I’m really excited to have my good friend Hugh author this post. Hugh has ridden his recumbent from coast to coast, and has toured extensively on upright bikes over the last two years as well. I feel he has a very firm grasp on this often asked question. recumbent vs upright touring? Here’s what Hugh has to say:
I got into bicycle touring on a whim when I decided I was going to stop going to college and bike across America. At the time my bike experience amounted to cruising around town as a kid on a BMX bike and later on a mountain bike from the 80’s. During the spring I started researching bike touring in my college dorm room. I found ACA’s TransAmerica Bike Trail, and another interesting thing called a recumbent bicycle. I few months later I set out from home with a new Bacchetta Giro 26 recumbent touring bike and a Bob trailer with my camping gear.
Since then I have also toured the Pacific Coast on a Surly Long Haul Trucker and am currently riding the same Surly on the Oregon section of the TransAm. I’ve also done a lot of bike commuting on both bikes, and done a few overnight bike camps. The following observations are based on my experience with the Bacchetta Giro 26 and the Surly Disc Trucker.
I’d like to focus on a few key differences between the two types of bicycles that I think are most important. These are comfort, convenience, efficiency, riding experience, and style.
As part of my initial research into bicycle touring I talked with a family friend who said “the key to bicycle touring is comfort.”
I went to Coventry Cycle Works (now Recumbent PDX) to test ride a recumbent. My first impression of the Giro, a short wheelbase high recumbent, was “Wow, this is fun!” Riding the Giro there is no neck, wrist, shoulder, or elbow discomfort—your arms simply rest on the handlebars. The other major comfort advantage of a recumbent is the seat. Sure I still want to stand up every hour or so, but I don’t get a tender bottom like I do on an upright—even with a broken in Brooks saddle. Another element of riding a recumbent is that it uses different muscles. When getting used to the bike your quads will feel tired. This goes away after you condition yourself to it for a few days.
The one way I find upright bicycles more comfortable is riding in the rain. The downward head tilt (that causes neck discomfort) of an upright bike keeps the eyelashes working to keep rain out of your eyes. With that said, a recumbent is profoundly more comfortable to ride.
My recumbent rig was long. The bike itself is substantially longer than an upright bike—add on a Bob trailer and I had to find extra long spots to park at a grocery store – not a big deal, but when it comes to putting the bike in the back of a car or on a bike rack, it can get awkward. The racks you’ll find on city buses will accommodate a short wheelbase recumbent, but racks that go on the backs of cars can be hit or miss.
When riding a recumbent, your leg runs parallel to quite a bit of the chain. Wearing shorts or tight fitting pants this isn’t an issue, but taking a quick ride to the hardware store can leave grease stains on your pants. Compared to the ease of putting on a leg strap and hopping on the Long Haul Trucker, this is a major damper for using the recumbent as a town bike. Not really a factor in touring when you know you’ll be wearing appropriate clothing all the time, but this has influenced which bike I ride around town.
As far as bike parts go, aside from the frame and handlebars, a recumbent uses standard bike parts. There are some specialty pannier racks and light mounts that you can get for recumbent too!
I rode my Long Haul Trucker 56 miles today in about 5.5 hours. I think on average I had a similar pace on my recumbent. The aerodynamics of a recumbent bicycle are far superior to an upright that I find bombing hills on an upright somewhat underwhelming. My long haul trucker rarely gets above 30 going down a hill—my Giro has no problem speeding past that. Overall, at the end of a day of riding, you will be less tired on a recumbent in part because it’s a more efficient bike, but also because your arms and shoulders haven’t been holding your body up all day.
One of the knocks I read about recumbents is that you cannot stand to increase your power output. While true, you can push against your back. This has the advantage of not limiting the force you can apply to your weight.
Recumbents are fun! It may take a week or two to get used to the sensitive steering and the wobbly feeling of lying down, but believe me it’s well worth it. Touring on a recumbent is like driving a sports car on the freeway. Short wheel base recumbents feel very responsive; yet have a wider turning radius than an upright bike. The bike feels a bit like what I imagine a bobsled to be like. When you bank around a corner you feel the seat supporting your back giving the sensation of riding rail. Being low to the ground makes banking even more exciting. I also test rode a long wheelbase recumbent, and although very comfy, felt too clunky compared to the Giro’s sports car like performance.
One of the little mentioned advantages of a recumbent bicycle is the upright view. Your head naturally sits upright atop your shoulders making it easy to look around at the scenery (as opposed to down at the road ahead). With this benefit comes the cost of seeing what’s right in front of your front wheel, but if you’re touring on pavement it’s a good sacrifice to make.
As a consequence of not being able to stand on the pedals, riding on rough gravel roads is particularly unpleasant. Your back will be right above the rear wheel, so any bump you hit is directly transferred into your shoulders. Having limited mobility to influence your balance, the bike will feel unstable. A short wheelbase recumbent is definitely a pavement queen.
An upright bike is pretty standard, but on a recumbent I’ve received positive and negative extra attention. Teenagers shout about how strange it is, but the strange machine intrigues everyone else. Many want to try it, and it’s always fun to share!
Getting a recumbent touring rig is no small commitment. The bike and accessories you will need put the cost near $2,000. With that said, if you’re getting a bike to go on a lot of long rides I recommend going to a shop where you can test ride a recumbent. It’s probably not the one bike to rule them all, but a fantastic bike for going on a joy ride.