on Alternative Bicycles

In non-astronomy news, we love cycling. Recently, the wifely one and I became aware of alternative cycling options, which turns out to be an interesting and fascinating area.  If you’re in the mood for something other than a typical bicycle, there are also recumbents and tricycles.

To explain: the upright bicycle is the most common one.  Mountain bikes, road bikes, racing bikes, BMX bikes, folding bikes, hybrid/touring/etc types.. they’re all uprights.  They’re distinguished by having a tiny seat, pedals basically under the seat, and handlebars that both let and require you to lean forward.
The most common alternative category are recumbents.  In a recumbent, the pedals are out actually in front of the front wheel, and you’re basically leaning back on (usually) a mesh seat, in a reclined (recumbent) pose.  The handlebars are either UNDERNEATH you or they’re long chopper motorcycle type handlebars.
The fastest bikes in the world are recumbents, actually; they’ve been banned from the Tour de France because they give mediocre riders an unfair advantage.  Seriously, look it up on Wikipedia. The Tour has also banned road bikes weighing less than 15 pounds because of that same unfair advantage, because they want it to be about the rider, not the equipment.
While recumbents are easier on your joints and back, I discovered that your balance is entirely different from an upright bike – the bike goes where the handlebars are pointing, not where you’re leaning, and getting on and off them was very tricky.  You basically have to relearn how to ride a bike.
Tricycles are also not exactly common, but they do exist.  They come in two varieties:
Delta: one wheel in front, two wheels in back.
Tadpole: two wheels in front, one wheel in back.

When you think tricycle, you probably think toddler tricycle (delta style); I’ve also seen messengers and delivery people using delta-style trikes in NYC.  You can fit a pretty good-sized basket under the seat and between the two back wheels.  Actually, this might be the most common alternative.

There’s actually a small but growing market for adult tricycles now.  These are often recumbent tadpoles, and having tried one, they look and feel basically nothing like an (upright) bicycle.  You’re basically reclining as you would in a lawn chair, with wheels on either side of you, vertical handlebars on either side of the seat, and you’re staring at your own feet pedaling in front of you in a swimming motion.  If you want more power, you don’t so much stand up as just kick out while holding onto the handlebars.
They don’t turn quite as sharply as a bicycle (but they’re more stable so you’re more likely to hit that minimum turning radius, though they will flip over if you’re going too fast)* and are a lot easier to stop and start with… you just stop, and sit there. They’re also quite a lot easier on the wrist and back to ride.  What you lose is weight – they weigh about 50% more than a comparable road bike (with 50% more wheels), and are a little slower given that there’s more friction, generally smaller tires, and they’re slightly less aerodynamic.
The main market for recumbent tricycles are older cyclists whose lack of balance no longer allows them to be stable on a bike.  I think it’s sad to stereotype them that way, because having ridden one, they feel NOTHING like a bike.  It’s more like a pedal-powered go kart, and you’re sitting in a cockpit between the two wheels.  At least, with the aging baby boomer population, there’s a lot of impetus to improve the performance and features of trikes – for instance, some of the newest models now fold up small enough to fit in a carry-on. If you have a permissive airline, I think…

Anyway, there’s one last category of bike I found out about: the semi-recumbent bicycle, sometimes interchangeably known as a crank forward.   Rather than the pedals being under the seat (upright) or out in front of the front wheel (recumbent), they’re under the front handlebars and the entire thing is slanted backwards, giving it a “chopper motorcycle” look.  Some have tiny bike seats (crank forward), some have nice recumbent-like seats (semi-recumbent)… They combine the recumbent’s advantages of being able to sit back on a nice comfy seat with no wrist pain or back pain, with the upright bicycle’s advantage of not having to relearn how to ride a bike.  They’re a bit harder to stand up on when you want extra power, but you can basically pull back on the handlebars and kick outwards to get that extra push.  We bought one for the wife; she loves it.  While I’m starting to feel the effects of sitting on my bike seat for 300+ miles, she’s still quite comfy…

*I’ve also tried a recumbent delta trike; the turn radius was just silly.  I sat still and pedalled and went around in a 2-foot circle.  Unfortunately, they’re not as stable as tadpoles at the speeds most people would like to go.

** Unicycles and four-wheeled quadricycles also exist, but I haven’t tried either.


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