How to Choose the Best Recumbent Road Bicycle
There are many recumbent bicycle manufacturers and recumbent bicycle types. This guide walks through each in detail and how to choose the best recumbent bike for you.
Why ride a recumbent bicycle?
Because we all know nothing compares to the feeling of flying along on two wheels under your own power. Whether you ride for adventure, for quick trips to the park or market, for commuting or to push your limits to get stronger and faster, cycling is a uniquely wonderful way to get from point A to point B.
Unfortunately, many cyclists riding traditionally-designed road bikes experience saddle, back, neck, or wrist pain or injury. Aches and pains can range from mildly distracting to incredibly limiting, injurious or debilitating and commonly include neck, wrist and shoulder pain, lingering numbness in hands or saddle area, prostate issues and more (see more data on cycling health and safety here).
Many cyclists try to ignore these discomforts and obey the famous (or infamous) Cyclist’s rule #5, HTFU (harden the f*ck up). But at a certain point many cyclists realize it is no longer about being tough or ignoring pain, it is about being unwilling to do lasting damage to the body. That’s when someone may first begin to wonder, “how about a recumbent road bike?”
This may be a good opportunity to tell you the authors of this guide are obsessed with riding recumbent bikes, specifically Cruzbikes. Despite our fanatical love for Cruzbike, we have worked hard to gather and organize the best, most helpful information for someone newer to the recumbent cycling world and who is curious about what the options are - and there are many!
Here are our top 7 reasons to ride a recumbent road bike:
#1 The most important reason to ride a recumbent bike is comfort.
There are lots of reasons to ride a recumbent bike, but the most important one is comfort. Recumbent bikes are simply more ergonomic than traditional bikes and some offer comparable performance and cycling technology when compared with traditionally-designed road bikes.
#2 Recumbent road bikes are safer than their upright road bike cousins in a collision.
This is somewhat difficult to study because there are fewer recumbent riders than traditional bike riders. There is a small study looking at injuries on recumbents and generally they have fewer injuries to head, face and neck than traditional bikes. There are some logical reasons to assume that recumbents are safer in an accident: your head is back and your center of gravity is low. If you are in an accident you are much less likely to hit your head first. This article addresses the health and safety issues that might lead you to choose a recumbent.
#3 Recumbent bicycles provide improved visibility while cycling with a head up view of the road.
On a recumbent bike your body is essentially positioned as it would be if you were sitting in a chair with your face forward. You don’t have to crane your neck to see what is in front of you. This is not only ideal for safety, it is wonderful for touring, because you can comfortably and easily see all that is around you.
Image Above: CampfireCycling.com
#4 Recumbent bicycles are more aerodynamic and hence faster than traditional road bikes.
The fastest bike in the world is a recumbent bike. This bike (fully faired) went 89.95 mph. Of course the speed of the bike depends on many factors, not the least of which is the rider, but there is little debate that aerodynamics wins (at least on the flats). We’ll get to climbing later.
#5 Bike fit is easier and more affordable on a recumbent bicycle.
Many recumbent bicycles fit a wide variety of people with one frame size. An industry has developed around bike fit for traditionally designed road bikes. If you tell a bike shop that your traditional road bike is uncomfortable, they will tell you it is because it is not fitted properly to your body. Many riders spend hundreds of dollars on bike fitting and trying new saddles, new stems, handlebar position, cleat positions etc.
It is possible to get more comfortable on a traditional bike, but let’s face it, you’re still sitting on a tiny saddle, leaning forward on handlebars and craning your neck up to see things in front of you. You will also need special shorts with padding, special cream to deal with the inevitable saddle sores and nice thick gloves to delay your hand numbness. On a recumbent bike or trike you will have to be fitted: of course you have to be able to get on and off the bike and reach the pedals. In the world of recumbent bicycles you should know a measurement called your x-seam.
If you are on a very reclined recumbent bike or trike, you’ll need to get a headrest that fits you properly, but generally it is a very simple thing to get fitted comfortably on a recumbent bicycle or tricycle.
#6 Nice people ride recumbent road bikes.
Recumbent bicycles are usually ridden by people who are more welcoming and not as elitist as our Lycra clad cousins. Perhaps recumbent bicycle owners share a sense that they have discovered the world’s best kept secret and they generally want to share the joy. This article in The Guardian lays out the various kinds of cyclists and their strengths and weaknesses, but just know that you will always be welcome in the recumbent community no matter what you ride.
#7 Cost per mile is very low when riding a recumbent road bike.
Recumbent bicycles and tricycles are made in small batches by small companies and are generally more expensive than traditional bikes. Most recumbent owners agree that they have gotten a really good deal on their recumbents however, because they actually ride them, love riding them, and ride them frequently. Consider the cost per mile of your bicycle. You’ll find that recumbent bicycles and tricycles are a bargain! Check out the video below, created by a recumbent bike owner - it perfectly captures his reason for riding a recumbent.
So why don’t more people ride recumbent bikes?
Most people don’t realize that recumbent bikes were actually invented in the 1890s. In 1934, after a recumbent cyclist started winning races and setting records, the ruling organization for international cycling racing, the UCI, ruled that recumbents designs could not be allowed in racing. Unfortunately, that decision was probably influenced by the major bicycle manufacturers of the day. That ruling essentially killed the budding recumbent bicycle industry (here's a great article from JSTOR called "Who Killed the Recumbent Bicycle?"). However, in the last 40 years, recumbent bicycles and tricycles have slowly made a resurgence. You won’t be alone if you decide to add a recumbent bicycle or tricycle to your stable and you may wonder what took you so long to take the plunge.
Image Above: CampfireCycling.com
Now that you know the top reasons cyclists choose recumbent bikes and why they're not more common, let's move on to all the different types and manufacturers of recumbent bikes to choose from.
Types of Recumbents: Trike vs 2-wheel Recumbent Bike
Eventually you may decide to take the leap and try a recumbent bicycle. Your next big decision is what kind of recumbent bike to consider. Unlike the world of upright bicycles known in the recumbent world as diamond frame bikes (DFs) or wedgies (a pejorative term referring to the narrow saddle), the world of recumbent road bikes is wide open and filled with manufacturers that make all varieties of human powered vehicles.
Once you color outside the UCI prescribed lines of what a bicycle must look like, there are few limits to the shape, variety and structure of things you can transport yourself with while pedalling. The world of recumbent bikes includes two wheeled recumbents, three wheeled recumbents and even quads, not to mention fully-faired velomobiles.
Choosing the right recumbent bike means deciding up front what it is for. You may want a recumbent trike if you have issues with balance or have not ridden a bike in many years. Or you may want one if your friends are riding trikes.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Recumbent Trikes
Advantages of Recumbent Trikes:
- No stress, you don’t have to worry about falling over, when you stop.
- You can ride them even if you have poor balance.
- There are many well known and respected manufacturers of recumbent trikes.
- There are recumbent trikes made for racing, adventuring and increasingly large numbers of electrified recumbent trikes.
- Trikes are usually geared so you can climb steep hills, albeit very slowly.
- You can get a fully faired recumbent trike (known as a velomobile) that is excellent for riding in all weather.
- Many trikes have higher weight capacity than bikes, so heavier people who cannot ride a bike can ride a trike.
Disadvantages of Recumbent Trikes:
- Recumbent trikes are wider and heavier than two-wheel recumbent bicycles.
- Recumbent trikes are low to the ground, making it harder for the rider to see over guardrails, vegetation, and other vehicles. Under certain traffic conditions, recumbent trikes are harder for motor vehicle drivers or other cyclists to see.
- Recumbent trikes are difficult to transport in your car.
- They are significantly slower than recumbent bikes (with the exception of velomobiles on flat ground).
- There are three tire paths to track and plan around debris/potholes, instead of one. Recumbent trikes can flip over and cause serious injury if you try to corner too fast because (most) trikes do not lean.
- Because your feet are pedaling so close to the ground, there is a gruesome type of injury called “leg suck” where your foot gets trapped under the trike if it slips off the pedal while you are moving fast.
- Recumbent trikes don’t mix well with traditional road bikes.
Recumbent Tricycle Manufacturers
Recumbent trike companies have done well in recent years as aging baby boomers seek to stay active. Generally, like all recumbent bicycle manufacturers, these companies are small and they tend to go into and out of business regularly. When purchasing a recumbent tricycle, be sure to ask how long the company has been in business and how they support their customers. Below is a list of trike manufacturers.
*Those with a star next to their names are well-known brands that are stable and have been in business for a long time.
- Avenue Trikes
- Carbon Trikes
- GreenSpeed Trikes
- HASE Trikes*
- HP Velotechnik*
- Ice Trikes*
- Trident Trikes*
Types of Recumbents: 2-Wheel Recumbent Bicycles
If you have good balance and have been riding a bike recently, you probably want to choose a recumbent bicycle instead of a trike. In addition to all the advantages of any recumbent vehicle, two-wheeled recumbent bikes are fast, easy to carry on your car, take up less space on the road and are generally higher off the ground.
It’s helpful to understand a few key terms and approaches to design when considering which recumbent bike to chose. We will go into more detail on each of these below.
- Long Wheel Base (LWB) Recumbent: The front wheel and rear wheel are further away from each other than on a traditional bicycle. Short Wheel Base (SWB) Recumbent: The front wheel and rear wheel are about the same distance apart as on a traditional bicycle.
- Rear Wheel Drive (RWD) Recumbent: The bottom bracket (and cranks) are attached to a fixed boom at the front of the bike and drive the rear wheel, similar to a traditional bike, but because the bottom bracket is far from the rear wheel, the chain is usually very long and requires special parts to keep it tensioned. This is the oldest and most common drive system.
- Twisting-chain Front Wheel Drive (FWD) Recumbent: The bottom bracket (and cranks) are on a fixed boom and the chain drives the front wheel. Because the BB is fixed and the drive wheel pivots, the chain is required to twist along its path, which requires extra pulleys.
- Dynamic Boom Front Wheel Drive (FWD) Recumbent - also called “Moving bottom bracket” or MBB-FWD: The bottom bracket (and cranks) are rigidly attached to the front fork and chainstay, and move with the front wheel of the bike when turning. This design allows for a short chain, highly efficient power transfer and fast climbing. It also allows for very tight cornering.
- Direct Drive: The cranks are attached directly to the axle of the front wheel. There is no chain, which is nice. However, changing gears requires a complex planetary gearbox to be built into the wheel, and the rider’s feet will be close to the ground, reducing aerodynamics and increasing danger of the foot striking ground objects.
- Under Seat Steering (USS): Some recumbent bikes have the steering mechanism under the seat allowing you to steer with your arms down by your sides. This is not aerodynamic, but gives a nice “open” feel to the cockpit area.
- Over Seat Steering (OSS): The handlebars are located at approximately chest height in front of the rider. The vast majority of recumbent bikes use this style steering system.
- Heel Strike is the tendency of some recumbent bike styles to have interference between your heel and the front wheel when you turn. Avoiding heel strike is a major factor in recumbent bicycle design. We will explain more below.
What is heel strike and why does it matter for recumbent bikes?
One of the most important issues in the design of a recumbent bike is reducing heel strike or the interference between the rider's heel and the front wheel of the bike when turning. This is a very important problem to solve, because heel strike limits the ability of the rider to turn safely on the bike. Recumbent bicycle designers and manufacturers have solved this problem in one of four ways.
Four ways to solve heel strike for recumbent bikes
The Long Wheel Base Solution: Design the bike so that the front wheel is a long way from the rear wheel. This solution is known as a Long Wheel Base or LWB recumbent. The bottom bracket (where you pedal) is behind the front wheel so there is no interference between the feet and front wheel. This design approach completely solves the heel strike problem.
Above: Solving the Recumbent Bike Heel Strike Problem - The Small Front Wheel, Rear Wheel Drive Recumbent Solution
The Small Front Wheel Solution: Making the front wheel smaller than the rear wheel allows you to pedal above it with less chance of having the front tire bump your foot when you are turning. This is a rear wheel drive bike. Heel strike can still occur with this design approach when it is applied to a short wheel base.
Above: Solving the Recumbent Bike Heel Strike Problem - The Small Front Wheel Recumbent Solution
The Short Wheel Base High Racer Solution: Design the bike with a short wheel base (more like the wheelbase of a traditionally-designed road bike) and place the bottom bracket (where you pedal) up high to keep the feet clear of the front wheel. This design category is referred to as high racers. High racers are rear wheel drive like the one pictured below. Heel strike can still occur with this design approach.
Above: Solving the Recumbent Bike Heel Strike Problem - The Short Wheel Base (SWB) High Racer Solution
The Short Wheel Base Front Wheel Drive Solution: Design the bike with a short wheel base (similar to that of a traditionally-designed road bike) and power the front wheel. With this design approach, the bottom bracket (where you pedal) moves with the front wheel so there is no possibility of heel strike. This is called a dynamic boom front wheel drive or moving bottom bracket front wheel drive (MBB-FWD) recumbent bike. It has other important advantages as well, which we will describe below.
Above: Solving the Recumbent Bike Heel Strike Problem - The Short Wheel Base (SWB) Front Wheel Drive Moving Bottom Bracket Solution (FWD-MBB). Pictured: Cruzbike S40 performance recumbent road bike.
Long Wheel Base (LWB) vs Short Wheel Base (SWB) Recumbent Bicycles
Now that you have a feel for the most common approaches to recumbent design, we will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of long wheel base vs. short wheel base recumbent bikes.
Long wheel base recumbent bikes
Long wheel base recumbent bikes can be very stable and stop quickly. They often have a straight chainline and sometimes a small front wheel. They are difficult to transport however because of their length, and are often quite heavy. Some riders don’t like having to carry two sizes of tires and tubes.
Short wheel base recumbent bikes
Short wheel base recumbent bikes are more maneuverable, easier to transport and have more equal weight distribution between front and rear wheels than long wheel base recumbent bikes. Some short wheel base bikes (that leverage the high racer design approach) can put the rider's feet in an uncomfortably high position, above the seat. Some rear wheel drive short wheel base bikes also require idlers to keep the chain tensioned properly.
Above: Short wheel base (SWB), rear wheel drive high racer recumbent road bike.
The short wheelbase solution to the disadvantages mentioned above is dynamic boom or moving bottom bracket FWD bikes. With this design, the rider’s feet are usually lower. Because the chain is short and drives the front wheel, this design approach does not require inefficient chain idlers to keep the chain properly tensioned.
Above: Short wheel base (SWB), front wheel drive moving bottom bracket road bike. Note the short chain and lower position of rider's feet. Pictured: Cruzbike Q45 recumbent touring bike
Rear Wheel Drive vs. Front Wheel Recumbent Bikes
Advantages of Rear Wheel Drive Recumbent Bikes:
- Rear wheel drive recumbent bicycles are the oldest and most common type of recumbent bikes.
- Rear wheel drive recumbent bikes may be easier for some people to learn to ride.
- No front wheel slip on very steep wet roads.
Disadvantages of Rear Wheel Drive Recumbent Bikes:
- With the very long chain required for rear wheel drive, there is a loss of power between the bottom bracket and rear wheel due to the chain length and flex that is unavoidable when you have many idlers in the drive train. Depending on the frame design, there can also be a lot of flex in the frame itself that causes additional power loss.
- Chain often requires idlers.
- Rear wheel drive recumbent bikes are slow at hill climbing.
- More difficult to adjust to various rider sizes - moving the seat position changes the way the bike handles. Moving the bottom bracket requires changing chain length.
The best alternative to the disadvantages of rear wheel drive recumbent bikes is the moving bottom bracket front wheel drive design or MBB-FWD (called Dynamic Boom Front Wheel Drive by Cruzbike, the leading manufacturer of this style of bike).
Advantages of Dynamic Boom Front Wheel Drive or MBB-FWD Recumbent Bikes
- The direct connection between upper body and cranks through the drive system means you can climb fast with upper body input - similar to traditional bikes (more information on this design advantage is here).
- Easy to adjust to riders of different sizes.
- You can look down and see what cog (gear) on your cassette you are in while riding.
- Short chain - there is no power lost in the links between the chain or in chain idlers required by LWB recumbent bikes.
- Fewer specialized parts.
- Drive system is familiar to bicycle mechanics because it looks just like a traditional road bike drive train, simply shifted forward.
Disadvantages of Dynamic Boom Front Wheel Drive or MBB-FWD Recumbent Bikes
- May take more time to learn to ride.
- Can lose traction on very steep wet roads with loose surfaces. Most experienced riders say this is not a serious or frequent problem and in some cases is worse on a rear wheel drive recumbent.
Choosing between long wheel base, short wheelbase, rear wheel drive and front wheel drive will be the most important decisions you make as you choose the best recumbent bicycle for your needs. Each has advantages and disadvantages to consider for the type of riding you hope to do. (More on choosing the right recumbent bike for the type of riding you love and how and where to buy below). But first, a quick primer on recumbent bicycle steering styles.
Under Seat Steering (USS) vs Over Seat Steering (OSS) for recumbent bikes
Above: AZUB Mini recumbent bike featuring under seat steering and Cruzbike Q45 recumbent touring bike featuring over seat steering.
Most recumbent bikes use over seat steering. There are a few brands that sell bikes with the steering under the seat. Some recumbent riders are attracted to underseat steering because of the openness in front of them as they ride. There is no handlebar in your line of sight and getting on and off the bike is easy. Your arms are also down by your sides, which some riders find more comfortable.
The disadvantages of under seat steering are that they are usually more expensive and mechanically complicated. It is more challenging to walk the bike when you are off of it, and harder to learn to ride a bike with underseat steering.
Over seat steering is less complicated and generally more affordable. You can mount your garmin, lights and other technology on your handlebars. They are usually easier to learn to ride and more aerodynamic.
Recumbent Bicycle Manufacturers
You now have an idea of what type of recumbent road bike you may prefer. So what are your options for recumbent bicycle manufacturers? In the active and growing niche of recumbent bicycle manufacturers, brands are always coming and going. Below is a list of recumbent bicycle manufacturers. Some also make recumbent trikes.
*Those with a star next to their names are well known brands that are stable and have been in business for a long time.
- *HP Velotechnik
Choosing the best recumbent bike for what you want to do
The best recumbent touring bikes
If you want to go on multi-day tours on a recumbent bike, be sure the bike has places to attach racks so that you can carry your gear. Even if you are doing a "credit card tour" where you stay in hotels or are taking a one day trip, you will need a place to store clothing changes, personal items, money, a tire changing kit and a few basic tools. If you are going on a long trip, consider a recumbent bicycle that has at least two places to put panniers, for example under the seat and behind the seat.
Above: Cruzbike Q45 recumbent touring bike on the coast of Shikoku in Japan.
If your touring will involve gravel paths or particularly bumpy roads, be sure to consider a recumbent bike with suspension to smooth out your ride.
Some recumbent bikes known for touring:
The fastest recumbent road bikes
Most recumbent bikes are more aerodynamic and faster than traditional bikes on flat roads. However, if you love speed, be sure to consider a recumbent bike that has a particularly laid back seat back angle, with pedals in line with the body and with an efficient chain line. You’ll also want it to have dual 700c wheels. If your speed ambitions include climbing, consider dynamic boom front wheel drive.
Some recumbent bikes known for speed:
- Cruzbike V20 (Dynamic Boom Front Wheel Drive)
Best hill climbing recumbent bicycles
Recumbent bicycles have a reputation for being slow going up hills. Part of the reason is that recumbent bikes tend to be heavier than traditional bikes. Consider a lighter recumbent, but one that is stiff. A lighter bike that is flexy will be slower going up hills than a heavier but stiffer recumbent bike. Many recumbent bikes lose the stiff geometry of the traditional bike frame because you pedal so far away from the drive wheel. The exception to that is front wheel drive recumbent bikes like the Cruzbike which have a short chain and allow you to recruit upper body and abdominal muscles to sprint and climb hills.
Some recumbent bikes known for hill climbing:Cruzbike (all Cruzbike models)
Where to buy a recumbent road bike
What to look for when choosing a recumbent bicycle manufacturer
When choosing a recumbent bicycle brand consider the following:
- How long has the company been in business? What is their reputation for customer service?
- What kind of community of owners do they have?
- Do they sell accessories that improve the usability and comfort of their bikes?
- Do they have YouTube videos, Facebook, Instagram or other ways for their customers to interact and learn about their products?
- Is the company continuing to innovate and producing beautifully designed bicycles?
Should I buy a used recumbent bike?
There are many second hand recumbent bikes on the market. Sometimes a used bike is a great way to decide if you like recumbent bikes or a particular brand of recumbent bike. If you choose to do that, be sure to purchase a bike that is still being made from a company that is known for providing good service. Also bring it to a good bike shop that can evaluate it for you with a thorough safety and mechanical check.
Purchasing a new recumbent bike
Purchasing a new bike through a dealer or directly from the recumbent bicycle manufacturer guarantees that you will get post-purchase service. Some recumbent bicycle manufacturers have a money back guarantee if you don’t like your new bike. New bikes are usually under a warranty period as well. Choose a company that has been around for at least 5 years and is known for giving excellent customer service.
Finally, enjoy the process! We hope this guide to choosing the best recumbent bicycle for your needs has been helpful. We included as much information as we could to help you understand your options and make a great choice for your next recumbent road bicycle. Reach out with any questions or comments. We love to hear from you!