Recently, I began experimenting with recumbent bike touring. Mostly for the improved comfort and efficiency. After my tour, I put together this list of the advantages and disadvantages of bicycle touring on a recumbent bike. Hopefully, it helps you decide whether or not this style of touring is for you.
In the second half of this guide, I discuss the different styles of recumbent touring bikes available. I’ll outline under seat vs over seat steering, long wheelbase vs short wheelbase, wheel size, trikes, and more.
What is a Recumbent Bicycle?
A recumbent bicycle sits the rider in a reclining riding position. Basically, you lay back on a large seat with your legs out in front of you while pedaling instead of sitting upright as you would on a standard diamond framed bike. Recumbent bikes are available in two wheel bicycle and three wheel trike designs.
The main reason many riders choose this design is ergonomics. The large seat distributes your body weight across your back and butt instead of your sit bones, arms, and legs. Many riders find the recumbent riding position to be more comfortable and easier on the body. There are also advantages in aerodynamics.
Benefits of Recumbent Bikes
- Less pain- Recumbent bikes reduce back, butt, neck, and, wrist pain. The reclined seating position distributes your body weight across your back and butt. This allows you to ride longer without getting a sore rear end or lower back. Many seats offer lumbar support as well. The riding position also takes all of the weight off of your hands, wrists, and elbows. Your arms just rest on the handlebars. This eliminates hand numbness and wrist pain that many cyclists experience. Neck pain is reduced by allowing you to hold your neck in a neutral position rather than tilting your head back.
- Better aerodynamics- Due to the low profile shape and riding position, recumbent bikes produce much less drag than standard bikes. In fact, according to this article about performance from Bacchetta, recumbent bikes produce around 15-30% less drag than upright bikes. The reason is that your body cuts through a lot less air while seated in a feet first horizontal position rather than a vertical position. There is less surface area causing drag. To further improve aerodynamics, you can add a fairing to your recumbent bike.
- Recumbent bikes are more efficient- The improved aerodynamics allow you to cover more ground using less energy than you would on an upright bike. According to the same article linked above, at 20 mph, around 70% of your effort is used to overcome wind resistance. The more aerodynamic you can be, the more energy you can use to propel yourself forward instead of fighting the wind. This aerodynamic efficiency really comes in handy while facing a headwind. The faster you cycle, the more aerodynamics matter.
- More comfortable riding position- The large seat offers plenty of padding and support for your butt and back. Many seats offer lumbar and even neck support. You’re basically sitting in a reclining chair while you ride. You can even adjust the angle of the seat. The riding position takes the weight off your arms. Your neck sits in a more neutral position. You’re not sitting all hunched over like you are on an upright bike. This comfort allows you to ride longer and further without needing to stop and give your body a rest.
- Faster on flat and downhill sections– You’ll really experience a speed increase while descending hills. The low center of gravity and aerodynamics allows recumbents to safely reach speeds of up 40 mph while going downhill. Most upright bikes max out around 30. Currently, the human-powered record is held by a specially designed recumbent bike.
- Recumbent bikes are easier on the knees- Knee pain is a common problem that keeps people off their bikes. Many people with knee problems can still ride recumbents because they are easier on the knees. The reason is that the bike holds all of your body weight. This means your knees have less pressure on them while you ride. Your legs only propel you forward. They don’t hold you up. For example, an elderly neighbor of mine has trouble walking due to arthritis in his knees. He manages to ride his recumbent trike around the neighborhood just fine and claims to experience no pain.
- Can brake faster and harder- Because of the long wheelbase, you don’t have to worry as much about going over the handlebars if you apply your front brake too hard. Pretty much all of the weight is behind the wheel.
- No more saddle sores- The wide padded seat doesn’t rub or dig in like standard bike saddle. This reduces the likelihood of developing blisters and saddle sores.
- More stable- The recumbent riding position puts your body lower to the ground. This lowers the center of gravity which improves stability. Particularly at low speeds. If you ride a 3 wheeled recumbent trike, you pretty much can’t tip over.
- You can cover more ground faster- Due to the aerodynamic advantage and increased comfort, recumbent bikes allow you to travel further and tire out less quickly than you would on a standard bike. Over long distances, the benefits of increased efficiency and comfort add up. For example, maybe you can manage to travel 5-10 miles further per day while touring on a recumbent. Over a one-month bicycle tour, you might cover an additional 200-300 miles more than you would on an upright bike. This allows you to travel further.
- Less foot swelling and pain- While cycling, your feet tend to swell. The swelling is caused by an increase in blood flow to the foot muscles you’re using. If the swelling gets bad enough, it can restrict movement. It can also put pressure on the tendons and cause discomfort and numbness. Because your feet are raised while pedaling a recumbent, swelling is less common and less severe. The blood can flow out of your legs. The outward pedaling motion may also put less stress on your feet than the traditional up and down motion.
- No pedal strike- Because the bottom bracket is raised above the front wheel on most recumbents, you don’t have to worry about the pedal hitting the ground while leaning into a turn. This allows you to continue pedaling and maintain speed through corners.
- You get a better view- This is one of the best arguments for using a recumbent for touring. While riding, you are seated in a leaned back position with an open and unobstructed view of the world in front of you. You’re looking up and out instead of angled down toward the ground. You don’t have to tilt your neck back to look out in front of you. Imagine being able to comfortably look around and see the sky and birds and natural beauty as you pedal by.
- Recumbents put you in a better position for breathing- The leaned back position allows you to do belly breathing (diaphragmatic breathing). This is an efficient way to move air into your lungs and offers several health benefits over standard chest breathing. You can also breathe deeper on a recumbent because you aren’t hunched over like you are on an upright bike. This allows you to take in more oxygen and continue cycling longer without tiring out.
- Recumbent bikes are great for elderly people or those with certain types of disabilities- Mounting and dismounting a recumbent easier because you don’t have to lift your leg so high to get it over the top tube. The riding position is also easier on the neck and back and is better for posture. Recumbent trikes are particularly popular among older riders because you don’t have to worry about staying balanced. For more info, check out this interesting article about older riders who have switched to recumbent trikes from AARP.
- You can adjust the steering ratio- This is only the case with indirect steering recumbents. The steering ratio is the ratio between the movement of the handlebars and the movement of the wheel. For example, you can adjust your steering so a small movement of the handlebars makes a big turn of the wheel. You can also set your steering ratio so a large movement of the handlebars only moves the wheel a bit. This would allow for more precise steering. How you want to adjust your steering depends on your riding style, the terrain, and a number of other factors. This is an adjustment that just isn’t possible on diamond frame bikes.
- You don’t need to wear special clothing- Because recumbent bikes take pressure off of your butt and arms, you can do without padded cycling shorts and padded gloves.
- If you crash, serious injury is less likely- On a recumbent, you sit closer to the ground. If you tip over or come off the bike, you have less distance to fall. This reduces your likelihood of injury. If you crash into something, you hit feet first rather than head first like you would on an upright bike. It’s better to suffer a leg injury than a head or neck injury.
- They’re different- A recumbent bike is a conversation starter. People will approach you to ask you how your bike works, how much it costs, how fast it is, and why you don’t ride a regular bike. People will watch you as you ride by. You’ll make new friends wherever you go. If you enjoy attention, you’ll get it when you ride a recumbent.
Drawbacks of Recumbent Bikes
- Recumbent bikes are less maneuverable- Due to the length, recumbent bikes have a large turning radius. They can’t handle as sharp of turns as upright bikes. This makes them a bit cumbersome for navigating through tight spaces. You also can’t pull up on the front wheel to ride up curbs. The steering also feels a bit less precise. For these reasons, recumbent bikes aren’t ideal for stop-and-go city riding or riding technical trails.
- More expensive- Recumbent bikes are a niche product. They are produced in much smaller numbers than mass-production upright bikes. Because of this, manufacturers can’t take advantage of economies of scale. This means it costs more per unit to produce recumbent bikes. When compared to an upright bike, a recumbent with comparable components might cost 40% more. If you’re on a tight budget, you can get much more for your money if you stick with upright bikes. The used recumbent market is pretty limited as well.
- Heavier- Touring recumbents tend to have a long wheelbase. Recumbent trikes are also popular for touring. These designs are much larger than upright bikes. They use more materials to build. This adds a considerable amount of weight. An average recumbent touring bike weighs around 20 kilos (about 44 pounds). Most touring bicycles, on the other hand, weigh around 12-15 kilos (about 26-33 pounds). More compact and lighter recumbents are also available but they aren’t ideal for long-distance touring.
- Some recumbent bikes have proprietary parts- For the most part, recumbent bikes use standard parts. This includes the drivetrain, brakes, wheels, and all wearable parts. There are some proprietary parts that you’ll have to buy from the manufacturer if they fail. For many recumbent bikes, this includes the seat, steering parts, and racks. If these fail while you’re touring through a remote region or developing country, you may have trouble making repairs or finding replacements. In some cases, you might have parts shipped to you or return home to repair your bike if something fails.
- Bad for climbing hills- While riding a recumbent, you can’t stand up and use your body weight to turn the crank like you can on an upright bike. This means you can’t use different muscle groups as you tire out. You can’t easily grab the bars for more leverage either. The fact that recumbent bikes are heavier means you have more mass to move to the top of the hill as well. This takes more energy. Another problem is psychological. Due to the recumbent riding position, you can always see the top of the hill. This can feel intimidating on long climbs. Most riders find climbing slower and more tiring on recumbent bikes. The best solution is to gear down and slowly climb at a high cadence. You will also improve as you train your muscles for the new riding position.
- Butt numbness ‘recumbutt’- Some riders experience butt pain or numbness while riding a recumbent. This is usually caused by a lack of circulation or too much pressure being placed on the butt. This problem is more common on recumbent bikes because you can’t stand up to give you butt a break like you can on upright bikes. The best way to alleviate ‘recumbutt’ is to recline the seat further to move weight from your butt to your back. You could also try a firmer seat. Soft seats seem to make the problem worse.
- More expensive to maintain- For the most part, recumbent bike maintenance is the same as a diamond frame bike. Having said that, there are a few parts that cost more. For example, when you need to replace your chain, you’ll need around 2 1/3 standard sized bike chains because recumbent chains are significantly longer. When you need a new seat, you’re probably looking at spending $100-$200 depending on the model and your preferences. If you ride a recumbent trike, you’ll also have a third wheel to maintain and buy tires for.
- More mechanically complex- This depends on the design of your recumbent. The most complex part is often the steering system on indirect steering recumbents. Because the handlebars are not connected directly to the fork, the bike uses some kind of linkage and tie rod to turn the wheel(s). This is common on under seat steering recumbents. This also has to be done on some over seat steering recumbents so the chain doesn’t interfere with the steering. This design adds mechanical complexity. There are more parts that could fail and that you have to maintain. Some linkages are designed better than others.
- There is a learning curve to riding a recumbent- When you first start riding a recumbent, you’ll probably be pretty wobbly for the first couple of hours. For the first couple of weeks, you might not feel completely comfortable starting and stopping or using clipless pedals. For a few months, you might not feel comfortable group riding or tackling any kind of technical riding where precision is required. After a year or so of regularly riding a recumbent, you’ll feel as confident as you did on an upright bike. Of course, everyone is different. Some people can hop on a recumbent and feel confident after a few laps around a parking lot. Some people just can’t get the hang it.
- Less visible to drivers- Because recumbents sit lower to the ground, they are harder for drivers to spot. If drivers can’t see you as well, they are more likely to hit you. On the other hand, drivers may be more likely to notice you because of the uniqueness of recumbents. They don’t look like every other bike on the road. In my research, I was unable to find any statistics indicating whether or not recumbent riders get hit by cars more often than upright bike riders. For added safety, many recumbent riders choose to install a flag that sticks up from their bike. Lights can also help you be seen if you’re worried about visibility.
- Shifting is more important- While riding a recumbent, you usually need to pedal at a slightly higher cadence than you do on an upright bike. This is particularly important when you’re starting from a stop or riding at very low speeds. The higher cadence helps to keep you balanced and prevents you from tipping over. Starting to pedal on a recumbent while in a high gear is nearly impossible. Particularly if you’re on a hill. This means you have to gear down every time you stop. For this reason, internal gear hubs pair excellently with recumbent bikes because you can shift them while you’re stopped. For more info, check out my derailleur vs internal gear hub pros and cons list.
- More difficult to and expensive transport- Due to the geometry, recumbent bikes are generally longer and heavier than upright bikes. This includes short wheelbase recumbents. The large size and extra weight makes them more difficult to transport. You probably can’t fit a recumbent in a normal-sized car. A long wheelbase recumbent might not fit in a standard bike spot on a bus or train. If you’re flying with your bike to your touring destination, you might not be able to fit your recumbent in a standard-sized bike box. Seats, in particular, don’t pack well. This means you’ll end up being charged oversized luggage fees more often. These fees add up fast if you want to travel with your recumbent often.
- You can’t look behind you or over cars in front of you while riding- Due to the riding position, you can’t easily turn your neck and shoulders to see what’s behind you on a recumbent. A rearview mirror helps greatly with this. It’s good to be able to see if a car is passing too close so you can move over or bail if you have to. Another aspect of your visibility that you lose when switching to a recumbent is the ability to look over cars in front of you. You’re just sitting too low.
- Shoulder stiffness- Some riders experience shoulder stiffness while learning to ride a recumbent. The reason is that you tend to keep your shoulders tense while learning to ride. This problem usually goes away as you get used to recumbent riding and become more relaxed.
- You’re more exposed to the elements- You’ll need good rain gear while riding a recumbent in wet weather. The riding position puts your head facing slightly upward. This means your helmet won’t keep the rain out of your eyes. Your legs are also more exposed so you’ll need a good pair of rain pants that seals around the ankles to keep your legs dry. Your rain gear must also be comfortable to use in the recumbent position. The sun is also a concern. You’ll want to cover up or use plenty of sunblock on your arms, face, and legs. They are all more exposed in the recumbent position.
- Recumbent bikes attract attention- While you’re touring on your recumbent, people will stare at you and stop to ask you questions. People might even take out their phones to snap pictures of you. Occasionally, someone might ask to sit on your bike or take it for a test ride. Almost all of these encounters are friendly. People are just curious about your rig. Unfortunately, this gets annoying sometimes. Particularly if you’re not the kind of person who likes to attract a lot of attention.
- Recumbent bikes have a stigma- Many cyclists associate recumbent bikes with older riders. They are just kind of uncool and eccentric. Some hardcore cycling purists might not consider recumbents to be real bikes.
More Cycling Pros and Cons Analyses from Where The Road Forks
- Flat Pedals Vs Clipless
- Disc Brakes Vs Rim Brakes
- Tube Vs Tubeless Bicycle Tires
- Belt Drive Vs Chain Drive
- Steel Frame Vs Aluminum Frame
- Presta Vs Schrader Valves
Recumbent Touring Bike Styles and Designs
When it comes to choosing a recumbent bike for touring, you have a wide range of designs to choose from. Major design differences include long and short wheelbase, under seat and over seat steering, wheel size, as well as indirect and direct steering, Recumbent trikes are another popular option. In this section, I’ll outline some of the most common categories of recumbent bikes and outline a few benefits and drawbacks of each.
For more info, check out my complete guide to the different types of recumbent bikes.
Long Wheelbase Vs Short Wheelbase Recumbents
All recumbents are divided into these two categories. Long wheelbase recumbents have the front wheel in front of the crank. Short wheelbase recumbents have the front wheel behind the crank.
Pros and Cons of Long Wheelbase Recumbents
Long wheelbase recumbents are more stable. They don’t pitch or twitch much when turning. This makes them better for touring. Long wheelbase recumbents can stop faster because all of the weight sits behind the front wheel. They also have a more efficient chain line. The front wheel doesn’t get in the way of the chain when turning because it sits in front of the crank. The chain runs directly.
The main drawback to long wheelbase recumbents is that maneuverability is more difficult due to the length of the bike. The turning radius is larger. They are also more cumbersome and harder to transport. For example, you can’t fit a 70-inch long wheelbase recumbent into a small vehicle or pack it in a standard-sized bike box for a flight. This limits your transportation options while touring. The oversized luggage fees can add up as well.
Pros and Cons of Short Wheelbase Recumbents
Short wheelbase recumbents are more maneuverable due to the shorter length. They are also smaller and easier to transport. At around 40 inches, they will fit in most vehicles. You can pack them in standard sized bike boxes for flights. This opens up your transport options while touring. Short wheelbase recumbents also balance the weight of the bike more evenly over both wheels. This improves traction on the front wheel.
The main drawback to the short wheelbase design is the complicated drive chain. Because the front wheel sits behind the crank, it can hit the chain when turning. There are several solutions to this. Most cause friction which results in reduced efficiency.
Under Seat Steering Vs Over Seat Steering Recumbent
Under seat steering recumbents have the handlebars mounted below the seat with the handles sitting to the sides of the rider. Over seat steering recumbents have the handlebars mounted out in front of the rider, over the lap.
Pros and Cons of Under Seat Steering
The main benefit of under seat steering is comfort. While riding, your arms rest down by your sides where they naturally tend to rest. For this reason, under seat steering recumbents are preferable for touring. Under seat steering also allows for better visibility because the handlebars are out of your line of sight. The handlebar location also makes the bike easier to mount and dismount because you don’t have to move your leg around the handlebar. The cockpit is open.
There are a few drawbacks to under seat steering. First, it is less aerodynamic because your arms rest out to your sides which widens your profile, causing drag. Next, they are more mechanically complex. Under seat steering recumbents are usually indirect drive. This adds to the cost. There are also more parts to maintain. The learning curve is also a bit steeper.
Pros and Cons of Over Seat Steering
Over seat steering recumbents, on the other hand, offer better aerodynamics because your arms stretch out in front of you. This gives you a more narrow profile which reduces drag. They are also cheaper and easier to maintain because the steering system is less complex. It works with with a standard headset, stem, and handlebars just like an upright bike. Over seat steering recumbents also allow you to mount accessories on the handlebars in front of you. Many riders find them easier to learn to ride as well.
The main drawback to over seat steering is comfort. Many riders find it tiring to hold their arms up in front of them. This isn’t ideal for touring when you’ll be spending many hours in the saddle. Visibility can also be worse because the bars sit in your line of site. Mounting and unmounting can also be harder because the handlebars sit between your legs.
Direct Vs Indirect Steering Recumbent
Direct steering recumbents work just like standard upright bikes. The handlebars attach directly to the fork with a headset and stem. This is common over seat steering recumbents.
Indirect steering recumbents use some type of linkage between the handlebars and fork to turn the wheel. Usually a tie rod. When you move the handlebars, they pivot somewhere in the middle of the bike and push or pull a rod that moves the fork. This system is common on under seat steering recumbents.
Pros and Cons of Direct Steering
The main benefit of direct steering design is the simplicity. There are fewer moving parts. This makes direct steering recumbents cheaper, lighter, and easier to repair and maintain. Many riders also find the steering to be more precise and responsive.
The main drawback is that you will feel more vibrations and bumps. This happens because the shocks from the road can travel directly from the tires to your hands. There is no linkage to absorb shocks. These bikes can also feel a bit more twitchy at speed because there is no steering damper.
Pros and Cons of Indirect Steering
The main benefit indirect steering is that the steering ratio is often adjustable. This means you can change the rate that the wheel turns in relation to the handlebars. You’ll also feel fewer shocks and vibrations in your hands with indirect steering because the handlebars aren’t connected directly to the front wheel. The rods absorb some shocks. Many riders find the ergonomics better as well.
The drawback to indirect steering is the added complexity of the design. Indirect steering recumbents have more parts. This makes the bikes more expensive, heavier, and harder to maintain and repair. Some riders find indirect steering to make the bike feel a bit less connected from the road. The steering can feel less precise and responsive.
Recumbent Touring Bike Wheel Size
Recumbent bikes are available in wheel sizes from 16” all the way to 700c. Often times the front and rear wheel are different sizes. The wheel sizes can affect your acceleration, top speed, ride quality, and more.
The biggest benefit of having large wheels is that they roll over obstacles more easily. When you hit a pothole or piece of debris with 700c wheels, you’ll just roll over it due to the large circumference. You won’t get hung up or bounce around too much. This makes large wheels better for off-road touring.
The main benefit of smaller wheels is strength. Due to the smaller diameter, the spokes are shorter. This allows you to carry more weight. Smaller wheels do require a bit more frequent maintenance because they make more revolutions to cover the same distance as larger wheels. You’ll have to replace tires and grease hubs more often. Small wheels are preferable for on-road touring.
For more info on different wheel sizes, check out my guides:
Carrying Luggage on a Recumbent Touring Bike
When choosing a recumbent bike for touring, you’ll want to make sure it offers a way to carry your luggage. Due to the design, your luggage options and capacities are often a bit limited. Your options are either panniers or a bike trailer. Bikepacking bags generally aren’t compatible.
Most recumbent bikes include some type of racks that allow you to mount standard touring panniers. Generally, the rear panniers mount to a rack behind the seat. The front panniers mount on the sides of the bike. The racks are usually proprietary or welded onto the frame. You generally can’t use standard bicycle racks.
Many recumbent bicycle tourists choose to use a bike cargo trailer instead of or in addition to panniers. This is a good option if your bike isn’t compatible with panniers or if you want to carry a large volume of gear. Rear axle mounted trailers can mount to most recumbent bikes.
For more info, check out my guide to the different types of bike cargo trailers.
Another popular category of recumbent bikes is three-wheeled recumbent trikes. The benefit of a trike is the increased stability. You don’t have to worry about tipping over while stopped or traveling at low speeds. For this reason, trikes are an excellent choice for older tourers or those with certain disabilities.
The main drawback to trikes is the efficiency. The third wheel adds rolling resistance which slows you down. Trikes also have a wider design which causes more drag. The extra wheel adds weight as well. You’ll burn more energy and won’t be able to cover as many miles per day. Trikes also require more maintenance. After all, you have an extra wheel to true, buy tires for, grease, etc.
Recumbent trikes come in two flavors. Tadpole trikes have two wheels in the front that steer and one wheel in the back that drives the bike. Delta trikes have one wheel in the front that steers and two wheels in the back. On most delta trikes, only one rear wheel drives the bike. Some models are two-wheel drive.
Final Thoughts About the Pros and Cons of Recumbent Bike Touring
After researching for this article and test riding a few different recumbent bikes, I’m surprised that they aren’t more popular. The unpopularity could be because recumbents were banned by the UCI (Union Cyclist International) in 1934. They just don’t get the exposure that upright bikes get from racing.
Whatever the case, the comfort can’t be beat. Even if you’re in excellent shape, riding an upright bike gets pretty uncomfortable after a while. In many conditions, recumbents outperform upright bikes due to the aerodynamic advantage. There are a lot of good reasons to choose a recumbent.
Having said all of this, I probably won’t be switching to a recumbent for my main touring bike. The main reason is the way they look. I don’t want the added attention. Another problem is the off-road performance. I wouldn’t feel comfortable riding any technical trails on a recumbent. Maybe I just need more experience.
Do you tour with a recumbent bike? Share your experience and tips in the comments below!
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- Types of Recumbent Bikes
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