Friday, January 25, 2008

Tough Love


For someone that has owned a lot of recumbents, rides them a quite a lot and blogs about them incessantly I am pretty hard on bents sometimes. While other bent bloggers are often trumpeting the praises of the recumbent I am pointing out what is not so great about them and how DFs are pretty cool bikes. Occasionally I'll read over a post and think "...geez that was harsh..." It isn't that I'm a bent hater. Quite the opposite - in fact. I think there are many great bents being made and lots of excellent reasons to ride one. The problem is some folks in the bent community, in their enthusiasm to promote recumbents, oversell them to the point of damaging their acceptance by DF riders and non-cyclists. My goal is to tell it like it is so that folks that read my blog will start to trust me and accept that when I do say something positive about recumbents it isn't spin.

Recumbent Myth #1 - Bents are faster than DFs

A good example is how fast recumbents are. If you read bent blogs, bent forums and bent manufacturer's websites you'll come away with the idea that recumbents are these aerodynamically superior rocket ships that will blow away any DF foolish enough to challenge you. I'm not a stupid person, but fell for this hype - twice!!! When my first bent didn't turn out to be all that fast I assumed it was an aberration so I drank the kool-aid a second time bought a brand new highracer from a major manufacturer and assumed I'd be "Vik the DF-slayer" when my new steed arrived. Imagine my horror when I wasn't faster. Worse still I was dead last in the first event I entered - one with minimal climbing. What happened to bents being so fast?

The fact is bents are not faster than DF bikes. Telling people they are is a lie. One that is easily exposed. As soon as someone realizes you lied to them they'll never believe you again. All your credibility is gone - poof!

The truth is that some recumbents generate less aerodynamic drag than a typical road bike. This means that if you ride at higher speeds - say 25kph+ you'll have an advantage over a rider with the same power as you on a DF road bike of the same weight. However there are quite a few caveats to even that modest claim to fame:
  • in many cases DFs ride in pacelines that will erase all or part of your aero advantage
  • most recumbent riders travel solo and have no "team" to work with
  • as soon as the roads goes uphill and speeds drop your aero benefit is gone and since many bents don't climb that well you'll be dropped like a rock
  • things like bike weight and rolling resistance also factor into speed - especially at the sub-25kph range like up a climb. So your aerodynamically superior 35lb bent with 1.5" tires won't lay a hurt onto many DF road bikes
All this means that for most people on an average route with a decent amount of climbing you won't be faster than a DF road bike.

What is fast?

I should clarify what I mean by fast. To me fast isn't having a higher speed in a 100m sprint or being quicker than someone's grandma on her single speed beach cruiser. To me being fast means having a high average speed over a long-ish ride [say 20kms+] and over a variety of terrain including a decent amount of climbing. I tend to use a run of the mill DF road bike as my golden standard for DF speed - I'm talking a 19-20lbs 105 equipped beast that you can have for $1000.00 - nothing uber special. I like this definition of speed because it represents real world conditions. Nobody rides their bike only a 100m or only on perfectly flat roads.

You can't handle the truth!

So what can you realistically say about recumbent speed?:
  • There are fast recumbents, average recumbents and slow recumbents - just like DF bikes.
  • If being fast is your priority make sure the bent you buy is a high performance model - not a touring bent with commuter rubber.
  • It will take you time to learn to go fast on your bent. First you need to acclimate your muscles to the new riding position and then you need to learn to maximize your speed on your bent. The good news is that you'll never be slower on your bent than your first ride.
  • If you are a randonneur and want to go fast you need a bent that is less than 25lbs and climbs well. You can have a light bent that climbs poorly and if you climb poorly you will be slow. Expect to finish brevets on average in about the same time on your bent as you did your DF bike. You'll kick ass on the flat routes and you'll be slower on the really lumpy ones. One benefit for a randonneur is that you are you own paceline. You can ride at your own pace without worrying about staying with someone else since you'll essentially get the benefit of paceline without actually being in one. This gives you loads of flexibility and may save you from a paceline induced crash.
  • If beating DF riders is important to you get your speed up above 40kph. You'll be using 30%-40% less energy on the flats than they will.
  • The ultimate truth about speed is that a recument is only a machine that accepts your power. If you are a slow DF rider you'll be a slow recumbent rider. If you are a fast DF rider you'll be a fast recumbent rider. If you want to go faster and you are sitting on a high performance recumbent the only solution is to ride your bent hard lots - especially uphill. The more you do it the faster you get. As they say there is no free lunch.
Real Speed

I care about going fast. Because it is fun, for the ego stoke of seeing some big numbers on my bike computer and because fast average speeds mean less time on the bike during a brevet allowing me to eat, sleep or go home that much quicker.

Here is what I did to find the promised land:
  • I found a light high performance recumbent [Challenge Fujin SL] that climbs well for me.
  • I equipped it with fenders and a reasonable amount of spare parts and tools to deal with typical repairs. Nothing kills you average speed like a broken bike.
  • I keep my Fujin well maintained so when I'm out on the road I'm riding not fixing things.
  • I make sure that I don't weigh it down with unnecessary items.
  • I ride it hard as often as I can - especially in the mountains.
  • I eat and drink continuously. You can't be fast if you aren't fully fueled.
After one season on my Fujin I'm faster on the flats, downhills and gradual climbs than I would be on my DF road bike. I'm still not climbing the steeper sections as fast, but that is my goal for 2008. The really great part about my Fujin is that after 15hrs in the saddle I'm completely pain free.

Update: there is a very relevant thread on BROL at the moment about a guy who was oversold on bent performance and comfort.

21 comments:

AbrasiveScotman said...

"things like bike weight and rolling resistance also factor into speed - especially at the sub-30kph range. So your aerodynamically superior 35lb bent with 1.5" tires won't lay a hurt onto many DF road bikes"

Oh I don't know about that - even at relatively modest speeds (10 - 15mph) I find my 'bent rolls much better than my dads touring bike. On even slight declines I will frequently be free-wheeling while he is pedalling to keep up. Course, since I'm not racing my dad it just means I'm expending less energy to go the same distance, which is fine by me.

I think the aero advantage kicks in at a lower speed than you say. The Fuego is pretty low though, so perhaps the effect is more pronounced than on many 'bents.

Vik said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vik said...

Heavy and aerodynamic are ideal characteristics for good coast down results. Keep in mind when I talk about speed I'm talking about average speed over a variety of terrain. No DF is going to stick with me on the backside of a mtn pass when I hit 90kph+ on my Fujin. Trouble is the world isn't all downhill.

I'd also suggest your dad sitting upright on a touring bike isn't much of a competition.

AbrasiveScotman said...

My dad runs with a full touring load, so most of the time he's heavier than me. He also has skinnier, slicker road tyres than me.

My point is that it can't be a weight advantage or better rolling resistance - so even at low speeds I must be gaining an advantage through aerodynamics.

I find my bike to be extremely energy efficient until we hit very steep grades, >= 1 in 20,

On routes that do not include such hills, I cruise faster and expend less energy. My dad has been cycling consistently for 30 years, whereas I've been away from cycling for over 2, so despite my age advantage he is much fitter than me.

Unfortunately I just couldn't get him to try riding recumbent......

Alan said...

I'm glad you mentioned comfort at the end of your essay - I agree, speed is oversold. Comfort, ease of use, reliability, versatility; all of these things are far more important than speed to most non-enthusiasts.

Vik said...

Agreed Alan. It is the total package you have to consider. Speed though is often one of the big selling points for bents and also one of the big disappointments. Not because bents can't be fast, but the idea that bents are generically faster than DFs is just not true as demonstrated by as much empirical evidence as you care to collect.

The folks selling this hype always narrow down their definition of speed to include only conditions favourable to their machine and or select for comparison a DF & rider that is easy pickings.

Ultimately it does a disservice to recumbents as a whole since people discount everything you say once they determine some of what you told them isn't true. It would be a whole lot better to say there are racing bents and touring bents and comfort/cruising bents. The faster bents can be faster than a DF road bike under some conditions, but sometimes they aren't. If you are a slow rider you'll be slow on a bent and if you are a fast rider you'll be fast on a bent. That way people will develop a much more realistic set of expectations.

Rene K. Mueller said...

Why I am faster with a recumbent [take 1]?

Because there is no DF ever passing me with baggage perhaps?! People with light DF racer are passing me, but none of them has 15kg baggage as I have. There is only one bicycle passing me, which was a lowrider/lowracer and I almost fell off my longrider out of surprise when he passed me with +10km/h closeby!!! ;-)

Why I am faster with a recumbent [take 2]?
Even if I was slower, I never rode in groups with DF with baggage as I do, so Vik could be correct - I'm riding 10-12 hours when the weather allows, and still pitch my tent, cook a nice meal. Whereas the guy perhaps passing me with higher speed is tired as hell trying to make more than 120km a day, and I can do 160-200km a day without dying at the end of the day, but 200km a day I won't do twice in a succession on a longer tour, admited. So, I surely ride farther, and in most times faster even as I personally experienced (I'm not into racing or so, I'm a very lazy rider, that's why I ride a longrider recumbent). ;-)

I recently was able to ride a shortrider, a Street Machine Gt, and I was thinking I was flying! It was even faster than the longrider I have ... what happened, yes, the aerodynamic and really hard tires, and even uphill climbing was faster as I felt I was able to push more with my legs.

My rough numbers (steady riding for 6 hours, no additional winds, no climbing, good road condition, with or without baggage (!!) given hard tires):

Diamond Frame 28"/28": ~20km/h
Longrider 20"/28": ~24km/h
Shortrider 20"/26": ~27km/h

Yes, climbing is kind of slow with a recumbent, this is why I usually do tours which have little climbing. But a friend noticed why I avoid climbing with my longrider: I have a 3x7 with small gear range, in his smallest gear climbing he made twice as many cycles than I did in my smallest gear . . . time to get 3x8 or 3x9 with a larger range.

I grew up with bicycles, when friends got motorcycles or cars, I still rode bicycles, but then lost interest while living in a larger city due traffic, and I reclaimed my enthusiasm with the longrider recumbent - since then I ride it exclusively, to shop (3-10km) with three bags attached (5-20kg) or a bicycle trailer (up to 100kg), visit friends (2-3 days tours ~200-400km), or make big tours (~800-3500km). It's just me, but I found what suits my needs (don't own or drive a car) - it may change, who knows!

DF are good for . . . ? Not for me anymore, at least for now as said. I may not be representative, but I just thought to share my experience.

Jim said...

Amen, and Amen! The only time that I am faster than a DF is on big downhills. Te rest if, well.. but then again, who cares! I know without a doubt, that I am not a fast rider. I never go in pursuit of roadie gearheads. I am 50, I started this part of my life late. But, I have my own goals to ride for, not anyone elses. I enjoyed your perspective immensly. It's the view from the bike you ride. After all, like you mentioned earlier, it's about being on the bike! (Whatever bike that is). Good writing. jim

runawayscreaming said...

Heresy!

Ha ha, just kidding. Ya it's true, most 'bents are terrible climbers. They are either too heavy, too flexy, they have power-robbing flexy idlers and/or they have a seat that absorbs power.

However, there are some 'bents that can keep up to a paceline without actually having to ride in a paceline. That's a pretty nice feature because you can ride at your own pace and you don't have to worry about pile-ups.

Unfortunately those 'bents that really are fast are spouse-shockingly expensive. They are at least $1000 - $1500 more expensive than a similarly equipped upright bike.

Here's what I would consider to be serious potential upright bike humiliators (with the right rider):

- lowracers like the Velokraft VK2 and your Challenge Fujin of course.

- laterally and horizontally stiff carbon highracers like the Bacchetta CarbonAero and possibly the Carbent

- my own pet, a long wheelbase Gold Rush or Ti Rush with a carbon seat, fork, ti bars, carbon fairing etc

Anonymous said...

I see low racers and high racers cracking the whip and beating DF's all the time , I more faster on my recumbent than I was on my DF , now if racing a cat#1 DF and a recumbent racer , I would bett on the recumbent

Rene K. Mueller said...

So what can you realistically say about recumbent speed?:
There are fast recumbents, average recumbents and slow recumbents - just like DF bikes.


Yes.

If being fast is your priority make sure the bent you buy is a high performance model - not a touring bent with commuter rubber.

I disagree - even an old-fashion (almost not available) longrider is faster than a DF - and it's not just aerodynamics, it's the way to put the force on the drive, I can push with my back on the pedals, on a DF it would mean I stand up and pull on the steering bar in order to push the pedals - this is when you climb, but I can push the pedals while riding comfortable.

It's the combination of increased aerodynamics, comfort of sitting position and the ability to put the force of the legs on the pedals. That's three factors, that recumbents in general weight more does not outnumber those three advantages IMHO.

It will take you time to learn to go fast on your bent. First you need to acclimate your muscles to the new riding position and then you need to learn to maximize your speed on your bent. The good news is that you'll never be slower on your bent than your first ride.

Yes.

If you are a randonneur and want to go fast you need a bent that is less than 25lbs and climbs well. You can have a light bent that climbs poorly and if you climb poorly you will be slow. Expect to finish brevets on average in about the same time on your bent as you did your DF bike.


I don't do brevets (yet) - but I would say for sure I do better on a recumbent than on a DF even with climbing parts, as I climb slower I would say, but since this isn't about racing but endurance at "randoneuring" you are forced to stay within a certain range of force application, as said, you can't stand up and put your own weight on the pedals, you have to climb steady, and with a high gear cycling at high frequency, much higher than any DF, this is something to learn first! For me it forced me to not over exhaust myself, and I would speculate for randonneuring this would be beneficial, for short-term racing purposes it would certainly not.

It would be really worthwhile to study this to back up these arguments with facts.


The ultimate truth about speed is that a recument is only a machine that accepts your power. If you are a slow DF rider you'll be a slow recumbent rider.

I disagree, I think it's worth to look closer. Since you pointed out that recumbents require different muscles, so a DF requires certain muscles, and recumbents different ones - I experienced personally able to put my power better on the road with a recumbent. I came to this conclusion by personal experience. As I posted before, I was bicycle enthusiast and didn't consider recumbents, but once I rode them I experience various advantages as I pointed out above. And maybe it's also time we distinct in this discussion the different types, what I'm speaking mostly and applies to me is a longrider, a shortrider I can't tell for as I still new, and I never rode a lowracer yet. But what I said and view is my direct experience with a longrider type "Avatar 2000".

Don't scrap or neglect those experiences Vik, maybe bent enthusiasts may not always able to backup their experiences with the best explanations, but this doesn't mean what they say is not true - ask yourself why people became enthusiasts? We all likely started with DF, and then came to recumbents, and not vice-versa. "Different is better" only works for a few days, then you realize it's not true - but you, I and others are sticking with recumbents because we found a certain type, long-, short-, or lowrider suiting out own body-type, sitting position etc. If I were riding more comfortable and faster on a DF, I would sure tell you that, but I simply don't.

If you are a fast DF rider you'll be a fast recumbent rider.

I have no counter example, a friend of mine tried my longrider, and after 30 mins he was not able to ride it and he is a MTB enthusiast riding it every day, whereas people rarely riding picked up the new style within 20secs. There is definite a personal flavour and preference involved I can't back up with solid data, but just seeing a couple of dozens people who faster or slower adapt to a longrider in this case, and enjoy it immediatly and a few don't.

:-)

Lee said...

How is my recumbent faster than my DF? On my first century (I don't consider myself a fast rider at all) I was regularly passed by the roadies. I didn't care, I was more concerned about my endurance to the finish and wanted to pace myself. However, once I passed mile 95, I felt good and turned it up a notch. The ride ended up being ~106 miles, and I flew past many struggling DF riders at 22-23 mph during that final 10 mile stretch. On my DF I would never have felt good enough at the end for that extra burst, that is the difference maker to me.

Lee said...

By the way, Vic I was looking into either the Fujin or an Optima (maybe the Baron). They appear to be nearly identical dimension-wise, so do you have any thoughts on this? Have you ridden them both? Thanks, Lee

Vik said...

I would never suggest that no recumbent could ever be faster than a DF bike. If you put John Schlitter on a Bacchetta Carbon Aero vs. Lance Armstrong on a standard road bike over a 50km flat TT I'd pick JS every time.

I have a particular training route that is 30kms out and back along flat to rolling roads with one significant climb right at the end. So far I've been faster than anyone else on that route and it is very popular. I'll take on 4 or 5 roadies at time with no fear.

That still doesn't make bents in general faster than DFs so I think we are way better off as a community sending out a much more believable and factual message that you can be really fast on a recumbent, faster than you would be on a DF road bike IF you pick the right bent and you are on a route that is favourable to bents - ie. not loads of really steep climbs one after another. You can also be quite slow if you pick a bent that was not built for speed or that doesn't suit your body's physiology.

This is an important distinction because we are trained to weed out the BS marketing spin when we hear it and we are also trained to spot a well reasoned argument.

Vik said...

Lee,

I love my Fujin SL. I almost feel like I should buy a spare in case they stop making them!

Dennis T has owned a Baron, a VK2 and a Fujin SLII. If you ask him he'd keep the Fujin over any of the rest - although are find bikes. I think he has had the best long term experience on these bikes that I am aware of. Everyone else has owned one and had a short test ride on the others or is just making up their opinion based on forum chatter.

One nice thing I can say about Challenge is that the owner, Paul, reads our forum and takes a very active interest in the Challenge bent community. That is awesome if you ever need help or tech support.

Rene K. Mueller said...

Vik, indeed, it's a physiological aspect, body type too as we seem to agree and conclude now as well. Vik, you got most points right I think, but I thought you are overreacting in regards that you seem to have fallen for sales pitch. I never heard a sales pitch on recumbents, I was convinced by my own experience, I was not dragged away from reality by someone trying to sell something to me, so there is no disappointment for me - quite the opposite.

Now, let's find out why this is so that so many claim it's faster, and in some cases it's not true, which I won't deny, you point of climbing a mountain fast likely a recumbent will be slower compared to a DF.

For sake of the discussion, let's treat DF as a model of a bicycle, as short-, long-, and lowrider as models as well.

When you look DF as a model, you see the whole body is able to push on the pedals - and the hands can pull on the steering bar - no other model you can do this, you can pull on the steering bar, but since the other models you sit or lay down, you cannot use your own body weight to push by swinging your body from left to right and back. So, we loose the advantage of the body weight for the other models, as you apply the force horizontally to the pedals, and the gravity of the body weight not helping the same direction. Maybe someone good in physics can already calculate this handicap, we may this apply this handicap for fast climbing, as well fast riding.

The aerodynamics is in favour of the non-DF, we agree there of course.

My premature conclusion is, peak application of force, like a race, a DF gives advantages, the swinging body and it's gravitational force applied direct on the pedals - non-DF don't provide this. Now, we would have to make several graphs, show how good the force of the leg can be applied on the pedals, on non-DF more ideal I would say, but DF at higher stress/force application with a swinging body gives a higher degree of applied force to the pedals. So, as long the speed high >40km/h, and we speak of 200-300km for a tour, you might be faster on a DF, because you actually can apply more force into the pedals, fight more air resistance - and be "faster" for a peak event. Whereas the non-DF you cannot express that peak of force on the pedals, so you ride more stress free - which means, supporting my overall impression on recumbents, a more relaxed and enduring performance.

So, this is getting more complex, and I really *love* this exchange with you Vik and others sharing the points of views.

What I expressed above is maybe the core issue - a DF is faster because you can apply a peak force, fighting more air resistance *if* you have the power, you can be fast but for the price for a lot of power you need to achieve it. The non-DF provide less air-resistance, and a limit of applicable force, not that peak force, but less.

So, Vik - you might be right saying it's a myth a non-DF is faster, because you see people able to deliver a peak performance. At the same time I'm standing true as well, as I endure longer and ride faster with my longrider than those people riding DF in tours with baggage - as those are not in the range of delivering peak performance, touring is an endurance effort solely.

So, we may conclude for a moment this, we not only need to distinct the models, DF, long, short and lowrider, but also the application, endurance, peak performance etc.

Now you asked about PBP - this is very interesting. If my raised points are weighted the way I described, the PBP and the aspect you ask about "fast & records" is then a peak performance, and not an endurance effort. This would be my rather lengthy and complex anwer to a DF if I had the time with the thoughts mentioned above.

Vik, thanks for your blog, and your endurance to keep writing and raising all those topics, it's very appreciated. Let's bounce ideas back and forth ... :-)

runawayscreaming said...

It would be really worthwhile to study this to back up these arguments with facts.

On the other hand one can just try different 'bents on brevets. The slow 'bents become painfully obvious in a randonneuring environment.

Randonneuring quickly weeds out the bad climbing bents and randonneuring is all about climbing.

According to my opinion we will eventually see certain 'bents out in the front (by themselves) on brevets, especially the longer brevets where comfort plays more of a role. All it will take are light fast 'bents, light fast 'bent riders and a bit more experimentation.

We have already seen a couple of 'bent riders on fairly sluggish 'bents totally dominate a couple of the flatter distance events in the United States. It is only a matter of time before we see a substantial percentage of randonneurs on 'bents throughout the world.

Lee said...

To add yet a little more to a great discussion.....During my training to ride my bent century, I was helped greatly by a roadie friend of mine. He advised me to do sets of leg squats/presses on weight machines at my gym. I also trained exclusively on recumbent trainers, and threw in some elliptical work for good measure. I cannot stress enough how much the leg presses helped. This is why it's hard for a person acclimated to on type of bike only to make a comparison, as Rene Mueller says, there are different sets of muscles involved.

trsnrtr said...

Vik said:

"Dennis T has owned a Baron, a VK2 and a Fujin SLII. If you ask him he'd keep the Fujin over any of the rest - although are find bikes. I think he has had the best long term experience on these bikes that I am aware of. Everyone else has owned one and had a short test ride on the others or is just making up their opinion based on forum chatter."

Vik got it right. The Baron is the girl you were infatuated with when you were young. The VK2 is the sexy super model that you dated but she was high maintenance and delicate. The Fujin is the gal you married to spend the rest of your life with. :-)

Dennis T

Perry said...

Speed is irrelevant to me. I ride for fun, exercise, and transportation (yes, there are still some of us that think a bike can transport us in place of a car). But if you're going to discuss speed, then you have to compare apples to apples. Saying bents are not faster because their speed is negated by a peloton of DFs is not really kosher. What if if we had a peloton of equal size and quality bent riders? Would it be fair to compare their speed to a sole DFer twisting in the wind?

It's not wise to compare riders either. A world-class cyclist on his bike of choice is going to be fast. Me on any bike is going to be slow. The best way to measure speed is relative to the rider and course. Once acclimated, are you faster (on any given course) on your bent or a DF?

Where I ride, I am definitely faster on my Tour Easy even though it weighs almost twice what a light DF would weigh (I have the TE loaded down pretty good with bags, fairiing, fenders, etc). Does that mean I am fast? Hell no! I usually ride at an average of between 12-15 mph. But I generally complete all my usual rides faster on my TE than I would have on my DF.

I think it is therefore reasonable for me to say that the TE is faster for me than a DF. Now, say I moved to foothills of the Alps and only rode up mountains. Well, then my assessment might change.

Joe K said...

Yo Vik Now that I'm not in China where blogs are pretty much blocked, I can catch up on some reading for a few days. Good to find you posting away.

Bent vs DF Speed: Slo Joe here.. when it comes to the fast bent vs DF debates, I paraphrase a famous quote as follows:

You can convince some of the people all the time.

You can't convince all the people all the time.

And then there are those that no matter what you say will not be swayed from their opinion. (grin) In our case I call them the bent zealots. (double grin)

There are folks like me who only care about speed when it comes to events like brevets. Being a slow rider, I need all the speed advantge I can get.

IF (and that's big IF) I could ride a DF for over 200km with no pain issues, that would be my steed for brevets, especially in the hilly northwest. A DF simply climbs better on long and steep hills.

BUT...I never could get comfortable on a DF, even when I was fitted by the guy who teaches worldwide Serotta dealers how to fit people. My back hurts!!!

So where am I going with this? Yah, I agree overall bents on a long hilly course will not as fast as a DF.

I do know that I can hold speed on my bents (at 10 years older) I could never hold on my DF. In that regards, my bent is "faster".

As always..it's a fun topic to discuss over a beer.

So when are you buying?