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Everything you need to know about tricycles

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trikes 03 May 2022 By Katrina Rossi

A common misconception is that tricycles are for kids, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, not only was the first tricycle designed for adults, but they continue to be enjoyed by adults all across the globe.

What is an upright tricycle?

An upright tricycle, AKA upright trike, is defined as a “human-powered (or gasoline or electric motor assisted or gravity powered) three-wheeled vehicle or a self-propelled three-wheeled vehicle.” They’re usually lower to the ground than a standard bike and have dropdown (step-through) frames to make mounting and dismounting easier. The additional wheel and overall bulkiness of tricycles also means that while they’re ideal for getting yourself from point A to point B, they're not the best option for a solid cardio workout and are a bit harder to pedal than bikes.

lady on tricycle

The added stability, along with its versatility, means that trikes can be used to fit just about any bill: recreation, shopping, exercise, personal transportation, passenger transport, and carrying commercial freight. They also boast a good amount of storage for carrying all of your stuff.

Who rides tricycles?

When tricycles first made it onto the scene, they were most used by those who didn’t feel safe or comfortable on high wheelers (also called the Penny Farthing), namely women who wore long dresses. Fast forward to modern day, and while tricycles are commonly recommended to people who are unable or have never learned how to ride a bike, just about anyone can appreciate the comfort and versatility of a tricycle.

Even though they’re not as popular as bicycles, tricycles are preferred by many due to the many advantages they offer. In general, when compared to bikes, tricycles are easier to mount and dismount, offer a more comfortable upright sitting position, and are far more stable and less likely to tip, making them an overall safer choice for anyone who may have stability or mobility issues. They’re also great for people who would benefit from the added stability due to terrain or to haul a week’s worth of groceries.

History

In 1655, German watchmaker Stephan Farffier designed and built what is now considered the first recorded wheelchair and tricycle design. Farffier created the machine to help overcome mobility issues, using hand cranks as a source of power. Since he was a watchmaker, he was mechanically inclined and possessed the skills that would enable him to create a vehicle powered by hand cranks. It wasn’t until 1789 that two French inventors created a three-wheeled machine that was powered by pedals that they decided to call…the tricycle.

James Starley, a sewing machine maker in Coventry, England, was a pioneer in tricycling history and is often credited with starting the tricycle craze in Britain. He developed the Coventry Lever Tricycle in 1876. Its design was unique in that it situated two small wheels on the right side, a large drive wheel on the left, sandwiched the rider between the small and large wheels, and relied on hand levers as a power source. He went on to develop the Coventry Rotary—one of the first rotary chain drive tricycles—in 1877. Within just two short years of developing the Coventry Rotary, there were 20 kinds of tricycles and multiwheel cycles being produced in Coventry and by 1884, there were over 20 manufacturers producing over 120 models!

tricycle history

The market saw the first front steering tricycle, manufactured by the Leicester Tricycles Company out of Leicester, England, in 1882 and created a folding tricycle at the same time. In 1888, a three-person tricycle design was patented by Matthew A. Cherry in Washington DC.

Unfortunately, the adult tricycle craze fizzled out nearly as quickly as it began when the automobile hit the market, relegating tricycles to child’s toys. As a toy, it didn’t really make a comeback until 1969, when Louis Marx & Company released the plastic molded Big Wheel. The super low placement of the seat allowed for little ones to skid through corners with ease. Until very recently, tricycles continued to be primarily viewed as a child’s toy, but the last decade has seen a steady growth in popularity of adult tricycles.

Types of upright tricycles

Believe it or not, a tricycle isn’t just a tricycle; there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model. The kind of tricycle you need will depend entirely on your personal needs and how and where you plan on using it. You might even find that an upright just isn’t for you and go for a recumbent bike, but that’s a completely different animal.

Conventional modern upright

A conventional or modern upright tricycle comes in one of two wheel configurations: delta or tadpole. A trike with delta wheel configuration has one wheel in the front and two in the back. While they offer more stability than a bike, this particular trike design has poor dynamic lateral stability that increases the likelihood of tipping. Great care must be taken when cornering to avoid tipping. Tadpole wheel configuration puts two wheels in the front and one in the back, a less popular design, but one that offers a bit more stability when rounding corners or going over uneven surfaces.

upright tricycle

Rickshaw

Rickshaw tricycles, commonly referred to as “pedicabs,” are used for local passenger transport of one or two people. They first popped up in Japan in the 1860’s, initially pulled by foot, with bike components being added later. Modern rickshaws have a steering wheel in the front and two back wheels that support one- or two-passenger seating, and most come equipped with an overhead canopy to shield passengers from the sun and rain.

rickshaw tricycle

Freight

Some tricycles, such as urban delivery trikes, are specifically designed to carry freight and cargo via a steel tube carrier, an open or enclosed box, a flat platform, or a large heavy duty wire basket. Cargo carrying devices are generally mounted over one or both wheels, low behind the front wheel, or between parallel wheels either at the front or rear of the trike to keep the center of gravity low. Because they don’t emit fumes and are easier and less expensive to maintain than golf cart type vehicles, they can even be used in warehouses.

freight tricycle

Childrens

When compared to adult models, children’s tricycles are basically smaller, simpler versions. Most trikes for tikes come without brakes or gears and instead are characterized by clumsy front-wheel drive. This stage of bicycle riding development usually takes place between the ages of two and five, where they then transition to a bike with training wheels. Kids’ trike frames come in a variety of materials, including plastic, metal, and wood and tires are usually hollow plastic or solid rubber.

childrens tricycle

Drift

A drift tricycle is a special variety of tricycle that is equipped with slick rear wheels that enable them to drive and be countersteered around corners. They are most commonly used for gravity-powered descents of paved roads with steep gradients.

Drift tricycle

Electric

Electric tricycles boast the same benefits as their mechanical brethren, but with the added bonus of offering the rider a boost of power when they need it the most. Having that extra source of power available is especially helpful when you have to ride uphill. The AddMotor Motan M350 Electric 3 Wheeler Electric Tricycles is a good example of a heavy-duty, no-nonsense electric trike that fits just about anyone’s electric trike needs. And contrary to its name, no motor needs to be added.

Features to be aware of

How and where you use your tricycle will also determine the kind of tricycle features you will require.

Brakes

The type of brake on a tricycle will depend on its intended use, but it will have a coaster brake, hand brake, or combination of both.

Coaster brakes, commonly referred to as backpedal brakes, work by pedaling backwards. They’re most often found on kids’ bikes and trikes, as well as some adult cruiser bikes and trikes, and for good reason: they are less efficient than hand brakes, remove the ability to pedal backwards for stability purposes, can be annoying to place pedals in the “start position,” and won’t work if the chain falls off. Some children’s bikes come with a hybrid braking system in which there is both a coaster and hand brake, a model that helps transition from coaster to hand and that can compensate in the event that the chain does fall off.

Quality handbrakes are easy to engage and far more effective than coaster brakes. They can be placed at the front, rear, or both for more stopping power. Most tricycles have two brakes on the front wheel. It’s unusual for trikes to only have rear brakes due to traction issues, but rear brakes are often added to supplement the front ones. There are several brake designs, the most common being rim, hub, and disc.

Rim brakes are engaged by a lever that is typically mounted on the handlebar. When activated, friction pads are applied to the rim of the rotating wheel, slowing the wheel and tricycle down. While rim brakes are inexpensive, lightweight, easy to maintain, and effective, they lose their efficiency if the rims become wet or even slightly bent, are prone to clogging with debris, and can require frequent maintenance.

The hub brake, or drum brake, is another type of brake design. They’re more weatherproof than rim brakes and aren’t affected by a bent wheel. While older models are inefficient, the modern ones do a decent job of stopping. Unfortunately, many modern models are also prone to overheating.

tricycle brakes

Disc brakes are identical in design to those installed on nearly all cars: they consist of a metal disc that is anchored to the hub of the wheel and rotates with it. The brake pads are pressed against the disc through a mechanical or hydraulic caliper. Disc brakes are generally preferred over other braking systems because they are capable of performing in all riding conditions, can be easily placed on front and rear wheels for double the stopping capabilities, and are incredibly powerful, which is why you’ll see them on mountain bikes and why they’re essential in hilly terrain.

Drivetrain, shifter, and gears

For those sticking to flat terrain and who want a bike that’s as mechanically simple as possible, a single-speed will more than suffice. Because single-speeds don’t require gearing systems, they’re lighter, cheaper, and easier to maintain than geared options. As sweet as the benefits of a single-speed may sound, if you’re going to be tackling hills or carrying heavy loads, then there’s no avoiding a trike equipped with gears and shifters.

Cargo carrier

A means for carrying cargo is a standard in tricycle design, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a one size fits all feature. As mentioned above, cargo-carrying location and design often depend on the kind of tricycle it is. The main objective is to ensure your stuff stays safe, so take care when loading up; make sure that the carrier is being used as intended and that your belongings are properly secured. If an upgrade from the original carrier is needed, there are plenty of cargo carriers and pannier racks on the market—just confirm that it’s compatible with your trike before purchasing.

While tricycles can carry a surprising amount of cargo, be aware that a loaded trike is going to handle very differently than an empty one; maneuverability, cornering, and braking will be affected. When loading your trike, make sure to keep the bulk of the weight secured low and over the axle. For example, a heavy load of groceries is best to be placed in the rear “trunk” basket rather than the front basket.

Accessories

There are countless tricycle accessories on the market, but it’s unlikely you’ll need everything. Instead, focus on the essentials.

Helmet

A helmet is the most important accessory you can purchase and you should never ride without one. A decent helmet can save your life one day, so investing in a quality helmet is absolutely worth it—but only if it fits. Educate yourself on the best models within your price range and then go to a bike shop and try them on. What works for one cyclist may not work for another, which is why you want to make sure you end up with the helmet that’s best for you. A properly fitting helmet should feel snug, but not tight, and it shouldn’t shift when you shake your head. Pay attention to how the strap feels, too. If you wear sunglasses or wireless headphones, it’s recommended that you wear them during your helmet fitting to ensure that they don’t affect the overall comfort of the helmet or vice versa.

kid on trike

Lock

After a helmet, a good lock (or two) is the most essential accessory. You should always lock your bike when it’s not in use to reduce the likelihood of loss due to theft. Opt for a U-lock whenever possible and avoid using cable locks or flimsy metal chains coupled with a mediocre lock, both of which can easily be cut.

Bell or horn

Since it’s likely you’ll be sharing your riding space with others, it’s imperative that you are able to communicate your presence whenever necessary. A good way to do this is with a bell or a horn.

Lights

Riding with fully-charged bike lights is always recommended — even if you don’t actually plan on riding in the dark. Weather can always change or you could get lost, both situations that could affect the duration of your ride and your ETA. You might not be planning an evening ride, but if you unexpectedly find yourself riding in the dark, you won’t regret having them. A front and back light are recommended to ensure others see you from both directions. A study conducted in 2004 and 2005 concluded that cyclists who ran front and rear lights during the day lowered their accident rate by 19% over those who didn’t have the lights, so it might even be worth using them when sharing the road with motorists during daytime hours, too!

trike lights

Water bottle holder(s)

Some trikes come with a water bottle holder, but many do not. Having one will increase the likelihood of you staying hydrated during your ride, which should be of the utmost priority.

Phone mount

You should always have both of your hands available to control and maneuver your trike. Most people won’t need a phone mount, but if you’re going to be relying on GPS to navigate the roads, the safest way to do that is with the use of a phone mount. There are even frame bags that are a two-in-one type deal—they offer a holder for a water bottle and a place to put your phone.

Mirrors

Mirrors are a must for those who find themselves riding through busy cities or neighborhoods, as they allow for better road awareness and visibility.

Additional carrying capacity

Additional carrying capacity is only necessary if you find your current cargo-carrying situation to be insufficient. Opting for a brightly colored one is suggested as a method of making yourself more visible to those behind you

Notable models on the market

When shopping for a tricycle, it’s best to go with a reputable brand, one that’s been around for awhile and that is unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon. Many tricycle parts are specific to the model, and the last thing you want to deal with is needing a replacement part and finding out that the manufacturer is no longer in business.

Schwinn Meridian Adult Tricycle

One of the most well-known bicycle brands out there, Schwinn’s Meridian Adult Tricycle lives up to its maker’s reputation. The Meridian is available in two sizes and features a solid aluminum frame, a low step-through frame design to make getting on and off easy, a large storage compartment, and a design that is both attractive and sturdy. It’s an excellent option for beginners, but it’s worth noting that it’s a bit on the heavy side and is only available as a single speed.

Schwinn Meridian

Mantis Tri-Rad Folding Adult Tricycle

The Mantis Tri-Rad Folding Adult Tricycle not only comes in two sizes, but it comes as a single or six-speed, and can be folded for easy transport and storage! It features a steel frame and fork, which enhances both its durability and weight capacity, and a rear basket that can carry up to 40 lbs of cargo. Front fenders to protect you from mud and water puddles, a chain guard to protect clothes from getting tangled, and a bell are also standard. As perfect as it sounds, a couple of issues have been mentioned: reports of damaged parts and full assembly is required upon delivery.

Mantis Tri-Rad

Vanell Adult Mountain Tricycle

Vanell Adult Mountain tricycles are a great option for riders who require a bike that can handle more challenging terrains or a higher weight capacity; the cargo basket alone can accommodate 60 pounds of gear! A front suspension fork makes riding over uneven terrain less jarring and a front-mounted disc brake will provide excellent stopping power—even when fully loaded. One major downside to this bike is that it’s only available as a single speed, a disappointing detail since a geared option would make more sense for the more rugged terrain that a “mountain trike” would be expected to endure. It has a higher stepover than other options, which can make mounting and dismounting more difficult, and the geometry of the trike also makes for a less relaxed ride than others, as it puts the rider in a more forward-leaning position than other trikes.

Vanell Adult Mountain Tricycle

Barbella 7-speed Adult Tricycle

Barbella isn’t as well known because it’s a bit new to the market, but reviews have been very promising. It has a high-carbon steel frame, is available as a seven-speed, and comes in a variety of colors, allowing you to personalize your ride a bit more. The cargo basket is located in the back and is reportedly bigger than the cargo storage options on most bikes and it also comes standard with a comfy seat. The main issue that consumers have with the Barbella is that it requires full assembly.

Barbella 7-speed Adult Tricycle

Protect your investment

No matter what tricycle you end up with, it’s important that you protect your investment. Always keeping it well secured at home and wherever you leave it unattended outside are the best ways to protect it against theft and damage. Unfortunately, sometimes, it’s just not enough. Unforeseen circumstances can also lead to an unfortunate outcome, so having a backup plan can be a good idea. Velosurance is a bicycle insurance company that offers coverage on tricycles, too. Whether it’s theft, damage or loss while in transit, or even medical gap coverage, Velosurance has your back so you can ride worry-free.

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