A small but growing number of riders get into shape comfortably on recumbent bikes, a.k.a. bents.
By DAVE GUSSOW
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 30, 2001
I'm getting bent into shape.
Exercising is fun, losing weight is great, and riding a recumbent bike, also known as a bent, makes me feel like a kid again.
I'm going farther and faster than I ever thought possible, joining a small but distinct number of people who have discovered the joys of these different looking but oh so comfortable bikes.
"Recumbent riders are more individualists," said Regis Hampton, who sells bents at his Hampton's Edge Trailside Bikes shop in Floral City, next to the Withlacoochee State Forest bike trail. "They like being different. They don't follow the norm."
Recumbents come in all shapes and sizes, they're more expensive than traditional bikes, and they have a learning curve. "The first start on a short wheel base is so strange because you're not used to having your feet in the air," Hampton said.
Bents appeal mainly to people in their 40s and older who either can't or no longer want to deal with the aches and pains from riding traditional bikes, which they mockingly call "wedgies."
The main differences: You sit low on big, comfortable seats that have backs, like a chair. Instead of pedaling in a vertical position, your legs are virtually parallel to the ground.
Steering can be like using a traditional handlebar, or under the seat. Depending on the model, the bikes can have a small tire on the front and a bigger one on the back, or both can be the same size. They can have short wheel bases, where the pedals stick out of the front of the bike, or they can have long wheel bases (which leads to nicknames such as "rolling lawn chairs").
"You get the same exercise without the pain," said Gerry Beland of Bicycle Outfitters in Seminole. "The most objectionable thing to a regular bike is the seat. On the recumbent, that is not an issue."
They may look different, but recumbents are not new. Popular Mechanics magazine (www.popularmechanics.com) featured a model in 1914 and found references to the bikes dating to 1896, according to a June article.
Florida is one of the centers for bents: It's flat, you can ride year-round, and we have an older population. Other areas where bent riders seem to concentrate include California, Washington state, Texas, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
It wasn't a desire to be different that enticed me to buy a recumbent last spring. I just wanted to resume riding after two operations to remove bone spurs affecting my Achilles tendon.
Using a stationary recumbent during gym workouts planted a seed that it was a more comfortable position, and it didn't bother my ankle as much as a traditional bike.
I started monitoring an online newsgroup devoted to recumbents (alt.rec.bicycles.recumbent) to find out more. The first thing that struck me was how happy these riders seemed to be. The best advice: Test ride before you decide.
I rode four bikes at Pinellas shops and chose a model from RANS. I was prepared to buy from a local shop, but I found the same model online for $300 less, even with shipping and adding a cyclocomputer for time/distance/speed tracking.
I would not have bought the bike, however, without riding it first. That's just how different bents are. After my riding partner and personal mechanic, Scott Stevens, assembled the bike, I wiped out in less than a block on my initial ride because I was not used to the steering. But it was okay. It was the start of something good.
The next day I rode slowly around the neighborhood, with kids gawking when I passed, but I really wanted to get to the Pinellas Trail. There, I planned a slow ride with my wife but just took off, which was okay with her (sort of).
The first weekend, I rode 77 miles, felt great and couldn't wait to go again. Before work, after work and on weekends, I hit the trail. The Suncoast Parkway bike trail turned out to be a wonderful discovery, with long stretches with no roads to cross. I kept increasing speed and distances, doing my first 50-mile rides and averaging about 100 miles a week. In the first months of riding, I even managed several 60-mile rides. Now, I hope to do a century: 100 miles.
The number of bent riders is small, maybe 3 percent to 5 percent of all bikes by some estimates. But Hampton and others say it's growing. "I see more on this trail because it is level, it has very little crossings, it's not crowded, and it's long," said Hampton, estimating that bents outnumber traditional bikes on the Withlacoochee.
Beland of Bicycle Outfitters says about 100 recumbent riders participated in last spring's Bike Florida ride from Titusville to St. Augustine, out of about 875 participants. "They are claiming their space in the bicycle market," he said.
Bicycle Outfitters stocks eight brands, so customers can try different models. "There are so many variations. We encourage people to find the bike that is most comfortable for them," Beland said.
His shop started featuring bents about four years ago, and he's seen sales increase from one or two a month to 10-15 a month. They make up only 20 percent to 25 percent of total sales, but they account for 40 percent to 45 percent of revenues because of their higher prices.
Bent prices start at $500 and can reach $4,000 or more. That discourages many people from buying, but both Hampton and Beland point out that entry-level bents are not much more expensive than good traditional bikes. (Most serious riders and shops don't consider department-store bikes to be valid vehicles.)
Even then, price is no object for some people. "You'll find very few recumbent riders own one bike," said Bryan J. Ball, editor of BentRider Online Magazine (www.bentrideronline.com). "They're all just so different, the different designs suited for different things. It's good to own two or three different kinds of bikes."
Mark and Amy Brunson of Clearwater started with three: his, hers and theirs, including a tandem. (They sold one to their 27-year-old son, who found it more comfortable than his racing bike.)
"We had extremely different strength levels," said Mark Brunson, 44. "She does 8 to 10 mph, I'm at 14 to 15 mph. If we started on a training ride, she'd go north, and I'd go south. We could never ride together."
Brunson turned to cycling when running hurt his knees. They bought bents after suffering injuries in separate mishaps that made riding traditional bikes impossible.
"Amy and I are quite the spectacle on that recumbent tandem," he said. "All these kids, they will turn and stare, and we always hear, "Cool bike.' We're both fat old farts. When we get on that bike, we're cool."
Ball, who runs BentRider Online out of Fort Walton Beach, doesn't fit the profile of a typical bent rider: He's only 26. "It used to be all older people, riders and guys who had health problems," said Ball. "The market's getting younger and younger. The lower end of the market is really beginning to boom."
But some issues keep popping up for bent riders:
The Rodney Dangerfield complex: Many bent riders feel that they don't get any respect from traditional riders, snubbed because they're not considered "serious" bicyclists.
"We're still years away from acceptance," said Ball. "It mostly stems from the racing crowd. Less than 1 percent of people who own uprights ever compete in races, yet that's what drives the entire market. Everyone wants what Lance (Armstrong) rides."
In my first months of riding, I've had only one sarcastic comment thrown my way ("Where's the TV?" before I even had my "I'm a Bike Potato" T-shirt). More common are people who ask questions about it, or a mother riding with her family who pointed at me and said: "That's my next bike."
My bike is faster than yours: Speed is a big issue, too. Bent riders point out that recumbents have been banned from racing, and they take great delight in newsgroup posts with tales of passing traditional riders.
I am faster on the bent, about 3 mph on average, but I'm also in better shape from my gym workouts, so I can't attribute it all to the bike. Others say bents can be faster, particularly on level areas and downhill. Uphill, though, is a challenge. Even modest inclines around here slow me down.
To be candid, Scott, my riding partner, was faster than I was before I had a bent and remains so today. (Okay, he's nine years younger and in much better shape, too.) He tried my bike, declared "It's different," and later bought a new road bike. But we're both happier doing 40- to 50-mile rides now, compared with our previous 20 to 25 miles.
Bottoms up: Wedgies are a pain in the wrists, back and rear. But bents are not immune from inflicting some health-related problems, according to posts in the newsgroup.
Some riders report knee pain (likely from incorrectly positioned seats or trying to do too much too soon); "recumbent butt," where the rear end feels as if it's falling asleep (one suggestion: stop and stretch); and foot numbness, helped by wiggling your toes as you pedal.
The geek factor: It has been suggested that bents are mainly for geeks. Well, maybe.
"It's something different right now," said Ball. "Most recumbent riders are technology-driven guys who are willing to try something different."
Easy riders: There seems to be a social element building, riders getting together to share a ride and their bent stories. Ted Williams of Sanford is compiling a database of riders in Central Florida, which is used to get the word out about informal rides. The Withlacoochee trail is a popular spot for such events. (To get on the database, send e-mail to TWillows@aol.com)
"Recumbents seem to be more social and more friendly," said Hampton in Floral City. "They don't have a prima donna racing attitude, "Look at my spandex.' Bent riders are laid back on the bikes and have a laid-back attitude."
Information about recumbent bicycles is readily available on the Internet. In addition to manufacturers' sites, local bike shops that sell bents and cycling clubs, here are some other sites to check, some of which have links to other places to visit: