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While there is no doubt that traditional two wheel bicycles are a great way to save money on gas and reduce emissions, their upright nature does little to provide for the comfort of the driver on his or her way towards a more cost effective and sustainable future.  As biking becomes ever-present in our lifestyles it is important to recognize that many choose to steer away from the numerous benefits that stepping off of the gas pedal can bring due to their own physique or lack of experience on two wheels. Especially within the context of a daily commute, even those accustomed to biking will agree that consistent use of those seats can take a heavy toll on the old posterior by the end of the week.

Enter the modern era of the ergonomically superior recumbent (as in seated) bicycle. Designed for the driver to lie down while pedaling, these bikes distribute weight and physical strain evenly between the wheels.  In doing so recumbents take less of a toll on the body while also increasing efficiency by reducing the amount of aerodynamic drag.  Think about it, the less that your body rests above the handlebars the less air resistance exists on the collective mass during the trip. Serious riders can even purchase a shell to fit around the exterior of the ride called a fairing (seen above) that allows the whole machine to cut through the air like a rocket for further reductions.  With these simple changes a typical person can increase their average speed by 3-8 mph just by making the switch.

This sort of technology is not new.  These “advances” initially came onto the scene back in the heyday of competitive cycling at the turn of the last century.  Interested in seeing how more than just physique could separate them from the rest, riders experimented with design to increase their performance. Racing with different frames, mechanics and fairings, they learned that those who sat lower to the ground with a smoother shell around them were faster than the workhorses on uprights.

The tipping point of the “man vs machine” argument occurred in 1934 when recumbents were “banned” from competitive racing after a little known rider broke the hour long distance record while sitting down.  In the interest of keeping the competition focused solely on athletic performance, those in charge began regulating what models racers could use.  Unfortunately, with the increased notoriety that removal from the public eye brings, recumbent bikes went to the wayside until the 1980s when a professor at M.I.T. began advocating for a resurgence in their use.

Today the many different styles of recumbents are separated into two main groups based on where the pedals are located in relation to the front wheel.  The pedals on short bikes are found ahead of the front wheel while long bikes find them positioned above or behind the front wheel.  Generally, the shorter models are designed more for speed and seat the driver closer to the ground. Functioning more as cruisers, the long bikes are designed around comfort.  Opting for a lawn-chair mentality, there are many available long models with a nice big seat and room to mingle.  If relaxation is your main prerogative there are even three-wheel “trike” models that are perfect for a laid back tour around town on a sunny afternoon.

With all of this being said it is important to remember that recumbents do not automatically make everyone faster. An increase in aerodynamics is useless if the rider is not strong enough to propel the bike to speeds where a reduction in drag becomes a significant factor.  Because of this recumbents are not a panacea to all of our transportation needs, they just represent another available option for the cost-conscious environmentalist.

Ultimately the more people actively look for alternatives to driving, or watch others experimenting themselves, the more individualized and viable the solutions will become.  For the unconverted that remain in search of their own way to successfully get out of the car seat, bicycles of all types are available with electric motors (like the e-cumbent) that propel the driver forward regardless of their fitness or experience.

Let us know about your own sightings or lessons learned on recumbent bicycles by commenting below.

Earthgarage – Greener Car. Fatter Wallet.