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Sit back and enjoy the ride

It might just be the right bike at the right time -- the recumbent bicycle is low to the ground and comfortable to boot. So revel in the stares and hit the trail.

June 16, 2008|Janet Cromley | Times Staff Writer

We're careening down a residential street in Long Beach's California Heights, 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 -- 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 -- 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 -- iconoclasts all -- 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 -- 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 -- riding low, in a reclined position -- also makes them harder to see for drivers 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 -- the main leg of the Los Angeles River bicycle path, a two-way paved bikeway that snakes 20 miles from downtown Long Beach, near Shoreline Village, north through Paramount and Bell Gardens and ends in Maywood.

Scenic route

We pick up the path via a tree-lined side street west of California Heights, where the 405 Freeway crosses the 710, and head south, setting a course for Shoreline Village. As Dietch turns the bike onto the path, the river, lined in concrete, sidles up next to us on the right, and rows of modest residential 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 start at about $600 at Los Angeles County dealers, but most buyers will spend more than $1,000, says Dana Lieberman, owner of Bent Up Cycles, which has loaned 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, purchased 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.

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