Why do nearly all the bicycles in your neighborhood and the ones you see on the roads look they way they do? Recumbent bicycles like Cruzbike are safer, healthier and faster than traditional road bicycles yet, traditional bicycles dominate the market and racing. To unpack the reasons why, we have to go back in history to 1934.
Bicycle design without limits
Before 1934, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the international governing body of cycling, allowed virtually any kind of bicycle to race in its sanctioned events. Recumbent bicycles were considered just another bicycle design, having been around since at least 1895. By 1914, they were popular enough that Peugeot, a major bicycle manufacturer, produced a recumbent model.
In the five decades preceding 1934, bicycles had undergone dramatic changes in design. Bicycle races not only proved which riders were the best at racing, but which bicycle designs had the best chance of winning.
The era of bicycle design evolution was abruptly ended by a disruptive innovation: Charles Mochet of France built a radically sleek recumbent bicycle that allowed Francis Faure, a "mediocre" cyclist, to outrace Europe's best cyclists.
On July 7, 1933 Faure set the one-hour world record on Mochet’s new design. In 1933, cycling had a huge international following and a new record made big international news. The cycling world was in an uproar because this record was set by an outsider, someone who had not earned the cycling world's respect. The cycling world put pressure on the UCI to strike the record. How might things have been different if Mochet had chosen one of the current winning professional cyclists, instead of Faure, to champion his new design?
The UCI spent months pondering whether to accept the new record or strike it down. After a close vote (58 to 46) cycling’s governing body decided to strip Faure of his record, and to forever ban recumbent bicycles like Mochet’s. Paul Rousseau, the UCI Commissioner from France in 1934, voiced his opposition to the ban on recumbent bicycles, stating that the UCI's purpose was not to define the bicycle, but to regulate races.
Bicycle design frozen in time
This decision has had a long-lasting effect on cycling. Because of the recumbent bicycle ban, the world’s best athletes race on bicycles with a UCI defined position of the handlebars, cranks, saddle, front axle, and rear axle. This image of the bicycle, which has not been allowed by UCI rules to be significantly changed or improved in the last 85 years, is cemented in the public mind. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, most people believe this design is the fastest and safest.
The UCI’s rules were adopted by other organizations, and the recumbent ban is enforced by USA Triathlon, USA Cycling, and even the National Senior Games. Sometimes organizations allow slight modifications to the original UCI rules, but almost always prevent recumbents from competing alongside traditional bikes.
Unfortunately for the environment and global health, only a small percentage of the population can tolerate riding traditional bikes for more than a few miles. Perhaps this is one reason that only 4% of Americans regularly ride a bike.
Ergonomics and the rebirth of recumbent cycling
Ergonomics, the science of designing equipment to optimize both performance and human well-being, did not begin until the late 1940s, well after recumbents were banned by the UCI. Thus while ergonomics improved the automobile and many other products we interact with, the bicycle was ignored.
However, in the last 30 years, small bicycle companies like Cruzbike, inspired by the ergonomics movement, began producing comfortable, recumbent bikes that more naturally fit the human body. These bicycles put riders on a seat instead of a saddle, with a lower center of gravity for safety and handlebars in front of instead of beneath the rider to keep pressure off the wrists, neck and shoulders. Despite the unfamiliar geometry and image of these bicycles more and more people are adopting them so they can ride longer without the musculoskeletal discomfort often experienced on a traditional bike frame.
Recumbents and racing
Because of the natural aerodynamics of a feet forward position, many recumbent bikes are also extremely fast. Unfortunately, since banned from most competitions by UCI rules, they are not given the same media exposure as traditional bike frames.
Despite this, athletes who are delighted by the combination of comfort and speed, race Cruzbikes and other recumbent bikes wherever they are permitted to, mostly in events sanctioned by WUCA (World Ultracycling Association) and a few other events not limited by UCI rules. WUCA events show that recumbent and standard bikes can compete together safely, even in mass-start and drafting events.
Why all of this matters
When all safe, unfaired bicycles - including recumbent bicycles - are allowed to compete side-by-side with traditional frames, the image and definition of a bicycle will expand to include other geometries and global participation in cycling and all of its competitive outlets will increase. Those who cannot or will not ride a traditional bike because of discomfort will be more willing to get back to cycling and experience the joy of cycling they experienced as a child.
Ending the ban will also spur innovation in bicycle design and technology and ultimately, get more people cycling.
Even today, The UCI states one of its major goals is to: "Enable innovation and continued advances in technology". The best way to do that is to once again allow innovation and competition in frame geometry.
Let's encourage the UCI and USA Triathlon to allow athletes who race standard and non-standard bicycles to compete side-by-side. Create a separate category to make the traditional bike racers feel comfortable, but let all safe bikes race together.
We join our associates in the recumbent bicycle and tricycle industry, recumbent bicycle enthusiasts, and everyone who shares the dream of making the world a better place by getting more people to cycle every day.
We applaud these recumbent-friendly organizations: