Recumbent for a Roadie?

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This is a familiar question although in several forms, paraphrased it boils down to this:  “I have a high end road bike I normally ride, but I’m finding it too uncomfortable, would a recumbent be suitable  for me”.

Like most good questions, the answer begins with “it depends”. 

Rover Safety bicycle c1885
Rover Safety bicycle c1885

The present “road bike” traces it’s lineage back to the first commercially successful ‘safety bicycle’ (vs the penny-farthing), developed by John Kemp Starley, which he named the Rover.

It’s no surprise that the urban/commuter bicycle in Europe is very like the Rover safety. It also bears only a passing resemblance to the road/racing bicycle.

European Urban commuter
European commuter bike
Racing bike
Road/racing bike

Instead of the upright posture and swept back handlebars of the Rover Safety, the road bike has drop bars and a bent over riding position in the never ending pursuit of speed for racing. 

The racing bike’s design is strictly controlled by the sports’ governing body. Through the power of marketing, is the style of bike sold into countries where bicycles are regarded as sporting goods.

The racing bike, or road bike as it’s commonly known, is an amazing piece of machinery.  Light, strong, agile, able to be ridden close to other bikes.  In short, ideal for massed riders close together.

 A recumbent on the other hand, has different properties. Superbly comfortable, excellent vision forwards/sideways/above. It is typically longer, heavier, not as agile, with poorer close range visibility in front making it hard to judge the distance to the next rider accurately (important in a pack of riders).

But back to the question…

Recumbent and road bike overlay
Recumbent vs road bike length comparison

A recumbent is ideal for the rider who often rides alone or in a small group.  It’s not that a bent can’t ride with a peleton, but it’s difficult.  The size difference upsets the natural 2 x 2 positioning.  In a pace line the bent offers little draft to the following rider and breaks the paceline advantage.  I’ll leave to your imagination what the recumbent riders view is like when stuck in the middle of a group, noting that the riders head is about where a road bike’s saddle is…

The recumbent equivalent to a good road bike is a high racer.  High racer because it is high in recumbent terms.

Using 2 x 700c wheels, a well reclined seat and the pedals noticeably higher than the seat, the high racer offers excellent performance with significantly reduced aerodynamic drag when compared with a road bike, but is still able to use all the state-of-the-art tyres and gears coupled to true, all day comfort.

Highracer recumbent bike

A roadie transitioning onto a high racer suddenly finds he or she (but we’ll assume he for simplicity) is suddenly faster on the flat ground than his former ride buddies, much faster on any downhill, and no longer notices headwinds so much.  On the other hand, hills are likely to be more challenging.  Staying with the group will mean riding the brakes on the downhills, soft pedaling on the flats, and turning yourself inside out to keep up on the hills.

The performance profile of a high racer is simply different to a road bike.  Faster in the flats and downhill than similar strength roadies, and similar or slightly inferior on the hills.

For the roadie who loves being with a massed pack of riders, the recumbent is probably not a good choice.

But for riders in small groups or solo, the performance and comfort is a revelation and makes it hard to go back to the upright road race bike.

Then there is always the velomobile as the next step…

Mango velomobile
Mango velomobile

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