Recumbents - literally, bikes you recline on - look pretty odd, but they are comfortable. Just a sliver of the market, more are showing up every year, spurred on by baby boomers with bad backs and aging joints - and the freedom to spend several hundred to several thousand dollars on a bike.
Pat Clark, a contractor from Society Hill, started riding a hybrid at 50, when his weight stopped coming off on its own. A few years into it, shopping for his daughter at Jay's Pedal Power Bikes in Fishtown, he spotted the sort of contraption he had seen in photos. Clark researched it for weeks while getting over sticker shock. He then plunked down $1,475 for the 27-gear RANS V-Rex (replaced last year by a faster, similarly priced Bacchetta Strada).
"I immediately doubled my mileage because it was so much more enjoyable and comfortable to ride," said Clark, 59. He does 4,000 to 5,000 miles a year, often zipping along at 20 m.p.h., nearly prone, feet level with his shoulders - aerodynamically superior to the traditional upright body blocking the wind.
Recumbent designs date to the 1890s. After one set a world speed record in 1933, they were banned by the main racing body and virtually disappeared. They still cannot qualify for world events (and a recumbent again holds the human-powered land speed record, raised last month to 52.3 miles in an hour).
Beginning 25 years ago, small teams of engineers around the United States, and then Europe, began designing and manufacturing eclectic custom-made recumbent bicycles. Dozens of entrepreneurial recumbent brands are now made here, like so many microbrews.
Recumbents have proved a tremendous help for people who have disabilities or are recovering from surgery. Many of the rest are like Jay Townley.
"I'm 61. I have had double carpal-tunnel surgery. And pains in my neck. Am I disabled?" he said. "To me, I'm an old guy who just wants to go out and have some fun."
Townley, a Wisconsin-based bicycle-industry consultant, believes an aging population will drive sales of "the ultimate comfort bike." They already make up 5 percent of bicycles sold through dealers, he said.
Mary Lou Schack, 63, of Villanova, took a bold step last fall. She bought an EZ-3 Trike - a popular 21-speed in the entry-level line, one of the few recumbents that can be purchased from most bicycle shops - for $750 from Mainly Bikes in Narberth. Trikes are good for people who have trouble balancing, as does her trike-riding buddy.
She had a kick at the Shore. "People were turning around and saying, 'That's cool!' "
Other trikes are cooler, and faster, and pricier - like the 81-speed, under-the-seat-steered Greenspeed GTO, $4,800 at Jay's. It also comes in a tandem. The ride is like a fine motorcar.
As people retire, Rob Gentry observed from his store, Recumbent BikeRiders Inc. in State College, they are more willing to spend what they need to feel good.
"This is their 'vacation' time," he said. "I just sold a bike" - a performance trike from Holland - "to a 97-year-old."
That customer liked speed. Others delight in a field of view that goes beyond down: "You can have a conversation. You can see the leaf changes in the spring."
One thing you cannot do as easily is climb hills, since pulling on the handlebars or getting up out of the saddle to pump with your feet is nearly impossible from a reclining position.
"So we just 'spin' up hills," Gentry said, gearing down, legs whirring, edging toward the top. "Think of it as a roller coaster: click, click, click, and then wheeeeeeeeee!"
Contact staff writer Don Sapatkin
at 610-313-8246 or email@example.com.
Is a Recumbent Right for You?
Whether to buy a recumbent, and which one, is largely a matter of personal preference. Take several for a spin.
Pros . . .
Disabilities: Injured or disabled people often find the body position, back support and adjustments make it easy to ride.
Speed: Aerodynamics make recumbents that are built for performance significantly faster than uprights.
Comfort: Most people find the seating position - sort of like looking ahead while riding an office chair - more natural and less stressful on back, neck, arms, wrists and backside.
. . . and cons
Price: Recumbents are expensive, from $500 to $5,000.
Terrain: Body position makes powering up hills difficult. Recumbents cannot navigate mountain trails.
Bulk: Most models are bigger and bulkier than uprights, and are harder to stow on a train or car, trikes even more so.
How to pick
Unlike uprights, each recumbent brand - sometimes each model - is unique. Tips for choosing among styles:
Novices, commuting, touring: Compact long wheelbase models and heavier long wheelbase bicycles are easy and stable.
Performance: Lighter short wheelbases offer quick handling, responsive steering, and speed.
Best fits for aches and pains: Neck: Avoid very reclined seats. Shoulder or arthritis: Stay away from bikes with long reach to handlebars (or try under-the-seat steering). Backside: Avoid very upright seats. Balance difficulty: Try a trike.
'BentRider Online: www.bentrideronline.com.
Recumbent Cyclist News: www.recumbentcyclistnews.com.
International Bicycle Fund: www.ibike.org (click on "Alternative Cycle Technology").
Bike shops with recumbent lines
Jay's Pedal Power Bikes: 512 E. Girard Ave., Philadelphia; 1-888-777-5297 or www.jayspedalpower.com. Sells 10 brands, with 20 bikes typically in-house.
Recumbent BikeRiders Inc.: 1306 S. Atherton St., State College, Pa.; 814-234-4636 or http://rbr.info. All-recumbent dealer, carries 18 brands with 40-50 models on the floor.
Jersey Bents' Economy Bike Shop: 31 George Dye Rd., Hamilton Square, N.J.; 609-586-0150 or www.jerseybents.com. Sells three brands; 12 bikes on hand.
Tandems East: 86 Gwynwood Dr., Pittsgrove, N.J.; 856-451-5104 or www.tandemseast.com. By appointment only. Carries three recumbent tandems.