Frequently asked questions about recumbent bicycles
Frequently Asked Questions about Recumbent Bicycles

Q. What IS that thing ?!?

A. Well, it's called a 'recumbent' bicycle. The word recumbent refers to the reclined seating position; many enthusiasts have also taken to calling them 'bents'.

Q. What's an HPV?

A. It's a human powered vehicle. This can refer to a bicycle, a boat, a plane or anything else that moves solely by human power. HPVs are usually powered by bike pedals and chains, but anything from rowboats to roller-skates are HPVs. 

Q. Are they comfortable?

A. They are very comfortable. Recumbent seats are larger and you actually sit in the seat. You aren't perched on top of a narrow saddle which can tend to cause numbness and chafing. The handlebars are either above the seat at shoulder level, or below the seat at a position where your arms hang down naturally. This combination creates a comfortable ride making long distance riding free from neck strain, saddle sores, and wrist pain.

Q. Are they difficult to ride?

A. No. It may take you a little time to get used to the feel and handling of the bike. There are variations in handling just as there are in uprights- some are fast, twitchy racing models and others are smooth, stable touring models. Be forewarned though, recumbents use different muscles, so even if you are a very fit upright rider, you will experience difficulty climbing hills until you develop the new muscle groups. Training your muscles to the new position generally takes 3 months. 

Q. Do they "do" hills?

A. Yes, they do "do" hills. Some people think that because you can't stand on the pedals, that you can't ride up hills. Depending on how steep a hill you're climbing, you may want a low granny gear (and a good set of lungs), which will enable you to spin your way to the top. Usually you can keep up with some of the upright riders, and if any time was lost climbing, you will make up for it on the down hills and flat ground. A light recumbent with an efficient drivetrain should climb as fast as an equivalent weight road bike with equivalent rider.

Q. Are they faster?

A. Well, this is very controversial. All of the land speed and distance records are held by (faired) recumbent or semi-recumbent designs. The real question you are asking is, will you be faster on a recumbent?

The answer is, "maybe". There are so many factors involved; how long you've been riding, how long you've trained on the recumbent, style and weight of the bike, topography - hilly, mountainous, flat. Since the biggest factor limiting speed is aerodynamic drag, if you want to go really fast, use a recumbent with a well-designed fairing or a full body. In this case, the answer is YES, they are faster.

Q. Are recumbents hard to see?

A. Since recumbents are relatively uncommon, they are "noticed"; "visible" is another question. You do sit lower than on a traditional diamond frame bike. Depending on which recumbent you own, you may want to make yourself a little more visible. Some recumbents in the low racer and trike styles are difficult to see in traffic. They require extra caution if ridden in moderate traffic areas. If you will be riding often in traffic, a recumbent with a seat  higher than 16" is recommended.

Q. How do you steer it?

A. Generally, recumbents have either 'above seat steering' (ASS), or 'under seat steering' (USS). On the above seat steering bents, the handlebars are located at about shoulder height giving them the "chopper" look. On the under seat steering bikes, they are located just beneath the seat. If you are sitting on a chair right now, let your hands hang loosely at your side; this is where your handlebars would be. Above seat steering looks more conventional and is therefore sometimes favored by beginners; but USS bents are really no more difficult to control.

Q. Have recumbents been around a while or are they a recent invention?

A. Recumbents have been around since the mid 1800's with the Macmillan Velocipede and the Challand Recumbent. In 1933 Charles Mochet built a supine recumbent named the "Velocar". Between the years of 1933 and 1938 pro racer Francois Faure, while riding the Velocar, set several speed records for both the mile and kilometer. In Paris on July 7, 1933, Francis Faure broke the 20 year-old hour record of 44.247 km. by going 45.055 km.

Unfortunately Faure's hour record created a controversy amongst the Union Cycliste Internationale (U.C.I.), the governing body for bicycle races. In February 1934, the U.C.I. decided against Faure's record and banned all recumbents and aerodynamic devices from racing. That is the reason why recumbents have not gained popularity in the racing scene, and why they have not been mass produced by bike manufacturers.

Q. What are the different styles of recumbents?

A. The most noticeable difference between the different styles is the length of the bike. There are long wheel base (lwb), short wheel base (swb), and compact long wheel base bikes (clwb).

A long wheelbase bike (LWB) is 65" - 71". Their ride is quite smooth, comfortable, fast and stable but due to their length, low speed maneuverability can be a bit tricky on busy streets or on narrow paths. Examples: Tour Easy, Rans.

A short wheelbase bike (SWB) is 33" - 45". Their front wheel is underneath or a little ahead of the riders knees, with the crankset mounted on a boom. They have quick handling, are easy to maneuver, and they are more compact, making it easier to transport and stow than a lwb. 
Examples: Bacchetta, Barcroft Virginia, Rans Rocket

A compact long wheelbase bike (CLWB) is 46" - 64". These bikes are the easiest bikes to learn on. They are responsive, very stable, and with a higher seat- they are more visible, making great commuters. Examples: Sun EZ-1. BigHa, and Maxarya

A lowracer has a seat height under 12". These bikes are typically SWB, but can be LWB. You can normally put your hand down at stops. Typically the seats are hard shell and very laid back. These bikes are very fast due to their low frontal area, and take advantage of the fact that the wind slows down as it nears the ground. These bikes are best for racing or riding in low traffic areas.

In general bikes with the "racer" designation have a laid back seat 20 degrees or less and a bottom bracket at least 5" higher than the seat.

A quasi-lowracer (or midracer) has a seat between 13 and 20 inches, and generally uses SWB lowracer bike geometry, with a bottom bracket that is 5" or more higher than the seat. These bikes are faster than SWB, but slower than a lowracer. They are used extensively in Europe for touring.

A highracer has two 700C, 650C or 26" wheels. These bikes can have a very laid back lowracer type seating position. The efficient driveline and big wheels make them fastest for hills and bumpy roads.

To distinguish between the bent tube style racer bikes and the single straight tube racer bikes the straight tube one is sub-classified as a "stick bike".

A prone is a bike that you power while laying on your front side, head first, as opposed to a recumbent where you are sitting or laying on your back side, feet first.


Q. How much do they cost?

A. Recumbent bikes start at around $500 and can go as high as you want to pay. Because of their low production volumes and comfy seat, a recumbent tends to be more expensive than a mass-produced upright bike. So when comparing prices, bear in mind you're buying a custom or very low production bike. Expect to pay $800- $1200 or more for a good quality bike. This price range will give you very good components, a good frame and less weight.

Q. Why can't I ride no handed on a recumbent? 

A. Because the 'bent pilot's legs are parallel to the bike's roll axis... not perpendicular (as is the case on a typical DF). On a DF, the legs are essentially control linkages, allowing the rider to independently tilt the frame will remaining balanced. Once the frame is tilted in the desired direction, trail responds by turning the wheel assembly in the direction tilted. On a 'bent, the rider's horizontal leg position inhibits (or eliminates) control of frame tilting.

Q. Where can I get one?

A. Check out the 'Bent Dealers and Manufacturers 'Bent Guide pages on the home page for new Recumbents. For used bikes you'll find a good number of listings in the Used Bikes forum.

Some Common Abbreviations
Thanks to Mike Mowett for typing these out!

HPV = Human Powered Vehicle
ASS = above seat steering - also a bad word if used by itself.
USS = under seat steering
LWB = long wheel base = crankset between front and rear wheels
CLWB = compact long wheelbase = crankset just behind front wheel
SWB = short wheel base = crankset forward of front wheel
RWD = rear wheel drive
FWD = front wheel drive

BB = bottom bracket
T = tooth (example: 53t gear)
CF = carbon fiber

Q-factor = width between pedals - important when building a fairing
OD = outer diameter of tube
ID = Inner diameter of tube
BMX = a type of childrens dirt bicycle with 20" wheel size
CAD = computer aided design (drafting or drawing on computer)
CNC = computer numeric controlled (programmable milling machine to cut metal or shapes)
CFD = computational fluid dynamics (making better aerodynamic shape on computer)
LBS = Local Bike Store

MTB = mountain bike
RR = road racing bike
DF = diamond frame (road bike)

IHPVA = International Human Powered Vehicle Association
HPVA = Human Powered Vehicle Association - now the IHPVA in North America
HPRA = Human Powered Race America - a group formed to host and foster HPV racing in the USA.
WRRA = World Recumbent Racing Association - a group formed to recognize recumbent records
WISIL = Wisconsin Illinois HPV group, one of the most active in North America
WHPSC = World Human Powered Speed Challenge held each year in Battle Mountain

 

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