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?
My regular (commuting) bike is an old Cannondale mountain bike with road slicks. It's great for city riding, but it murders my back, crotch, hands, feet, etc. on long trips.
So, a couple years ago I bought a Bacchetta Giro 26 recumbent bike 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 diamond frame bike (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.
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.
I switched to a recumbent about 10 years ago in 2002, 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.
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 $100 on gasoline. Since then I've been averaging 500-750 miles each year in my auto and 5,000 to 6,000 miles on my bike). For my situation, the cost was high, but the savings have been much higher.
2 - Comfort. No contest. There's a reason furniture does not use diamond-frame bicycle posture. No crotch numbness, neck issues, etc. These discomforts did not bother me before 45, but the comfort factor (for me) seems to be a bigger factor every year. The fairing and wrap offer even more comfort when the weather turns extreme--usually a light jacket and tights is sufficient, even in single-digit temperatures; and the shade compensates for less wind in the heat (plus no need for sunscreen).
3 - Performance. I can blast up a hill like a parachute in water--the best I can say for uphill riding on a recumbent is that maybe it builds character. Downhills and flats, though, are great--the fairing aerodynamics help. Speeds (note, I'm almost 60 years old, diabetic, and had a triple bypass a couple of years ago, so these speed won't be impressive): Sustained on a flat - 25-30 mph; steep downhill with a tailwind - 50-60 mph; steep uphill - no comment (thank God for low gears!). Much wider turning radius. No flipping over the handlebars, though, on hard stops. Another performance feature relates to comfort--I can ride for hours and hours and hours, and rides over 100 miles makes me tired and my legs sore the next day, but no discomfort in my butt, back, neck, or other parts.
4 - Dork factor. I don't care (see number 2 and 3 above). However, reactions seem to be pronounced. Young kids say "Oooooh! Cool!" Older kids divide between "What the #$%#$ 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 [Diamond Frame bike]).
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.
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.
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. ......
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):
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.
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):
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.
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.
Politics is the reason.*
Specifically, the weakness of an official body in the face of lobbying by a special interest group at a critical juncture. Market forces did the rest.
More specifically, in the years prior to 1934, recumbents had been gaining in popularity, race success, and public awareness. Then, in 1934, a lobby group of 'upright' bicycle manufacturers persuaded the world governing body for sports cycling (the UCI) to ban recumbents from its events. The UCI, in a move that has harmed human powered transport ever since, caved to the lobby.
This was a turning point in the history of cycling. The ban had numerous ramifications. It reduced demand for, and use of, recumbents among competitive cyclists. This, in turn, led both to:
- a reduced incentive to innovate at the cutting edge of cycling, for recumbent manufacturers; and
- the false public perception (among people who did not know of the ban) that 'upright' bicycles must be best, since that is what the most famous racers were riding.
The latter, in turn, led to:
- reduced consumer demand for recumbents,
- reduced economies of scale for recumbent manufacturers,
- reduced availability and affordability of recumbents.
These factors persist today, and have left us with a tragically low level of public awareness of recumbents and their many advantages.
Matters were not helped by the fact that World War 2 occurred not long after the ban. People worldwide, including those who might otherwise have been working to create a revival of the recumbent, were distracted by more pressing matters like staying alive. The war, and also various subsequent public policy decisions afterwards, also strengthened the hand of the motor vehicle lobby. This further eroded the market for recumbents in some countries, although apparently they remained popular in France.
I have a 250W pedal-assist diamond frame bike. My wife has a recumbent tadpole trike I've fitted a 300W motor. We are both 78 and have the usual stiff joints, so if the knees play up we can get home under power, just in case people think we are lazy.
From my observations on the upright I have problems with balance especially at low speed. It's hard on the neck, shoulders and not that conformable even though I've fitted a special seat that takes the weight on the sit bones. Works OK but not like sitting in an arm chair.
On the recumbent trike balance is no issue and easy to start on the hills as long as you have the crawler gears that recumbent trikes need (you can't wheel them very well). Best of all is comfort you can ride for miles with very little effort, have a rest when you want without putting your feet down.
For going into town though, being able to wheel the DF on the footpaths is a big advantage, so I see a good reason to keep the DF but still prefer the recumbent trike for all other cycling.
Cost though is what would put many off. The wife's recumbent with the 300W motor cost NZ$4600 and the DF with 250W motor NZ$1800 (new price is NZ$2500 with 300W motor) so a big difference. But we do have solar panels and can charge them for next to nothing when the sun shines.
The New Zealand dollar is about half the value of the UK pound so the price looks worse than it is.
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:
- Low profile makes it more difficult both to see and to be seen in traffic;
- Can't stand up to pedal, so more difficult to stop/start frequently;
- Typically longer/wider than DF bikes, so more difficult to park using standard racks;
- 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.
I have been commuting to work on a LWB recumbent since 1989. In those 25 years, I have never had a single driver comment that my bike was hard to see, nor have I had any close calls or collisions, knock wood. I have fallen a couple times due to unseen ice, wetness or rider error...it was kind of like falling off a chair. Contrast that to the accident I had at age 15, flying over the handlebars of a road bike, breaking my collarbone.
There are three main advantages to recumbents: safety, comfort (there is no comparison, and the view is awesome) and finally speed because of their aerodynamics. However this last factor will depend entirely on the fitness of the rider, and the terrain. Recumbents are heavier as a rule, and slightly slower on hills because of this.
To answer the question of the thread, I believe it is basically because of a perception problem: an unfamiliarity with their advantages, the strangeness/non-conformist factor, and finally the fact that they are not commonplace, so it is hard to test-ride them. Also, the first test ride may feel odd/novel, and may not give a correct indication of how the bike will feel after a week or two--or month or two--of riding...that was certainly my experience.
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.
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.
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.
I own two recumbents, as well as a smattering of other bikes.
Speedwise, the road bike is somewhat faster than an unfaired recumbent. I can use my arms, shoulders, and core muscles to provide more power. By comparison, the recumbent only uses your leg muscles.
You'd think a powerful leg push against a backrest should have more power than a downwards push under one's body mass, but in my experience they're about equal. The added weight of the bent doesn't help - my road bikes are 10 and 12 kg, wheras the bents are 17 and 19 kg.
Storage is another issue - on my road bike I can wear a backpack, jersey pockets, carrier rack, panniers, frame bag, top-tube bag etc.
On the bent I'm limited to a custom bag on the left side - a carrier would be awkward to fit due to suspension. So I can carry my work laptop and a sandwich, but not a change of clothes too.
The bent has both positives and negatives for safety. Sure its harder to see, potentially obscured by traffic. But once you've been seen, the "weird - what's that??" part of the human brain kicks the observation up from reptile brain to mammalian brain and you get noticed.
On the bent I routinely receive double the passing gap as I do on a common road bike. It can be surreal to see how far cars go to stay away from me when riding a bent on the road.
Aerodynamics are better on a bent - I routinely commute into a headwind, and a wind that drops me to 20 km/h on the bent would give me 12-15 km/h on a road bike. Similarly, a tailwind provides less assist to a bent than an upright.
When I first tried a recumbent, it was like being a noob all over again. I swear it took 10 minutes to ride 10 metres acceptably. If you ever get the chance, do have a go. At work we occasionally have events of "try my bike" where we have a tall bike, bents, riced escooter, folder, road bikes etc.
One guy's commute dropped from 60 minutes to 50 minutes because he changed from a MTB to a road bike, having tried one out.
upshot bents are just different, with a learning curve. Have a go, you might like or hate them. But experience trumps reading, when it comes to practical skills like riding a bike.
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.
There is a belief that car drivers do not see them, and being low feels somewhat unsafe: looks better to fly over handlebars above the hood and hit the windshield (or just land unscratched on other side of the car under some success) than end up under chassis. I do not know how much this is true and how much perceived, myths form quickly and take long to disappear. Anyway I think safety must be either worked up or better explained.
They are also quite expensive but many more expensive bicycles cut into they price range so cannot be the main reason.
Riding 5 km each direction I mostly see one or two recumbent bikes or trikes each ride, at least 8 different regulars, which one I will see depends on my timing, on top of that comes my own, which I always see as I ride it every time.
There are a few velomobiles in the area and I see one every once in a while, he seems to be using his daily.
That might seem much for most of you. But I see between 30 and 60 bikes on a normal commute, more in summer when many tourists do the long distance route which runs on part of my normal commute. (I live in the Netherlands).
About the costs? I had a new trike for less than €1000 about 9 years back and a second hand bike for €200 4 years back. I have spend a bit on either one, but on average less per year than one time car maintenance costs.
I guess it is because recumbent bike and trikes are less well known and not the normal option for most people. Even my friends do not want to try out my bike/trike, or when they do 'just for fun.' But I see more 'bents now than when I first started riding one. (I am female and was over 40 when I got my trike.)
As for why not more people try: Misguided ideas.
Someone was claiming getting more wet on the 'bent. Wrong. Your upper body and legs get as wet, if in a different order. Depending on the quality of your rain gear, there is more front of body potentially getting wet when water does not run of properly, but your back is much better protected.
Your legs get wet all over at once, rather than the dripping down and soaking along that wet trousers on an upright do. I guess racing position on a diamond frame protects the front of the legs a bit, on a longer wet ride they will still get soaked.
The main advantage for a 'bent rider is that your feet do not get wet much or even at all.
No run off from the legs at all.
Your toes point upward, encouraging the rain to run off, not in and also not soaking into all those small nooks and crannies that shoes seem to have. And there is no way water splashing up from the street reaches you feet if you have a mid level or high 'bent. Even on a low racer the feet are quite well away from the splashing.
Hard to ride?
Changing from an upright to a 'bent trike did take about one minute to adjust. Changing from the 'bent trike to the 'bent bike took about half an hour, as the trike did not react at all on balance and had slow steering, the bike reacts very fast both on balance and on steering.
People used to fast reacting sit-up bikes have less problems adjusting.
Mostly it is not harder than adjusting to a new kind of sit-up or race position bike.
And the most forgotten advantage.
The seat options are so different that you will not have pain problems from them, even when you always suffer on a bike. And there are so many options that even when one does not suit you, there is bound to be an other one that does suit you or allows you to use it with adjustments.
Also the different seat positions all allow you not to put any weight on your arms, which is a big pro for those who suffer from sore hands and arms while riding.
Added: I now also own a velomobile and while it was by far the most expensive cycle I ever bought, it still cost less than most second hand cars and apart from some smallish repairs and some new tires and tubes it does not cost anything to run, unlike a car. And maybe best of all is that it holds its value. I bought it for about half the price it was sold for when new. Would I sell it now it would likely bring in what I paid for it and in a few years it will likely still be as valuable. But in most countries it will be hard to find a second hand velomobile for sale and when you do you may have to import it or transport it a fair distance, which makes it less likely that someone will buy one on a whim.
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.