Getting Bent: A Newcomer’s Account by Bill Patterson“I’m in transition”. No I’m not undergoing gender change surgery. I’m in the process of switching much of my riding from a traditional road bike to a recumbent. In my case, the recumbent is a Bacchetta Corsa, a short wheel base “high racer” model. Before I go into any of that: why a recumbent in the first place? A couple of years ago, I underwent my first “transition” from running to riding as my main aerobic activity. That was initially because of a little muscle strain and then just because it was more fun. As I put on more miles and got a little older, I started to experience chronic shoulder pain. The riding didn’t cause it but tended to aggravate it. I certainly noticed the discomfort more on rides with lots of climbing. The doctor focused on that “little older” part and said it was not bad enough for any surgical solution so I should suck it up! A recumbent bike seemed liked a solution to me. Recumbent bikes or “bents” are those funny looking bikes where the rider seems reclined in an apparently comfortable seat. No standing up on these bikes! At a minimum, it should decrease the upper body stress and hopefully make riding a little more comfortable. Once you start actually looking at them it becomes apparent that there are many designs. The common threads seem to be the big seat, different riding position and the crank positioned ahead of the rider rather than beneath the rider.
What you find when you discuss a recumbent with most people are strong opinions. Some cyclists don’t consider bents to be “real bikes” while others think they are a perfect solution to all cycling issues. To me, the answer seems to be somewhere in the middle of the extremes. There were numerous assumptions and rumors to work through to get at exactly what a recumbent meant to my personal riding.
“It is more comfortable that an upright bike”. The amount of stress on my shoulders and arms is remarkably less! Riding in the reclined position is becoming comfortable but it is a definite change.
“It is faster over the whole ride than an upright”. Well, not yet at any rate. I have been a little slower on the climbing and a little faster on the descents. My overall speed on a couple of rides that I had history on was about ½ MPH slower but admittedly I only have a few hundred miles on the new bike and I am still “in transition”. Descents are way faster because of the aerodynamics involved.
“It’s harder to climb on a recumbent”. Climbing is different, not harder, for me on low and moderate grades. You use your muscles differently and you can push back into the seat. You can’t stand up to use your body weight on the down stroke. I’ve climbed several slopes at 10% grade so far and those are definitely harder for me at this point. They are not easy but doable. They weren’t easy on the upright bike either. I have started to try a few monster climbs of up to 17% grade but I am not comfortable with those yet.
“You use muscles differently riding a recumbent”. Absolutely! My butt initially hurt from climbing but this seems to be going away. I discover a new set of sore muscles after every ride. My neck is aware of the new position. You don’t use the upper body nearly as much. My back ached a little after my first ride but that was a one-time issue as new muscles were put on alert that they would be needed. The good news is that my “bent muscles” seem to be adapting to their new jobs.
I told a friend that I felt like I was 6 years old and leaning to ride my first bicycle. Everything has to be deliberate rather than automatic and I often realize that I am flirting with disaster. A couple of the biggest challenges for me have been getting started from a dead stop and handling the balance at slow speeds. Getting into motion is made more difficulty by the position of the pedals forward and above the hips. In my case, I made this more difficult yet by changing the style of the pedals on this bike so I am getting use to new clips at the same time as I am working with the new riding position. Bike handling at slow speeds is tricky as you learn the new balance required. “Heel strike” where the shoe hits the tire is a trying issue and make sharp turning at slow speeds challenging.
Like most things, there are lots of choices and variations in recumbent design. As I said earlier, my bike is a Bacchetta Corsa. It is a short wheel base model with the crank in front of the front tire and positioned above hip level. The Corsa is not your beach recumbent with its road bike features and more aggressive riding position. It is an aluminum bike with a carbon fork and weighs in at approximately 25 pounds. The components are 9-speed SRAM and feature a triple crank set and an 11-34 cassette. Shifting is excellent and uses twist shifters. Some recumbents have different size tires but mine are the same 26” size front and back. The steering is called “above the seat” and resembles normal handlebars. The “not normal” part of this is the high position of the crank that puts your knees between the handlebars when pedaling. It is possible to get your knees outside the bars on a tight turn and that is a bad thing! Bents are like regular road bikes in that you can find one for any budget! The Corsa is priced in the range of road bikes with similar frame construction. I got my bike from Bent Up Cycles of Van Nuys, a shop that specializes in recumbent bikes. They were very helpful in selecting the model and in allowing me to test ride several different bikes. In the end, Bent Up Cycles even changed out a couple of components at no extra charge.
I have had the Corsa for 6 weeks and have ridden 900 miles on the new bike. Over that distance I have climbed about 40,000’ including well known Southern California routes such as Glendora Mountain Road, Glendora Ridge Road, Latigo Canyon and Piuma Road. As I said, I am a little slower than my time on my road bike but I am not really in any hurry. I’ve fallen twice with both incidents involving very slow speeds and very sharp inclines. A 91 mile long-ride and the first big climbing ride gave me a little too much confidence early on. Subsequent rides reminded me that a little humility is always appropriate. My muscles are adjusting. I’m slowly improving my bike handling. It’s starting to be fun. I noticed that I’ve been on my road bike only a few times since the Corsa arrived. Give me another 1.000 miles with it and who knows.
One of my goals in moving to the Corsa was not to reduce my riding and effort in the transition. This week included 200 miles on the bike with almost 11,000’ of climbing. I tried my first “monster climb” on Monday with grades as high as 18%. I thought I was going to die but that’s about normal for me. I completed the climb at any rate. Wednesday was a short run in the Santa Monica Mountains that included sustained 10% to 12% climbs. Thursday was a 95 mile long ride. My speed was faster than a recent DF ride over a similar route and I noted that several climbs actually seemed easier. After the ride I was feeling great and ready to go with none of the upper body fatigue that is normal on the DF. I was asked about the Corsa several times and the universal observations seemed to be “cool bike”. I agree!