A Survivor's Guide to the Recumbent Tricycle
June 28th, 2017
June 28th, 2017
So I broke my arm, and like the true competitive cyclist I am, I wasn't going to let that get in the way of what I love; riding bikes. I had already entered into The Tour of Wessex, and was too excited to not go. So what was a girl to do, when she can't take weight on her arm, but can still pedal?
Having worked for Cycling UK (then called The CTC), organising cycling classes for people with disabilities, I knew there were bicycles out there that could accommodate injuries and inabilities. The trick would be finding one I could get in a car, and actually pedal around a sportive on public roads. After a call for help on Facebook, I was greeted by a hoard of HPV (Human Powered Vehicle) club members encouraging me towards a dark corner of the cycling world; the pedal-powered cars. I thought this may have been a step too far, but thankfully I was put in touch with perhaps the nicest guy on the planet, who entrusted me, a total stranger, with his Windcheetah recumbent tricycle. I suppose I've somehow sold my soul to the dark side now, right?
So, being entered into the Tour of Wessex, a 100mile event with an 80mile get-out loop, I was in for a fiery christening. I had been to the gym and used a recumbent training bike a few times to warm up the muscles for their shocking adventure. The pedalling action was largely the same, with the same muscles being used, however, laying back means the hip flexors are more open, which caused the need for my already shortened hip flexors (common in hunched cyclists, desk jockeys and long-distance drivers) to have a darn good stretch afterwards, but all else seemed fine.
Lining up to start-line, I hid amongst the ankles of a few hundred riders, admiring the 'sock game' and trying not to get a chain tattoo on my arm from my neighbours. Shocked glares were directed in my direction, some pointing and laughing (from friends, obviously), and a lot of "fair play!" nods of appreciation. A lot of people wanted to know what it was like, but I didn't get the impression they wanted to trade. No idea why.
Heading out over the start-line we immediately came to the sports hall exit, and my first disadvantage would rear its head; peering out round the corner without dangling my feet in the path of traffic. I had to hit junctions at and angle after that, but it eventually became more natural and less of an issue. Out on the roads, I was worried about not being seen, but frankly, what I lost in height I made up for in width, and cars seemed to give me way more room on the country roads than usual. Being close to the ground meant my perspective of how close, or indeed far away, a car really was seemed to be more accurate, which somehow made me feel less vulnerable. Coming into town meant that small roads no longer allowed me the benefit of filtering up through queues of cars; I had to become part of the traffic, which again made for good visibility. That being said, any time I was next to a car at a junction I felt very out of the way and struggled to make decisions without being able to glance through car windows or look over bonnets, but instead I used cars as blockers and just got through things as quickly as possible.
The Tour offered me some good, quiet country roads to get warmed up on, with flat roads being an utter breeze. Cruising at 42kph while soft pedalling was a novelty for me and while I couldn't benefit from drafting riders, I could still keep up with groups out on my own in the head wind. It's obvious why these machines were invented for time trials and land-speed records. However, as soon as any kind of gradient reared its head, the weight of the trike would make itself apparent, and you can forget muscling up short climbs by getting out of the saddle. Slow cadence and hard gearing was the order of the day, like a sadistic single-leg session on the squat press machine at the gym. My legs were in pieces by about 40km. This made it easy for me to choose the 80mile Medium loop and head home for a hot bath in a cool 7.5hrs. I'm told it gets better after a few more rides.
Down hills it takes no time at all to get up to speed thanks to the aero position. Cornering is different; this time you weight the inside of the bike, even leaning out of the seat and over the front inside wheel to stop it from tipping. This sounds scary, but I felt at much less risk of falling than on a standard bike; the tyres would sure slide before they tipped. Though corners felt much more secure and safe, being two foot off the ground really highlights how fast you are going. Much like riding a go kart, or an old car like a classic Mini, things certainly feel a lot more exciting than they should, and you'll be shook to the teeth on rough roads.
Seven hours of hilly riding in the Mendip Hills, up Cheddar Gorge and round the country roads of Somerset was not the best first date with my recumbent, but it's certainly a bonding experience. The flats were exhilarating and the descents were a blast, but until they make a tricycle the same weight as a standard bike, it will never be as simple on standard hilly rides. Not that this stops a strong group of riders preferring these to a conventional stead. What it does do, however, is offer a very laid-back attitude to cycling (quite literally), with more sky and less tarmac on the horizon, new friends in astonishment of your chosen weapon, and vehicles exercise caution around a wide berth. The "WTF?!" factor is quite a funny thing to behold, and it kept me smiling throughout a tough challenge.
Though I'm not going to replace my standard bicycle any time soon, I see the appeal with casual strollers, long-distance flat roaders and cycle path tourers. I say that, but the Windcheetah's owner enjoys hill reps on his (gulp!). I'm amazed that the HPV community has somewhat passed me by, doing 24hour races, team relays and circuit races amongst themselves, interbreeding a certain kind of craziness that I think we could use a little more of in our cycling world. It's a way of seriously not taking things so seriously, and I like that. If you're curious, there are places to rent them, but all I'll say is; careful, it's a slippery slope to the dark side.