Recumbents Then & Now, and For Your Future. (Yes, You!)
By Breanna VanDeHey
Editor’s Note: The first mass-produced/successfully marketed recumbent arguably occurred in 1979, called the Avatar 2000. Now recumbents come as low racers, high racers, mountain bike recumbents, semi-recumbents, tandems, trikes, and folding recumbents. Some with electric assist motors. The Hostel Shoppe of Stevens Point, WI, tells us what recumbents are all about in 2020. Also:(The paywall? GONE! Please feel free to marathon amble about the website for more great stories, up to date «Race Calendars»!!!, Club information, Places to Stay, Trail Conditions, and more!)
Hostel Shoppe began as a bicycle and cross-country ski store. The name derived from the increasingly popular hostel lifestyle of the 1970s, when young people traveled the country or world on bikes or skis, or backpacked and stayed in low-cost places called hostels. While the hostel lifestyle didn’t catch on as much as original owners Rolf and Barb Garthus had expected, the sports this lifestyle supported did.
Rolf, an avid cyclist, often rode century rides. As he got older, the discomfort he experienced in his neck and back after long rides became bad enough that he stopped riding as often or as far. In the 1990s, he met his first recumbent bike and realized they provided the perfect solution. Hostel Shoppe then shifted to a premier recumbent shop, now recognized as one of the largest recumbent dealers in the country if not the world.
For a number of years, Rolf and Barb designed and manufactured their own line of recumbent bikes: Volae. For the past 10 to 15 years, interest in recumbents moved from two-wheeled recumbent bikes to three-wheeled recumbent trikes.
New Ownership and the Evolving Recumbent
In 2019, Rolf and Barb decided to retire, and I purchased the business from them.
Since Hostel Shoppe started selling recumbents in the early 90s, we have seen a number of things change and evolve. Early on, those new to recumbent riding were buying two-wheeled recumbents in a variety of configurations. Some of the early bikes featured rectangular tubing, a variety of wheel sizes, and handlebar configurations. Also, a seat with some mesh slung over a frame, and a variety of lengths and designs with a more homebuilt look. Seats and frames were harder to adjust for different riders, or the bikes came in a variety of sizes to accommodate fit.
Demand has since shifted from recumbent bikes, with over-and-under seat steering, to recumbent trikes. Today’s recumbent trikes and bikes have a much more polished look, with a variety of colors and finishes, handlebars with locking brakes or parking brakes, CNC-machined parts, seats with lumbar support and strategic cushioning, more seat back angle adjustment, and seat height adjustment. More refined fit comes from easy-adjust booms to please a variety of leg lengths and rider heights. Many trikes fold for ease of transport. Electric assist comes built into many models, or can be added aftermarket to allow riders to go farther and faster.
At Hostel Shoppe, after over 40 years working with recumbents and their riders, we have dedicated over half our sizable sales floor and a majority of our warehouse to recumbents, as well as their parts and accessories. In normal summers, we try to have 75 to 90 recumbents on the sales floor at a time.
Truths About Visibility
Cyclists sometimes feel that the lower profile of recumbents means they won’t be noticed by motorists as much as traditional cyclists. While a valid concern, visibility to motorists isn’t a concern reserved for recumbent riders. Every year, there are numerous motorist/bicycle accidents, many of which are avoidable if only the driver had been paying attention to the road and the rider had been obeying proper riding etiquette or riding defensively.
While a majority of our customers ride recumbents, we give all riders an education on how to ride safely and to be seen by motorists. We refer to it as the ABCs of visibility. “A” stands for “Always On,” and refers to having turned-on, daylight-visible head and tail lights. “B” stands for “Biomotion.” In traditional cycling, “biomotion” refers to highlighting your moving human parts such as feet and legs. Human brains are wired to recognize other humans. By highlighting your moving body parts, you cue motorists earlier that you are up ahead. For recumbents, this motion gets accentuated by using moving flags and windsocks. “C” stands for “Contrast,” such as high-visibility fluorescent apparel during the day and reflective apparel and accessories in low light conditions.
I have found that, since recumbents are unique machines, many motorists notice them early on. Consider the following added safety of recumbents: Many recumbent riders can tell stories of motorists passing by slowly in a rubber-necking fashion, wondering what in the world that machine is!
For the most part, recumbent trikes are not as fast as their 2-wheeled upright counterparts. We have noticed that most riders experience a 3 to 4 mph average decrease in speed compared to their average speed on a traditional bike. However, a recumbent trike overcomes nearly all complaints caused by traditional cycling. Trikes are great options for riders who never learned how to ride a traditional bike, riders who have balance issues, riders with Parkinson’s, MS, limb paralysis, vertigo—the list goes on. Still, recumbents are considered a niche product in the cycling industry. Most people don’t know recumbents exist or are aware of their wide array of adaptability.
As with traditional cycling, the most obvious reason a person chooses a recumbent trike versus a recumbent bike is balance. Many of our recumbent trike customers are a bit older, and the risks imposed from falling on a bike are higher. Some of our customers have never learned how to ride a traditional bike, so there’s no learning curve for them to hop on a recumbent trike and ride. Other riders have limitations, physical or mental, that make riding a two-wheeled traditional bike or two-wheeled recumbent difficult, painful, or impossible. These customers become our most rewarding experiences in the business because they often have decreased mobility due to their limitation and they can now safely, happily, and independently experience the freedom and empowerment cycling offers.
Some riders want to ride faster, but riding traditional road bikes hurt. These customers lean toward two-wheeled recumbents, which are faster than recumbent trikes. Riders preferring to ride longer distances also prefer two-wheeled recumbents because they are lighter weight and easier to maintain higher speeds over longer distances.
Thinking No to Recumbents? Think Again!
As to starting out, the saying, “It’s like riding a bike: once you learn you never forget,” goes out the window when you first get on a recumbent bicycle. Your center of balance is set much farther back on a recumbent, so your ability to push off and get started is trickier. Once you get pedaling, learn not to hold onto the handle grips too tightly, and have some momentum, recumbent riding gets easier.
If none of their peers rides a recumbent, cyclists often swear up and down that they shall never try one no matter how they feel while riding a traditional bike. Scott Cole, Hostel Shoppe’s manager, once thought this way. Around 2000, when he first started working at Hostel Shoppe, he gave the two-wheeled Volae high racer recumbents a shot. He came from a mountain and road biking background and competed almost every weekend over the summer months. He worried that he wouldn’t be fast enough on the weekly training rides to keep up. After adjusting to a different riding position, he quickly found, on most of his road routes in his area, that his pace was an average of 2 to 3 mph faster for the whole ride. Steeper hills took some patience since he could not stand up out of the saddle. What he found, though, was that the comfort and speed on the flats and rolling hills quickly made up for this one negative.
Most road bikers like to go fast. If you choose the right two-wheeled recumbent, they can still ride comparable to a road bike’s speed, or faster, while being more comfortable.
Do you have any excuses left not to give a recumbent bike or trike a try? Come on in to Hostel Shoppe. We’ll keep things confidential until you decide to announce, and you will — “I ride a recumbent, and you should, too!”