Recumbent bicycling: Sit back and enjoy the ride
By Janet Cromley
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES ó We’re careening down a residential street in Long Beach, Calif., stretched out like Olympic lugers, eye-level with a Labrador retriever racing alongside. Nestled in a tandem recumbent bike, Jonathan Dietch and I sail past carefully trimmed lawns and exuberantly-flowering Monet gardens, over a carpet of jacaranda petals ó a blur of purple below.
People on the street stop and stare; some holler and cheer.
“When I’m on my recumbent, people wave and say hi,” yells Dietch, my driver and brakeman, over his shoulder. “Even the transients wave at me.” He takes a turn, and we sail past a line of parked cars ó door handles at eye level, but he’s not worried. Drivers notice this bike.
Fifty-year-old Dietch, a tax accountant with MacGyver-like tendencies, is taking me for a ride on a sweet machine, a candy-blue Greenspeed, GTT 5F recumbent, hand-built in Australia, with a custom Da Vinci drive train. This last detail is important because it gives me, sitting behind Dietch, the ability to stop pedaling while he soldiers on. Technically, it is a trike, because it has a third wheel, which boosts stability. Dietch provides the steering and braking from his position in front.
I’m along for the ride to find out if recumbents are finally positioned for the growth spurt that enthusiasts ó iconoclasts all ó have stubbornly predicted, decade after decade. A demographic shift might at last just make that happen. Turns out that riding low in a reclined position takes the pressure off aging backs, necks and wrists ó a perfect prescription for aging boomers, who are also more likely than most to have the cash to buy these bikes.
Our ride is feeling very tranquil and Norman Rockwell-ish until a trash truck comes roaring alongside, reminding us that with one ill-considered move we could be smashed like cicadas on the asphalt.
Indeed, some believe that recumbents’ chief attraction ó riding low, in a reclined position ó also makes them harder for motorists to see and thus unsafe. Recumbent enthusiasts say that, to the contrary, cars and trucks notice recumbents because of their novelty and give them a wide berth to compensate.
“Not like a road bike,” Dietch says. “When I’m on a road bike, I’m invisible. It’s like I don’t exist.”
Safety, in any case, won’t be an issue for us today because we’re heading for higher ground ó the main leg of the Los Angeles River bicycle path, a two-way paved bikeway.
We pick up the path and head south, setting a course for the Pacific Ocean. As Dietch turns the bike onto the path, the river, lined in concrete, sidles up next to us on the right, and rows of homes flash by on the left.
Now pedaling furiously, we swoop under a bridge, where the sounds of overhead traffic echo like a freight train, pick up to 22 mph, then settle back to a cruising speed of 14 mph.
With its concrete banks, occasional floating mattress and graffiti, the L.A. River isn’t exactly the Danube, but it does have a certain scrappy charm. Snowy egrets and herons nesting among boulders cast a watchful eye as we sail past bunches of wildflowers scattered next to the path like tumbleweeds.
Sprays of sage and eucalyptus send out a fragrance so pungent you could almost navigate this course by smell.
Three miles into the ride, my legs are feeling a light burn, but I’m comfortable and relaxed. There’s none of the familiar tension in the neck that comes with riding a regular bicycle. We pass a team of cyclists stopped by the side of the path. They wave and appear to appraise our gear as we sail by.
The bike has 36 speeds and rides like butter. It should, with a starting price of $8,000. Recumbents can start at about $600, but most buyers will spend more than $1,000, says Dana Lieberman, owner of Bent Up Cycles in Los Angeles, which has lent us this bike for the day. The store is one of the few bicycle shops in L.A. County dealing exclusively in recumbents.
Dietch, who’s ridden racing and mountain bikes off and on since 1971, bought his first recumbent, a Bacchetta Aero, in 2004. “I was so surprised at its versatility, speed and fun that it became my primary mode of cycling,” he says. He still rides road racing, fixed gear and tandem bikes as well as racing recumbents.
He’s also a gadget lover. He’s recorded his favorite river rides using a Canon PowerShot A630 digicam while riding with one hand or a Kodak Easy-Share V705, which he can mount on his helmet or hold in his hand. He has posted his rides on YouTube and Veoh.com.
As we pass industrial areas, parkland and backyard parties and weddings, the only traffic is cyclists, joggers and a few walkers. During our two-hour, 16-mile ride, we never see another recumbent.
“Out here you get three types of riders,” Dietch says. The trail attracts recreational riders, commuters traveling to and from jobs in restaurants and factories, and a small number of serious riders, such as triathletes interested in timing their rides. A person can see why: miles and miles of uninterrupted pavement.
The trail is part of a 1,252-mile incomplete network of bikeways criss-crossing L.A. County.
A league of its own
Recumbents are a class of bicycle so quirky that sports research firms don’t generally track them, says Megan Tompkins, editor of Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, a business-to-business publication for the bicycle industry.
Maybe 1 percent of bicycles sold are recumbents, she estimates. But anecdotally, sales are notching upward.
“Business has been growing steadily over the last 10 years, and it’s starting to pick up,” says Randy Schlitter, founder of Kansas-based Rans, a major seller of recumbents: It sold about 5,000 cycles last year, according to Schlitter, who started building recumbents in his sister’s basement in 1973.
Business started slowly, he says, but “after 30 years of thumping the bible of recumbency, we’ve got tens of thousands of bikes out there now.” Major retailers have taken notice.
“Wal-Mart has knocked on our doors a couple of times,” Schlitter says.
Rans bikes range from about $1,000 to $7,000 ó a hefty price tag. But that hasn’t stopped brisk sales. Recumbent riders are willing to shell out cash for quality, Schlitter says.
Most customers for recumbents are baby boomers, says Lieberman of Bent Up Cycles. “They’re getting older, they’ve kept themselves in good shape, economically they’ve done well, and their regular standard bicycle isn’t cutting it for them anymore.” They start looking at recumbents when riding their standard bike begins to cause discomfort ó typically in the back, neck, shoulder, groin, hands and wrists.
“A lot have been in really active sports, like mountain biking, which takes a toll on the body,” Lieberman says. “This is a group that understands good equipment.”
Fueling the interest: Bikes have gotten lighter in the last 10 years, and there are many more choices available.
Marilyn Austin, 68, of Leisure World in Seal Beach, Calif., was a U.S. Cycling Federation women’s national time trial champion in her age group in 1986, but neck and wrist problems prompted a switch to a recumbent 13 years ago. Today she goes everywhere on her recumbent Lightning P-38, including on trips to Ireland, Italy and New Zealand.
She goes fast: 15 to 18 mph on the flat and more than 35 mph downhill. But she rides it for the comfort. “You sit in it like a chair, there’s no pressure on anything, and nothing gets tired except your legs.”
Ah, the legs. Eight miles into the ride, the path has taken us to the ocean, in full view of the Queen Mary, and the legs are tired, but it’s a small price for the big payoff: the view. Instead of staring down at pavement, we are staring straight ahead and upward as we pedal furiously to push ourselves up a corkscrew path to a scenic lighthouse. Then we coast back to the bottom. In minutes, we are back on the path.
The trip back brings vistas of the river, where grebes dive, cormorants line up on floating vegetation and black-necked stilts wade near the bank.
On the right, an industrial area gives way to intimate views into backyards, some tidy, some littered with old cars. Soon, the yards give way to horse corrals and a petting zoo. It smells like farms.
As we pull off the path and head for Dietch’s home, it feels as if we’re returning from an urban eco-tour.
“Out here, you see parts of Los Angeles that you don’t get to see anywhere else,” Dietch says. “There’s an area between Pico Rivera and Whittier Narrrows where the flood plain is so wide, you don’t even know you’re in Los Angeles County. When you get on the river trails, you see it all.”