Legs Larry's Incomplete Guide To Unorthodox Bicycles
These unorfadox bicycles attract many questions - "what is it, Mister?", "did you make it?", "how fast does it go?", "how many gears has it got?", and frequently, and bizarrely, "is it comfortable?" This page does not attempt to answer these questions, but instead.

Q: So what is a "recumbent" anyway? A: 'tis a pedal-powered contrivance upon which the rider, or riders, are constrained to park their behinds upon a perch which more nearly resembles a chair than the "blunt axe-head" design commonly associated with the so-called "Safety" bicycle. Such a design requires that the legs are then stuck more or less out in front of the rider.
Q: Sounds bloody daft. Why? A: In the beginning, speed. Latterly, comfort.
Q: The beginning? When was that, then? A: The recumbent design is almost as old as the diamond-frame, but for some reason it didn't catch on to quite the same extent. Perhaps the biggest event in recumbent cycling history was in 1933, when an unknown second-category racer called François Fauré beat the World Record for the Standing-Start One Hour, riding a Vélocar recumbent bicycle designed by Charles Mochet. The governing body of bicycle racing, the UCI, took umbrage at this, and declined either to accept Fauré's record or the recumbent bicycle. See the Bikefix web site for the full and unexpurgated story. 

Development of the machines then stagnated (barring the odd lone voice crying in the wilderness, such as Paul Rinkowski in East Germany and Wim van Wijnen in the Netherlands) for some forty years, until things started happening in the USA, with the Hypercycle, the work of MIT (mad) professor David Gordon Wilson, and the first IHPVA Speed Championships. Since which time interest has increased steadily, rather than explosively.

Q: So they're fast, then? A: Yes and no. You may hear that "an unfaired recumbent is about as fast as a racing bike with the rider in a full tuck". Which is a bit like saying a Ford is about as fast as a Volkswagen - unless you specify which model, the statement makes no sense. And more often than not, people are referring to the typical US-built machine. These tend to have a more upright seat and lower bottom bracket that is common practice in Europe and Australia, hence considerably more frontal area. Studies in The Netherlands, on the other hand, have demonstrated a racing recumbent to be substantially faster for the same level of effort from the rider.
Q: OK, some of them are fast. Why? A: Aerodynamic drag, in a nutshell. Stick your feet out in front of you, rather than having them dangling in the breeze below your hips, and the frontal area of the bike/rider combination is substantially reduced. Leaning the body back, rather than forwards, also reduces drag, as does putting the rider between the wheels rather than above them. Hence the quickest unfaired bikes tend to have low seats and high pedals.
Q: You said "unfaired" back there somewhere. Wossat mean? A: The UCI, in their infinite wisdom, don't allow the use of components whose sole function is aerodynamic. Unless, of course, it's being used by a really big name pro for setting a record, in which case it will be banned, but only afterwards. Recumbent riders are under no such constraint, so many machines feature some variety of bodywork, or fairing. This can be something as simple as a luggage carrier knocked up from lumps of plastic sheet, through streamlined noses, all the way to enclosing the complete bike and rider in an aerodynamic composite body. The latter can, in the right hands, be devastatingly fast.
Q: How fast? A: Try over 117 129 km/h for a flying 200m. Or how about 81.178 km for an hour, from a standing start? Of course, these are fit buggers in full streamliners, but even a part-faired machine will go like the clappers down your local Suicide Hill, and you can see the scenery before you hit it.  See this article for proof...
Q: Yikes! I think I'll leave that to the experts for now...  What about the comfort aspect? A: A poorly-adjusted bicycle saddle can banjax the parts of a cyclist that Heineken daren't mention. The upright bike also places considerable weight on the rider's arms, and on many such machines, the rider may to tilt his or her head back at quite an awkward angle to see the road ahead. There are a variety of ailments which can make the upright riding position uncomfortable or intolerable, but which aren't affected when in the recumbent position. Like problems with the wrists, or bad backs. Fairings can help keep the weather away from sensitive parts. And many machines come with suspension.
Q: Very nice. But I need something for a 30 km round trip commute, in heavy traffic, and these things look a bit, well, low. A: I wouldn't recommend that a novice recumbent rider purchase a low-level racer for daily use in heavy urban traffic, but the majority of commercially-available machines are a lot higher. The machine which, until recently, was my #1 commuting bike places my head level with that of an average car driver - many sports cars are a lot lower - and many recumbents are quite a bit higher than the Kingcycle of which I speak.
Q: Hmm.  Suppose my wife / husband / teenage offspring / best friend / best friend's cousin / best friend's cousin's brother-in-law / best friend's cousin's brother-in-law's builder's dog wants to use it.  Are they adjustable? A: Yes, no, and maybe.  The description "one size fits all" is often bandied around, and is, of course, Clearly Bollocks - "one size fits most" is better, meaning that seven-foot Dutchman and squished-down nurks might need to look elsewhere.  Many machines are available in several basic sizes, and further adjustments can be made by moving either the seat or the bottom bracket.  The former method means that the weight distribution of the machine can vary quite radically, while the latter can require adding or subtracting links to or from the chain.
Q: Right, but can you get the bits when it breaks down? A: Apart from the frame, seat and steering, most recumbents use standard bike parts. Admittedly some ruthlessly individualistic manufacturers use decidedly odd wheel sizes. But the oily bits are usually no different from any other bike, save that the chain is about half a mile long. Trikes can be a slightly different matter.
Q: Trikes? A: Yes, trikes.
Q: Tell me more. A: They have three wheels...
Q: ...you mus' fink I'm real stupid [1]... A: Patience, mon brave.  Usually 2 front wheels and one rear (a.k.a. "Tadpole", or "Morgan" J ) or 1 front / 2 rear wheels (a.k.a. "Delta", "Frog" or "Reliant Robin" L ). The "tadpole" design tends to be more stable and chuckable, while the more sedate "frog" can have humungous load-carrying capacity. Most trikes tend to stick with the time-honoured method of steering by turning the front wheel (s), but there are alternatives.
Q: Holy Zarquon, did I ask for an existential FAQ? A: Calm down. Alternatives usually involve rear-wheel steering, leaning or both. These can work, but if not done properly can bite. Hard.
Q: A trike which falls over sounds like a waste of space to me! A: Don't quote me, but...
Q: What about tandems? A: I'm glad you asked me that. See the TwosCompany page.
Q: I looked at that, and it's crammed full of abbreviations. ASS, SWB, RWD, what's that all about, then? A: See the Glossary page - all the jargon demystificated.
Q: Are these things safe? A: I think I'd rather hit something feet-first than head first. Plus it's much harder to lift the rear wheel under braking, thereby propelling you out the front door in a most undignified manner. And because they're not yet a common sight on the roads, drivers tend to notice you. Of course, there's no legislating against idiots.  Especially the f*****t who nearly had me off in Hillmarton Road last night.  Yes, YOU, the one in that stupid-looking Daihatsu Terios (cont. page 94)
Q: What about carrying stuff? A: Most recumbents can be fitted with a standard rear rack, though the upper mounting(s) may require a little ingenuity. Manufacturers of machines which can't take a standard rack usually make their own instead, while cunning Dutch constructors have produced panniers which hang off the side of the seat itself. Some bikes can accommodate front low rider racks as well, though the small front wheel will typically put the panniers very close to the ground. 

Certain manufacturers also sell tail boxes, usually made from some variety of composite material, which will keep your belongings dry and secure from the attention of tea-leaves. And for serious toting, consider a trailer.

Q: And carrying them by car? A: Depends on which machine(s) I'm transporting.  My Speed Machine, for example, will fit snugly inside a small hatchback once the left rear passenger seat is removed (very easy with this particular car) and the front passenger seat reclined flat.  For carrying more machines and / or Things and / or People, I have a tow-bar mounting Pendle rack and a trailer.  Other people use roof racks, estate cars, people carriers or vans.  And Bob Dixon has been spotted carying a brace on Windcheetahs atop a Jaguar XJS Cabriolet...

In an ideal world, I'd have one of these:

Citroen CX Fourgon à Grand Vitesse
Q: How do they perform off-road? A: Poorly, IMHO. Shifting your weight around to retain balance is rarely an option, so technical single-track is out. Dirt or gravel roads are doable, but not much fun. Trikes cope OK with rough surfaces, as long as you don't get wheelspin, but the extra width precludes exploration of the narrow places.
Q: And up hills? A: Compared with? Obviously against an 8 kg racing bike, an 18 kg recumbent will be slower. And how fast are you up hills on an upright?  My ex-wife has been known to burn me off uphill when she's been on a part-faired Kingcycle and I've been on a lightweight racing mountain bike!  If uphill performance bothers you, practice. If it doesn't, twiddle up to the top, then sit back and enjoy the view!
Q: I'm interested. How much are they? A. In the UK, new machines start from about £500 and range up to silly money. In general they'll be dearer than a road or mountain bike with the same level of components, due to the relatively small scale of production. In the EC, machines from elsewhere attract a hefty mark-up from: 
  • People playing silly buggers with exchange rates
  • Import duty
  • Shipping costs
And vice-versa.
Q: Any magazines devoted to these things? A: Recumbent Cyclist News
and, by the miracle of Webby Science
'bent Rider OnLine
Q: Who makes 'em? A. There's a whole bunch of manufacturer's pages accessible from the Manufacturers page. There's a fair few more who aren't on the Web, too
Q: Shops selling them? A. Well, I did have one, but it got too hard to maintain...  Unless you're in the UK, in which case try here...
Q: And organisations catering for them? A. Ye-e-e-e-s... Working out where to find them has been left as an exercise for the golfer. There are others, who don't have websites or e-mail, but they do exist. Most of the larger national organisations are also members of the International Human Powered Vehicle Association (IHPVA)

1- in a voice like Bianca out of "EastEnders".  If you've never seen, or heard of, EastEnders, or Bianca, give thanks to the deity of your choice now...  Please mail me if your deity of choice is missing.
You lissen 'ere, Rickaay Butchah...
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