It’s 7:30 on a dewy Saturday morning as cheerful men and women begin arriving at Ride South in Brandon. Donning chartreuse jerseys and helmets, the cyclists begin unloading their splashy recumbent bikes and trikes for the weekly group ride around Ross Barnett Reservoir. As vehicles continue to stream into empty parking spaces, some early birds begin zipping around the parking lot, circling each other as they eagerly await the 8:00 am launch time. Comfortably reclined on high-backed, mesh seats resembling chaise lounges, cyclists cluster together in small conversational groups as they laugh and chitchat about the weather and the latest news on bike accessories and upcoming rides. As everyone makes final adjustments to bikes and helmets before setting off, RideSouth owner, Jim Snider, and his wife, Lane, emerge from the shop to greet everyone and take a vote on the route and pace the group would like to ride. “It’s Earth Day week, so we are honoring Mother Earth by riding our bikes today,” says Snider as he mounts his trike adorned with a bright yellow “MOM” banner.
Once the procession of riders form a line behind Snider’s speedy, recumbent trike, the group of “bent” bikes begin to look more like the lineup for a parade than a ride. Adorned with bright flags, windsocks, and even an inflated earth ball mounted atop a flag pole, the cyclists whir by as they make their way onto the road with Lane bringing up the rear to make sure no one gets left behind.
THE CONTROVERSIAL HISTORY OF RECUMBENTS
Recumbent bikes have been manufactured for the general public since 1892, even though they’ve rarely been seen over the years. The bent bike style has enjoyed a renaissance in the past ten years as more manufacturers have begun making them, and retailers have added them to their bicycle offerings. However, early recumbents faced a challenge that nearly killed off the style and relegated it to obscure hobby enthusiast status for over 50 years.
For the first 40 years since its inception, recumbent bicycle designs continued to evolve alongside their upright counterparts until a self-taught engineer, Charles Mochet, had the stroke of genius to design what was the first performance recumbent bicycle, or vélo couché, using a design based on half of his popular four-wheeled pedal car. Named “Velocar” after his four-wheeled vehicle, his sleek design shook the conservative, traditional bicycling establishment when he set out to race his recumbent bike in 1933. Needing a cyclist, Mochet enlisted the help of 43 year old Frenchman, Francois Faure, to attempt a new one hour distance record on it.
On July 7, 1933, the day of Faure’s record-breaking attempt, the other racers jeered at him and his bike. “Stand up and pedal like a man,” they joked. “Lying down will make you sleepy.” Their laughter died as he outpaced two professional riders and went on to beat the world hour record, going 28 miles (45.055 km) in one hour. Faure’s new record caused controversy in the world of cycling as he was considered a “second-category” cyclist, but his recumbent bicycle had effectively allowed him to win races against professional riders of the time.
In 1934, the UCI (Union Cyclist International) ruled that the Velocar was not a bicycle and couldn’t be raced in UCI events or for UCI records. Although Mochet had verified with the UCI and the Union Vélocipédique Française (UVF) that his recumbents were completely legal for competition, they were declared ineligible at a later hearing and permanently banned from competition by UCI, cycling’s governing body. The ruling still stands today. It is believed the UCI’s decision was made as the result of pressure by manufacturers of standard upright cycles.
With the stroke of a bureaucratic pen, Faure’s record was relegated to a foot note in cycling history, and the course of bicycle design was forever changed.
Although road and track versions of the recumbents were built in small numbers between 1933 and 1945, and record-breaking continued in non-UCI categories, the UCI ban had a profound impact on the popularity of recumbent bikes. Without UCI’s endorsement to race them or hold records, bike manufacturers stuck to the only viable market available to them, and the upright bicycle claimed dominance as the most popular and readily available style for buyers.
TODAY’S RECUMBENTS ARE STILL TURNING HEADS
Just as it did in 1933, today’s recumbent bikes are still setting records and raising eyebrows. In 2016, using the ultra-lightweight Aerovelo Eta bike, cyclist Todd Reichert set a new speed record for a human-powered vehicle at 144.17 km/h (89.59 mph). Despite the recumbent’s pedigree of speed and comfort, however, today’s recumbent bikes and trikes still face the criticism of traditional bike owners.
I’ve been selling recumbents since 1999 and I’ve seen it time and time again. An inquisitive person will come into the store expecting to find only the traditional bikes they see elsewhere, and they have this defensive disposition you tend to carry when you just want to window shop. Then it happens—that look of wonder that washes over their face when they see the recumbent bikes.
“There’s a mentality in traditional circles that recumbents and trikes are for old people, and that simply isn’t true,” says Snider. “People are uncomfortable with the unfamiliar. Their first instinct is to want a bicycle that looks like their neighbor’s bike or the bikes they see professionals ride on television.” A lot of those perceptions melt away once those same people walk through the doors of RideSouth. “I’ve been selling recumbents since 1999, and I’ve seen it time and time again. An inquisitive person will come in my store expecting to find the traditional bikes they see elsewhere, and they have this defensive disposition you tend to carry when you just want to window shop. Then it happens—that look of wonder that washes over their face when they see the recumbent bikes and trikes. I sell traditional bikes also, but it’s the recumbents that really get their attention.”
In addition to the 40-50 recumbent bikes and trikes he keeps in stock, Snider’s shop also carries a wide variety of conventional mountain bikes, road bikes, triathlon, and kid’s bikes in addition to accessories and even kayaks. The real show-stoppers, however, are a pair of velomobile trikes in the center of the store. Complete with cockpit doors and rear-view mirrors, the bullet-shaped fiberglass enclosures look more like futuristic space capsules than trikes.
WHAT’S BEHIND THE RECUMBENT RISE?
In recent years, technology has played a big part in the changes we’ve seen in bicycle design across the board. Previously cost-prohibitive and inaccessible materials like carbon fiber and ultra-lightweight alloys have found their way into the designs of bikes intended for the consumer market. 3d printing and other technologies have also accelerated the work of engineers to push the envelope and redefine what we consider radical bike design.
A lot of the people that ride in our groups either have an engineering background or they work in the medical field. The engineers are attracted to the dynamics of the designs and the medical folks see the biomechanical advantages of them.
Recumbent bikes have attracted a unique fanbase as a result of all this newfound exposure—engineers and medical professionals. “A lot of the people that ride in our groups either have an engineering background or they work in the medical field,” says Snider. “The engineers are attracted to the dynamics of the designs and the medical folks see the biomechanical advantages of them.” Group participants, Ben and Mickie Nail, are prime examples of Snider’s assertion. Ben works on staff at Jefferson Medical Center in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and his wife, Mickie, is a Clinical Informaticist and Registered Nurse. They try to make the trip from Arkansas to Jim’s shop about once a month to ride with the group. “We’ve always enjoyed outdoor recreation so we did a lot of camping and hiking in the past. It seemed only natural that we’d eventually take up cycling,” says Mickie. “While a lot of people work their way up to a trike or recumbent, we went straight to the trikes when Ben had to have a cervical spinal fusion surgery,” she says. “Conventional bikes just weren’t as comfortable to ride. Those bikes require you to crane your neck up to see where you’re going, and it just proved to be too painful for Ben. What’s great about our trikes is we can ride all day in a mixed group of conventional and recumbent cyclists, and we’re still fresh at the end of the day. The upright cyclists need time to recover because they’re bodies hurt. All that riding on your bottom, the pressure on your arms, and the craning of your neck take a toll.”
Recumbent bikes allow you to recline in the seat with your feet in front of you and your arms either resting at your sides or at a lowered position in front of you, depending on your bike. “It’s this position that makes the rides so enjoyable,” says Andy Metts, a retired engineer. “What got me hooked is how comfortable my trike is to take out. Riding this way stays fun and you can enjoy the scenery when you’re out because you’re not always looking down at the road.”
Recumbent bikes are also a safer alternative to conventional bikes because you’re unlikely to ever go over the handle bars in an accident. In the event of spill, the reclined position ensures your feet will be the first part of your body to touch the ground instead of your noggin. Most recumbents also position your body closer to the ground so any fall is a short one.
What’s another characteristic of recumbent owners? They tend to own more than one of them. When asked how many recumbents she owns, nurse Rhonda Armstrong sheepishly replies, “Let’s just say it’s more than two.” When asked to explain, Armstrond says, “ Well, they each serve a different purpose. One is set up for longer rides, another is for faster rides and so on. They are each special in their own way and I love them all.”