Recumbent bike designs vary widely. This guide outlines all of the different types of recumbent bikes available to help you choose the best one for your style of riding. In this guide, I explain the benefits and drawbacks of long wheelbase vs short wheelbase recumbents as well as seat steering vs over seat steering. I also talk about direct vs indirect steering, front vs rear wheel drive, wheel size, recumbent trikes, and much more.
I started riding recumbent bikes about 5 years ago. During that time, I have experimented with a number of different bike designs. In this guide, I’ll share my experience.
What is a Recumbent Bike?
A recumbent bicycle places the rider in a leaned back riding position. Almost like sitting in a recliner. The legs stretch out in front of the rider to pedal. The handlebars sit either above the lap or on the sides next to the lap. The rider sits horizontally rather than vertically as they would on a standard upright bike.
This ergonomic seating position improves comfort by distributing the rider’s weight over a larger area. It also takes the bodyweight off of the arms and hands. Many riders find this position to be easier on the sit bones, arms, and knees. The wide, cushioned seat provides support for the neck, back, and butt.
Recumbent bikes also offer superior aerodynamics compared to upright bikes. Because the rider leans back with their legs out in front of them, there is a much smaller front profile. This reduces drag considerably, which improves efficiency.
Table of Contents- Types of Recumbent Bikes
Wheelbase: Long Wheelbase (LWB) Vs Short Wheelbase (SWB) Recumbent Bikes
All recumbent bikes are divided into long and short wheelbase categories. If the front wheel sits in front of the crank, the recumbent has a long wheelbase. If the front wheel sits behind the crank, the recumbent has a short wheelbase. Below, I’ll outline the benefits and drawbacks of each style.
Long Wheelbase Recumbent Pros
- More stable- Long wheelbase recumbents don’t twitch or pitch much. This makes learning to ride a bit easier. It is also great for touring.
- Faster stopping- Because all of the weight sits behind the front wheel, you can apply the front brake incredibly hard without having to worry about going end over end. The shorter stopping distance improves safety.
- Straight chainline- Because the front wheel sits in front of the pedal assembly, it doesn’t get in the way of the chain when you turn. This allows your chainline to run directly to the rear wheel without the use of extra sprocket or idler pulley. This design improves efficiency because you aren’t losing energy by passing your chain through over another gear, creating friction.
- You can cross chain gears- Because the chain is so long, you can use your big chainring with your largest rear sprocket at the same time. This can cause problems on short wheelbase recumbents and standard upright bikes because the chain has to bend too much.
- Most long wheelbase recumbents use 20 inch or larger front wheels- These wheel sizes are common and easy to find pretty much anywhere in the world. The front wheel is also lightly loaded. This means the tire lasts a long time.
Long Wheelbase Recumbent Cons
- Less maneuverable- The turning radius is larger due to the added length. Long wheelbase recumbents usually measure 65”-70” (165-178cm) long.
- More cumbersome- When you’re not riding the bike, it can become kind of unwieldy to move around. Long wheelbase recumbents are heavier and larger than short wheelbase models.
- Harder to transport- The extra length makes it harder to pack the bike or fit it in a car or bike box. You might not be able to take it with you on a bus, train, or plane ride. If you’re planning to tour with your bike, this can cause a logistical headache. Recumbent bikes can be fitted with couplers so they can be disassembled for easier transportation.
Short Wheelbase Recumbent Pros
- More maneuverable- Short wheelbase recumbents have a smaller turning radius. They are also lighter and shorter at about 35”-40” (89-101 cm) in length.
- More equal weight distribution between the front and rear wheels- The pedal assembly and your feet sit in front of the front wheel. This puts more weight on the front of the bike. The more balanced design improves traction in your front wheel and reduces the likelihood of front wheel skids.
- Easier to transport- Short wheelbase recumbents are usually around the same length as standard upright bikes. Maybe slightly longer. You can fit them in many cars and bike hangs on buses and trains. Smaller models can fit in a bike box so you can fly with them. This makes planning a tour much easier.
Short Wheelbase Recumbent Cons
- Complicated drive chain- The chain needs to run from the crank to the rear sprockets. Because the front wheel sits between the two points, it would hit the chain when turning if the chain ran directly. To solve this problem, manufacturers use an idler pulley or extra sprocket to move the chain out of the way. Usually, the untensioned lower part of the chain as well as the tensioned upper part of the chain need to run over an idler pulley. Some recumbents use a jackshaft to move the chain out of the way. Both systems add mechanical complexity. There are more parts that can fail and need to be maintained. To solve this problem, some manufacturers make their recumbents front wheel drive. This presents more problems. More on this later.
- Inefficient drive chain- The above-mentioned idler pulley or sprocket reduces the efficiency of the drive chain. The reason is that turning an extra gear adds unnecessary friction that you need to spend energy to overcome.
- Small front wheel- Many short wheelbase recumbents use 16 inch front wheels to make it easier for the chain to clear the wheel when turning. These smaller tires are less common. The tires also don’t last as long as larger tires.
- Heel strike- On some models, the wheel can hit your heel while making tight turns. This is very similar to toe strike that some riders experience on upright bikes where the wheel rubs your toe as your turn. The best way to avoid heel strike is to stop pedaling when making a tight maneuver. Alternatively, you can slide your foot up the pedal to push with your heel.
Another Recumbent Wheelbase Option
In addition to long and short wheelbase recumbents, there is also a design called compact long-wheelbase (CLWB). These models place the crank near the front wheel or directly above it. Performance-wise, these fall somewhere between long and short wheelbase bikes. There isn’t really a standard recumbent design.
Handlebar Placement: Under Seat Steering (USS) Vs Over Seat Steering (OSS) Recumbent Bicycles
Recumbent bikes are divided into under seat and over seat steering categories.
If the handlebars are mounted below the seat to the sides of the rider, the bike has under seat steering. Over seat steering recumbents often use long swept-back handlebars. Kind of like on a chopper.
If the handlebars are mounted over the rider’s lap, the bike has over seat steering. Under seat steering recumbents often use Whatton style handlebars.
This choice really comes down to personal preference. Every recumbent rider seems to have their own opinion as to which handlebar position is better. Below, I’ll outline the benefits and drawbacks of over seat and under seat steering to help you decide.
Under Seat Steering Pros
- More comfortable- Your arms rest down by your sides, where they naturally tend to rest. You’re not reaching up to grip the handlebars. Many riders find this position much more comfortable and less tiring to ride long distances.
- Better visibility- The handlebars aren’t in your line of sight. The cockpit is completely open. This allows you to lean back and enjoy the view.
- Easier to mount and dismount- You don’t have to maneuver one of your legs around the handlebars while getting on and off because there are no handlebars mounted between your legs. his makes under seat steering recumbents easier to mount for people with reduced mobility.
Under Seat Steering Cons
- Less aerodynamic- Your arms stick out to the side, which widens your profile that faces into the wind. This creates more drag and slows you down. While riding at speeds above 15-20 mph you’ll be less efficient.
- More expensive- Generally, under seat steering is more complicated to design and manufacture. They don’t use standard bicycle parts. There are also more parts. Often times there are proprietary parts as well. The bikes cost more because of this.
- More mechanically complex- Most under seat steering recumbents use indirect steering. The handlebars are mounted to their own pivot under the seat. A tie rod links the handlebars to the fork. There are more moving parts that can fail and need to be maintained.
- More of a learning curve to ride- The controls are very different from a normal upright bicycle. You also can’t see your hands while you ride. It might take you longer to get used to riding an under seat steering recumbent.
- The handlebars and steering system can be easily damaged in the event of an accident- If you take a spill, the handlebars are the first part to hit the ground. Because the under seat handlebars aren’t load-bearing, they can be pretty fragile. They can break in a crash and leave you stranded.
- Hard to mount accessories- You’ll need to find another place to mount a cycling computer, GPS, light, etc.
- Harder to walk with the bike- You have to bend down to steer it while you walk.
Over Seat Steering Pros
- Better aerodynamics- Over seat steering puts your arms out in front of you. This reduces your profile facing into the wind and causes less drag. This happens because your arms aren’t sticking out to your sides causing resistance. Over seat steering also allows you to mount a fairing to further increase aerodynamics.
- Less expensive- The design is usually simpler and less expensive to engineer and manufacture. In fact, many over seat steering recumbent use the same headsets, handlebars, and stems as standard upright bikes. There are no additional moving parts or proprietary steering parts. This cuts costs considerably.
- Smaller learning curve- The controls are more intuitive because they are the same as a standard upright bike. You can also see your hands and the controls right in front of you. It won’t take you quite as long to feel confident riding with over seat steering.
- You can mount accessories to the handlebars- Over seat bars have space to mount a cycling computer, light, bell, GPS, your phone, a bag, or whatever else you might want on your handlebar. This is great for touring and long rides.
- Easier to walk the bike- You can just hold the handlebars and steer as you walk like any other bike.
Over Seat Steering Cons
- Less comfortable- You have to hold your arms up to reach the bar. Some riders find that this position tires out the arms and shoulders after a while.
- Harder to mount and dismount- The handlebar riser sits between your legs on most models. You have to move one leg around it in order to put your foot on the pedals. This makes over seat steering recumbents harder to get on and off for those with reduced mobility.
- Worse visibility- On some over seat steering recumbent models, the handlebars are in your line of sight at all times. This blocks part of your view.
More Recumbent Steering Designs
In addition to over and under seat steering, there are a couple of less common steering designs found on recumbent bikes.
Pivot steering or center steering recumbents steer by leaning. They achieve this with a pivot in the center of the bike that moves the front wheel as you lean from side to side.
Some pivot or center steering recumbents have no handlebars at all. Some have a single bar or side-mounted bars to give you more leverage to help you turn.
A few recumbent bikes steer with the rear wheel. This design allows for excellent maneuverability at low speeds. At higher speeds these bikes become unstable.
Steering: Direct Steering Vs Indirect Steering Recumbent Bikes
With direct steering, your handlebars attach directly to the fork with a stem, just like they do on a standard upright bike. Usually, a standard headset, stem, and handlebars are used. Over seat steering recumbent bikes are usually set up this way.
With indirect steering, the handlebars connect to a pivot point in the center of the bike and turn the fork with the help of some kind of linkage. Basically, the handlebars connect to a rod that connects to the fork. The rod pushes and pulls the fork to make the wheel turn left and right. Indirect steering is common on under seat steering recumbents.
This is another choice that mostly comes down to personal preference. Below, I’ll outline a few of the pros and cons of direct vs indirect steering to help you decide.
Direct Steering Pros
- More precise steering- Some riders find direct steering to be more responsive and offer more precision when turning. This is possible because the rider is more directly connected to the road. There is no linkage separating the rider from the front wheel.
- Mechanically simpler- Direct steering works exactly like a standard bike. There are no rods or linkages. The handlebars just connect to the fork with a stem. This means there are fewer parts that can break and fewer parts to maintain.
- Less expensive to buy and maintain- Because the design is simpler, it costs less to produce. There is also less maintenance. This saves you money.
- Lighter- Because there are fewer steering parts, direct steering recumbents weigh less.
Direct Steering Cons
- You feel vibrations and bumps in your hands- Every shock and vibration transfers from your front wheel into your hands because the handlebars are connected directly. A front shock can help with this.
- More twitchy at speed- Some riders find direct steering recumbent to be less stable while riding at high speeds because there is no steering damper.
Indirect Steering Pros
- Adjustable steering ratios- Some indirect steering recumbents allow you to change the speed that the wheel turns in relation to the handlebars. For example, you could adjust your bike so a small turn of the handlebars produces a large turn of the wheel. This would make your steering faster. You could also set the steering so a large turn of the handlebars makes a small turn of the wheel. This gives you more precise steering.
- Better ergonomics- An indirect steering setup allows manufacturers to place the handlebars in a more comfortable location. For example, the handlebars can be down to your sides so you can steer while your arms are at rest. This is how under seat steering recumbents are set up. The handlebars don’t have to attach directly to the fork.
- Fewer shocks and vibration in your hands- Because the handlebars are not connected directly to the wheel, fewer vibrations are transmitted to your hands. The linkage absorbs the majority of shocks. This makes the ride more comfortable and easier on your hands and arms. This is important for people with certain medical conditions like carpal tunnel.
Indirect Steering Cons
- More mechanically complex- There are more parts that can fail and need to be maintained. For example, the linkage must be adjusted and greased occasionally so it operates smoothly.
- More expensive- Indirect steering is harder to engineer and manufacture because it is more complex. There are more parts as well. Some of the parts may be proprietary. This all adds to the cost. There is also more maintenance, which costs time and money.
- Less precise- Many riders find indirect steering to be a little less accurate. This is particularly true for low-speed riding.
- The feeling of disconnection from the road- Some riders report that they don’t get the same road feel while riding an indirect steering recumbent. This feeling becomes more pronounced at higher speeds. It can take some time to get used to the feeling. A steering damper can help.
- Heavier- With the addition of linkages and rods, you add weight to the bike.
Recumbent Bike Wheel Size
Recumbent bikes come in a wide range of wheel sizes from 16 inch all the way to 700c. Typical small wheel sizes include 16, 17, 18, and 20 inch. Common larger wheel sizes include 24 inch, 26 inch, 650b, and 700c. The wheel size plays a role in your acceleration, top speed, gear range, ride quality, and maintenance requirements.
On many models, the front and rear wheels are different sizes. This is often done to prevent the front wheel from hitting the chain or striking your heel while turning on short wheelbase recumbents. One of the most common setups is a 26 inch rear wheel and a 20 inch front wheel. 16 inch front wheels are also common.
Some recumbents use the same wheel size in the front and the back. Usually 20 inch, 26 inch, or 700c. One major benefit to having the same sized wheels is that you can carry fewer spares while touring. You can use the same tubes, tires, and maybe even spokes on both wheels.
Wheels size affects your gear ratios. For example, assuming you use the exact same sized chainring and cassette, the bike with the larger wheel will go further on each pedal stroke because the wheel is larger in diameter. Of course, you can correct for this by installing different gears or simply shifting gears.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Large Wheeled Recumbent Bikes
Generally having larger wheels helps you maintain a higher average speed because they have less rolling resistance. Another benefit to larger wheels is that they roll over obstacles better than small wheels. For example, if you hit a pothole or rock in the road, the large circumference wheel rolls right over it. You won’t feel it as much. For touring and long-distance rides, larger wheels are preferable.
The main drawback to large wheels is that they are slower to accelerate because it takes more energy to get the added mass moving. They also cause more air resistance because of the taller profile. Additionally, larger wheels are structurally weaker due to the longer spoke length. If you plan to carry a load, you may suffer from more broken spokes.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Small Wheeled Recumbent Bikes
Smaller wheels accelerate faster and often have a higher top speed due to having less mass. They don’t maintain speed as well which makes them slightly less efficient. Small wheels can also turn faster. For this reason, they are preferable for city riding.
Another benefit smaller wheels have over larger wheels is strength. Smaller diameter wheels with shorter spokes are structurally stronger than larger wheels. This means you can carry more weight without having to worry as much about broken spokes or cracked rims.
As far as maintenance goes, small tires need to be replaced more often. The hubs might need to be greased more often as well. The reason is that small wheels make more rotations to cover the same distance as larger wheels so they wear out faster.
For more info on different bicycle wheel sizes, check out the following articles:
Recumbent Bike Drive Systems: Front Wheel Drive and Rear Wheel Drive
The vast majority of recumbent bicycles are rear wheel drive (RWD). The cranks are fixed near the front of the frame. A long chain runs from the cranks to the rear wheel.
On long wheelbase recumbents, this chain usually runs directly. On short wheelbase recumbents, the chain often runs over an idler pulley. These move the chain out of the way of the front wheel. Some short wheelbase recumbents use two chains and jackshaft to move the chain out of the way.
Because the cranks are located so close to the front wheel, front wheel drive (FWD) sometimes makes sense. This design allows for a shorter, simpler chainline. Unfortunately, it also presents its own set of challenges. Mainly with steering. After all, the chain can’t bend too far to the sides without breaking.
Probably the most common style of front wheel drive recumbents use a pivoting boom. This design places a pivot behind the crank and fork. This way, the chain, crank, and wheel all turn as one unit. The benefit is that a larger front wheel can be used and the problem of heel strike is eliminated. This also allows for pedaling through turns. You can even steer with your feet.
The drawback to front wheel drive recumbents is wheelspin. Because there is so little weight on the front wheel, it is easy to make it spin out on gravel or wet roads if you apply to much torque. There is also a bit of a learning curve. Some riders find it harder to ride in a straight line without swerving as they pedal.
Recumbent Trikes Vs Bikes
One of the most popular recumbent designs is the trike. These are recumbent bikes with three wheels instead of two. The main benefit trikes offer over bikes is stability. With three wheels, you never have to worry about tipping over while stopped or riding at low speeds. For this reason, recumbent trikes are considered safer.
Recumbent trikes are also a great choice for people with reduced mobility or certain disabilities. They allow people to ride who would otherwise be unable. For example, someone suffering from Parkinson’s disease may not have the balance to ride a two wheeled bike. Those with arthritis or knee problems may not be able to put their leg down when stopping a bike. This isn’t necessary on a trike.
There are a number of drawbacks to trikes. First, they are less efficient. The extra wheel adds rolling resistance which slows you down. Trikes are also less aerodynamically efficient. The wider profile design causes more drag. You’ll burn more energy riding a trike than a bike.
Another drawback to trikes is the fact that they are more mechanically complex and expensive to maintain. The main reason is the third wheel. You have to buy tires for it, grease the hub, keep it true, etc. Trikes also tend to have more complex steering systems that require additional maintenance. Most use indirect steering.
Trikes are also harder to transport. The larger size and weight makes them difficult to pack into a car. If you want to fly or take a bus or train with your trike, you may be charged oversized luggage fees.
Tadpole Vs Delta Recumbent Trikes
Recumbent trikes come in two variations: tadpoles and deltas.
Tadpole trikes have two wheels in the front and one wheel in the back. The front wheels steer and the rear wheel is driven by the pedals.
Delta trikes have one front wheel and two rear wheels. The front wheel steers the bike. On some models, one of the rear wheels drives the bike. On other models, both rear wheels drive the bike.
Tadpole Trikes Benefits and Drawbacks
The biggest benefit to the tadpole trike design is the handling. The two front wheels give extra grip and stability to prevent the bike from tipping over while taking a hard corner. Tadpole trikes usually have a lower center of gravity as well because the rider sits down in the bike instead of on top of it. This gives the bike a more sporty feel and allows you to ride faster and more efficiently. The low center of gravity also helps to make the bike more stable at speed. For this reason, tadpole trikes are better for road riding.
Tadpoles trikes also tend to be smaller and lighter than delta trikes. This can make transporting them a bit easier and cheaper.
There are a couple of drawbacks to the tadpole design. First, the turning radius is large. The two wheels in front can’t turn as far. Tadpole recumbents also tend to be harder to get in and out of due to the low seat height. This can be a problem for riders with reduced mobility.
Delta Trikes Benefits and Drawbacks
The main benefit of the delta design is maneuverability. On most delta trikes, the front wheel can turn 90 degrees. This allows you to pretty much turn on a dime.
Delta trikes are also easier to get in and out of because they usually sit up higher than tadpoles. You sit on top of the bike rather than in it. The seats also offer a lot of adjustability for increased comfort.
Some delta trikes come with a rear differential that allows you to ride in 2 wheel drive mode. This means both rear wheels drive the bike. This is great for off-road riding or riding on slippery surfaces. Additionally, delta trikes tend to have a larger ground clearance than tadpoles. This is also helpful for off-road riding.
The main drawback to delta trikes is the performance. They don’t corner quite as well as tadpoles because they have just one wheel in front. Deltas can tip over if you turn too hard. They also feel slightly less stable at speed. Delta trikes are also heavier and larger. This decreases efficiency.
One other problem is that, on most models, only one rear wheel drives the bike. This causes the bike to pull to one side while accelerating and climbing hills. Many riders find this annoying. 2 wheel drive delta trikes don’t have this problem.
Recumbent Bike Seats
Recumbent bike seats come in two styles: foam and mesh. Foam seats are probably the most common. These are a simple foam cushion on a hard base with fabric sewn or stapled over the top. The foam can be shaped to provide more support where needed.
Mesh seats are made of mesh stretched over a metal frame. These provide excellent breathability. They allow sweat to evaporate away so you stay cool and dry.
Recumbent Seat Angle
Some recumbent frame geometries put you in a more leaned back seated position. Some put you in a more upright seated position. Most recumbent bikes allow you to adjust the lean angle of your seat at least a bit.
The seat angle can also play a role in the power that you produce as well as aerodynamics. Leaning back puts you in a more aerodynamic position. According to this interesting article, the ideal recumbent seat angle is 105 degrees. This angle allows you to produce the maximum amount of power.
The seat angle also depends on personal preference. Some riders find one position more comfortable than the other.
Suspension on Recumbents
Many recumbent bike designs offer front and rear suspension. After all, one of the main reasons people buy recumbent bikes is for comfort. Suspension can dampen shocks and vibration to make the ride much more pleasant. It can also improve handling off-road.
The most common design is to have an air or oil-dampened suspension system in the fork and a shock absorber in the back. These are the same suspension systems that are used on modern full suspension mountain bikes.
The main drawback of suspension is the added complexity. The suspension parts need to be maintained at least once per year. Occasionally parts need to be replaced as they wear out. Suspension recumbents are also more expensive due to the cost of the additional parts.
Another problem with suspension is that it can cost you some efficiency. Instead of using all of your energy to push the bike forward, some of your energy compresses the suspension. For casual riding, this doesn’t really matter. If you’re touring or trying to maintain a certain pace, suspension can slow you down considerably.
Recumbent Bike Gearing
Recumbents use the same drivetrain components as upright bikes including derailleurs, cassettes, cranksets, and chains. For the most part, the gearing is the same.
One difference is that recumbents require a very low gear for climbing. The reason is that you can’t use your body weight to pedal while climbing with a recumbent bike like you can on an upright bike.
The best way to climb hills with a recumbent is to shift down to the lowest gear and spin at a high cadence. Many riders use clipless pedals instead of flat pedals because clipless allow you to ride at a higher cadence more easily.
Many recumbent bikes also come equipped with an internal gear hub or hybrid drive. The reason is that these allow you to shift while stopped. Some riders find that this makes it easier to get going again after stopping. Getting started in a high gear is difficult for the same reason that climbing is difficult. You can’t stand up and use your body weight to get moving.
Recumbent Touring Bikes: Mounting Racks and Luggage
If you’re planning to tour on your recumbent bike, you’ll want to make sure it offers a way to carry luggage. Some recumbents allow you to mount racks behind the seat so you can carry standard bicycle touring panniers. Some models have front racks or racks just below the seat where you can mount smaller front panniers.
Many recumbent bicycle tourists also use a cargo trailer. This is a good option if your bike doesn’t have the ability to use racks and panniers. A rear axle mounted trailer can attach to almost any recumbent bicycle.
For more info, check out my guide to bicycle cargo trailers.
Fairings on Recumbent Bikes
At speeds above around 10 mph, wind resistance becomes the main force acting against you. Road recumbent riders sometimes attach a fairing to their recumbent bike to improve aerodynamics.
Fairings are large body covers or windshields that are molded in an aerodynamic shape. They usually mount to the handlebars or to the frame of the bike. Fairings are made of carbon fiber, fiberglass, or various polymers.
Fairings increase efficiency by reducing drag. This allows you to cover more ground using the same amount of energy. Fairings can also increase your top speed. They can also help the rider stay warmer by reducing the wind chill factor. In addition, fairings keep the rider dryer while riding in the rain by directing some rain over the rider.
For more info, check out this detailed article about recumbent bike fairings from Recumbent Aerodynamics Blog.
Tandem Recumbent Bikes
If you like to ride with a friend or family member, tandem recumbent bikes are also available. These work just like a tandem bicycle with one rider sitting behind the other. The rider in front steers and both riders pedal.
Some tandem recumbents sit the riders side by side. This allows both riders to enjoy the view. The problem is that the design is wide. This may be problematic while riding on narrow bike paths or road shoulders.
Another tandem option is to link two delta style trikes together. To do this, you’ll remove the front wheel of the rear trike and link it to the rear of another delta trike. You can make a train of trikes this way if you want. Most delta trikes have this feature. The added benefit is that you can have two separate trikes when you want them.
For more info on tandem bikes, check out my guide to tandem bicycle touring.
Folding Recumbent Bikes
A couple of companies make folding recumbent bikes that are designed for travel. These work in a similar way to standard upright folding bikes. A hinge in the frame allows you to collapse the bike down so that it can fit in a car or be packed for a flight, bus, or train trip. Folding recumbents are great for those who either want to travel with their bike or need a compact bike that doesn’t take up too much space.
Another option is to have S&S couplers installed on your steel or titanium framed recumbent bike. These allow you to take the frame apart so it can be packed down into a more manageable size.
For more info on folding bikes and their benefits and drawbacks, check out my guide to folding bike touring.
Homemade DIY Recumbent Bikes
As you can see, recumbent bikes come in a wide range of designs. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many recumbent manufacturers out there because the market for them is pretty small. If you want a very specific design, a commercial version may not exist. Some recumbent riders decide to build their own bike so they don’t have to make any compromises.
Building a DIY recumbent bike involves converting an existing bike or starting from scratch with steel tubing. Builders design, cut, and weld together their own bike with the exact specifications and features that they desire. You can also purchase plans.
Differences Between Recumbent Bikes and Upright Bikes
Recumbent bikes aren’t for everyone. In this section, I’ll outline a few of the main advantages and disadvantages recumbent bikes have when compared to standard upright bikes.
For the full list, check out my full list of the pros and cons of recumbent bikes here.
Recumbent Bike Advantages
- Reduced neck, back, shoulder, butt, and joint pain- The leaned back riding position reduces stress on the body. The back and neck sit in a natural position with support from the seat. The wide seat takes pressure off the butt. None of your body weight rests on the arms.
- Faster- The recumbent riding position is more aerodynamic than an upright riding position. This reduces wind resistance. This is particularly important at speed over 10 mph when wind resistance becomes the main force acting against you. You’ll achieve a higher average speed with the same amount of effort. In fact, a recumbent bike holds the world human-powered speed record.
- Better circulation- Most recumbent bikes raise your legs to around the same level as your heart. This promotes good blood flow by allowing blood to more easily return to the heart.
- Better breathing- The leaned back position allows you to breathe with your diaphragm because you’re not hunched over when you ride. This is an easier and more efficient way to breathe. Better blood flow and breathing result in improve endurance.
- More comfortable- The wide seat offers cushioning and support for your neck and back. This allows you to stay in the saddle longer without tiring out.
- Efficiency- The superior aerodynamics allow you to cover more ground while using the same amount of energy that you would on an upright bike. For this reason, recumbents are great for touring and long rides.
- Reduced likelihood of injury during a crash- Because recumbent bikes sit closer to the ground, you have less distance to fall if you crash. If you run into something you hit feet first instead of head first. This reduces the likelihood of a head or neck injury. A full fairing can protect you from road rash if you go down at speed.
- Shorter braking distance- The long wheelbase allows you to brake hard without worrying too much about pitch over. The limit to your braking is tire traction.
- Better view- The recumbent seating position angles your neck so you’re looking straight ahead instead of down toward the ground. This gives you a clear view of the world around you as you ride.
Recumbent Bike Disadvantages
- Poor visibility- Because the rider sits so low, it is difficult to see over cars, tall bushes, large rocks, fences, etc. This can make some corners a challenge. Also, recumbent bikes make it difficult to look behind you. A rearview cycling mirror can help with this. Recumbent bikes may also be harder for drivers to see in some cases because they sit below the driver’s line of sight. The unique look of recumbent bikes may help you be seen. A flag sticking up to the driver’s eye level also helps.
- Expensive- Recumbent bikes are not mass-produced. They are almost all hand-built by small businesses. They can not take advantage of economies of scale during manufacturing. Recumbent bikes also tend to contain quite a few proprietary parts. They are generally more complex as well with the long chainlines and complicated steering systems. For these reasons, recumbent bikes cost about twice the price of a comparably specced upright bike.
- Harder to climb hills- This is one area where recumbent bikes don’t perform as well as upright bikes. The reason is that you can’t use your body weight to push down on the pedals when climbing. This means you have to ride at a higher cadence. Riding uphills on a recumbent takes more effort. The solution is to ride in a very low gear with a high cadence.
- Poor parts availability- Most recumbent bikes have some proprietary parts. If these fail, you must buy replacements from the manufacturer. Spares aren’t available in bike shops. Examples include the seat, steering components on some recumbents, and possibly racks.
- Harder to turn- Due to the extreme length, recumbent bikes need more room to turn than standard upright bikes. This is particularly true of long wheelbase recumbents. Low-speed maneuvers are also more difficult because it recumbents are hard to balance while you’re riding slowly. For this reason, recumbent bikes aren’t ideal for off-road riding.
- Discomfort- While riding a recumbent, you can’t easily change position like you can on an upright bike. Some riders experience numbness in the butt from sitting on the muscles all day. This is called “recumbent butt”. Some riders experience shoulder fatigue while riding an above seat steering bike because the arms are always reaching up to the handlebars.
- Harder to start from a stop- Recumbent bikes can feel unstable at low speeds. When you’re just starting out from a stop, it can be a bit tricky to get going. Particularly if the bike is in a gear that’s too high. You can’t use your body weight to push down on the pedals to get up to speed. To make it easier to get started, the best solution is to shift down to one of your lower gears every time you come to a stop. Some riders use internal gear hubs. These allow you to shift while stopped.
- Large, long, and heavy design- There are a number of disadvantages that come with this. You may experience frame flex. This costs energy. Transporting the bike can be a challenge. It may not fit in a standard bike rack, box, or in a car. The weight can also be limiting. Some accessories, like certain cycling computers, may not be compatible because the wire won’t reach the wheel from the handlebars.
A Brief History of Recumbent Bicycles
The earliest recumbent bikes date back to the mid to late 1800s. At this early stage of cycling, before the invention of the safety bicycle, companies experimented with a number of different bike designs. Some of these look quite similar to modern-day recumbents.
In the 1930s the “Velocar” was designed in France by a man named Charles Mochet. Velocars were basically small cars that were powered by pedaling rather than a motor. Mochet used the same technology that he used to build his Velocars to build a two wheeled recumbent style bicycle.
Mochet wanted to show off the speed of his new recumbent bike design so he took it to the races. A cyclist named Francis Faure rode the bike. He ended up beating several road racers of the day and beating a few world records including a one hour distance record that was almost 20 years old.
Upright bike builders and racers were upset by this success so they lobbied to have recumbent style bikes banned from racing. They won in 1934 when the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) banned recumbents. Supposedly the ban was put in place for safety reasons. The ban is still in place today.
For the next 40-50 years, there was pretty much zero development of recumbent bikes. Throughout the 1970s, oil crises caused cycling to surge in popularity. In the late 1970s, a couple of companies introduced recumbent bikes and sold them commercially. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, a handful of companies continued to design, produce and sell recumbent bikes. Today, there is a small but growing community of recumbent bike riders.
For more info and some cool photos, check out this great article about the history of recumbent bikes from Bicycle Man.
As you can see, recumbent bikes come in a wide range of styles and designs. There is really no standard. There are benefits and drawbacks to each design.
Before buying a recumbent bicycle, it’s best to test ride a few different designs. If possible, you’ll want to try out a long wheelbase, short wheelbase, over seat steering, and under seat steering recumbent. Maybe even a trike. That way, you get a feeling for the ride characteristics of each.
Whichever style you choose, I’m sure you’ll appreciate the comfort and efficiency that comes with the recumbent riding position. Hopefully, this guide helps you choose which recumbent is best for your style of riding.
If you’re still undecided whether or not a recumbent is for you, check out my guide: The Pros and Cons of Recumbent Bikes.
Which type of recumbent bike is your favorite? Share your tips and experience in the comments below!
More from Where The Road Forks
- Types of Electric Bikes: E-Bike Buyer’s Guide
- The Ideal Bicycle Touring Tool Kit and Spare Parts List
- How to Carry a Laptop on a Bike
- Electronic Vs Mechanical Shifting
- Presta Vs Schrader Valves
- Tube Vs Tubeless Bicycle Tires
- Tips for Buying a Used Bike
Zachary Friedman is an accomplished travel writer and professional blogger. Since 2011, he has traveled to 66 countries and 6 continents. He founded ‘Where The Road Forks’ in 2017 to provide readers with information and incites based on his travel and outdoor recreation experience and expertise. Zachary is also an avid cyclist and hiker. Living as a digital nomad, Zachary balances his professional life with his passions for hiking, camping, cycling, and worldwide exploration. For a deeper dive into his journey and background, visit the About page. For inquiries and collaborations, please reach out through the Contact page. You can also follow him on Facebook.