What do Recumbents Have to do with HiWheel Cycling?

This excerpt comes to you from “How America Can Bike and Grow Rich, the NBG Manifesto”. To Sample or buy, click HERE“ :

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As everyone soon began queuing up to leave, I said to those within earshot, “Yeah, here is where it gets interesting. I remember the last time I rode with Steve eleven years ago. All the locals out there in DC were all cheering him on. They weren’t looking at our high tech recumbents or the tandem trike that I was on, they were looking at Steve. “

And unbeknownst to me at the time, seeing all the attention he and his bike were getting, he had planted a seed.

Even though I could now see that the HiWheel created a lot of excitement, the notion of my riding one was easy for me to dismiss. Reasoning that I needed to keep the playing field leveled between myself and cars, there was not going to be any way that I could build one into my world. As a transportation cyclist, I needed to be able to get places fast without a lot of effort. And it was  for this application that I knew that the HiWheel was in a word, IMPRACTICAL.

I was closed to the possibility of doing anything more than admiring what is also called a Penny Farthing  until a year later when I pedaled a tall wheel for the first time. I had bought a well used, replicated version to bring attention to our booth at the NBG Festivals we used to produce. However when I finally worked up the nerve to try it, even though it was not mechanically sound, the joy of floating above the cars and the rest of the world below forced me to rethink my priorities. The danger of being so high off the ground suddenly paled in comparison to the sudden feeling of magnificence that soon overwhelmed me.

I determined if I could learn how to walk again and do what it took to reverse my paralysis and all of the other complications brought on by my 1977 head injury to ride a traditional bicycle and then a recumbent across the US, that I could ride a few blocks on a HiWheel bike. Besides, I now did yoga and had been doing so every day since I had completed my last coast-to-coast bike ride. I knew that no matter how bad my bones got shaken out of alignment, that I could still remedy the situation.

I also loved making people smile. The joy riding my HiWheel  brought to others told me I had to do what it took to be able to ride it more. But where would I find the time, I wondered.

Soon I determined that if I rode one a few days a week when I was not working out with weights, that I could develop enough expertise to be able to ride it in a parade or two. However, once I got the bike repaired and it became evident that the longer I rode, the less energy I had for the gym, I asked myself if I could ride more and work out less. When I could see that my body felt and looked as fit as it ever did the more I HiWheeled and the less I pushed iron, I did a very hard thing.

I gave up my gym membership!

I traded in the safety and familiarity of a social world of fellow health seekers sequestered from the rest of the world  by walls and windows for asphalt, cars and the fit and the mostly unfit. For 24 years,  working out had been a way of life for me. It had gotten me beyond the helplessness of my head injury setback. I had become so accustomed to seeing my body change as I focused on different parts of it with resistance training  that I was only minimally aware of the fact that most people only paid attention to their bodies when they were sick.

As such then, I would be using all the time I had spent under a health club roof to place the National Bicycle Greenway vision before an America that really needed it. The several hours a day I spent working out in the gym, I began to spend on my HiWheel bicycle. And just as soon, I could see that just by riding the Penny Farthing  I was bringing hope to the the young and the old, the overweight and the fit and all the different ethnicities that make up the world around us. All the happiness that resulted pushed me on.

Ten years ago, I would have been happy with a couple of blocks worth of pedaling, while being able to ride a parade or two would have tested the limits of my joy. And yet here now, I was crossing the country on the bicycle where modern transportation all began; the same machine that forever changed the way man would move about.

Besides connecting me to the people on the street, the HiWheel was also connecting different cyclists to one another. Since even within the ranks of cycling there are different factions all with their own agendas, needs and desires, the HiWheel bike seems to have built in leadership qualities. As I got around on the HiWheel and more and more touring, racing, training, commuting, off-road, recumbent and casual cyclists got a chance to see  motorists give me more respect than they themselves were getting, I could see that more and more of them wanted to be a part of my family. And as my  family of regular bicyclists grew, a critical mass of us would be elevating the public consciousness to show how important it is for all bicycles to be on the road.

And it is here that I count mountain bike cyclists as an interested party. Even though their preferred riding turf is off road, in getting to the dirt many of them pedal the road. And more of them would travel that way if the streets were safer for them to ride. Nor does any off this account for the fact that studies have shown that most of the off road bikes  that are sold today spend most of their time riding not off the road, but on the road.

And then there are the people who ride recumbent bicycles, a marginalized population of cyclists indeed. They are seen by many of the mostly younger cyclists who ride traditional upright bikes, as being less capable. They dismiss the recumbent rider as being a man or woman who is limited by age, health or weight problems. So the fact that since 1982, I had only been riding recumbents, partly in an attempt to get attention for the National Bicycle Greenway, seemed to communicate that I had special needs; that I couldn’t ride a “real” bike.   It seemed to be telling people who had no visible way of knowing that I had already crossed the country on an upright, that I wanted a Greenway so I would have a place to ride my non-conventional bicycle

I had not realized that I was limiting the support I needed for our vision until I started riding the HiWheel. In hindsight, however, I do take comfort in the fact, that I am still cycling all these years later. Looking back I had seen so many of the same upright cyclists who looked down on me for riding a recumbent, fall by the  way side because of the discomfort their bikes were causing them as they got older. While my pedaling  kept  me fit, I watched as the familiar faces around me were in a constant state of change. While I knew some of them had simply moved to new cycling turf, I was also sure that an even larger number of them had traded in the two wheel road for  the luxury and unhealthy ways of the automobile. Where they had gone was corroborated for me once in a while when I would spot one of them filling  up at a gas station or sitting behind the steering wheel of a car at a traffic light.

Besides the butt, shoulder, neck and sometimes arm pain that forced a lot of them off the saddle, there are also the issues of attire, functionality, even peer pressure. As many of us grow older, only to find more and more demands placed on our time, the conventional bicycle often becomes less and less attractive because it is harder to build into our lives. There is all the special wear, such as gloves or padding and chamois for one’s hind quarters that must be bought, kept clean and just changed in and out of in order to be an effective upright cyclist.

Besides wearing the right, tight-fitting  bike clothes for two wheel efficiency, there is also the subtle pressure the bike industry places on its cyclists to remind us that we must look and go fast. From what our helmets and upper body wear (preferably brightly colored jerseys with lots of corporate logos on them) are supposed to look like to the kinds of biking events that appear on on our TV screens (the Tour De France and to a lesser degree the Race Across America), to how cars are needed for our activity (at such races, we see a mass of cars and motor homes with bikes on top of them following the two wheel speedsters around), etc, there is both a dress code and a code of conduct anyone who wants to be seen as a serious cyclists must abide by. It is here that  driving a car to a bike event, for example, scores higher marks than riding a recumbent to get there or anywhere for that matter. This is partly so because when they were banned from racing in 1934 an unwritten rule was somehow placed  on the books that also said that anyone who rides a recumbent  is a rogue cyclist.

By the time time newspapers and magazines join in to also adulate the bright and colorful bike racers, “serious” cyclists know they are supposed to be riding their bikes fast, and what they should look like when they are on them. In such a way,  the real heroes of bicycling, those who replace car trips, are cast by the wayside. As a result, the needs of transportation cyclists are not  placed on center stage. Instead, those chasing speed become the unofficial ambassadors of what is supposed to be seen as a sport that also requires motorized support.

While there are becoming more of those who  make, sell and promote conventional bikes that are designed for comfort, even transportation, the market of such users is  always reminded that they are B-League cyclists. Because such pedal machines go slower, those who ride them are made to feel almost like they need to apologize for not being young and able to withstand the pain of a traditional road bike any longer.

Conventional bikes are also limited in how much they can carry. Sure racks and saddle bags can be added to them but they change the handling characteristics of the bike. And odd shaped purchases or things one might have to get to and/or from work, school or play are more difficult to mount on a traditional pedal machine.

All of this changes on a recumbent.  Because the seat is shaped more like the chairs found at one’s dining room table, besides the comfort of a large seating area and then having your back supported, it is easier to hang or drape things off of. All this as the recumbent cyclist pedals away in loose fitting clothes that one does not have to change in and out of in order to do a strong ride. If all this is not enough to warrant that we should see more of them on the road, if for no other reason than to keep older cyclists out there with us, they also have a higher speed potential.

In fact all the present day human powered land speed records were established using the recumbent design. Even the English Channel was flown over by a man pedaling supine because engineers determined that that was the only way  they could get enough power for such an effort.  And if one wanted to spend the money, depending on their fitness level, there are recumbents a person could buy that would put them at the front of most any racing pack.

Recumbents are also safer bikes to ride. Because you are much closer to the ground, the impact of a fall is not nearly as great. Over the years, I have known more than a few upright cyclists whose lives were ruined, some of whom  even died, by crashes  from a machine, the upright road bike, that makes the head and not the butt the point of impact. Nor is the recumbent rider so low that he or she cannot be seen. Not at all. In fact the biggest part of their body is what is most directly in the car driver’s field of vision instead of legs or skinny bike tires.

Besides their comfort, safety, speed and practicality, are there other reasons why do we not see more recumbent bicycles on the road? To begin with, we do not see many of them in bike shops. And if they do show up there, they are often not supported by an enthusiastic sales staff. This is  so because the same pressure the ad man uses to  tell a person what serious cyclists are supposed to look like, finds its way into the bike shops where most of the employees have not reached the age where comfort on a bike is a concern, Since they tend to sell and be knowledgeable about what their conditioning has told them is acceptable, even fashionable, to ride, the recumbent is an unknown oddity to them. As are those who express interest in knowing about them.

Sure one can go out on the web and find such a machine. However, since mechanical support is harder to find from the bicycle marketplace, a lot of shops for example do not like to even do repair work on recumbents, interested buyers will often need some mechanical aptitude in order to build one out of the box. And once they get it out on the road, they must be able to play the game of being an instant cycling authority as they  answer all the many questions that will always be asked.

If however they are new to cycling or have been away for a number of years, much strength of character will be  required in order to consistently ride a recumbent. This  is so because as they redevelop their skills or learn new ones, it will be harder for them to remain anonymous. Insecure in themselves as cyclists, it will be harder for them to ignore the looks of disdain or outright disapproval that will come their way once in a while. Such a cyclist, lacking in confidence, will also have a harder time laughing at comments such as  ‘get a real bike’, ‘quit laying down on the job’ or ‘what a silly/wacky bike’, etc, that they can expect to hear on occasion. And yet new or returning bike riders, the ones we most need to grow the activity, are the same ones who may never get get a chance to really ride  the only bike that it makes sense for them to ride.

I could not wait to return to the speed and the comfort of a recumbent bicycle but for now I was a man on  mission.

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One thought on “What do Recumbents Have to do with HiWheel Cycling?

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