Recumbent Rally On The Bay
In which a reporter learns to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Thursday, July 25, 2002
Photo by Randy Tunnell.
Photo: Way Laid Back- Like many of their ilk, Eddie Hurt, center, and Ted Carson like to exercise sitting down.
It''s as easy as riding a bicycle. In fact, it''s quite a bit easier. On a "normal" bicycle, one''s body is inclined toward the handlebars, chest over knees, neck twisted upwards. It''s not a very comfortable set-up.
On a recumbent bike, however, the rider leans back into the seat, feet out front, gripping the handlebars at a comfortable height. This cushy arrangement makes it possible for riders of recumbent bicycles to ride faster and longer than their conventional counterparts.
Recumbent bikes were born of a Monterey Bay resident''s ingenuity. Twenty years ago, DuPont offered $18,000 for any human-powered vehicle that could exceed the then-legal speed limit of 55 mph. Gardner Martin, who now lives in Freedom, rose to the challenge, and with some streamlining and tinkering got one of his recumbent bicycles to reach 65 mph on level ground. That specimen now sits in the Smithsonian Institute.
Martin himself is a tall, slim, bearded older man who manages to project a great deal of respectability without being intimidating. The people surrounding him seem to revere him for the brilliant design of his bikes, but also to feel very warmly toward him. This year''s annual get-together for recumbent bike owners was held at Martin''s Easy Racers factory in Freedom. Riders from around the nation gathered with their bikes to see what''s new in the recumbent world, compare notes with other riders and show off their bikes. There is obvious camaraderie between these people, and walking into their group almost felt like an invasion. But duty called. And that meant I had to ride one of the bikes.
My job is so cool.
First, I was lucky enough to be the co-pedaler (but mostly passenger) on a two-rider bike called a Screamer. After getting off to a scary start, it seemed easy to control the bike. Then again, I was sitting on the back and pedaling, not steering up front.
A lot of the bike owners were eager to let me try their rides out. I found a man, Hans, who was about my height and took his Gold Rush out for a spin. My newfound cockiness about how easy it is to ride a recumbent was short-lived. While sitting back and pedaling in a straight line is a breeze, steering is challenging. My first few go-rounds were comical to observers. "Relax your wrists," onlookers advised. "Lean back."
Not falling off and breaking my face seemed about as well as I''d do, and, feeling defeated, I stopped riding. With some advice, though, I was back on the saddle and getting the hang of it.
Riding a recumbent is relaxing. Your legs move at much more comfortable angles than on a conventional bicycle, and since the seat is chair-shaped rather than simply a teensy crotch-balancing platform, it''s easy to ride.
"I wouldn''t be able to ride a regular bike," declared Kerry, one of the many middle-aged men in tight shorts at the convention.
The only challenge in riding a recumbent comes on hills, when you would stand up on a normal bicycle''s pedals to gain leverage. You can''t do that on a recumbent bike, so very steep hills can be almost impossible to surmount unless you''ve built up a lot of prior speed.
But on level ground, a recumbent can go the same speed as a car, and can be ridden for much longer than a regular bike. This is because the ergonomic form makes the ride comfortable, but also because the streamlined shape of a recumbent lessens wind resistance and fatigue.
So why isn''t everyone out there buying recumbent bicycles? Well, the imports (of which Gardner Martin is careful not to speak poorly) start at about $500, but the really good bikes, the ones that are made at the Easy Racers factory, will run the consumer about $3,000. The bike I rode would retail for about $3,600, and a titanium frame can fetch as much as $5,000. Hans calls his "my BMW."
A Peninsula recumbent cycling club meets on Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings to do rides. I was lucky enough to get to meet one of its members, Leo Kodl, who was very helpful in giving background information and pointing out important people to talk to, including Martin himself. In fact, everyone I talked to really did seem to want to be helpful. These bikes unite people somehow; it''s as if they''re onto something special. In fact, they really are. Because anyone who has discovered a way to become fit while sitting down has come upon a very good idea indeed.