The Horse Thing

Why Would Anyone NOT Buy a Recumbent Bicycle?

Anecdotal evidence from those who have tried both, and empirical research based on racing results, tells us that among all bicycles (and tricycles) the recumbent designs are both more comfortable and more effective. In these designs, the rider is seated or reclining in a seat with a back, and the riderís legs are pumping relatively horizontallly, rather than relatively vertically, and the rider can exert effort with her back against the seat rather than being limited to her own weight standing on the pedals. And yet, recumbent designs account for only a tiny percentage of bicycle purchases, and virtually no recumbent designs are available for children, the riders of the future.

Probably itís the horse thing. A rider on a conventional diamond-framed bicycle reminds us, and himself, of the rider of a horse. Riders on traditional bicycles are in the same physical relationship to the bicycle as a horseman is to a horse. Reviewers of bicycles for saleand bloggers of bicycle topics even stoop to horse metaphors, referring to the bicycle as a steed or a mount. Much about horse-riding and horse-riders has positive connotations: Whether you view the cavalry, or the American plains Indian, or both, as heroic, they rode horses. Horse racing is "the sport of kings." The cowboy is the symbol of the freedom and self-reliance of the American West. So even though the rider of a bicycle canít afford the size or weight of the large padded saddle that makes a long ride on horseback comfortable, and even though a fast bike-rider must crouch forward painfully supporting his torso with his arms and hands to avoid catching the wind, most bicycle-riders still buy a roughly horse-shaped "steed".

Now compare the connotations that arise for recumbent bicyclesí comfortably seated rider: wheelchairs and disability, lawnchairs and sloth. The more the recumbentís designer takes advantage of the horizontal placement of the rider, the nearer the ground the rider ends up, until recumbent lowracers and tadpole trikes end up with seating positions less than 10 inches off the pavement. Where a mounted policeman looks down even to the drivers of massive SUVs, the most efficient recumbent riders are eye-to-hubcap with the traffic around them: not a position of pride or prestige.

For now, the purchasers of recumbent bicycles are those who most value function over form, performance over perception. What will it take before the traditional bicycle begins to fade and the better design takes its place? Two things, at least one of them inevitable. First, the generations that knew horses as anything but recreation and entertainment are leaving this world, so the metaphors that compare bicycles to horses will grow more and more quaint and dated.

Second, efficient and environment-friendly vehicles are taking on more and more of the design characteristics of bicycles, and the model of efficiency and comfort is the recumbent bicycle. For instance, one popular model of recumbent is a three-wheeler, with two wheels in front and one in back. (Two-in-front three-wheelers are referred to as "tadpoles", one-in-front three-wheelers as "deltas". )This design is as similar to a little human-powered sports car as a conventional bicycle is to a horse, and the sports car has some of the same connotations of freedom and power in the 20th and 21st centuries as the cowboy did in the 19th. When recumbent bicycles are only the most environment friendly of a spectrum of vehicles that range up from human-powered, to battery-powered, to fossil- or other-fueled, the comfort and efficiency of the recumbent bicycle will allow it to take the sales share it deserves.