Upright versus recumbent bicycle for touring

Wayne Estes has toured over 23,000 miles during numerous bicycle touring adventures. Approximately 17,000 of those miles were covered on an upright bike while the remainder have occured using a recumbent bicycle.

Wayne has decided to share his experiences of the differences between the two types of bikes to give people trying to decide between the two a much better idea of the benefits and disadvantages of each type.

Alex Wetmore has provided some of the pictures shown in this article as well. Alex is one of the administrators of the International Bicycle Touring Mailing list. That mailing list is one of the inspirations for this web site so it's definately worth a visit.

Alex also has a bicycle touring website with lots of interesting information including details of his previous and current touring bicycles.

Recumbent bike advantages

Comfort The main reason for most recumbent riders. Some recumbent riders couldn’t tour at all on an upright bike because long rides cause too much pain.
Aerodynamics Many recumbent setups have a smaller frontal area, which makes the bike faster in a headwind.
Heads-up position You ride looking up instead of looking down. It’s great for seeing the surroundings instead of staring at the pavement (but you don’t find as many coins on the road).
Adverse weather If a fairing is used then you have some protection from wind and rain. A fairing is good for cold weather but generally not good for hot weather.
Trike Practicality It is practical to tour on a recumbent trike, unlike with an upright trike. This can be very helpful for handicapped people who have balance problems. Or people who need to climb steep hills at extremely low speed.

Recumbent bike disadvantages

  • Recumbents are less stable at very slow speeds due to the lower center of gravity. Consequently, it’s harder to keep a recumbent bike in a straight line when going up a steep hill.
  • Recumbents are harder to ride on gravel roads and other slippery surfaces for 3 reasons:
    1. Lower center of gravity, which literally causes you to fall over more quickly.
    2. On a recumbent you can’t shift your body weight around to compensate for minor fishtailing of the wheels.
    3. On a recumbent your legs are horizontal, so you can’t “fall standing up” when you lose control at low speed.
  • Recumbents are heavier than most upright bikes due to a longer chain, heavier seat, (sometimes) heavier frame. So recumbents are usually slower than upright bikes when going uphill.
  • Many recumbents use two different size wheels, which require you to carry more spare tubes and tires.
  • Lower seat height on recumbents makes it harder to see over traffic, and harder for motorists to see you over other traffic. (in practice, however, recumbents’ unusual appearance makes them MORE noticeable in the jumble of traffic)
  • You can’t stand up to use different muscles on a steep climb. On a recumbent you are a “sit down climber” 100% of the time.
  • On a recumbent it is more difficult to get started on a steep hill because you have to get your legs horizontal to start pedaling, and because of the lower center of gravity which makes you fall faster.

Wayne riding his recumbent during a fully loaded/self contained tour above Lake Tahoe. - Click to enlarge.

Wayne riding his recumbent during a fully loaded/self contained tour above Lake Tahoe.

Variations in recumbent design

A picture of Alex Wetmore's touring recumbent with underseat and rear panniers. Click to enlarge.

A picture of Alex Wetmore's touring recumbent with underseat and rear panniers

(copyright © Alex Wetmore 2004)

The pros and cons listed above are generally true, but precise comparisons are impossible because there are extremely wide variations in recumbent design:

  • Short wheelbase / long wheelbase (80cm to 200cm)
  • Handlebar above the seat or below the seat
  • “straight” steering or “tiller” steering, directly coupled or remotely coupled
  • Small wheels, large wheels, or small front wheel and large rear wheel
  • Upright seat w/ low pedals, or reclined seat w/ high pedals
  • Wide range of seat heights (15cm to 70cm)
  • Wide range of seat styles (wide vs. narrow, mesh vs foam padding, etc.)
  • No fairing, or a wide variety of fairing options up to a fully enclosed streamliner
  • Two or three wheels

Some recumbents are built for comfort and some recumbents are built for speed. Same as with upright bikes, the “speediest” recumbents are usually too fragile for loaded touring.

Clothing considerations when touring on a recumbent bike

Luggage considerations when touring on a recumbent bike

  • Many pannier configuration options
    • 2 large rear panniers
    • rear panniers + front panniers
    • rear panniers + underseat panniers (this configuration typically gives the best handling)
    • short but long recumbent-specific underseat panniers
    • sometimes you can hang a large custom bag to the back of the seat.
  • Trailers generally have the same pros and cons on both recumbents and upright bikes
  • Most recumbents don’t carry very many water bottles on the frame (mine is an exception!)
  • Recumbent riders usually can’t wear a hydration pack because their back is up against a seat. But recumbent riders frequently attach a hydration pack to the back of their seat. It works very well.
  • Handlebar bags cannot be used on many recumbents due to knee interference or because the handlebar bag obstructs the view of the road. The higher the pedals, the less likely you are to be able to use a handlebar bag.
  • Most recumbent frames have an adjustable seat angle which makes it almost impossible to have brazed-on attachments for the top of a rear rack. Clamps and custom brackets are usually needed to attach the top of the rack to the frame.

Picture courtesy of Radical Picture courtesy of Radical. Click to enlarge. Picture courtesy of Radical. Click to enlarge.

Recumbent specific panniers and seat bag made by Radical Design .

Radical Design provided permission to use these photos.

A second look at Alex Wetmore's touring recumbent with underseat and rear panniers. Click to enlarge.

A second look at Alex Wetmore's touring recumbent with underseat and rear panniers.

(copyright © Alex Wetmore 2004)

Travel considerations with a recumbent

  • Hardshell bike travel cases don’t work well with most recumbent bikes.
  • A recumbent requires more disassembly to fit in an airline/train bike box (remove seat, disassemble handlebars).
  • Short wheelbase recumbents fit in an airline bike box with both wheels on. Long wheelbase recumbents require at least one wheel to be removed to fit in an airline bike box.
  • There are “travel” recumbents such as the Bike Friday “SatRDay” folding recumbent and the Lightning “Voyager” which has S&S couplings.
  • Long wheelbase recumbents are somewhat more difficult to travel with (harder to pack in a box, harder to put on a car rack, harder to fit in a train, etc).

Other considerations with a recumbent

  • When encountering potholes a recumbent rider doesn’t have the option to get their body out of the saddle. Consequently, many recumbent riders need fatter tires to avoid pinch flats. Fatter tires also give you the option to lower the tire pressure for improved traction on gravel roads. The improved traction can compensate for the recumbent’s inherently poorer handling on gravel roads

  • Recumbents require you to use different muscle groups. A new recumbent rider is slower until he/she builds up the gluteous and hamstring muscles. But recumbent riders don’t need to toughen up the hands and tailbone area to do long rides!
  • Most people need lower gears on a recumbent than on an upright bike. That’s because you can’t stand up and mash the pedals for a short, steep grade like you could on an upright bike. You need a gear low enough to spin up the steepest grade without injuring your knees.
  • Most short wheelbase recumbents have heel overlap with the front wheel which prevents you from pedaling when making a sharp turn. It takes practice to learn the technique to avoid hitting the front wheel with your heel (the “inside” leg must be straight when making a sharp turn). In addition, some recumbents have handlebars that wrap around the knees, restricting how sharply you can turn the handlebar when the “inside” leg is bent.
  • Several aspects of riding a recumbent are significantly different than riding an upright bike. To some extent you re-learn how to ride a bike. In particular, it takes a lot of practice to become proficient at getting starting on a steep uphill grade

Bottom line

Recumbents aren’t for everybody, but they are much more comfortable for most people. There is a huge range of recumbent designs. Some of those designs may be great for you, and other designs may be awful for you. It really pays to test ride as many types as possible to get an idea of what recumbent types you like and don’t like.

Most bike shops aren’t knowledgeable about the special needs for loaded touring (recumbent or upright), so it pays to get as much advice as possible from experienced bike tourists to help you decide what bike is best for your touring needs.

A look at Alex Wetmore's underseat rack. - Click to enlarge.

A look at Alex Wetmore's underseat rack.

(copyright © Alex Wetmore 2004)

Submitted by Wayne Estes

Copyright © 2004 - 2011James Noble All rights reserved.