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The bicycle is the most efficient transport machine. Nothing else comes close. It's even more efficient than walking. But not all bicycles are the same efficiency. How do you make a bicycle even more efficient?
On the Safety Bicycle (as opposed to the Ordinary, or "Penny-Farthing" Bicycle), the rider leans forward over the handlebars. At one extreme, it is a slight forward lean, as on a "Dutch Roadster", not much different to the open position of the Ordinary; at the other extreme is the super-tuck of Graeme Obree on his home-made bike. To whichever degree, the frontal area of the cyclist is reduced, compared to that of the Ordinary rider. Graeme Obree's extreme position is as aero as you can go with a Safety bicycle. You can get a greater aerodynamic advantage though, and the machine to do it has been around since the 1930s: The Recumbent
Above all a recumbent is fun!
A recumbent is a style of bike where rider is sitting or lying in a reclined, feet-first position. On some recumbents the rider is sitting more upright, with some recumbents the rider is almost lying flat. In general a recumbent is feet-first, head-back.
There are four main reasons for choosing a recumbent
Like any machine, the concept of speed depends on the design. Yes, there are fast recumbents, but some recumbents are slow, stately touring machines rather than out and out racers. The first recumbents back in the 1930s took the hour record (distance cycled in one hour) with ease. So easily in fact that the UCI banned recumbents from cycling competition. This act perhaps stifled the development of the recumbent, and the lack of a platform meant that non-cyclists had no awareness of this form of transport, and sports cyclists shunned it as an anathema. Cars, Trains, Motorbikes, Aircraft have all progressed in technological developmeny through the 20th Century. Not bicycles though. The short-sightedness and technophobia of this bunch of recidivists has meant that bicycle design has stagnated for the entire century.
Sam Whittingham has just broken his own 'hour' record again, managing 84.215 kilometres in the hour. A sample of World Records - bicycles can be just as fast as cars (at least over short distances!) And yes, that is 81mph.
|Distance||200m||1 Mile||10 km|
|Start||Flying Start||Flying Start||Standing Start|
|Time||10.400 sec||45.71 sec||7 min 53.02 sec|
|Bike||Varna Diablo II||Varna Diablo II||Varna|
|Designer||George Georgiev||George Georgiev||George Georgiev|
|Rider||Sam Whittingham||Sam Whittingham||Paul Buttemer|
Not all recumbents are fast though. My own recumbent is not a fast machine - in fact my folding bicycle is faster than my recumbent. Where my recumbent wins out is the next selling point -
The advantage of the recumbent is mainly one of comfort - look at the two pictures. Would you rather be sitting on the recumbent seat or on a regular saddle? Instead of being perched on a narrow hard saddle, your whole torso is supported by a wide comfortabe seat. On some recumbents the seat is a padded with a thick foam on a rigid glass-fibre shell; on others the seat is a mesh net, slung over a frame of metal tubing. The first is more supportive and good if you have a bad back, the second is better ventilated. One of the drawbacks of a recumbent is the constantly sweaty back, something that designers have been trying to put right for ever. The seat is often an integral part of the structure of the bike, and which you have is part of the choice you have to make when you pick a recumbent. The seat makes the recumbent a great choice when you have medical problems which prevent using a regular bicycle, or make a regular saddle an uncomfortable proposition. It's also safer because it's closer to the ground. I came off my bike recently, and as the bike went over, I just sort of slid out of the seat and into a sitting position on the ground, so didn't really fall any distance. Mind you, I was travelling at 20mph as I was sitting on the ground, so I have a terrible case of road-rash right across my buttocks
Although the riding position of a regular Safety Bicycle is a more efficient position than for the Ordinary, it is still not as efficient as it could be. A recumbent is much more efficient than an upright bike though, especially with a front and rear fairing. On an upright bike at 12mph, the then resistance is about half and half between internal mechanical friction and air resistance. At 25mph then about 85% of your energy goes into overcoming air resistance. On a fully faired competition recumbent at the same speed, less than 25% of energy is used in overcoming air resistance. The recumbent isn't necessarily faster for this saving in efficiency, but you will be able to keep going far longer than on an upright bike.
You can't miss a recumbent. They do tend to stand out from the crowd. Sometimes people like to cycle along without drawing too much attention to themselves. But sometimes it's good to be seen. Because a Recumbent is rather unusual, it draws attention to itself and when you're out in traffic that's a good thing. I find that I am given much more space when I'm on when I'm out on the recumbent, than when I'm on the Upright. Recumbents make a great advert for cycling too. Recumbent riders always have The Smirk plastered across their faces. That self-satisfied grin that they're having fun, whatever the rest of the world is doing.
Okay, that's generally what recumbents are about, but there are lots of very different recumbents out there. What's what? The first thing you can use to classify the recumbent is
There are a many different styles of recumbent; the most obvious division being the number of wheels - bicycle, tricycle, or quadcycle. Each has it's advantages and disadvantages. First, the least common - the quadcycle. Most Quads are commercial vehicles, usually delivery vehicles and taxis. Completely stable, they can carry big items and heavy loads - limited only by the strength of the rider's legs. The disadvantage is the size of the vehicle. Taking up the same road-space as a small car, they loose the bicycle's traditional strong-point of manoeuverability in traffic. But for short-range (around town) deliveries, the are an economic, efficient, effective and environmentally-friendly transport solution.
The remaining two types of recumbent are the bicycle and tricycles. There is one big disadvantage with recumbents, the effects of which if not eliminated, are at least reduced by that extra wheel. You can't get out of the saddle when you're riding a recumbent. This causes two problems. First is a problem with low speed stability. You can't use "Body English", where you move your body around to assist with balance. When your speed drops towards walking speed a bike will become unstable and much more difficult to manoeuver. At this pace it's safer to get off and push your bike. Obviously with the trike stability isn't a problem. The second problem is the inability to "honk". You can't get up out of the saddle when you're on the climbs. Hills are hard work on a recumbent, and if you're on a bicycle then you can't stop half way up a climb. With some bikes, it's very difficult to get going on a climb. If you stop, then it's often a case of pushing your bike the rest of the way to the top. This does depend of course on how steep the climb is and the design of the bike. Something like a bike-E is easier to get going than the StreetMachine. The problem comes from taking the first pedal stroke and then getting your foot up from the ground onto the pedal before you come to a grinding halt and topple over. Again, with a trike this isn't a problem. Stop, keep your feet on the pedals, you can't fall over so just start up again when you're ready.
There are other advantages and disadvantages, and you have to weigh up the pros and cons before you make your choice.
In traffic, the bike is much narrower and can get through heavy traffic much better than the trike.
Trikes tend to be lower to the ground so are much more aerodynamic and so faster than the bike.
Trikes tend to be lower to the ground so are less visible.
Bikes. Trikes. It's give and take. Both have advantages, both have disadvantages. The only way to know which is for you is to try them out - try out as many different models of each as you can - and then make up your mind.
The next division for bikes is on wheelbase - How far apart are the front and rear wheels. On a short wheelbase bike, the front wheel is behind the pedals. This makes for quick, lively steering and a very responsive bike. With a long wheelbase bike the front wheel is further forward, in front of the pedals. This makes for a less manoeuverable but more stable bike.
Short WheelBase (SWB) bikes make great sports bikes, Long WheelBase (LWB) bikes make great tourers.
In between is the compact long wheelbase (CLWB) Not quite so long as the LWB, and with a rather more upright seating position than traditional recumbents, this type of bike iis typified by the late, lamented Bike-E. CLWB bike make great commuters.
There are two different styles of steering to further complicate the matter. My bike uses Under Seat Steering (USS); The head tube and handlebars are close to the rider, either close to or under the seat. The alternative is Over Seat Steering (OSS), which uses a tiller-like steering column emerging from a headtube which is just in front of the seat. USS is more natural in use as the arms can hang loosely at the sides of the body, with a light grip on the bars. With OSS you have to hold the arms up and out in front of you to hold the bars, which is more tiring. OSS has the advantage when it comes to aerodynamics though. Steering is done mainly by lean in any case, so the decision over steering pattern comes down to whether you want the comfort of USS or the aerodynamic advantage of OSS. You never pull on the handlebars of a recumbent, in the way you would pull on the hoods of a road bike or the bar-end extensions of a mountain-bike. Any extra force is obtained by bracing between the pedals and the seat. The handlebars are only there for steering. On one particular model, the steering is done by twisting the body, the handlebars are only there as a handy point to mount the brake levers and shifters.
The best way to choose a recumbent (as with any bicycle) is to visit a dealer and try out lots of different models, until you find the one that suits you best, the one you find most comfortable. Unfortunately recumbent dealers are few and far between. You can't just stroll into your local bike shop and ask to try out one. It's doubtful even whether a regular bike shop would get on in for you to try, without the guarantee of a purchase. Choosing a recumbent initially means looking through magazines, poring over books, surfing the web. Then you have to find a dealer near you (in this case, 'near' means 'in the same country as'). Visit the dealer, try out the bikes. Make your choice. If you live near London, then you're lucky as there are three recumbent dealers in the area. If you live in Scotland, there's one dealer (in Bearsden). If you're going to buy a recumbent, then you have to be prepared to travel a bit to try them out. It's worth it though.
Which recumbent you choose depends on your planned (main) use. If you intend using a recumbent for sport, HPV Racing, then you'll be looking for a low, light, short-wheelbase bike with above-seat-steering. If you intend doing a lot of touring then a more upright long-wheelbase recumbent with underseat steering and lots of luggage capacity may be more suitable. Commuting may be easier on a compact-long-wheelbase bike, which may have either above- or under-seat-steering. Recumbents are expensive, so it's rare to find someone who can afford more than one, as you might with an upright bike. You'll probably have to make a compromise, moreso than with an upright. If you are intending a multiple use for your recumbent, then you have to think about the primary use of the bike. That's not to say what you'll use it for most often, otherwise every bike woould be a commuter. If you want a touring recumbent, then buy a recumbent that's suitable for touring. You can commute on a good touring bike. You can't tour so well on a commuting bike.
As with any bike, the recumbent needs to be the correct size. Recumbents tend to have a single frame size, with a sliding component to fit bike to rider. LWB and CLWB bikes tend to have a sliding seat. On such a bike, the distance between the BB and the rear axle is fixed, and the seat slides fore and aft until the correct leg length is found. Chainlength remains the same, and different riders can share the bike, by adjusting the seat position. On SWB bikes, the seat is usually fixed (often making up a structural member of the bike), and the BB is on a telescopic arm which can be lengthened and shortened to achieve the fit. The telescopic boom means that the distance between the BB and rear axle is variable, so the chain has to be lengthened or shortened too. If the boom length is altered then the chain length must also be altered. This makes it difficult for two riders to share an SWB unless they are of similar heights.