BluesCat is a 60-year-old Phoenix, Arizona resident who originally returned to bicycling in 2002 in order to help his son get the Boy Scout Cycling merit badge. His bikes sat idle until the summer of 2008 when gas prices spiked at over $4.00 per gallon. Since then, he has become active cycling, day-touring, commuting by bike, blogging (azbluescat.blogspot.com) and giving grief to the forum editors in the on-line cycling community.
Short for “recumbent.” A bike that’s built close to the ground for less wind resistance, and lower center of gravity.
First Middle Schooler: “Woo! That’s BAD!”
Second Middle Schooler: “Yeah! Really SICK!”
People familiar with today’s adolescent-speak will know that these comments mean those two young fellows have a positive view of something. In this instance, it is me gliding down the driveway in front of my house aboard a bicycle called Bluetiful.
Of course, it isn’t the dashing figure riding the bike, but Bluetiful herself who is eliciting those admiring comments. She is an EZ-Sport CX recumbent; a sensuous collection of metal curves designed by the late Gardner Martin, of Easy Racers fame, and manufactured by Sun Bicycles.
I have to admit the classic lines of the EZ-Sport were a definite plus factor in my decision to buy it. (I was frustrated as a youth because my folks couldn’t afford to buy me a Schwinn Stingray.) Add to that the fact that I was seriously intrigued by the much touted comfort of recumbents–in addition to the reality that I am a geek, and the whole geeky concept of a recumbent bike is something impossible to resist–and you have a recipe for an easy sale.
So, the bike is comfortable and gorgeous, but how practical is it?
I started bike commuting back in the summer of 2008, when gas prices spiked at over four bucks a gallon; riding a Giant Yukon mountain bike with a rear rack and panniers. Commuting the 16-mile round trip to work and back constitutes the vast majority of my yearly vehicle mileage. After riding the EZ-Sport for around 22 months now, I can happily report that the EZ Sport is an excellent commuting bicycle, has become my main ride and the only bike I ride to work.
The experience has not been without some challenges. Recumbents have a much lower center of gravity; for new riders the “twitchies” required for balancing begin at a higher speed than on a diamond frame (DF) bike. This is mitigated on the EZ-Sport by the long wheelbase (LWB) of 62 inches. This is also the reason most new ‘bent riders start with the LWB bikes rather than the more responsive and twitchier short wheelbase (SWB) bikes. After a short time, most riders, even of SWB’s, find they adjust very well and do not have problems staying upright.
A 62-inch wheelbase translates into an overall length of around 85 inches, which means LWB ‘bents can present problems for commuters who utilize mixed-mode commuting. You will have problems putting an LWB bike in the rack on a city bus. Some commuter trains, such as the Metro in Phoenix, allow you stand to one side of the car with your bike, rather than having to hang it on a rack. Prospective LWB riders should check with their local transit authority. SWB ‘bents can go pretty much anywhere a DF can.
Some riders are concerned that the low profile of a recumbent translates into lower visibility. In the desert southwest, bike riders share the road with humongous SUV’s which would mask riders of Penny Farthing bicycles from view! Actually, like Penny Farthings, recumbent bikes are so unusual looking that I think they’re more visible than regular bikes. Some ‘bent riders will assuage their fear by putting a flag on a lightweight mast. I have a mast and flag, too, but it is more a fashion statement than a safety device.
Speaking of equipment, most regular racks, panniers, lights, computers, and all other accessories will fit right on a recumbent with no alteration required. And, except for things like chain length, the drive trains, brakes and shifters are common mountain bike or road bike systems. Your favorite local bike shop can service a ‘bent, and a lot of bike shops stock recumbents or can order them in and assemble them for you.
New recumbents are generally more expensive than a new DF bike with the same level of components, and almost always are slightly heavier than a comparably equipped DF bike, but the pain of that extra cost and weight is more than compensated for by the fact that the recumbent presents a much lower wind profile. Some say the lower wind resistance improves your riding efficiency by as much as 50 percent or more. While I’m sure about that, I can say the advantage of Bluetiful over my Giant is appreciable; translating into a 3-4 mph advantage in almost every riding condition but off-road.
“Recumbents can’t climb” is a myth which is easily disproved. The four-man bike team which won the 2009 RAAM was riding LWB RANS X-Stream ‘bents, and I’m told they increased their lead on the climbs. This myth centers around the idea that you cannot stand in the pedals of a recumbent, and so can’t use your weight on the climbs. Another way of looking at the issue is, yes, on a conventional DF bike the maximum amount of power you can put to the pedals is your own weight; whereas on a ‘bent your legs are wedged between the seat back and the pedal so–just as with a Dead Lift competitors–you can put much more pressure to your foot than just your weight.
Caution! Because you can put so much “mettle to the pedal” on a recumbent, there are many anecdotal reports of competent DF cyclists blowing out a knee when first riding a ‘bent. I can say from experience that when I have been riding my Giant a lot, and then switch to Bluetiful, my right knee will complain unless I’m mindful of the different technique required.
You use a slightly different set of muscles on a ‘bent, and you might find you are pretty sore when you first start riding one. Recumbents help you to become an overall better rider, and that means when you adjust to the bike you will get much faster, of course, and become a better climber to boot.
You are automatically a better rider if you are more comfortable, if the bicycle “fits” you, which means that a ‘bent rider is way out in front of a DF rider at the start. Most recumbents can accommodate almost every sized rider, and there is a body measurement, called the X-Seam, which can be made to make sure you get exactly the right sized ‘bent you need if your body size is too far out of the range of “average.”
Comfort, again, is the name of the game, and you don’t need any special, padded drawers or other … accessories … to ride for miles and miles in laid-back comfort on a ‘bent. I typically wear cargo shorts, and in the warm summer rains of Phoenix I have been known to wear a t-shirt, swim trunks and a pair of Crocs. (I’d ride naked, but I don’t think our local law enforcement would appreciate how comfortable that is.) I don’t think I would ride nearly as much as I do if I had to use some butt butter or other product to grease up my derriere in order to go to work. That just seems so … wrong; so utterly … creepy! No thanks, I’ll just continue to ride my Lemans Blue Bluetiful and endure the comments …
“WHOA! Nice bike, Mister!”