I don’t remember when I learned to ride (or should I say drive) a bicycle. Let’s just say it has been quite a few years since I survived those shaky training wheels and learned the art of balancing and pedaling at the same time.
For my entire life, the two-wheeled vehicle of choice has always been a traditional upright bicycle, in which the body weight rests on the hands, feet, and the sitting bones. Okay, let’s not worry about being politically correct. The body weight rests on the hands, feet, and butt.
It’s not the most comfortable position, even if the road is smooth. So I was intrigued when I got a chance to ride/drive a recumbent bicycle while reporting the story Power to the Pedal for North Carolina Science Now. Essentially, a recumbent bicycle puts the rider/driver in a laid back riding position. It’s a lot more comfortable because more of your body weight is distributed over a larger area, supported by the back and butt. You are essentially sitting in a chair with your legs in front of you peddling.
I did a little research and it turns out the idea for this type of bicycle dates back to 1896, when a version was unveiled in Geneva. There was another version demonstrated and later sold in Richmond, England. People laughed at the design. They also figured that because a recumbent looked comfortable, it must be slow.
In the 1930s, a version of the recumbent designed by French inventor Charles Mochet started winning races and setting speed records for bicycles. In 1933, a Frenchman named Francois Faure broke the world hour record by going 45.05 km/hour.
After driving a recumbent, I can understand why those recumbent racers did so well. It’s a much more aerodynamic position, with the rider lower to ground and in a much smaller profile. And while I didn’t find it any easier to pedal, I didn’t get tired as quickly.
Needless to say, the riders, racers and even the manufacturers of conventional bicycles weren’t too happy. They appealed to the Union Cycliste International (UCI), the sport's governing body. The board ruled the vehicle was not a bicycle and banned the design. That ruled it out of events like the Tour de France, which proved to almost be the death-nell for the recumbent.
Without the endorsement, the recumbent never became a mainstream item for consumers and was never mass-produced. But that may be changing. As baby boomers continue to push the age envelope by staying active, the recumbent bicycle offers a way to trade the traditional saddle-seat for a seat that better supports the back and offers a more comfortable way to exercise.
Go ahead, lay back and enjoy the ride!
- Frank Graff
Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!