Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Bias Against Recumbents and the Lance Myth


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 ‘sit down’ 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. This 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. In terms of special wear, padding and chamois for one’s hind quarters must be bought, kept clean and just changed in and out of with each ride in order for one 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 upright bike industry (97+% of bikes sold) places on its cyclists to remind them that they must look and go fast. From what their 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 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 cyclist must abide by.

Despite the fact that recumbent cyclists do not need special clothes and their bikes can carry more, something we’ll talk more about later in this chapter, those who ride them, even if they look young, healthy and fit, are still dismissed as being lazy cyclists. This notion was affirmed by the UCI when they banned them from racing in 1934, saying bike racers should not be allowed to gain advantage because of their machines The now defrocked bike racer, Lance Armstrong, helped to embed this attitude in the mass consciousness. For the better part of two decades, the myth of who he was served to define the meaning of the term serious-cyclist.

For the many millions of cyclists following his lead, results took on far greater importance than how much fun they had when they cycled. It became necessary to look like you were working for your miles. Smiling or waving at one another was frowned upon. And no longer were your rides about processing thoughts or communing with nature or your Maker. You achieved esteem by calling your time spent in the upright saddle a “training ride”. Made all the more important by how well you watched your various metering mechanisms, your watch, speedometer and/or your power, cadence, or heart monitors, etc.

In such a way, not only was comfort on your bike a secondary consideration, but 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.

When I say conventional bikes are limited in how much they can carry, the racks and saddlebags that can be added to them 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 them. 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, the higher speed potential the UCI affirmed in 1934 when they banned them, keeps growing. 

In fact all the present day human powered land speed records were established using the recumbent design. They are pushing 83 miles an hour with the recumbent power plant. 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 can buy that will 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 also 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 ‘where’s your remote’, 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 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 a mission.

The above is excerpted from "How American Can Bike and Grow Rich, the NBG Manifesto", an e-book that can be found HERE

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