Recumbent Cycling

Jamie Fletcher

Recumbent cycling is a great leisure activity enjoyed by many people all over the world. It offers several distinct advantages over the common diamond frame bicycle (Fig.1) that we are all accustomed to today. These points and an attempt to draw conclusions regarding the future of recumbent cycling will be discussed in the following. Firstly, it is necessary to gain some knowledge and understanding of the subject matter by defining what we mean by ‘recumbent cycling’ and explain a history of its development.


  Fig.1: Standard ‘diamond frame’ bicycle Fig.2: Example of a ‘recumbent cycle’

The word ‘recumbent’ originates from the Latin meaning ‘to lie down’. Generally, all definitions of a recumbent cycle agree that it is a machine with two or more wheels, where the rider sits in a seat with legs in a horizontal position. An example of this can be seen in Fig.2. There are exceptions to this, but for the purpose of the essay it will serve as a good working definition.

It is difficult to pinpoint the invention of the recumbent cycle, although some early cycle designs during the middle 1800s placed the rider in a semi-recumbent position (see fig.3).

  Fig.3: The Macmillan Velocipede – the beginning of recumbent cycles?  

In 1933, a Frenchman by the name of Charles Mochet became well known for his invention of the ‘Velocar’. This was a radically new cycle design of its time with the rider in a lying position. Several human-powered speed records were broken on this machine. Unfortunately, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) - which is a powerful agency governing cycle racing - banned it from events, claiming that it had an unfair aerodynamic advantage over other machines. The UCI believe that cycle racing should be about the rider’s abilities and not machine technology. Effectively, this has restricted the shape and diversity of cycle designs over the last few decades with most manufactures concentrating on producing diamond frame bicycles to conform to UCI rules. It could be argued that this is the reason why recumbent cycles do not have a high profile in society today and are somewhat of a rarity.

During the 1970s, the International Human Powered Vehicle Association (IHPVA) was formed, which encouraged diverse and radically new designs of cycles to be developed. Since the formation of the IHPVA, recumbent cycles have received more attention and gained popularity all over the world. It has also helped to increase the number of recumbent manufacturers creating a competitive market and keeping prices down.

So why do people ride recumbent cycles? There are many advantages and benefits that can be discussed in terms of comfort, speed, visibility and physical demands.

Generally, recumbents are designed to fit around the human body unlike diamond framed bicycles which try to fit the rider around the machine. From this starting point, recumbents have a clear advantage in terms of comfort and support. On a recumbent cycle, there is reduced upper body tension with little or no weight bearing on the shoulders, wrists and hands. The rider’s head points in the direction of travel, with no strain on the neck (see fig.2 above). Furthermore, most recumbents have the option of attaching a head rest, which offers extra support. The body is usually supported over a larger seating area unlike the slim saddles seen on most bicycles today. This makes it more comfortable riding over longer distances by reducing soreness, numbness and chafing which are often experienced by many cyclists.

Handlebars on recumbents are usually in front of the rider at shoulder height or underneath the seat forward of the hips. Both positions are comfortable for the upper limbs, requiring minimal stretching and weight bearing. In addition, the under seat handlebars widen the chest area of the rider, allowing easier breathing. Proctor et al. (1998) (cited in Gregor et al., 2002) support this theory by demonstrating that ‘cycling in a recumbent position reduced the metabolic demands, i.e., oxygen consumption and anaerobic power production, at maximal workloads’ (p.124). The only noticeable disadvantage with under seat handlebars is that they are vulnerable to damage if the machine is knocked down sideways.

Field (2002) reports that falling off a recumbent can be safer than a diamond frame bicycle because the body is placed lower to the ground and t he first thing to hit the floor is the seat and the rider’s backside.

Speed is another area of recumbent cycling claiming superiority over other cycle designs. Earlier, it was mentioned that recumbent cycles hold many speed records for human powered vehicles. The British Human Powered Vehicle Club (2002) mention in their website, ‘At 18mph, 80% of the force acting to slow the vehicle is from air resistance and as the speed increases, so this percentage gets dramatically higher’ (accessed October, 2002). Recumbents have a reduced frontal area due to the rider’s low body position. This means that there is less air resistance and allows greater speed to be achieved. Some recumbent cyclists have attached fairings (Fig.4) to their machines to improve aerodynamics and produce less drag making it easier to achieve very high speeds!

    Fig.4: Example of a ‘faired’ recumbent (picture courtesy of Steve Robson)    

The leg position of a rider on a recumbent is higher than on other cycles. This allows greater cornering speed to be achieved because there is less risk of hitting the pedals against the ground.

Visibility is another key area of recumbent cycling. It could be argued that the rider’s visibility is better because the head points effortlessly in the direction of travel. However, most recumbents position the rider lower than on other types of cycles making it difficult to see over or around other road users. It is also true that other road users would have difficulty spotting a recumbent cycle due to their lower height. This means that recumbent cyclists should be exceptionally cautious in heavy traffic and adopt a defensive approach when riding. However, there are ways to increase visibility by attaching good lights and a flag on a pole to the frame. In addition, the rider could wear high visibility clothing.

Most recumbent cyclists would agree that it is difficult not to get noticed. Field (2002) says that ‘You cannot be discreet, anonymous or inconspicuous on a recumbent’ (p.29). A reason for this is they are an unusual site for the general public.

The physical demands of recumbent cycling are also worth highlighting. It is generally accepted that a moderate amount of regular exercise can help to improve health and wellbeing. Cycling is a popular form of exercise and it could be argued that a recumbent cycle is better for this purpose compared to the standard diamond frame bicycle. Earlier,it was mentioned that there is little upper body tension and breathing is easier because the chest is wider. Furthermore, the diaphragm can operate more efficiently because of the recumbent position of the rider.

Cycling is often used as a form of rehabilitation because it helps build up stamina and strength. Gregor et al. (2002) note that ‘The recumbent bicycle is a safer alternative to the upright bicycle as a rehabilitation tool because of its larger bucket seat with back support, lower profile permitting easier access, and reduced metabolic demand’ (p.124). In addition, hand pedals can be used to power recumbent cycles in order to exercise the upper limbs. There are now some cycle manufactures that supply wheelchair users with hand pedal kits. Effectively, this transforms their wheelchair into a hand-powered recumbent cycle.

Unfortunately, most recumbents weigh more than a standard bicycle due to the need for a bigger seat and longer chain, amongst other things. In theory this should make recumbent cycling more physically demanding. However, the air resistance is considerably less than on a standard bicycle and it could be argued that this factor overcomes the issue of increased weight. The only exception to this is cycling uphill where air resistance does not have a significant impact.

On standard bicycles the rider is positioned above the pedals. This means that the whole body can be used to apply force to the driving mechanism, which is good for powering uphill and acceleration. Recumbent cycles work differently because the pedals are located in front of the rider. Therefore, body weight can not be used to drive the machine. However, the rider can generate force on the pedals by pushing against the seat.

Recumbent cyclists are not able to carry anything on their back due to the support given by the large seating area. This is good because it eliminates the temptation to haul heavy rucksacks that can lead to back problems. Most recumbents come with luggage racks as standard that are usually situated behind the rider and close to the ground. Not only is this better for the rider, but it has less effect on the overall handling of the machine.

Despite all the advantages that recumbent cycles appear to offer, it is difficult to see why they are not more popular. It was mentioned earlier that the UCI restricted alternative cycle designs and this influenced manufactures who saw no profit in building recumbent cycles. Consequently, recumbent cycles are usually hand build by small company’s run by dedicated enthusiasts who have limited budgets for advertising, and research and development. This means that they are often expensive to buy and are functional rather than fashionable. Therefore, there are few stockists and outlets throughout the world today who are willing to supply or specialise in alternative cycles. It could be argued that all of these issues have made recumbent cycles less accessible to a wider audience and have contributed to their lack of popularity.

In conclusion, the evidence suggests that recumbent cycles offer many advantages over the standard diamond frame bicycle including better comfort, faster speed and increased braking capabilities. Some concerns were also identified including slower uphill riding compared to diamond frame cycles and reduced visibility of recumbents by other road users in heavy traffic due to their lower height.

So what about the future? Where do recumbents go from here? Much of the text on recumbent cycling suggests that it is gradually gaining popularity due to the prices of recumbents falling and the emergence of a second-hand market making them more accessible to a wider audience. Furthermore, in Canada, the Ontario Recumbent Cycling Club mention on their website (accessed October, 2002) that ‘The huge popularity of recumbent exercise bicycles in fitness clubs is a good indication for the future.’ On a more global level with the current increase in traffic problems and fuel prices there is a growing need to discover and develop alternative modes of transport. Therefore, the recumbent cycle may start to receive more interest and attention from the general public in the same way that hybrid cars and folding bicycles have over the last few years.


British Human Powered Vehicle Club (2002). Available from: [Accessed 15 October 2002]

Field, F. (2002) Go Recumbent Cycling Plus Magazine 131, May 2002, pp.24-29

Gregor, S.M. Perell, K.L. Rushatakankovit, S. Miyamoto, E. Muffoletto, R. Gregor, R.J. (2002) Lower extremity general muscle moment patterns in healthy individuals during recumbent cycling Clinical Biomechanics 2002 Feb; 17(2), pp.123-129

North Shore Mountain Bike Association (2002). Available from: [Accessed 15 October 2002]

Recumbent Cycling Ontario (2002). Available from: [Accessed 15 October 2002]

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