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So Inclined

For Orange County cyclists who prefer pedaling to pain, the recumbent bike might be justthe way to go.

September 06, 1996|LORI HAYCOX | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

First you get a tricycle. Then training wheels for your bicycle. Next, a 10-speed or even a full-suspension mountain bike.

Then you get old, or your knees hurt, or your back aches. Maybe it's time for a La-Z-Boy on wheels.

Actually, there is something like that--a recumbent bike.

And while it will probably never be as popular as the Italian racing bikes that whip past autos in traffic, the recumbent bike is increasingly the choice of cyclists looking for a bike that spares them pain.

Even some who have shied away from the recumbents because they look funny--like something Orville and Wilbur Wright might have designed before hitting on the airplane--are deciding that comfort ranks higher than appearance.

The "bents," as owners sometimes call them, feature cushiony seats that recline within easy reach of the ground. Handlebars are above the seat at shoulder level or below the seat at the position where arms naturally hang. Enthusiasts say this combination creates a comfortable ride.

"It's like sitting in a chair as you would to watch TV," said mail carrier Bob Felechner, 62, of Irvine.

Felechner hung up his 10-speed two years ago after pain in his back, arms and prostate became too much. That meant giving up the 35-mile biking treks he made on weekends with a church group.

"I put up with the pain because riding was a way for me to get out of the house and socialize . . . but it got to the point that it wasn't enjoyable.

"I knew there had to be a better way."

Felechner's search for a bike he could live with led him to People Movers, a bike shop in Orange that specializes in recumbents.

"Bob was so worried he'd never be able to ride again," said Jim Wronski, recalling Felechner's first visit to the store. "When I showed him the recumbent, it was like opening a whole new world."

Robert Bryant, 37, publisher of the Renton, Wash.-based Recumbent Cyclist News (circulation 5,000), said about 4,000 recumbent bikes were sold in the United States last year, representing about 1% of the nation's total bike sales.

The bikes are particularly popular in New England, portions of the Midwest and Southern California, he said.

Bryant said that although mainstream bicycle publications tend to ignore recumbents, an article on a recumbent in this month's issue of Bicycling magazine is evidence that the bikes are gaining popularity.

"Just the fact a mainstream magazine wrote about a recumbent shows how far we've come," he said.

In addition to putting less stress on knees and other body parts, recumbents are more aerodynamic than regular bicycles. In fact, the fastest riders can top 60 mph.

But that doesn't mean recumbents don't challenge riders. They do. Recumbents don't go uphill as fast as conventional bikes because the rider cannot stand on the pedals and use body weight to push down.

Because recumbents are much lower to the ground than traditional bikes, riders must take extra precautions to be visible to cars. This may mean installing battery-operated lights or reflectors on the bike.

Riders also have to listen to a lot of wisecracks about the bike's funny shape.

These not only are real bikes, insist recumbent riders, but also better ones.

*

Felechner has purchased two recumbents and says he'd never go back to a regular bike. His first purchase, the Lightening, was too fast, he said, sort of "like driving a Porsche in the parking lot."

He traded that one in for a more practical lowrider, with 21 speeds, side-view mirrors, a headlight, reflector tape and an AM/FM radio, plus a cushy seat.

Riding the recumbent is so comfortable, Felechner said, that for the first time he is using the bicycle to commute to work. (It's a 14-mile round-trip between his Irvine home and the Newport Beach post office.)

Recumbents may be hot these days, but they are not new. They were popular in the 1830s as racing bikes but soon banned because of their aerodynamic advantage.

Finding the bikes--which tend to be pricier than traditional-style bicycles--can be a challenge. While a number of bike shops may carry one or a few recumbents and can place special orders, few specialize.

*

"Until now, there hasn't been a high demand for them," said Wronski at People Movers. Low demand has been the main reason the cost of the recumbent bicycle is so high, typically about $750 to $4,500. Most manufacturers make only a few by hand each year, he said, instead of mass producing them. In 1995, People Movers sold about 350 bikes, many to people in other states and in Europe, he added.

The high price tag also is the reason that most buyers are adults. Children cannot afford to buy recumbents, and adults don't want to buy expensive bikes for kids, who will outgrow or might lose them.

Besides, children may not need them.

"As we get older, we start to fall apart, and pain becomes a greater issue," said Michael Marashlian, a former triathlete who five months ago opened Alternative Peddle Sports, a recumbent bike shop in Rancho Cucamonga. "We get back problems, knee problems, numbness, soreness.

"We're just not meant to have little seats go up our rears like that."

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