Walking on the beach with Mr. Greenjeans and Peaches is one of my Sunday morning pleasures. Peaches will endlessly chase a stick into the ocean while Randy and I talk about all the non-world-shattering events in our lives. Sometimes we switch it up and ride bikes at the Wilcox while Peaches trots disinterestedly behind us. We don’t often talk about bikes, so I was surprised when Randy asked me if I’d heard the NPR podcast about the recumbent bike evangelist in Glendale, Wisconsin. I hadn’t, but I checked it out after riding home from Hendry’s.
Andrew Carson makes hand-built recumbent bikes out of recycled parts. He swears that he’ll never ride a traditional bicycle again. He’s not just a convert; he’s a spreading-the-word, mission-driven recumbent evangelical. Carson cuts apart used upright 10-speed bikes and welds the frames into a variety of recumbent styles, depending on customer need. He runs Recycled Recumbent from his backyard garage and has built almost 500 over the last 10 years. He’s not looking to get rich, so he sells them for less than $800.
Recumbents are fun to ride. Most cyclists choose the bike for ergonomic reasons. The rider’s weight is distributed comfortably in a seat instead of resting on a small saddle. Bents (as many riders call them) are also more aerodynamic than a traditional two-wheeler. In fact, a recumbent holds the world speed record for a bike at over 83 mph.
Recumbent bikes aren’t a new cycling technology. The Macmillan Velocipede and the Challand Recumbent were first built in the mid-1800s. In 1933 Charles Mochet built a supine recumbent called the Velocar, which set several speed records for both the mile and kilometer.
In Santa Barbara Aaron Schultz has been commuting from downtown to UCSB on a cool Bacchetta Giro 26 for about a year now. Aaron says, “I commute for the health benefits above everything else, and I ride a recumbent for the comfort level that it provides. It takes me about the same amount of time to ride my bike to work as it does to drive to work and spend an hour at the gym, so combining them made sense and is nicer then going to the gym.”
Aaron’s daily commute used to be 10 miles, but he recently bought a recumbent bike rack for his car. Now, he drives to Arroyo Road, or where the Obern Trail starts at Modoc, because one of the drawbacks of a recumbent is that the bike is somewhat awkward to start and stop on, so traffic lights and stop signs with cars around makes the experience less enjoyable. Some recumbents are also very low to the ground, making a cyclist difficult to see in traffic. The high racer Bacchetta Giro 26 that Aaron currently rides puts his head at about five feet, almost the same height as a traditional two-wheeler.
Aaron prefers to ride his recumbent only on Class 1 bike paths like the Obern Trail — a class of bike path that doesn’t exist between his home and work. National surveys show that about 7 percent of riders can be categorized as brave and fearless who will ride anywhere, in any weather, anytime. Over 60 percent of people say that they are interested in cycling and would ride alone or with their families but are afraid of traffic. Aaron says, “If there was a Class 1 bike path along the train tracks from downtown (say the train station), all the way out to Modoc/Hollister intersection, that would be amazing.” He understands that railroad right-of-way and highway overpasses are obstacles, but still. “Dream is that someday these bridges will need to be upgraded, and the city will help the railroad company out with the cost in exchange for allowing the city to build a bike path along the train tracks so that I can ride all the way to work without getting run over by cranky motorists that do not get enough exercise in their daily routine.” Aaron believes, as do I, that cycling should be possible for all ages from 8 to 80 — a safe, interconnected network of bike paths and lanes would make that possible.
If you’re thinking about buying a bent, they aren’t necessarily costly. Like an upright bike they can sell for thousands of dollars, but many new models are around $800 to $1,000. That price range will get you a solidly constructed frame, a good set of components, and less weight. On Craigslist or eBay you can easily purchase them for under $500.
I’ve never owned a recumbent, but one of the pleasures of working for the Bicycle Coalition is that we get to ride all the interesting and cool bikes that are donated to Bici Centro. We had a short-wheelbase Lightning Thunderbolt recumbent for a while this past summer. It was black and even had a windshield. After it was repaired we all took turns riding it around. If you ride a traditional upright bike, it takes a while to get used to the feel and handling of a recumbent. At low speeds it was twitchy and hard to control, but once you got moving it was a blast to roll along so low to the ground. There are variations from the fast, twitchy racing model I rode to smooth, stable touring models. About the only thing that you can’t do on a bent is ride “no hands.”
Finally, a closing holiday thought. When I worked at Shady Lane School in Pittsburgh, every December, Viola (young at 88) would come up to me in the kitchen area and ask if I was ready for the holidays. I’d launch into a rant about how much I had to do, presents to buy, deadlines, travel, obligations, etc. Viola would smile at me and say, “I put my Christmas salt and pepper shakers on the table — I’m done.” Spend time this holiday enjoying friends, family, and loved ones. Please, ride safely and don’t get stressed by the Holidaze craziness!