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Another Look at Recumbents
by Ron Penner

As some may know, I have had some difficulties keeping my head up on long bike rides (the first 500 km are OK, but after that...). In order to have the best chance to finish PBP, I thought I would look at an oft ignored alternative to what passes for normal in the bicycle world. I went to Cambie Cycle and rented a recumbent for the weekend: a Bacchetta Giro 26, a mid-range short wheelbase, "hi-racer" configuration. Dual 26" tires, rack and fender mounts and a notoriously comfortable seat make this a sensible choice for rando riding. I also took a Burley Django out for a spin, but did not have enough time on that one to formulate much of an opinion.

I sat on the Giro for about 60 km, over a variety of terrain and traffic situations: long enough, I think, that I got reasonably comfortable with it. There IS a steep learning curve. It is a bit like learning to ride bike all over again. I had read a few "first time on a 'bent" articles, so I knew the key was learning to relax, particularly the upper body.

Starting from a dead stop is the thing that takes the longest to figure out, especially up hill. I gave quite a show to the drivers that stopped at Main and 37th, the first time I attempted to cross on the walk signal. I used most of the intersection before getting across and I was pointed north and south far more often than I was proceeding in an easterly direction. Steering is really non-intuitive, and quite sensitive. At slow speed you do not lean into curves, you steer into them, and it takes so little effort you could steer with your pinkies. I never fell over and only bumped into one power pole (Bridgeport, getting onto the sidewalk to cross the Knight St. bridge). I think I did OK, all things considered.

The reports of comfort are not exaggerated. At the end of the ride I had no sore hands, butt, neck, wrists, etc. I think if I bought one I would almost want to install a cold beverage holder, a small side table for the nachos and an LCD monitor with satellite hookup so I could catch hockey games while riding the back roads of the lower Fraser valley. Another useful option for these machines might be a sun-umbrella for those relaxing Saturday afternoons by the pool.

Without a speedometer, it was hard to gauge my speed and compare it to the upright bike, and as I understand it, you use different muscles anyway, so it would take a few months before the comparison was valid. However, climbing seemed quite slow and I was pretty happy the bike came with a really wide range of gears. I walked up the hill around Heather and 21st (?) You also notice some drive line noise on a climb, probably from the long chain and the idler sprockets that sit under your butt. Frame flex was also evident on climbs and during hard acceleration. The lack of suspension and the inability of the rider to rise out of the saddle means that the frame must be more flexible to absorb bumps. Cruising on the flats felt OK, and was definitely the most relaxing. At those points I could almost forget that I was lying on my back and just be content with keeping the pedals moving. Downhills were surprising. The moment the world tilted in my favour, the Giro took off like a rocket, with me scrambling to shift up fast enough. There were no long hills on my route, and I was not quite relaxed enough to just let the thing go, but I could almost see myself keeping up with tandems on it, if I had the gearing.

Eventually I got a feel for what it would be like to ride one permanently and realized that the UCI was correct in their decision (early 30's), that these things are not bicycles. They are human powered vehicles, efficient, comfortable, etc. perhaps even elegant in the hands of an experienced rider, but they are not bicycles. I am pretty sure I could get used to the position enough to make a go of it, but I seriously doubt I would ever really enjoy the experience. Somehow I would also feel like I was cheating, using some strange technological advantage to overcome a physical short-coming. Added to this is the concern that Laura raised when she joined me during part of the ride: "How am I going to draft behind that thing?!?"

For now I am sticking with the plan of a raised stem and neck exercises and stretching.

See you on the road...


January 5, 2007