Friday, March 2, 2007

Choosing a bike

This has been a long and expensive path for me--lots of fun but lots of cash. Recumbents aren't cheap, and I have a penchant for nice gear. It's tough to select the right bike the first time, and then there's the issue of RBA, recumbent bicycle addiction--no known cure. One just has to let the disease run its course. As I said earlier, I did a little touring on a conventional bike years ago and found the experience deeply uncomfortable--lots of numb bits and the enduring joy of saddle sores. Gotta love it. I recently came across two anecdotes that underscore these shortcomings of conventional touring bikes: One fellow developed a severe, deeply buried blister/saddle sore that required surgery to drain. Good grief. This ended his tour. Another rider successfully crossed the country but, twenty years later, STILL has nerve damage in his hands from the constant pressure and jarring he experienced. Clearly, something is wrong with the conventional diamond frame bike as a touring platform. To be fair, many riders "toughen up" to the point where they are reasonably comfortable, but many (most?) do a lot of complaining about discomfort even so. Time to chuck the old "wedgie," as recumbent riders call conventional bikes.

My first bent was a Lighting Phantom, an excellent bike manufactured in Lompoc, California:

I could have stayed with this bike and done well, but I had the bug and couldn't leave well enough alone. What followed was a succession of bikes as I depicted earlier. I've now "settled" on two bikes, not counting the tandem trike that I ride with Jodi, my wife: The Haluzak Horizon (no longer in production) and the Street Machine Gte.

The recumbent platform makes a variety of steering layouts possible. The Phantom, as you can see, is controlled with over seat steering (OSS). However, one can also have under seat steering (USS). This second style is, for me, ergonomic nirvana. Look at the hand/arm positions on the Haluzak photo in my post about panniers. Totally relaxed and perfect for all-day riding. Absolutely no numbness possible. The wide, reclined seats eliminate sore spots on the butt. No saddle sores possible.

C'mon, there must be some drawbacks, yes? Nothing is perfect, is it? True, recumbents are not without their problems, but given the variety of configurations possible, there is a bent for everyone. In no particular order, here is a list of the main problems I've encountered:

1) Recumbent butt: This is a condition where the muscles of one's behind get quite painful during the course of a ride. In many cases, this is at first the result of poorly adapted muscles in the new riding position. Just riding more will solve the issue. In other cases, the relative position of the pedals (bottom bracket) to the seat can be the cause. I have discovered that, for me, low bottom brackets and upright seating, as found on the Tour Easy pictured in my post on panniers and trailers, leads to pretty painful R-butt. I just could not adapt to this riding position. I loved the bike, but it didn't work for my particular body. I need a higher pedal position and more reclined seat. Sometimes, a change in seat padding will solve the problem, too. For me, the question is more about body positioning.

2) Numb toes: Some riders find that they get numb toes after periods of riding, especially with higher bottom bracket configurations. I am one of these riders. This is not much of a problem for me, however, and takes some time to set in during a ride. Just a few moments off the bike, and my symptoms are gone. Hot weather makes this condition worse. For some, changing pedals, cleat position, insoles and the like can help or eliminate the problem. Looser fitting shoes do help.

3) Sore knees: Because a recumbent rider can apply more pressure to the pedals than on conventional bikes (leg press supported by seat) and because the pedal stroke is always the same (no standing on the pedals), recumbent riders can be subject to knee stress that they might not experience on conventional bikes. There are some important considerations here to avoid or deal with this problem. First, bent riders must use lower gears and put a lot of emphasis on "spinning," i.e. using high rpm, low pressure on the pedals. This translates into about 90 rpms or so most of the time. Pushing too hard results in serious repetitive stress. Shift down, shift early. Keep the pressure light. Gears are the key here. Most recumbents tend to come with gearing too high for comfortable riding in hilly or mountainous terrain. In general, most riders will want a low gear in front of about 24 teeth and a rear cassette of no less than 11 to 32 teeth--11/34 is better. In general, you won't be unhappy having lower gears, especially when the load is heavy and the climb never seems to end. Also, take time getting into bent shape. New muscles take time to adapt. We've only got one set of knees each. Take care.

4) Recumbent grin: This is another chronic issue without a cure. Once you've got the right bike perfectly adjusted, you ride around with this stupid grin on your face almost all the time. Oh well, someone has to do it.

Other recumbent considerations: Besides steering, one must consider a couple of other factors. Because recumbent tricycles are so wonderful (and growing in popularity), I had to look at those, too. Since I ride a tandem trike as a captain, I'm familiar with the feel of such vehicles. They're great fun, super stable, and make excellent touring rigs. I may own a single trike some time in the future. For me, however, I really like the feeling of riding on two wheels and banking into turns. Also, bikes are a good deal faster, which often times doesn't matter, but I can average 3 to 4 mph faster on a two wheeler. That kind of speed difference really adds up over the course of a day, a week, three months crossing a continent. So for now, two wheels for me.

With recumbent bicycles, another major factor is the wheel base, basically long and short. There is a mid-length size called a "compact long wheel base," but it's still long. How do these compare to conventional diamond frame bikes? In general, short wheel base (SWB), is identical or a little longer than standard bikes--between 39 (rare) and 47 inches. Both of my SWB's are about 42 inches. Long wheel base (LWB) can range up to 70+ inches, real Cadillacs. Besides my need for a higher bottom bracket (a few LWB's have fairly high pedals), I went with the SWB layout because of the ergonomics of the handle bars, the sporty feel of a shorter bike, and the fact that I can put both of my bents on conventional transit bus racks. This last concern is huge for me because I often ride a 44 mile one-way commute to my job. Coming home up the mountain is a huge undertaking and one I rarely have the time for, but I can ride down, get a good-but-not-extreme workout, and then take the bus home--a perfect arrangement. If taking public transit is one of your concerns, LWB's are out as well as any SWB's beyond 42 inch wheel base. A final point is that, in general, SWB's tend to climb a bit better than LWB's. The shorter wheel base means they handle better at low speeds, and the higher bottom bracket translates into better power. I climbed many big hills on my Tour Easy (LWB), but the steeper they get, the more I appreciate a SWB.

So, when I finally took the plunge and decided to ride the big ride, I came to the conclusion that a new bike was needed to properly honor the event. I could have easily ridden my Haluzak as I've found it to be an excellent performer, but I'd always had a desire for a sleek, European recumbent, so HP Velotechnik was the obvious choice. The company optimizes their designs for utility, especially touring. The Street Machine is famous for durability and comfort. Check out Rob's journals for the ultimate Street Machine journey: My Street Machine was purchased from Bent Up Cycles in Van Nuys, California. Dana, the owner, did a fantastic job and is always a pleasure to work with. He's always happy to work with customers to customize and make that perfect bike. He's one of the biggest HPVelo dealers in the country.

For a narrative on my first tour with the Street Machine, check out my journal "Sliding Down the Coast" under my links section.


Robert said...


With the Street Machine's bodylink seat, recumbent butt is a thing of the past. Just do some fine adjustments on the seat and you're set.

I got some recumbent butt half way through my current tour. I adjusted the lower adjustment on the seat up about 5mm, and it was fine.

You're gonna love the Street Machine for sure.


Robert said...


Sorry for all the questions/comments, but I was checking out your journals for your 'Slide Down the Coast' tour (great pics there), and I was wondering about the crank length issue.

You mentioned that you are a short crank convert. I have never tried different crank lengths on a recumbent, so I wonder if you could expand on your experiences with long and short cranks, and what the differences are, from your point of view.

I have 170mm Shimano 105 road cranks on my bike. I have often wondered if there would be any difference changing to shorter cranks...


Scott Wayland said...

Hi, Rob: Well, I've had a little trouble with my knees now and then. I'd read about shorter cranks helping as the power phase of each stroke is met with a more open knee angle and hence less stress (shallow knee bends easier than deep knee bends, eh?). So I gave it a shot and liked them right away. I still get finicky knees from time to time, but I think the shorter cranks help. Part of the problem for me seems to be higher bottom brackets. My knees were a little happier on the Tour Easy.

I currently run 155mm on the Greenspeed and 153mm on the Street Machine. This shorter length was due to having a guy shorten a set of 175's. He needed a minimum of 22mm around the new hole. Most folks seem to like shorter cranks. If you've adapted comfortably to the longer units, you may not want to bother unless you just want to experiment. In general, shorter cranks allow for easier high cadence. You will have a reduction in leverage, so your highs won't be as high nor your lows as low, so you might have to adjust gearing a little. I run a 22/34/44 up front and 11/34 in back. This works well for me. I'm not worried about the high end for a touring bike. I also use Q-rings by Rotor for the 34 and 44, which give me a bit more leverage than standard round rings. I spin out at about 37 mph or so, which is plenty fast for me. Above that speed I'm usually content to let gravity do its thing.

Oh, one more thing: I do use a chain stopper to avoid over shifting and dropping the chain past the small chain ring--"suicide down shifts" they're called. Hate that!

Hope this helps.



Robert said...

Much appreciated Scott. I had some seriously tough times with my road crank up front. 26 tooth is the smallest cog I have up front, with an 11/34 cassette at the back. An I hardly ever used the 52 tooth monster big ring up front either.

I have since lightened my luggage however, and I am finding that I can use a wider range of combinations on that same road crank.

However, if I was going to do any serious touring again over terrain like I've been over, then I'd be changing to a mountain crank for sure.


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