By Steve Robson
After several years of riding both recumbents and up-right bikes, I feel it is time to write about the different types and tell both there strengths and weak points of there designs from my point of view. Five different types are being compared on the following items, Overall handling on varied surfaces, Transportabily on cars, Overall safety in varying traffic conditions, Overall design layout, and Comfort on the bike on long trips.
There are some small variations with each of the test bikes. Some have less number of gears then others but then they where designed for different overall usage from the other types.
As I stated in the opening of this article, five different design types are used for comparison in there role as a bike design. Let s look at different types and see how they compare to one another.
The Road Bike
For decades this design has been called the best overall type for long distance riding. One of the main reasons for this type is its weight disturbution that is the riding position offers. The weight balance is 55% rear/ 45% front. This will give the best riding and handling characteristics for a rider. the body makes best use of its muscle groups in both the upper and lower body. Climbing up hills can make best use the upper body to get additional power. However, a number of design details tend to work against this type. While the overall use of muscles is more effective, the problems begin from a number of areas. For the rider to be using the muscles in there most effective way, the head must be tilted in an upward position for extended amounts of time. It would be like looking up into the sky all day when walking. Because of this position, a number of things happen. The neck becomes strained and sore of a period of time. Another is problem that I have run into is when drinking water while riding, sometimes I will choke on the water that an drinking. I think this is due to the fast that when the head is tilted upwards, this is the same position that is used in mouth the mouth resuscitation in a first aid emergency situation. The air way passage way flap in the throat is now part way open to the lungs. Small amounts of water will get into the lung, thereby causing the chocking response to cause the small amount water to be expelled.
The arms are not designed to support weight of the body for extended periods of time. Anyone that has a neck or back injury will find this position impossible to maintain. Riding gloves where designed to take the pressure off the hands and to prevent nerve damage. Even with these riding gloves, some bike racers develop what is called racer hand. Its also known Carpaltunnal, the same this that happens to computer and labour workers that do repetative work. This is due to the pressure that is placed the hands and arms. The bike seat places a great amount of preassure on to the bottom of the pelvic bone. There are nerves that run though this area and they can be damaged over time.
The bottom bracket height is another possible problem area for this design. Because it is low to the ground (this can vary from 10.75" to 11.5" from the ground) the crank arms can hit the ground while corning at extreme angles. While the rule is to put the inner crank arm up or level to the ground, the best way to maintain control in a corner is to power the bike and that means turning the cranks even in extreme turn angles.
While road bikes make fine racing machines, the general public is not the place for this design. Just look at the number of people that turn the handle bars around so that they are facing up. This puts the brakes in a less ideal place and it can be dangerous if they are needed in an emergancy move. This design has been selected by the road racing groups as there bike of choice for many years and the manufactures of mass produced bikes have followed suit in the late 1960's and 1970's. It s like Indy Car dictating Detroit on car design. Do you think that race car with lights and bumpers would do for a family?
This bike can be mounted on any style of car rack or it can have its wheels removed and be placed in a trunk of a car.
The Mountain Bike
Out of the up-right designs I like the mountain bike the best. This bike has several features that I feel make it safer. Popular belief says that the thinner tires are better because less rolling resistance. That my be fine on the indoor track but in the outside world, the bike should be able to go on a variety of surfaces. The ability for the bike go off on the gravel section in an emergancy situation when a truck comes by to close is very important to me. The controls are for more user friendly because they are mounted on the handle bars. Out of the different designs of gear shifters, I like the simplier thumb shifters that have both indexed and friction shifters. When bar ends are put on the handle bars, you have multiple hand positions in a more comfortable riding position then the multi- hand dropped, hand bar type of the racing road bike.
With the different types of tires that are avaiable, this bike can be used on the road with a set of street slick tires to big knobby types that can handle the most extreme off-road conditions. On some off -road rides, I climbed inclined sections of trails that where very steep.
The smaller frame design that uses the down sloping tube gives gives a greater feeling of a better fit because of the greater stand-over height. The bike can be mounted on any type of standard car rack or it can it can have its wheels removed and be placed in a trunk of a car. The gear ratios are lower than on the road bike so in some cases, it may be a bit slower but since the types of rides I do are not in races, this is not a problem.
The real test for finding how this bike design would fair on a trip came in 1995 when I rode from Glencoe to Uxbridge Ontario in 1995. Over the 700 KM distance and 8 days on the rode, it was the the most comfortable ride relative to the up-right riding position.
Some of the same design problems that are present in the road bike are present on the mountain bike. The bottom bracket is still low to the ground so crank rotation in an extreme bank is still a problem. The pressure points on the seat and handle bars still are present although the riding position is in a more up-right position.
Given the growth in this design in the 1980's and that it displaced the road bike as the main type being sold says something about how people look at there comfort level when riding a bike.
Short Wheel Base Recumbent
They say that riding a road bike is like becoming one with the bike. After riding a short wheel base recumbent, this design feels even better. On this bike you are far more comfortable than any road bike. It is very manuverable on bike trails and because of the way the steering is set-up, it feels like a long wheel base type in terms of straight line riding. The shifters that are used are from a mountain bike and as a result, you have the same user friendly shifting.
The steering type that is used is above seat steering. As a result of this steering type, it feels like a sports car. A mirror is placed on the left hand side of the handle bar.
Because of the seating position, mirrors are a fact of life on recumbent designs.
The tire size on this bike is a 16" by 1.5" (305mm rim) on the front and a 700C rear tire. The seat height is 20" off the ground. This puts you at eye level with most cars and below the height of most vans and trucks. Because of the 37" wheel base the ride quality can get choppy on less then ideally maintained roads. The rear wheel is lightly loaded and it can be easily be locked up when braking on loose surfaces like sand.
There is a little bottom bracket flex due to the bottom bracket being mounted out ahead of the front wheel. Because of the short wheel base design, pulleys are needed to get the chain past the fork. I was using a metal motor pulley for this purpose but this caused a metal chattering sound. This was changed over to the nylon pulley wheel.
The location of the water bottle is in a more user friendly location then is found on the safety bike design.
On tests in emergancy situations were I had to get of the road on to gravel,this design was more at home on getting on to this then a road bike. Because your feet can reach the ground, you feel that you are in more control then on a up-right type bike.
On the subject of recumbents and climbing hills, they are more dependent on the gears then there up-right counter parts. On short climbs and small inclines, they will climb the same as a the other type. At least on mine, steep climbs are slower due to it weight ( about 37 LBS but it also a recycled home built ) and it uses only a 12 speed gearing with a gear range from 42 gear inches to 100 gear inches. For the most part this gearing will work in the area where I live and changes are easily made to the bike if they are needed.
After two years of riding this bike, a number things have come to light. In some ways this bike is a bit shower than the road bike. I think that some drag on the drive train pulley system can be blamed for this. On hilly terran, the slower climb speeds will that make the speed average a hair slower. On a plus note, on long rides, I feel more refreshed and comfortable than on any up-right bike.
The bike can either be stored on a rear mounted car rack or be placed in a rear seat of a 4 door passenger car when the rear wheel is removed. Because of the seat design, only one bike can be placed on the rack.
Another note regarding this bike. There is some added weight because of a number of added pieces to strenghten the frame due to a number of frame breaks. Because the bike is fun to ride, I will put up with the small repairs that have been put into place.
Long Wheel Base Recumbent
Rating-three and half
This design is one sweet ride. This recumbent uses a underseat steering system and this is the major difference with the short wheel base model. The ride is so smooth. The open chested riding position gives a great free feeling that can t be matched with any other type of bike that I have ridden.
The main frame is a mono tube type with a fixed seat that doubles as a rear triagle to give the frame greater strength. The short wheel base model also uses this design feature.
The seat height is set at 17" off the ground and a number of pulleys are used to get the chain clear from the seat and steering system. On the open road, this bike has no peer. Its the closest thing to flying without an airplane.
The steering is on the slow side when compared to other types of bikes. One problem does exist with the under seat steering system. Because of the mono tube frame and the placement of the handle bar, the connecting section on the handlebar hits the frame. This limits the ability of the bike to do tight right hand turns and a safety plate was placed on the fork to prevent the fork from being pulled backwards on itself on left hand turns. This gives it more of a long wheel base dragster type steering more than a short wheel base tight turning ability. On tight bike paths this design is at a disadvanage.
The seat height is a little too low for city type riding conditions. This bike is most at home of on the open road.
A number handling charaterics come though on this bike. Because the front wheel being so far out from the rider, the wheel tends float and slide on loose surface material like gravel. It feels safer going from pavement to gravel than on an up-right bike but not as safe as on a short wheel base bike. On gravel roads, the wheel has problems tracking straight and with a cross wind, it will blow the bike to one side until it hits solid ground.
The bottom bracket is placed 4" above seat height and this has a number of interesting feelings. The blood curculation to my feet was reduced and on longer extended rides, the feet went to sleep. On one ride in 30 degree cenagrade tempatures, after about 5.5 to 6 hours, my feet felt more like they where in -10 degree weather conditions but this was the only time this happened.
Climbing with bike is suprising. Even with this bike is a little heavier then the short wheel base bike, the frame structure is stiffer so more pressure can be appiled to the pedals and it feels better over all.
This bike is 8 feet long so travelling with this type on a bike rack can be interesting. One uses caution when having it on the back of a car.
The bike uses a 26" rear tire and 20" (405mm rim) front tire so they are a common sized and are easily replaced in the field.
If this is the type of bike is used as a replacement for a car, transport problems will not come up.
The Compact Long Wheel Base Recumbent
Out of all the types of recumbents, this one has the best balance of bicycle design that I can see. The size of the bike is only slightly longer then a safety bike. The seating position is high off the ground making it visabile in traffic. The handling is very much like a up-right bike so the learning curve very short.
My model has a 50.5" wheel but it can turn just as tight as my mountain bike. This is due to the 16" front/ 20" rear tire combination.
The chain line has no pulley system to create drag so the drive train feels free moving.
The ride feel is more like sitting on top of the bike instead being at one with the bike like with my short wheel base type.
Because the rear drive wheel is 20" there is a problem as far as the gear ratios go. Normal bike gears are used so lower gear ratios are a result of this. For the commuter, this is not a big problem but for the fast performance type rider, this will limit interest.
The front tire is still lightly loaded due to rider position but the effect is less then on the long wheel base.
The steering column is longer than the short wheel base type but the steering angle takes away most of the tiller effect that is found some types long wheel base above seat steering systems.
Small wheels can present a problem on road conditions with items like pot holes in the road surfaces. Because there tire sizes are larger in diameter then some of the larger types on other bikes (16" by 1.75" compared a 700 by 25c tire on a road bike) they will take abuse and by avoiding problem areas in the first place, they work fine. Because the rear wheel is loaded with greater weight, more care has to be taken with them.
Carrying racks will have to made for this style of bike because the standard types are diffecult put on. Manufacturers that make there bikes make there own racks for there bikes.
The frame structure is V shaped and triangulated for adding strength to the frame. This makes the bike easy to carry on a standard car bike rack.
On my bike, I have placed the bottom bracket on the steerer tube on the front part so that the seat can was moved forward and improve weight balance slightly.
I have taken this bike out on a long ride of 95km and with only 5 speeds, it was a great ride. Climbing with the limited number of gears was better then I thought. The pedaling position is set-up so that I can still push down on the pedals. Because the bottom bracket is close to the frame, the bike is far more rigid than the short wheel base recumbent and this aids in the climbing of the Compact model.
This design is the style that the manufacturers are building because they are the easilest for the public to ride. If the recumbent gains ground on the mass market, this style will be more than likely be the new standard. This basic design layout can be traced back to the 1895 Challad Normal Bicyclette.
An Overview of the Different Bike Designs
Each design has there strength and weakens on there design types. No one design has any great advantage over the other. The best bet is to pick the right tool for the job.
With the popularity of the recumbent and main stream manufacturers like Trek getting into the building of the own recumbent models, the genaral public will get a better idea what recumbents are about. The race bike for all its features are good for racing but the general public needs a more user friendly type that are available on the market.
With the mountain bike gaining ground in the past decade, it shows that there is room for new ideas to be placed on the public. Given the fact that the first mountain bikes where made by a small numbers of bike builders using a combination old 1940ish bike frames and road bike gear shifters and the manucturers bought into this design, it helped the bicycle industry.
The recumbent will get more people out on a bicycle that would otherwise do another activities. Given the large growth within the recumbent market by the small independent companies and the growing number of recumbent home builders, it shows that people are now seeing it as a viable alterative.
Cyclists that ride up-right bikes say that they have greater visibly in traffic but when they are a common sight on the road, plus the fact that many drivers will not see cyclists because they feel they don t belong there, it is up to the cyclist to be responsible for themselves regardless of type of bike design.
I don t see the recumbent taking over the bicycle design altogether but seeing it get greater exposure will help the bike industry gain new customers.
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