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Recumbent bicycles are more efficient than ordinary upright bicycles, and velomobiles are even more efficient. Then why do we see them so rarely on the road? Is it because they are expensive, or are there some non-financial, significant disadvantages?

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Not a complete answer, so comment: I think since most people learn to ride upright bikes, they tend to consider "bicycle" as being a regular upright one. Most non-bike-enthusiasts don't even know they exist. –  heltonbiker Aug 21 '12 at 15:47
    
(also, the preachy, evangelizing tone of many recumbent riders telling recumbents are "obviously much better" - not true for everyone - doesn't help much) –  heltonbiker Aug 21 '12 at 15:49
    
Wellllll, given how much regular cyclists look down their noses at 'bent riders, do they even have noses long enough to deal with "velomobile" riders?? –  Daniel R Hicks Aug 21 '12 at 16:57
    
The Wikipedia article on recumbents you've lined to lists several disadvantages; with velomobiles, storage space could easily become an issue. –  Imre Aug 21 '12 at 19:54
    
efficient is not a synonym for aerodynamic. On a recumbent bike, you may be energy efficient, but you do not have a position for pedaling power. This is the same reason why people don't drive ridiculously fuel efficient experimental cars. efficient is meaningless unless you qualify what resource you are optimizing. Efficient in terms of what? Saving time? Energy? Cost? –  Kaz Oct 8 '13 at 19:51

12 Answers 12

up vote 5 down vote accepted

My regular (commuting) bike is an old Cannondale MTB with road slicks. It's great for city riding, murders my back, crotch, hands, feet, etc. on long trips.

So a couple years ago I bought a Bacchetta Giro 26 specifically for a 2000+ mile ride. I've used it since for rides of longer than a day. So here's my two cents:

Comfort: Riding a 'bent consists of sitting in a lawn chair doing leg-presses all day. IMO, no DF will ever come anywhere close to matching a 'bent for comfort. Over the last week of my trip I rode back-to-back-to-back-to-back 110+ mile days with no issues other than some soreness in my knees. Best of all, you can look at the scenery instead of the asphalt, without craning your neck. This is a massive plus.

Safety: The bike I bought has 26" wheels front and rear. My head is a few inches lower than on a DF, but I've never had any issues with visibility. I rode through several major metropolitan areas in fairly heavy traffic and never felt unsafe or invisible.

Dork factor: Everyone is fascinated by the bike. Everyone. I had a Hell's Angels looking dude shout "nice hog" at me at one point. Lots of people ask if I built it myself. One guy pulled over to take a photo. Every single person who has remarked on the bike has been enthusiastic and friendly, with one (group) exception: spandex-clad road riders, who generally pretend they don't see me.

Hills: Climbing hills on a 'bent isn't all that tough. It just requires persistence. You won't blast up a hill, but you can climb for hours on end. The biggest negative is that on a steep hill, if you stop for any reason, it can be damn near impossible to get going again. Also, balance becomes an issue at very low speeds.

All that said, 'bents are ideal for touring, so-so for daily utilitarian use, and of course illegal for racing. Of those three uses, touring is the rarest, and it's pretty hard to build a market around something most people don't do.

It's a pity, IMO — 'bents are a lot of fun, but most folks will never know it. But then again, I've got mine and get a lot of use out of it. If other people miss out, that's their problem, not mine. I expect most recumbent riders feel the same way.

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All that said, 'bents are ideal for touring, so-so for daily utilitarian use, and of course illegal for racing. Of those three uses, touring is the rarest, and it's pretty hard to build a market around something most people don't do. — Right! That seems to sum it up spot-on. –  gerrit Jan 14 '13 at 17:34

Talked to a guy who had a velomobile at a local charity ride. He said the thing cost $5000. Recumbents, while not as expensive as velomobiles are also quite expensive. Usually over $2000. That could be part of the reason. Sure, with economies of scale, they could be made cheaper, but that's kind of a chicken and an egg problem. Also, even though recumbents and velomobiles are so much more efficient, they do have quite a few of their own problems. Because they have so much extra weight, they tend to be quite a bit slower on the hills. Many people also don't like being so close to the ground. I like being able to stand on my pedals and see over most of the cars when riding in traffic. Also, regular bikes are pretty efficient these days. For $1000 you can get a pretty good bike. And one last thing. Don't underestimate the "conformity" factor. Many people don't want to be seen as weird, or outsiders, and want to fit in with social norms. Riding a bike is already going against social norms in many places. For some people, having a recumbent just takes things a bit outside their comfort zone.

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I don't know about you, but I'd feel really unsafe being that close to the ground in traffic, especially with some big articulated lorry coming up from behind who might not even see you at all. –  GordonM Sep 3 '12 at 6:12
    
"conformity" factor -- Reminds me of the OS wars (Windows/Mac) from 10 years ago. –  Roy Tinker Dec 2 '12 at 22:48
    
Recumbent prices have been steadily coming down over the years. Entry level bikes can be had for $500-$1000 these days. Though you get what you pay for, especially at the high end. –  Michael Hampton Jul 8 '13 at 2:50

I suspect the biggest reason is that they're very expensive niche machines that, for most people, do not offer enough clear advantages over regular bicycles.

A big reason you don't see more recumbents is safety in traffic. If you're on a "normal" bicycle, you're (theoretically) going to be relatively more visible to motor vehicles than if you're lying close to the floor on a recumbent.

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Perceived rather than actual safety. –  Tom Hawtin - tackline Aug 22 '12 at 14:36
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@Tom : Have you any references to back this up? I cannot believe being lower to the ground where I cannot see, and cannot be seen, makes no difference to my safety, however, I am happy to be convinced otherwise. –  mattnz Aug 23 '12 at 3:43
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"...recumbent bicycles are generally considered safer than upright bicycles..." -- wikipedia ;). Seriously, with so few recumbents, are you expecting hard statistical data. Even for uprights, safety data is difficult to interpret. Being closer to the ground mean less distance to fall, but more important going feet first puts you in an ideal position for a crash with it being much more difficult to tumble forward and smash into a hard object head first. The idea that you can't be seen because you're on a recumbent instead of an upright is nonsense. –  Tom Hawtin - tackline Aug 23 '12 at 10:02
    
@TomHawtin-tackline Perception is very important. Just look at the other answers on the page :) As for "The idea that you can't be seen because you're on a recumbent instead of an upright is nonsense", a Lotus Elise can be harder to spot in traffic than a big 4x4. Same goes for recumbent bikes. But as you say, there's no hard statistical data. –  Olly Hodgson Aug 23 '12 at 10:51
    
@OllyHodgson I believe a recumbent sticks out more than an upright in a busy urban situation. Drivers have so much junk to filter out, something unusual is way more noticeable than one of many people around standing up. –  Tom Hawtin - tackline Aug 23 '12 at 11:06

Right or wrong, I think a lot of people just see recumbents as "dorky". I think its more a perception bias than efficiency.

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Reason I do not ride a recumbent (based on my uneducated knowledge of them, which is probably ignorant and wrong, but typical.... ):

  • I don't imagine they are very good off road (single track MTBing)
  • Too low to be seen in traffic (Squash factor high)
  • Not agile enough when the traffic does not see you (Increases squash factor)
  • Dorky - (more increases in squash factor, although not as much as lycra)
  • I don't have a beard, long hair, wear tie-died shirts and smoke dope.
  • They look clumsy to get in and out of (Dork factor).
  • They appear to take up a lot more storage space than a regular bike.
  • Never seen a new shiny one in a glossy brochure, let alone on the floor at the LBS,
  • I learned to ride a bike when I was a kid, now I'm all grown up, I don't want the embarrassment of not being able to, and they look like they may be hard to get used to. ......
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People do ride them off road, and there are even purpose-built off-road recumbents. But I've also taken my quad on singletrack, because it is much better than a wheelbarrow for anything over a couple of hundred metres. –  Mσᶎ Jun 2 at 5:43

I switched to a recumbent about 10 years ago, when I was 48. I rented one for a ride and was so impressed with the comfort and speed that I eventually changed over. My current rig has a full fairing and full-length spandex wrap.

Arguments:

1 - Cost. I waited over 2 years to buy due to the cost, then started out with a $900 bike (which I soon traded in for a $2,000 TourEasy, which ran up to $3,000 with fairing, lights, etc.). Many friends and family considered me crazy, but I live in an area where I can get almost everywhere by bike. In 2007, I spent less than $100 on gasoline. Since then I've been averaging 500-750 miles each year in my auto and 5,000 to 6,000 miles on my bike). For my situation, the cost was high, but the savings have been much higher.

2 - Comfort. No contest. There's a reason furniture does not use diamond-frame bicycle posture. No crotch numbness, neck issues, etc. These discomforts did not bother me before 45, but the comfort factor (for me) seems to be a bigger factor every year. The fairing and wrap offer even more comfort when the weather turns extreme--usually a light jacket and tights is sufficient, even in single-digit temperatures; and the shade compensates for less wind in the heat (plus no need for sunscreen).

3 - Performance. I can blast up a hill like a parachute in water--the best I can say for uphill riding on a recumbent is that maybe it builds character. Downhills and flats, though, are great--the fairing aerodynamics help. Speeds (note, I'm almost 60, diabetic, and had a triple bypass a couple of years ago, so these speed won't be impressive): Sustained on a flat - 25-30; steep downhill with a tailwind - 50-60; steep uphill - no comment (thank God for low gears!). Much wider turning radius. No flipping over the handlebars, though, on hard stops. Another performance feature relates to comfort--I can ride for hours and hours and hours, and rides over 100 miles makes me tired and my legs sore the next day, but no discomfort in my butt, back, neck, or other parts.

4 - Dork factor. I don't care (see number 2 and 3 above). However, reactions seem to be pronounced. Young kids say "Oooooh! Cool!" Older kids divide between "What the #$%#$ is that?" and "I want one!" I get tons of questions. I get noticed--so I try to obey all the traffic signs/signals and be considerate, which is not necessarily how I rode before. It also gets noticed when parked, sometimes attracting thieves and vandals.

5 - Safety. Bikes are dangerous around cars. Car drivers just aren't looking for us and don't see us--and often don't bear any blame when they run us down. To mitigate this, I use bright lights, brightly colored wraps, and a motorcycle helmet (allowed by the upright posture)--and avoid as much car traffic as I can. So far, so good (I was hit 3 times on my DF).

6 - Accommodation. A definite minus. Normal bike racks, bike carriers, bus racks, etc. usually won't work. Much longer and heavier than my DF was. No carrying it over my head through crowds.

Every person will have different priorities. You have to try one to know if it's for you or not.

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I would say that the reason for so few of the recumbents and velomobiles is due to the cost factor, with the velomobiles being quite a bit out of the realm of expense practicality for most of us. You have to live in an area where you can ride any time and any place you please to justify an expenditure of around $5,000 plus. The recumbents would follow closely except they are a bit less expensive. From what I've seen, I'd just as soon be riding in a much higher and visible position, than pratcially being horizontal 2 feet off of the road surface. I'd just as soon see the traffic ahead and have them see me too. Prevents a lot of close calls with vehicles that will win the collision battle every time. And then there are the dogs that think you're an even easier challenge when you're looking up at them! I know they are much more comfortable than a standard bicycle, but I take a lot of comfort in knowing I have a much better chance against traffic and dogs when I'm up off of the ground! There are some aches and pains that go with biking as the years roll by, but they heal more quickly than cuts and bruises and don't leave scars.

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There are certainly many reasons why a minority product in a community stays in its niche. Some reasons are universal, others are product/topic-specific. In the case of recumbents it might help to understand what the community sees as the normal use case for a bicycle. Two main use cases come to mind:

(A) Short utility trips through the urban areas

(B) Sport-oriented cycling rather through the countryside

For these use cases we can discuss the disadvantages of recumbents. There are several. Let's start with use case (A):

  1. In the city riders often want to be able to jump kerbs. This is very hard or even impossible on recumbents while rather easy on up-rights.

  2. For safety reasons Riders want to have an overview over traffic in order to adjust their riding accordingly. This is hard on a recumbent: You are on eye level with normal car drivers and below the level of SUV drivers this makes it difficult to judge traffic in congested conditions. The higher position of up-rights makes it easier.

And here disadvantages for use case (B):

  1. When going for a ride "racing-style" riders orientate themselves often at cycle races as reported by the media. The very most of these competitions are held under UCI rules and do not allow recumbents.

  2. Riders who train for races themselves obviously want to use similar machines as they will use in the competition.


Side note: The mentioned disadvantages are strongly dependent on the use cases. If we look at other use cases the disadvantages of recumbents can become marginal and some exciting advantages take over.

As an avid recumbent cyclist myself for nearly two decades I have obviously a different use case: Longer commutes in urban areas and long-distance cycling in the country-side. Here the big advantages of recumbents like a much better view of the scenery or a more comfortable seating position come quickly into play.

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Yeah, strange. It does seem that the velomobile would be more expensive, and I've seen only one in my short lifetime. Recumbents seem to be gaining popularity, though, especially in oceanside towns. As user Paul H. said, they do seem to be more popular among seniors. Maybe it's because they have more time to enjoy them? Anyway, I think that people might shy away from these bikes because these bikes are more expensive and people might think of them as unusual or strange. Also, they might not want to spend money on a new type of bike when they could get a more traditional bike that they know works for them.

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I think the biggest reason is that recumbent and velomobiles are not popular besides price, is simply they not UCI compliant, if you cannot legally race them, why would you want to spend big bucks on a bike you can't race

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Why do we rarely see recumbents and almost never see velomobiles? Recumbents

a) Cost. Mine cost £2.5k.

b) Hostile road environment. Some people throw things at people on a recumbent, (in my case, it was a telephone directory). I have been threatened with being run-over. I also experienced what I suspect was deliberate aggression, I was left-hooked by a BMW driver, luckily I it was dry and my over-sized disk brakes stopped me in-time. The driver turned into a cul-de-sac. I turned round to discuss his dangerous driving, meanwhile he was sitting in his BMW, parked-up with the 1,00 yard stare. As I approached he drove off at speed. Clearly, his stupid-aggressive manoeuvre wasn't because he was going somewhere. I can only imagine that since there had been no previous interaction, that his aggressive and dangerous act was a deliberate attempt to frighten, injure or kill me, or a response to my unusual bike. My recumbent is quite high, but I would feel vulnerable on a low-racer, because being so low is not fun in traffic.

c) Drivers and Pedestrians

Apart from the occasional stupid driver intent on 'educating' me with their ignorance of taxation and the Highway Code, I rarely get any comments when cycling on my 'normal bikes'. Ride a recumbent and one will trigger a relative blizzard of opinions. Some undoubtedly positive, these will be people who own or are interested in recumbents. Others very ill-informed, stupid and deeply negative.

d) Security.

Recumbents can be difficult to secure, (depends upon frame design). Needs an insurance approved lock, or preferably, more than one. Bike insurance is very expensive, typically 10% of the bike cost. A GPS tracker and bike registration is a good idea, if not essential.

e) Recumbents are usually longer and heavier than normal bicycles. This and the odd shape can present problems with bicycle infrastructure, which seems deliberately designed to thwart even a bicycle with panniers. Transportation by train can be awkward.

f) Storage heavy and large.

g) Horses

BTW, my recumbent scares horses witless. I mean rearing-up, staring eyes, the works. It's not a reason not to buy a recumbent, but if you do, be extremely careful around horses. My other bicycles have no effect.

Velomobiles I am interested in velomobiles, but I foresee that the associated problems are likely to be similar to recumbents, but rather worse. I suspect that much cycling infrastructure is impassable, due to increased width and greater length. Train transport is probably not possible.

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On the security — doesn't the "dork effect" mentioned elsewhere mean it's much less likely to be stolen? I know someone who painted an expensive (non-recumbent) bicycle pink because he believed it would vastly reduce the chance of theft. –  gerrit Jan 15 '13 at 22:41

The primary advantage of recumbents over DF bikes is much lower wind resistance. This is really nice for long-distance touring, but is not very important for city riding/commuting short distances. For the latter, recumbents have several disadvantages:

  1. Low profile makes it more difficult both to see and to be seen in traffic;
  2. Can't stand up to pedal, so more difficult to stop/start frequently;
  3. Typically longer/wider than DF bikes, so more difficult to park using standard racks;
  4. Typically more expensive to buy and maintain (non-standard parts).

In my area, recumbents are seen, but mainly on country roads or on recreational paths (where they are practical), not on city streets (where they are not).

Finally, while there are a few people who ride recumbents because they have a physical condition that precludes riding a DF bike, a properly-fitted DF bike is just as, or more, comfortable for the vast majority of riders.

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