Recumbent vs. Upright Bike

Recumbent vs Upright Bike

            Conversations around which is better; a recumbent / reclined riding position or the traditional diamond frame / upright position has been dragging on for a long time.  So kick back, relax and read on - we're about to put this debate to rest once and for all.  Don't worry, we'll get into all the details in a minute, but here’s the spoiler: upright and recumbent positions are both great for different reasons.   

            Around 1865 the first two-wheeled bicycle with pedals came into existence - it was all wood and the pedals were connected to the front wheel.  Then a handful of creative innovations and about 15 years later the safety bike came onto the scene, which is really pretty darn close to what a diamond frame / upright bicycle is today. (Cycling purists can take a few deep breaths - we all recognize that suspension, and carbon components, and all sorts of other cool and useful things have been added - but the seating position, and frame angles almost unchanged.  Check out details here).

            Sometime around 1930 a man named Charles Mochet made a bicycle with a recumbent seating position and paired up with a man named Francis Faure who apparently was a decent cyclist but nothing to write home about.  However, while riding Mochet’s recumbent bicycle Faure began to win races and break records – until 1933 when Faure set the world record for miles traveled on a bicycle in 1 hour, which bested a time set by an upright rider considerably.  In 1934 the governing body of cycling, the UCI, made the decision based on Faure’s hour record to ban recumbents in racing.  As a result recumbents have been prohibited in most professional bicycle races.

            At this point we should ask; Why do we care?  We care because racing pushes the edge of innovation at all levels of transportation; cars, boats, bikes etc.  So when recumbents were banned from racing, they essentially took a pit-stop on development for the next 70 years.  Recently though, recumbent bikes and trikes have begun to make a resurgence, and here’s why.

            A recumbent riding position puts the rider in a more reclined position.  This serves a number of functions.  First, it takes stress off the groin, and puts it where you’re used to sitting down – your gluteus maximus… your butt.  Instead of craning the neck up to see what is in front of the rider, it puts the rider in a “heads up” position where they can comfortably view what is in front of them.  It reduces stress on the shoulders, elbows and wrists because they do not bear the weight of the rider.  Instead they hold handlebars comfortably near the rider’s hips.  And maybe most importantly, it’s a more aerodynamic riding position, which means that air moves over the rider more easily.  That means more speed my friends.

            More comfortable, less stress on joints and faster…that’s a lot of benefits for recumbents, but let’s not discredit upright bikes just yet.  When it comes to maneuverability – as in lifting the front or rear wheel (or both) while riding the upright bike is king.  Because of this it’s unlikely that you’ll see very many recumbent mountain bikes, or recumbent bmx bikes at your local trail or park.  If you’re trying to manage a gnarly bed of tree roots, hop over a log, cross a sketchy rock bed or nail backflips and 360’s you’re not going to find a better platform than an upright bike.

            The best approach is to think about the different cycling options as different tools in your garage.  If you want to screw something in quickly you grab your drill – not your hammer.  If you want to loosen a bolt you don’t grab your saw, you grab a wrench.  Really it’s pretty simple.  It’s not about what one is better; it’s about what tool does what job better.  So if you’re getting ready to start your cycling tool box, or you’re a cycling veteran looking to improve your toolbox, just consider what kind of riding you want to do and pair that with the best tool for the job – be it recumbent or upright.  Happy riding!


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Recumbent vs. Upright