and larger arterials, where a top speed is more important but stop and go handling is also needed. How well the bike rides on the front of a bus or on a train is another important consideration for this challenging, but socially important, form of cycling.
  • Off-road riding is where handling on all kinds of impossible terrain takes precedence over all else. This last type is not a common recumbent application, but there are models out there designed for this task.
2. How tall are you?
  • Short-legged people may want to avoid certain models that sit them high off the ground. Highly reclined bikes also make it more difficult to put a foot down since the pelvis is rocked back. Both of these factors weigh against short-wheelbase models, though there are some exceptions to this. Overall, long wheelbase models tend to sit the rider lower and in a more upright position. Of course, highway riders will be less concerned with getting afoot down than city riders, but easy stops and starts are still a serious matter.
  • Tall people have their choice, up to a point. Very heavy people can be accommodated as well, though the over 400 pound crowd will need to look into specialty frame builders. Anything can be done, for a price…
3. How much are you prepared to spend? As of January 2017 these numbers are good guidelines:
  • There can be hard limits to your budget or soft. We’ll listen to your needs and try to get a sense of where you best upgrades are, but we’ll respect your boundaries on price. You get what you pay for. We don’t claim to be discounters.
  • In terms of our stock, if the budget is “around $1,500,” we’ll have something for you, whatever you want to do, often with something left over.
  • If the answer is something like “under $2,200” then you have a nice, wide field to select from, with good quality available and a decent amount left over for accessories or minor upgrades. Some bikes cost more than that, but you can usually find something good under $2,200, in both bikes and trikes.
  • We tend to stock bikes costing up to around $2,500, but fancier ones in our showroom. As is typical for bikes, spending more gets you the same thing only lighter, sometimes with some sacrifice in comfort for the sake of light, stiff frame and seat materials. The exception to this is suspension, which adds weight and comfort, as well as price.
  • We tend to stock trikes up to $4,000, but full suspension models always cost $4K + change. Do you really need suspension? How important is folding? These are two easily approached variables.  If you want to go fast on a trike you should be ready to spend at least $2,500.
  • A good quality electric assist realistically adds $2,000, up to $2,500 for a long range battery. Full suspension trikes and electric assist are a fine combo, but you’ve to got to be ready to look at some $7K plus tax total.
  • Tandems start at about $2,000 but rapidly jump to $5,000-6,000, both for bikes and trikes.
Other thoughts on price…
  • If your answer is “under $600,” then you need to look on Craigslist and cheap beaters sold used. Old BikeE’s and EZ-1’s tend to turn up in that range. Caveat emptor, but we can help revive a used bike. BikeE’s are long out of production and later models had some failure prone parts.
  • We have our biases advising you on your budget, but we’ve seen some foolish purchases made for the sake saving a buck at any cost. Some trikes are sold online by people who inflate the price and talk it up, then offer you a fabulous deal. Some of these are total crap, and we know because they come to us immediately. If you cannot find anyone online who actively rides one then think twice. Do you want to be frugal?  Buy a TerraTrike.  If you want to stretch your budget for quality but not get too spendy then get a Catrike.
  • You might find it cheaper elsewhere, but we’re not out soak you.  We take care of our customers and they love us.  I’d love to sell you trike, and it isn’t just because I’ve got a mortgage to pay.
This is a good opportunity to address the difference in cost between recumbents and similarly equipped upright bikes. Indeed, recumbents do cost more, but this comes from more than their being a specialty item.
  • Foremost is the seat, which is the most distinguishing feature of any recumbent. The seat is the basis of the bike’s comfort and its ability to deliver power. The seat needs solid construction.  It requires more tube bending and welding than a bike frame.  Then they add in mesh and cushion.  Contouring must be exact for comfort. Aftermarket seats will easily cost $200 or more. Bike makers build seats specific to their frames.  Sometimes the seat is part of the frame.
  • Steering risers, handlebars, and often front forks are often unique.  Manufacturers cannot buy standard designs.  They must build these items specifically.  There is more cross-compatibility in steering parts between recumbents than in seat parts.
  • Small manufacturers must also be more conservative in the profit that they make per completed bike, as their unit output is smaller. Also, not being part of a complex, diversified corporation, losses in the bike production business cannot be so easily made up by profits from elsewhere. Similarities certainly exist in the mountain and road bike industries, which each have a zoo of small frame makers, usually selling high-end bikes in order to justify the margins they need to stay profitable.
4. Have you any particular physical complaints?
  • Some people need to recline way back. Others don’t want to hold their shoulders in particular places.  If you must sit bolt upright then look at TerraTrikes.
  • Some people have balance problems, or physical deformities, or injuries, or what have you. These are factors that we often work with.
5. How much cargo will you need to carry?
  • Different frame styles have differing cargo capacities.
  • Some designs limit what trailers they can pull.
  • Also, heavy cargo loads may require a different range of gearing than comes standard with the bike.

Learning to ride a recumbent bicycle

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.

Types of Recumbents

There is no need for you to read all this. It gets kind of technical. If you are shopping then the #1 thing is to ride stuff and talk with an expert. But we offer this discussion of types of recumbents anyway. Knowing this might streamline a conversation with our staff if things get technical.

Among recumbent bicycles (2-wheelers) there are long wheelbase (LWB) and short wheelbase (SWB) designs. Long wheelbase has the front wheel ahead of the cranks (the assembly that the pedals are on), and SWB has the cranks as the foremost thing on the bike. Long wheelbase bikes with a smaller set of wheels are called compact long wheelbase (CLWB).

Among tricycles, there are delta trikes, which have one wheel in front and two in back, which mainly tend to be like LWB bikes, with the front wheel ahead of the cranks (alternatives exist, but they are rare). There are also tadpole trikes, with two wheels in front and one in back, which are like short wheelbase bikes, with the pedals at the very front.

Seat recline and crank height

Long wheelbase (LWB) bikes and delta trikes tend to sit more upright, and they tend to have the cranks lower than the seat. Many short wheelbase (SWB) bikes and tadpole trikes are designed to be ridden in a more reclined position, but not all of them. Upright sitting SWBs, like the Lightning Phantom, are more common than highly reclined LWBs. SWB bikes and tadpole trikes tend to have higher cranks, usually about level with the seat, and some even higher. Very high cranks reduce your aerodynamic profile (which is good), but they can cause poor blood circulation in the legs of some people, canceling out that benefit. Having both an upright seat and high cranks puts the rider in a more tucked position, giving better acceleration and climbing.

Seat height

Long wheelbase bikes usually sit lower to the ground than short wheelbase bikes. Between both the more upright sitting position and the lower seat height, LWB models tend to be easier to stop and start than SWBs, making them more practical for stop and go city riding. The more upright seat of the LWB puts the driver’s eyes at about the same level as those of a person driving a car or a light truck, so it isn’t like your looking up under people’s bumpers on these bikes.

Delta trikes, on the other hand, tend to sit higher than tadpole trikes. Tadpole trikes sit quite low, giving them good aerodynamics and light weight. These features, along with the reclined sitting position, recommends tadpoles for “road bike” riding out on the open highway. For neighborhood riding, delta trikes tend to better due to their more elevated seat and tighter turning ability.

The very low seat of tadpole trikes makes it like a 3-wheeled version of a low racer, which a specialized form of SWB bike designed for time trials on a track. Reclined SWB bikes with a pair of large wheels are called high racers, and they aren’t as good for stop and go driving.

Over seat Steering

Now it gets more complicated.

Roughly speaking, there are two types of steering: over seat steering (OSS) and under seat (USS). With OSS, your heads are held in front of you, much like when you are driving a car. There is no weight on your hands. With USS, the handlebars connect beneath the seat. Sometimes your hands are actually beneath the seat, but sometimes the handlebars wrap up around the sides of the seat and your hands are just above your hips. This latter form of USS is sometimes called side stick steering, and is the way most tadpole trikes steer. We don’t really consider side stick to be truly under seat steering, but it is physically much more similar to USS than OSS.

Tiller OSS is typical on LWB bikes. The handlebar riser comes up from the headset (where the front wheel fork pivots to steer) and then it pulls back from the steering axis.  How much “tiller” the design has is the measurement from the steering axis to the handlebars. Some people will tell you that “tiller is bad,” but what they really mean is that excessive tiller is bad. Having some tiller gives you easy control for tracking a straight line at speed. Too much tiller means excessive swinging of the bars left and right just to keep balance. In order to keep tiller to a manageable level, LWB bikes have a relaxed head tube angle, meaning that the steering axis is farther off of vertical than it is on an ordinary bicycle.

Riser OSS steering is typical on SWB bikes. The riser comes up from the front fork. We call the older style of riser steering the praying hamster position. (This from the same culture that gave us terms like aero-belly.)  You pull the riser back to an adjustable stop so that the handlebar is quite close to the rider’s chest, lending to the name. By pulling the bars back you get some tiller for easier high speed tracking. By reclining the seat you can pull them back more and still keep some clearance from your chest. Some bikes have fixed risers that don’t pivot. This saves weight and can offer more pedaling torque.

Another style of riser steering is called open cockpit, or “tweener bars” or “the superman position.” The riser might pivot forward to help with getting on and off, and to adjust for arm length, but not always. In this position, the bars are farther away from the riser, often ahead of the steering axis. The knees come up behind the handlebar and the arms wrap around the knees to hold a wider bar. Tight turns are a little more difficult with tweener bars since the end of the bar can hit a knee when pedaling through a tight turn. This position is more aerodynamic and lets you keep your arms more extended.

Sometimes a LWB bike uses riser steering. The steering connects just ahead of the seat and a linkage connects it up to the fork in front. This design is called linkage steering. It allows for a more reclined position on a LWB, since reclining with tiller OSS results in too much tiller. Linkage OSS bikes usually have a more vertical head tube angle than tiller OSS bikes.  Such designs have been called medium wheelbase (MWB) for that reason.

Under seat Steering

Under seat steering had faded from the bicycle market, but side stick steering is still very popular on tadpole trikes. USS can be divided into three types: thumbs up, thumbs in, and thumbs forward, describing the orientation of the hands when gripping the bars. USS works best on SWB or tadpole designs, since the steering apparatus is all close to the seat, which keeps the handlebar under the seat. It can be used on linkage steering LWB bikes and delta trikes as well.

Thumbs in USS is not very ergonomic, but it is easy and cheap to build. It keeps the hands far down, leading to lower weight and shorter cable runs. Thumbs forward is also a low style of USS. It is more ergonomic but requires a more complicated handlebar design. Thumbs up is the most ergonomic and it allows for a higher hand position, such as side stick steering. Some trikes have thumbs in side stick steering, such as TerraTrikes.

Side stick USS is particularly popular on tadpole trikes for the practical reason that to mount the trike the rider stands ahead of the seat, straddling the trike forward boom, and sit backwards into it. With riser OSS the handlebars get in the way of sitting down. We have seen riser OSS tadpole trikes, including a famous racing model.

Trike Under seat Steering

To steer the two front wheels of a tadpole trike you need a more complex assembly.  We see two primary types. Indirect steering is the classic form, with a yoke-shaped handlebar pivoting under the seat and two steering rods reaching out to the front wheel hubmounts (variously called kingpins, kingposts, hubmounts or spindles… sheesh).  Direct steering is a newer innovation. Here, the handlebars are two separate short pieces that attach directly to the hubmounts.  A single linkage connects the kingpins. There is no central pivot under the seat. Direct steering is lighter and simpler than indirect, with much easier adjustment. Its main problem is that it transmits more vibration from the front wheels to the hands. Direct steering trikes are not for everyone, but it has its fans.

Seat types

Happily, seat types are not so bound up with other factors like wheelbase, steering type and headtube angle. However, seats are proprietary and usually not interchangeable between different manufacturers’ ‘bents.  We need the seat to be firmly connected to the frame, as it is a part of the drivetrain. Often the seat integrates into the frame, which limits adjustability but increases power and safety.

Seats come in two main types: shell and mesh. Shell seats are the oldest and simplest style, a rigid material like fiberglass or carbon fiber molded into a cup shape fitted to sit in. Then it is covered with a pad for comfort and to aid circulation. They are light and stiff, so well suited for racing. They can be surprisingly comfortable, but not for everyone. Shell seats are only found on expensive bikes that need to be ultra light, or else really inexpensive ones. They are only practical on reclined seats. Sitting too upright on a hard seat leads to a condition called recumbent butt, often solved by taking a short break while riding.

Mesh seats are much more common. These use a fabric mesh stretched over a metal frame, much like lawn furniture. Mesh seats come in two types: mesh back and full sling. On a mesh back seat, the rider sits on a foam cushion that rests on the frame of the bike and reclines against a mesh seat back. On a full sling seat, the rider sits on tensioned mesh.

Full sling is regarded as better for blood circulation, but the tricky thing about full sling seats are how the nose of the seat is supported. Some designs use a “saddle horn” at the nose of the seat that allows for a cut away, triangular shaped base, which helps with getting the feet down and for pedaling on lower cranks. But the saddle horn can conflict with some people’s anatomy, depending on how they are built. Other full sling seats use a square front, which avoids the saddle horn but makes it harder to decline the legs to a lower crankset.

A recent development of the full sling seat is Bacchetta’s Euro-mesh seat. This uses an ovular metal frame, resembling a shell seat in dimensions.  They stretch a mesh over that, with a foam cushion from a shell seat on top of it. The narrow contours of a shell seat helps smaller people get their legs to the ground.  It also gives the aerodynamic advantages of the narrow seat.  It has more give and breathablilty, and only slightly more weight than a shell seat. We consider this seat to be a great innovation in SWB bikes.  Many people have trouble comfortably starting and stopping on a high seat. The Euromesh seat needs to be reclined.

Seat adjustment

Seats move relative to the crankset to adjust for leg length. There are two ways of doing this. The usual method is for the seat to slide along the frame. In some cases, the seat moves between fixed mounting points on the frame. This type doesn’t give as much fine control over leg length, but reclining the seat will serve to increase leg length slightly. Overall, sliding seats are the most common kind os seat adjustment system.

The other method, which we see only on short wheelbase bikes or tadpole trikes, is called telescoping boom.  This means that the boom, or the section of the frame sticking out ahead of the front wheel, slides fore or aft. This method has the advantage that the seat stays fixed to the frame with near-optimum weight distribution between the wheels.  Re-sizing the frame is more hassle, since the chain must be re-sized each time the boom is adjusted. There are idler assemblies that can take up the slack of the extra chain, but they inevitably cause noise and lend extra weight. Some designs have used both sliding boom and sliding seat so as to let the rider optimize their sitting position relative to USS handlebars mounted on the frame.

Some designs have used a sliding crankset that clamps to the main frame of the bike.  This design means that short riders have lots of extra bike sticking out ahead of them. There have been MWB bikes with linkage steering that have used telescoping booms.  This design requires extra fittings to insure that the front wheel assembly doesn’t collapse from the boom rotating in the main frame, under the rider’s weight.

Add it all up

Different types of recumbents have different strengths and characteristics.  You should discuss what kind of riding you want to do with experienced recumbent experts.  And you should sit down and feel how the various frame types, seats, and steering arrangements work for you.

Choosing components for your recumbent

Compatibilities:

For the most part, you can use whatever bike components you want on your recumbent. Of course you should stay aware of compatibility issues in wheels, headsets, brakes, transmissions, and drivetrains as on any bike, and consult with a mechanic before buying replacement parts. There is no problem using clipless pedals on recumbents, and you can use whatever pedals you like.  We encourage you to get familiar with starting and stopping before removing the stock pedals.

Mechanical differences:

You, or your preferred local bike shop, should be aware of these differences:

Frame and frame specific accessories:

Of course the frame is different, and the seat parts, many steering parts, and sometimes the front fork, are manufacturer-specific. In some cases a part is borrowed from other applications (such as the seatpost clamps used on many steering risers).  But mostly you should expect to get such parts from the manufacturer or from shops like Easy Street who are familiar with these items. Also, accessories that are designed to mount to the bike frame (including computers, dynamos, kickstands, frame pumps, and racks) might have incompatibilities with your recumbent. It is best to confer with an experienced recumbent mechanic before buying such items. Easy Street stocks lots of items that we know to work well with our bikes. Water bottle cages are not a problem on most makes.

Cable length and cable management:

Some recumbents require tandem length cables on rear brakes or shifters. We have plenty of these at Easy Street, but if you are sourcing parts from elsewhere, make sure they keep some of these in stock. Cable management, or how the cables are routed and secured, varies with each design. Good cable management is one of the subtle benefits of well-engineered recumbents. The design must allow for size adjustment while still keeping cables in place., Cables should stay out of the pedals and chain, and should not bind in sharp turns. Guide tubes supplied with linear pull brakes may not direct the cable housing appropriately, but these are easy parts to bend or replace. Be aware that less experienced shops might route cables incorrectly, leading unnecessary noise, wear, or brake seizure during turns.

Chain management and cross-gearing:

Two to three regular chains are needed to equip a recumbent.  You just buy chains and rivet several of them together using the standard procedures, tools and materials for working with bike chain. No special chain or links are needed. Rollers and tubes used to guide the chain are used on some models, and these parts are usually manufacturer specific. Chain management parts are the only system that is truly peculiar to recumbents and not found on other bikes (except for downhill bikes). A benefit of the long chain is that cross gearing is not a problem on properly built recumbents.  Nor are recumbents too fussy about proper chain line.

Wheel parts:

Recumbent wheels are built just like other bike wheels, using the same hubs, shorter spokes, and smaller rims. In many cases, BMX specific rims and tires are suitable for recumbents.  This doesn’t mean they are optimal, though.  True recumbent wheels have more narrow rims and mountain or road bike hubs.

Some people express reservations about the smaller wheels on recumbents. For the most part, smaller wheels are not slower because such bikes are built with larger gear ratios, resulting in a range of gears similar to other bikes. People pushing for highest possible speed (at the expense of other factors) opt for larger wheels.  The lower angular speed at the hub gives less rolling resistance. Larger wheels also make for a higher sitting bike, meaning tougher starts and stops, and a taller aerodynamic profile. Smaller wheels are stronger and have less mass (relative to how fat the rim and tire are), meaning faster acceleration.

 

Riding recumbent bicycles

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.

Tight turns:

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.

Pedaling cadence:

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.

Climbing:

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.