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FITNESS BOUND

Laid-back bike? Recumbents hold their own

March 24, 2003|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

Every now and then I'd see one of those recumbent bikes gliding down the street, its rider cruising low to the ground, looking almost leisurely.

The main reason for that relaxed look is that recumbents have back rests and riders are in a reclining position. It looked like a fun way to exercise, and the recumbent riders I'd come across had all sworn by these odd-looking (to me, anyway) machines. So I decided to give it a try, and compare it with a regular bicycle.

First, a little research was in order -- I knew very little about the contraptions. So I contacted Bob Bryant, the editor and publisher of the Recumbent Cyclist News (www.recumbentcyclistnews.com). When I told him I would probably be cycling in the foothills of the Angeles National Forest, he said recumbents wouldn't get a fair shake if hills were a part of the first outing.

"It will take at least a month to get acclimated to hills in a recumbent," he said. "You need to do it in the flats."

Bryant then described the various types of recumbents, which have different wheelbase lengths and number of wheels. While most are two-wheelers, some have three, like a tricycle. Some have handlebars similar to a regular bike, while others have controls on the side.

And they are fast, so fast, in fact, that they were banned from competition by the United Cyclists Internationale in 1934. They were simply much more aerodynamic than a regular bike. In 1986 a recumbent cyclist captured a $15,000 prize for being the first person to go more than 65 miles an hour in a human-powered machine. Their popularity has been slowly growing ever since, in large part because they put less stress on aging bodies like mine. Prices vary greatly, from about $750 to several thousand dollars and up.

I asked Bryant where I might find a recumbent cycle to try out and he directed me to the People Movers Cyclery in Orange, just down the road from Anaheim Stadium. I called owner Jim Wronski, who said I could drop by the next day and give one a try.

When I pulled up with my old road bike on the rack, I met Wronski. He said he became interested in recumbents when he saw one in the movies. Then he talked his way into a dealer's convention, bought three and began his own business. Now his recumbent shop is crammed with bikes, plus a bowling pin collection. He sells new and used recumbents. Most of his customers, he said, are moving along in years and no longer want to endure the pounding that a regular bike can mete out. Many have back problems, he said, but still want to ride. Wronski said it often takes just a single ride to convert a cyclist to recumbents.

"They really hold their value," he said, pointing to a used bike that sold for only $100 less than the cost of a new one.

So Step One of the comparison was to hop on my regular bike and head for the trail adjacent to the nearby Santa Ana River. I'd never been on this section of bike trail and can now recommend it for its bird life, and greenness and, for this comparison, relative flatness.

Off I cruised, turning around after exactly five miles so I could give myself a 10-mile ride on each bike. I was out of my heart rate zone almost immediately and stayed that way for the rest of the ride. At the end of 10 miles, I had a heart rate average of 147, higher than I would have liked since my target maximum is 142.

Next came the recumbent, after a quick riding lesson from Wronski. The first thing to remember, he said, was to apply the brakes before being seated. And once seated, to lean back when beginning to pedal. He said a lot of people wrongly lean forward, a holdover from riding a regular bike.

I cruised the parking lot for a few minutes before setting off down the road. The first thing I noticed was that the steering is almost feathery when compared with a regular bike. The tiniest move of the handle bars caused the small front wheel to turn. And it was admittedly odd to be cranking pedals located directly in front of me.

By the time I got to the bike path, though, I had my balance under control and could relax. The seat was by far more comfortable than that of a regular bike, with virtually no pressure on the arms or cramping of the shoulders. As I cruised along, I also noticed that I was staying within my heart rate zone much longer than on a regular bike, most likely because I was more interested in balance than speed.

By the time I reached the five-mile mark, I was feeling quite comfortable on the recumbent and waved to admiring hikers and runners as I passed. Going back to the shop, I was facing a stiff headwind, but the low-slung aerodynamic design of the bike made it easier to push ahead.

Bryant, the newsletter publisher, was right about one thing: Hills were more difficult on the recumbent, simply because there is no way to push directly down on the pedals.

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