Saturday, January 19, 2008

Why Doesn't Everyone Ride Recumbents?

Note: Basically every word I'm recounting here occurred in bits of conversations I've had with various recumbent enthusiasts over the past dozen years. For purposes of brevity, I've compressed these discussion to a single conversation and created the composite character of Perry. Perry is not a real person, although his resemblance to any real person is far more than coincidental.


When the December drizzle settles in on Seattle, it's a good time to hole up in the corner coffee shop with a warm beverage and maybe a good book. I'd just settled with some hot, liquid form of caffeine in one hand and more than a thousand pages of Thomas Pynchon's latest tome in the other when my friend Perry rolls up, locks his sleek, laid back bicycle up next to mine and strolls into the coffee shop. Mr. Pynchon's novel can wait for another day.

Perry lays his dripping helmet on the table and after getting his own drink in order, opens our conversation with his standard gambit, "Still riding that horsey bike, I see."

I counter with my standard rejoinder, "Still lying down on the job."

Years ago, while recovering from a broken collarbone, I decided to learn about and test ride some recumbent bicycles. As things turned out, I wound up riding and owning a lot of those machines, even building a few recumbents of my own and going on lots of rides with the local recumbent club. I got to know folks like Perry and also Bob Bryant, the publisher of a little magazine called Recumbent Cyclist News. Bob convinced me to write some articles and I became a semi-regular columnist for his magazine. It was certainly an interesting couple of years and the people I met were at least as interesting as the laid back machines they rode.

While the machines might be laid back, many of the riders, people like Perry, were anything but. They were passionate about their chosen vehicles, evangelistic in their enthusiasm, willing at the slightest provocation to expound as to why their machine is what a bicycle should truly be. And many of these folks, not all but many, would speak of a conspiracy or at least a conspiracy of ignorance, that kept the world from embracing the design of the recumbent bicycle. In the future, they were sure, "wedgies" would join the high-wheeler as a quaint reminder of a more primitive age. And our current time, with bike shops filled with bikes that look like what Lance Armstrong rides, is still a primitive age.

When I went back to riding what Perry insists on calling "horsey bikes" some of my recumbent cohorts took this as some kind of betrayal. Perry, on the other hand, figured this was evidence that I was not too bright. Bob encouraged me to write an article about my choice, but I became more interested in the bigger picture and the question I posed to Perry right now.

"If recumbents are so good, why doesn't everybody ride recumbents?"

"Well, you don't because you're dumb, or maybe just because you like to piss me off. But most folks don't even know about recumbents. And even if they've heard of them or seen one, there's hardly any place to buy them."

"But why is that?" I press.

"C'mon," Perry says, "Don't play dumber than you are. You know this. 1934? The Ban?"

"Yeah, I know about the ban. In 1934 some guy on a 'bent beat the fastest folks on upright bikes and the UCI declared his machine wasn't a bicycle. And you really want me to believe that's what's keeping folks off 'bents?"

"That's a big part of it," Perry says, wagging his head. "Folks watch the Tour de France and think they're seeing fast bikes when they don't even get to see what a fast bike looks like."

"I guess you have a point there, but let me throw out a counter-example." I say, "Look, they don't let cars in the Kentucky Derby, but somehow autos managed to catch on. I can't run a motor in the America's cup, yet somehow speedboats are doing a booming business. If you've got a better mousetrap, isn't the world going to beat a path to your door?"

"Emerson was a better poet than a businessman," Perry notes.

"Quite true," I concede, "but he actually made quite a bundle off his writing and speaking gigs. However it looks like he may have never actually said that thing about mousetraps and in any case the history of the mousetrap is filled with neat designs that never resulted in riches. But enough about mousetraps, let's get back to 'bents. Today, there are lots of events where recumbents aren't banned. They race in RAAM and recumbent riders show up on brevets and international events like Paris-Brest-Paris. And the IHPVA has their own series of races..."

"Yeah," Perry inserts, "and we kick ass. The recumbent hour record is much faster than the UCI record and..."

"Freddie Markham in a Gold Rush is way faster than Eddy Merckx ever was on his 'horsey bike'," I break in. "Look, a guy taped inside a pedal-powered carbon-fiber torpedo can go like hell on the salt flats, no argument from me there. But that isn't going to make me go "ooh that's the kind of machine I want to ride down to the coffee shop."

"That's 'cause you're a slow learner," Perry explains.

"No, I don't think so," I say, "I think the recumbent speed thing is over-rated. Winning this race or that one isn't going to change a bunch of people's minds."

"But getting the bikes seen might," Perry ventures.

"Maybe," I concede, "and I guess with the way the ban went, we'll never know. But don't give me the 'if they let us in the Tour de France, we'd kick ass' argument..."

"But we would..." Perry begins.

"No," I say, cutting him off, "you wouldn't. The Tour is set up around the peleton, team tactics, sprint finishes and climbing. There are only a couple of time trials in the entire thing and the whole race is built around wedgie bikes, wedgie teams, and wedgie tactics. A recumbent stands as much chance of winning the tour as my cat does of winning the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show."

"So you admit wedgie bikes are dogs..." Perry says with an evil grin.

"Hardly," I say, taking pains to look pained, "and in real world riding, with hills and traffic lights and all the rest, most stock recumbents won't get me to work any quicker than my plain old upright bike does."

"Yeah, but a stream-liner," Perry begins.

"Feels like an underpowered car to me," I say. "I know you love your enclosed HPVs but I don't like riding around in a coffin. And that's what HPVs feel like to me."

"But what about your open low-racer, didn't you have fun with that?"

"Yep," I admit, "the Pillow Bike was a blast. But I got tired of lying down in the rain and I really got tired of being at tail-pipe height in traffic. On my wedgie, I've got a much better view."

"How about a high-racer, something like a Bacchetta?"

"Bacchetta hit the scene after I'd moved back to uprights, so I never had a chance to ride one..."

"Aha!" Perry shouts, loud enough that some of the other folks in the coffee shop looked over at us. "That's what you should be riding," he added in a softer tone.

"Perry," I say, "I hardly think the fact that I haven't ridden a bike means it's destined to be my bike."

"You'd love a Bacchetta," Perry enthuses, "it's fast, it's comfortable, you wouldn't have that wedge of plastic crammed up your butt..."

"And that's another thing you 'bent folks just don't get," I say, matching Perry's level of animation with some volume of my own, "I AM COMFORTABLE ON MY BIKE!"

"You're kidding, right?" Perry looks genuinely confused.

"No," I say softly. "I want you to understand this. I'm comfortable on an upright bike. Lots of folks are."

"No," he says, "I know lots of folks who are miserable on wedgies. I see 'em on the STP, rubbing their necks, walking like cowboy's in their dorky pants. They can't wait to get off their bikes."

"Look," I say, "I'm not saying everybody is comfortable on every bike. Some folks have their handlebars too low or the wrong kind of seat. Maybe their bike just doesn't fit or maybe they really can't get comfy on an upright bike. But there are people, people like me, who are comfortable riding an upright bike."

Perry still looks doubtful, "Really?" he asks.

"Really," I say, "Recumbents solve problems I don't have. They solve problems lots of folks don't have. That's why people don't buy them and that's why wedgies aren't going away."

"But...but...recumbents are better!" Perry insists.

"Better how?" I counter, "Faster? More comfortable?"

"Yeah!" Perry says, "C'mon, you know they are..."

"Well, Perry," I say, "my experience to date hasn't convinced me of that but what if I grant you those two points? What if a recumbent is faster than a wedgie bike and more comfortable. If my upright bike is fast enough for me and comfy enough for me, I don't think I'm going to change. It's like the Dvorak keyboard..."

"Hey, I use a Dvorak keyboard!" Perry exclaims.

"And this doesn't surprise me at all," I say, "in fact I think I'd be more surprised to find out you were a QWERTY man. Do you live in a geodesic dome as well?"

"No," Perry says, "but I've always wanted one."

"Me too," I confess, "at least I did until I read this article by the author of the two Domebooks that points out a lot of the problems that show up when you try to put the theory of domes into practice. I think a similar thing happens with recumbents."

"Like what?" Perry wonders.

"Like some are so laid back you get a crick in your neck from holding your head up to look forward. Or the way some people get numb toes from a high bottom bracket, or recumbent butt from a more upright seat. 'Bents aren't always magically comfortable."

"And then there is the drive-train thing," I continue, "if you've got the pedals out front and the drive wheel in the back, you've got a lot of chain. Chain is heavy and you've got to manage it somehow. Idler wheels suck a little bit of power..."

"But those things can be worked out," Perry counters.

"Oh yeah," I agree, "I'm sure every problem I can list has been solved by some 'bent, somewhere. But it's not like folks have settled on a common solution and different designs have different trade-offs. Front-wheel drive 'bents beat the chain problem but they can't climb steep hills in the rain. A long wheel-base bike like a Tour Easy is great for cross-country touring but not what I'd choose for busy urban riding."

"That's what you need the Bacchetta for," Perry states.

"What, did you become a Bacchetta dealer when I wasn't looking?" I wonder out loud, "look maybe it's the greatest bike ever and I'm really missing out..."

"You are," Perry insists.

"OK, OK," I admit, "you like Bacchettas, I've figured that out. My point is this, we're not moving to some future where everybody rides the same kind of bike. Look at that," I say pointing out the window to the street.

"Look at what?" Perry asks.

"The street, the cars, the world. There's lots of stuff out there. Look at that Honda Accord."

"What about it?"

"It's a car. As cars go, it's probably a good car. I've heard good things about 'em, but what do I know, I'm not a car guy. But let's say," I continue, "that it's a great car. Let's say Accord owners just love 'em. Does that mean it's the perfect car for everybody?"

"Of course not," Perry says.

"So you see my point," I say relieved that I'd finally gotten through to my friend.

"Of course I do," Perry said, "they shouldn't be driving Accords or any other car for that matter. They should be riding recumbents. And so should you. In fact, I think you should be riding a Bacchetta!"
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