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High-Tech Trikes

Recumbent bikes offer a different perspective

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"Comfort is nice." Chris O'Brien is offering reasons to ride a recumbent bike. She adds, "It is not just the seat and crotch. There is no weight on my hands and arms. And I like to watch the birds as I ride." Her husband, Mike, agrees and includes the factor that convinced him, "In case of an accident, I don't want to lead with my head."

The O'Briens are discussing a style of bike frame that has the cyclist sitting upright, with the pedals moved forward of the rider. In that position the force is applied by pushing forward rather than downward, as is done on a regular bike. There are several advantages to pedaling in this reclining position. Comfort, mentioned already, comes from the rider's weight spread over a broad seat or a nylon sling. The rider's view of the world is improved because rather than leaning forward and looking at the ground, one's head is up, looking forward. After eight years of commuting to work on recumbent bikes, the O'Briens are pretty close to being experts on the subject of sitting up while pedaling. Advocates say the aerodynamics of recumbents are far superior to the upright cycles. Having the body follow the feet through the air is like the difference between jumping into a pool of water feet first or doing a belly flop.

Looking into the world of recumbent riders reveals more complexity than one might expect. There are both two- and three-wheeled recumbents and within those categories are no-frill commuting models, long and short wheelbases, touring, racing and tandem models. The frames can be made of steel, aluminum, titanium and carbon fiber. Regardless of the style a rider chooses, recumbent bikes are usually more expensive than a comparably-built standard bike. As Mike O'Brien puts it, "For the recumbent market, the companies are building for customers by the tens or hundreds, compared to thousands for regular bikes."

If you are interested in joining the self-named "bentriders," you need a little background. The three-wheeled trikes have two basic styles: One wheel in front is a delta; two wheels in front is a tadpole. They both have the advantage of stability, while moving and at rest. The seats on trikes are often six inches or less above the ground to keep the center of gravity below the hubs of the wheels. A rider in Ketchum described touring Montana and climbing over the Rockies on a tandem trike with his girlfriend, "On the hauls up a long grade, it didn't matter how fast we were going. The pedaling could get down to 10 RPM while we ate lunch and looked at the scenery, but we kept climbing."

One trike I tested for this story is rated to accommodate riders who weigh up to 350 pounds. Trikes offer a weight-friendly way to get exercise and see the world for those of us who are not exactly greyhound-shaped. On some models, the steering linkage is under the seat so there are no handlebars, just handles near the hips. This is a useful feature for people who have shoulder injuries.

The two-wheel recumbents are more common around Boise. The fundamental differences in type are the long and short wheelbases. Chris O'Brien has a long wheelbase Tour Easy touring bike for her commute to work. From the 20-inch front wheel to the 27-inch back wheel, her bike measures 90 inches. For comparison, my ordinary mountain bike measures about 70 inches. Mike O'Brien's shorter bike has a 16-inch front wheel and a 24-inch rear wheel. "Mine is more of a commuter model. On Chris's you could go across the country," he said.

The two-wheel recumbents have an awkward feel at first. In general, anyone who can ride a standard bike can eventually ride a recumbent. The O'hBriens have words of wisdom for that, too, "Ride as many different models as far as you can before you buy. One shop we went to had 13 models, and we rode every one of them. We were surprised to find out that the differences in ride between recumbents is greater than between recumbents and standard bikes. We prefer the long wheelbase for commuting [but] the short wheelbases turn so quickly, they're a blast." Chris said.

With all the advantages of recumbents, why are standard bikes the norm? One reason is, simply, familiarity. People are used to riding standard bikes. Another is the very real safety issue of recumbents being lower to the ground and harder for drivers to see. On one of my trike jaunts, I crossed a street at a light and looked past my shoulder directly into the radiator of a sedan. Chris said, "We don't have any problems because we are cautious riders. We are completely predictable in our movements, we always signal before we turn and always make eye contact with drivers at intersections. We try not to ride at dusk in rush hour traffic; it is too dark to see us well, but too bright for our lights to be seen." They gushed in their praise of Boise drivers. Their experiences with cars, they said, were all good.

The O'Briens are still enthusiastic about commuting over 2,000 miles per year on their recumbents. They listed the wildlife and birds they have seen, from sharp-shinned hawks to beaver. Chris has pedaled through a dense swarm of Painted Lady butterflies. The weather was dismissed with a shrug. "On black ice mornings, I take back routes and go in early to beat the traffic. Otherwise just dress for the weather," Chris said. Mike added, "With a lower center of gravity, recumbents are more stable on ice. Neither of us has ever fallen."

If you want to be one of Boise's bentriders, do some research before making your purchase. I found recumbents at several stores around town, including Bob's Bicycles, George's Cycles and Fitness and Idaho Mountain Touring. The offerings can be lean. Most stores will special order a recumbent bike and can usually get them in a few days. Prices start at around $600 and go way up from there. To get some good general information on recumbent bikes, visit www.bentrideronline.com. For information specifically on trikes, visit www.greenspeed.com.au. Greenspeed is an Australian company that manufactures and sells trikes, and they offer useful links to several other companies that make all kinds and styles of three-wheelers. Remember: If you buy a used bike online, buyer beware. If at all possible, it would be a good idea to ask a bicycle shop in the seller's town to check out the bike before you send your payment. After trying a variety of recumbents myself, my preference is for the tadpole-style trike. Rolling down a long hill, six inches above the ground, with nothing in front of me but my own feet, had to be the closest thing to a feeling of flying without doing something illegal or actually sprouting wings. Plus, you will be seen as irresistibly attractive by the adventurous lovers you have always dreamed of. (Well it's POSSIBLE!)

Bob's Bicycles, bobs-bicycles.com; George's Cycles and Fitness, georgescycles.com; Idaho Mountain Touring, www.idahomountaintouring.com.