How to get people riding recumbent bicycles

This Cruzbike blog post talks about the new Union Cycliste Internationale’s manifesto, Cycling for All. Cruzbike’s Jim Parker says, and I paraphrase, that without recumbents in the conversation, the UCI’s manifesto is so much hot air because upright bicycles are structurally unhealthy for people – causing serious pain if used regularly, particularly in middle-aged and older cyclists. If the UCI is serious about “bicycling for all,” we must talk about place of recumbents in the cycling world.

Of course, I agree that recumbents should be in the conversation – indeed, I think that most riders would prefer recumbents due to comfort. In the car biz, top speed and hill climbing ability is not the only criteria for excellence – comfort, style, affordability, etc., play serious roles. The constant criticism of upright bicyclists about the perceived lack of hill climbing ability of recumbents is simply irrelevant to the “the all” in the bicycling for all. Most riders will never seek out ten thousand feet of climbing for a day’s ride, after all, and will go to great lengths to avoid that kind of climbing.

However, I say, “Fuck the UCI.” Any manifesto by a corrupt racing body about general fitness is absurd. It has as much weight, in my eyes, as Budweiser asking people to drink responsibly, and it was the economic concerns of UCI sponsors that first convinced the UCI to ban recumbents out of fear that people would prefer bents to uprights. Has the economics of the UCI changed? No. They are still sponsored by the manufacturers of upright bicycles.

I don’t think that recumbent cyclists should spend too much time chasing the fantasy of acceptance by upright cyclists, particularly racers, and particular the UCI. I think that rather than trying to convince the UCI to change its rules, recumbent cyclists should make the UCI irrelevant. (And not just for recumbent issues! The corruption and nationalism of the UCI demand its destruction. But that’s for another post, I suppose.)

I think making the UCI irrelevant is possible. I am extremely fortunate to live in Xenia, Ohio. I have access to hundreds of miles of paved bike trails. And as backstory for everyone new reading this, I used to be much heavier than I am, now. My top weight, coming to Ohio, was about 382 pounds. That’s not a typo. But I wanted to use cycling to lose weight and Xenia seemed a great place to do it. (I was totally right. I’ve lost 130 pounds as of this writing, and I’m still losing weight quickly, and cycling is a big part of that.)

I tried upright bicycles because I had enjoyed riding bikes as a child and teen. But I had the litany of complaints that dog all riders, especially heavy ones – my back hurt, my wrists really hurt, my butt hurt. Looking at a way to ride, I discovered recumbents. Here, in Ohio, I got a TerraTrike Rover – with an advertised weight capacity of 400 pounds – and it was like sitting in an office chair. While riding at nearly four-hundred pounds was still hard as hell, the discomfort was all muscular and cardiovascular. I started with a miserable six miles, and I was miserable. But I kept at it and it got easier. Within four months, I was riding twenty-mile rides and having fun. And I was feeling great! Energetic, alert, just better.

(Today, I ride over a hundred miles a week, and before this spring is over I will be riding metric centuries – and I suspect that next year I’ll be riding Imperial centuries. I’ve gotten to the point where I prefer cycling over other things, like watching TV or whatever, and I do most of my in-town errands on my bicycle, too. I’m not fast, but I am apparently persistent. I’ll take it!)

Spending so much time on the Miami Valley’s bike trails, though, means I see a lot of cyclists. And both springs I’ve been riding, I’ve seen the people who will not make it. Mostly, they are middle-aged men and just looking at their faces as they come the other way, I know that most of them will not make it. They’re red-faced, perched uncomfortably on their upright bicycles, in obvious pain. I see them a few times, then they vanish. I understand. I’ve been there. If I had to ride an upright bicycle, I wouldn’t be a cyclist, no matter how well they climb hills!

On the other hand, I’m seeing a lot more middle-aged and elderly people on recumbents, particularly trikes. My last fifty-mile ride, I was actually stunned at how many recumbents there were – mostly Catrikes and TerraTrikes, but also a Rans Xstream, and a couple of Easy Racers or Easy Racer clones. While many of them weren’t going what I’d call fast – even me, average speed of 14.1 miles per hour on the way up to Springfield, passed many of them – none of them had that red-faced look of agony that I associated with people who are chased out of the sport by the various pains of riding upright bicycles. These are people I expect to see, again, on the trails, at least when the weather is good.

To me, that’s where the market is. While I absolutely support companies like Cruzbike and Rans that go to races, and I respect endurance athletes enormously (none of my criticism of the UCI is towards the riders, who are made of iron!), I don’t think that races are going to be where bent bikes will convince people. I think that people will be convinced through raising public awareness of the comfort of recumbent bicycles compared to upright bikes.

In particular, we need to get recumbent bikes in the hands of teenagers. There is not, as far as I know, a single recumbent bike that is marketed towards teens. And even inexpensive recumbents, like the Sun Bikes Easy Racer clones, easily exceed a thousand dollars in cost. This means that American teens – the age where they own their first “real” bicycle – will associate bikes with upright, diamond-frame bikes. The will have their first races on upright bikes. They’ll explore their towns on upright bikes. Only a tiny handful of them will ever go on to be professional or amateur racers or randonneurs, but what a bike “is” will be locked into their heads: upright bikes. So, when they get a little older and want to get back into cycling for health and fun, they’ll likely turn to the same kind of bike they rode as a teenager – probably an upright street bike or mountain bike. Then they’ll learn their middle-aged selves are heavier and less fit than their teen selves, and the minor discomforts of riding as a teenager have become serious neck, back, and groin pain as an adult.

Then they don’t ride, but because they don’t know any better, they pass on their bias towards upright bikes to their kids.

What we need more than a fight with the UCI to end bikeism is, I think, three things:

First, a campaign to get young people on bicycles. While comfort is important, speed is also a factor. Kids like to go fast, true fact! I think bent bikes would fit this role very well. A kid’s first experiences with a bicycle will not be doing difficult rides in tough terrain, but mostly short sprints down neighborhood streets, going to school, stuff like that. So even the worst climbing recumbent is likely to fit this role very well – and show both to that kid and other kids that recumbents are awesome.

Second, and this is the harder part, making bent bikes at price points that parents can afford. The truth is that an inexpensive recumbent like the Cruzbike T50 will run a person $1200. Even the cheapest Sun Bike will sent you back $1000. Most parents will balk at spending twelve-hundred dollars on a bicycle that might end up holding up a wall in the garage, and many more parents will simply be unable to afford that kind of price tag, regardless of how badly their kid wants the bike. (And let’s be honest, by the time a teenager has a grand of their own money, they’re more likely to be thinking “car” than “bicycle.” I suspect the best age of recruitment is between thirteen and fifteen.)

On the other hand, you can get a cheap mountain or street bike at Toys-R-Us for about $125 bucks.

So while Easy Racer’s partnership with Sun Bikes to produce less expensive versions of Easy Racer rides is a good idea, I don’t think it goes nearly far enough. What is needed is convincing Schwinn, Mongoose, or Rallye to produce teen-friendly recumbent bicycles for under, say, $200. I suspect they should be hybrid-style bikes, capable of doing some trail work, but also good on the streets – something very much like the Cruzbike T50 or QX100, or the Azub Max (though at a price point of over three grand. . . well, again we demonstrate the finances of recumbents being well outside a price range for teens), with a more upright seat and tough enough for trail duty.

But bent bikes are in a catch-22. There’s no way that a youth-oriented bent will be made for under $200 until companies like Schwinn or Mongoose believe that they’ll make money.

Which makes me go, “Hey, Kit, how would YOU market bicycles to achieve this goal.” Here’s a companion piece on just that!

Third, and most simply, you target the 40+ crowd. This can be done through normal advertising and marketing, I think, because they’re the people most likely to have several thousand dollars hanging around to buy recumbent bikes. Which is why I’m seeing them on the trails around here! And the people in this set are far, far more interested in comfort than speed. They know their fastest days are behind them, they’re riding for enjoyment and fitness, not velocity. The purported speed difference and hill-climbing ability of upright bicycles aren’t as important as being easy on their backs, necks, and crotches.

Still, I think it’s a better plan than winning races if the goal is to get bikes people will actually ride into their hands. I don’t think that teens – or, really, many Americans at all – are hanging on the edge of their seat about who has the yellow jersey in the Tour de France. I think our bicycle experiences are formed in middle- and high-school. You get kids hooked on recumbents, that’s what they’ll ride when they’re professionals with a couple grand to blow on a bike, and that’s what they’ll get for their kids.

Leave a Reply