Friday, 23 April 2010

Why go cycle touring on a recumbent?

Within New Zealand and my home country the Netherlands, I get this question from time to time. The short answer that I usually give that it is more fun to be on a recumbent (i.e., "bent" for short), than on an upright bike. As you can probably figure, that is not the whole story to it.

During my high school period I was saving up for an upright trekking bike, like the Koga-Miyata WorldTraveller, but one day came across a bentrider while I was cycling to school. It was not the speed or the relaxed cycling that caught my eye, but that it was different. I started to ask around in local bike shops where I could get one, and searched the internet, which led me to a recumbent bike shop in Leeuwarden (nowadays Liever Ligfietsen).

The owner, Perry Pruis, was enthusiastic and I felt a warm welcome in his shop with quite a collection of different bents (this was in late summer of 1999). All the low bents didn't appeal to me, I was attracted to the Challenge Distance and the Optima Condor, both 26-inch wheeled bents. But I still didn't know what it was to ride one, so picked the Optima Condor (under-seat steering (USS)) to be the one I was gonna learn to ride first.
An initial try in the shop led me to believe that I was never gonna be able to ride a bike like this, but after practicing on an empty parking lot I got it down a bit better. Then I was told to try the bike out in a 'small' round of 10-20km, which is a good way to learn to ride a bent. Immediately I liked the fact that I was steering with my hands beside me, and riding the Challenge Distance (tiller steering) felt like I was handling a boat rudder. Although it was a bit easier to get on the Distance, I found the Condor to ride better; which led me to order my first bent, a grey Optima Condor.

Years later (2007) after abusing the Condor to its maximum a whole range of new bents have been developed and I wanted to try something new, another USS 26-inch wheeled bent. My choice fell pretty quick on the Nazca Pioneer, though I wanted to make a bike that was completely mine. Therefore I ordered just the framekit, and some bikeparts separately (such as a Rohloff hub, Shimano dynohub, hydraulic Magura rimbrakes, and a couple strong Mavic rims). It was quite a project to build the bike up from scratch, including lacing the wheels, but it was also a fun project to do that was completed in january 2008. Over the two years that I own the bike it has been changed, mostly the fenders change once a while, but also the tires. The tires that I use for this bike are the Schwalbe Marathon Supreme (50-559) and the Schwalbe Marathon XR (57-559), which are both very comfortable. Wider tires means more air, which translates to a smoother ride.

But to get back on the topic of why I go cycle touring on a bent; there are quite a few benefits after a days ride: no tingling feeling in my hands because blood flow is obstructed, no sore shoulders, no back pain (depending on hardness of the seat and correct sizing), and usually a smooth ride because of suspension (almost all touring bents have rear suspension). When you ride in summer, it is like you are on a lounge chair soaking up the sun, while riding.
OK, there are disadvantages: usually somewhat heavier, not really suited for technical off road cycling, a fully loaded bent is harder to get through the usual bike sluice (bent is quite a bit longer), climbing seems to be harder (but this can also be just a feeling), and you can get a lot of attention abroad (both positive and negative sometimes). Car drivers sometimes come up to you saying that you're not very visible on a bent, but only had a couple close calls in all the time that I'm riding a bent. When you're cycle touring an upright bike you also attract attention, but don't get a bent if you don't want to attract attention in cities or campsites (in fact, don't go cycle touring at all :p). Meeting other people is for me one of the reasons of traveling, and cycle touring makes it much easier than traveling in a campervan or car. Oh yeah, carrying a fully loaded bent down a flight of stairs is more or less impossible. Make sure that when you pack your bent panniers, that the heavy things are more or less under your butt (center of the bike), don't put too much weight on the back (see my previous post).

A little something about climbing on a bent, in New Zealand I rode side by side with another cyclist and on a downhill I was down earlier, but on the uphill I got overtaken by that same cyclist. It was clear that he was in a higher gear (so less crank revelations) than me, while we both had the same Rohloff setup, although this might be the effect of 155mm cranks on my bike vs 170-175mm on his. Guess which crank length I'm gonna go for again sometime soon. Another disadvantage is that in a long climb you really can't change your position, if you would want to. On an upright bike you still have the possibility to stand on the paddles for a while.

So if I were to go cycle touring through the USA or on good roads/tracks, I would definitely take my bent, but if I would go cycling the "Long way round" through Mongolia and Russia (especially the Road of Bones in Siberia) or through Patagonia, I would maybe take an upright MTB-style bike (such as the Tout Terrain Silkroad, or Koga-Miyata Signature WorldTraveller). An upright bike is easier to push up a hill or through a field of bog. Though I might come pretty far with a signature 26-inch wheeled bent (Africa is pretty good doable on a Condor, shown by Edvard's Tour d'Afrique), and I once said that I wouldn't want to go back to an upright for cycle touring…

1 comment:

  1. Hi,

    my name´s Cristian and I´m writting you from Argentina!

    Some weeks ago I´ve met a friend from France who came with his Optima Condor after riding along the Carretera Austral through Chile. Oh, I´m fascinated with the design of this recumbent!! I said I must have one!

    I took a look on the pricing- list and I saw how expensive it is, amazing! And I should add the shipping price + high import- taxes on it! It would be a lot of money for a bike, specially for poor argentines´ salary... There´re no dealers in my country anyway.

    It would be logic to try a replica after all, so I decided to build my own one, a replica of the Optima Condor. Could you perhaps give me some helping hand with it, besides of all the useful information on the Optima´s site? I´ll be very thankful with it! I´m exactly 197 cm tall, so the bike should fit me perfectly!

    Thanks in advance for any information, I´ll be waiting for your reply.

    Cristian Revestido
    Salta, Argentina