In recent years, adult tricycles have been increasing in popularity. Most people are familiar with the standard upright tricycle and have likely ridden one at some point in their lives, even if only as children. However, fewer people are familiar with the recumbent tricycle, and even fewer yet have taken one out for a ride. Even though upright trikes and recumbent trikes are both categorized as “tricycles,” there are only a handful of features that they share, and each offers a dramatically different riding experience.
What is a recumbent tricycle?
The recumbent tricycle, commonly referred to as a recumbent trike, gets its name from its reclined riding position. “Recumbent,” defined as “leaning back, almost lying down, lying down,” describes the reclined position of the rider, and is perhaps its most distinguishing characteristic. While it is an entirely different animal, there are a few key characteristics that recumbent and upright trikes share. For example, both feature the addition of the third wheel, a wider seat, and the same available braking options.
A wider, more traditional “cruiser-type” seat with a wider base and attached backrest are common on most recumbent trikes instead of the narrow, sportier-looking saddle that is seen on many bicycles. The backrest means you don’t have to lean forward for the handlebars like an upright trike or bike would require. Generally, the cranks are horizontally in line with the bike seat so you can get into the recumbent position with legs outstretched in front of you, reaching toward the pedals. The posture is described as being “very leisurely.”
Riding a recumbent bike provides good exercise, but because it doesn’t require you to maintain the same balance and stability as you would on a standard bicycle, it’s generally at a lower intensity than a standard bicycle. While a recumbent offers an efficient workout, if your goal is to get the most intense cardio workout possible and you’re able to ride a standard bicycle, then a recumbent trike isn’t the way to go.
Who rides recumbent tricycles?
Anyone can ride a recumbent tricycle, but many prefer the reclined position for ergonomic reasons. On a recumbent trike, the rider’s body weight is distributed over a large area and the back and butt support the body. When compared to the upright trike riding position, which places all of the weight on the sitting bones, hands, and feet, the reclined position offers a more comfortable and enjoyable riding experience. People who are recovering from an injury or surgery, those who have specific physical needs, and are new to riding are most likely to benefit most from a recumbent bike.
Easier for those who have certain physical needs
Whether it’s because of a specific health condition, the result of an old injury that never healed properly, or simply due to the natural toll that the aging process takes on the body, a recumbent trike offers many people who are unable to ride an upright bike or trike a safer, easier, more comfortable alternative. With less stress placed on the joints, those managing osteoarthritis, knee issues, and lower back pain find that riding is actually possible! Many who live with sciatica issues often find a recumbent’s features make it possible to ride without discomfort.
A recumbent tricycle is much more stable than a standard bicycle or upright trike. The overall design of a recumbent trike is meant to offer a steadier, more balanced riding experience which translates as a more comfortable, easier to control riding experience. Anyone who struggles with balance or feels uncomfortable in the upright riding position would likely feel safer on a recumbent.
Easier for newbie riders
Because recumbent trikes are so easy to use and are lower intensity, they’re the perfect option for anyone who’s new to the cycling scene. The extra stability and comfort also add to the list of benefits for those who are unaccustomed to riding.
History of recumbent tricycles
The history of the upright tricycle dates back to the mid 1600’s, but the recumbent didn’t make its appearance until much later. In fact, while the first geared recumbents appeared in the 1890’s, it wasn’t until the 1930’s that interest truly gained momentum.
The first geared recumbents came about in the 1890’s, shortly after two-wheeled safety bikes started to increase in popularity. It is believed that an Italian professor from Geneva, Charles Challand, designed the first geared recumbent, naming it the “Normal Bicycle,” a direct reference to the rider’s more “normal” riding position (as opposed to the hunched over riding stance in which non recumbent vehicles place the rider). The recumbent tricycle craze spawned from Charles Mochet’s pre-World War I invention, the Velocar, originally designed for his young son, George, and it featured four wheels, a lower sitting position, and was human-powered.
While the old school recumbent tricycle may have changed a bit over the years, the similarities between old and new are apparent. Like modern models, the original recumbent design placed the rider directly above the back wheel and allowed them to directly steer the front wheel. The crank axle was located several inches behind the steering head and skid-shoe brakes were mentioned in a report of a timber-framed model at a Swiss National Exhibition in 1896. Impressed with Challand’s contraption, the American consul in Geneva sent a sketch of it to the State department, noting that it had made a favorable impression on the streets of Geneva. It was around this time that a Rhode Island man, Irvin Wales, applied for a patent for his recumbent bicycle design. Wales’ design included equally sized wheels, cranks behind the steering head, and featured both the standard pedal, as well as the less traditional hand drive. Wales’ hand drive worked in the same way as one would use a rowing machine, by pulling back and then releasing the sliding hand grips that are attached to the cranks by cables.
The recumbent tricycle design proved to be exceptionally faster, more efficient, and much safer than its two- and three-wheeled counterparts, and was quickly adopted into the world of racing. Recumbents performed exceptionally well in racing scenarios—so much so that they set new records in speed and efficiency! Its stellar performance drew the attention of professional and amateur cyclists alike and started a hot debate: is the recumbent bicycle really a bicycle? The Union Cycliste International, an organization that was formed in 1900 to manage the competitive world of bicycling through the development, implementation, and oversight of rules, was asked to settle the cycling score. Unfortunately, after a formal vote, the Union Cycliste International concluded that the recumbent was not a bicycle and they were banned from racing in 1934, a motion that led to the UCI publishing a document that defined what made a bike, a bike, and essentially swept these machines under the rug until the 1970’s.
In 1969, Popular Mechanics featured a special machine designed by Robert Riley—the Ground Hugger. In the mid-70’s, MIT professor David Gordon Wilson and Chester Kyle “rediscovered” them nearly 50 years later and the rest is history; in 1975, the International Human Powered Vehicle Association (IHPVA) was established, with Wilson becoming both an early supporter and one of the organization’s original directors. The same year it was established, eight recumbents were entered in the first IHPVA-hosted International Human-Powered Speed Championship, triggering a steady growth of interest in the recumbent.
Types of recumbent tricycles
Like upright tricycles, there are several recumbent trike designs on the market, so there’s bound to be one to meet everyone’s preferences. With an uptick in interest, many bike shops have also increased their instore recumbent inventory, so there’s also a better chance of being able to test ride one before purchase. Whatever style you opt for, be sure you feel comfortable and safe.
The delta design has two wheels at the back and one at front, making it similar to that of the standard upright trike. However, instead of placing the rider in an upright position, it places them in a leaning back position and offers a seat with a backrest. One or both rear wheels can be driven, while the front is used for steering (the usual layout). Steering is either through a linkage, with the handlebars under the seat (underseat steering) or directly to the front wheel with a large handlebar (overseat steering).
Tadpole tricycles, or reverse trikes, have a recumbent layout with two steered wheels at the front and one driven wheel at the back. There is one tadpole design that has the front wheels driven while the rear wheel steers.
Tandem recumbent tricycles are similar to tandem bicycles in that they allow two people to ride on the same vehicle. Instead of being in the upright position on two wheels, riders of tandem trikes are in a recumbent position with an extra-strong backbone frame to hold the extra weight of an additional rider.
Features to be aware of
Many of the recumbent trike’s features are similar to that of an upright trike. Knowing the basics is essential in finding the trike that’s best for you.
When it comes to safety, brakes might be one of the most important trike parts. That’s why it’s imperative that your bike is equipped with the best brakes you can afford. Coaster and hand brakes are the two main brake designs available for trikes. Coaster brakes are activated by pedaling backward and are not especially common on recumbent trikes, whereas hand brakes are activated by a hand-operated lever.
Whenever possible, opt for locking hand brakes, which offer safer, more efficient stopping power while also ensuring your bike doesn’t roll away. Hand brakes can be placed at the front or rear of the bike, but for those who prefer to err on the side of caution, they can be installed at both the front and the back. Some high end tadpole recumbents use two brake levers which independently control the brakes on the corresponding front wheel. Trikes are often equipped with locking brake levers which act similar to a parking brake on a car. There are several brake designs that can be found on a bicycle or tricycle, but drum and disc brakes with single-handed control are most common on recumbents.
Disc brakes have become prevalent on a variety of bikes and the technology can now be found on trikes. Disc brakes can be cable-actuated and hydraulic, with the latter offering significantly more power and better modulation. The design of trike disc brakes is the same as those that are installed on most motor vehicles, consisting of a metal disc anchored to the wheel hub and brake pads that are pressed against the disc through a mechanical or hydraulic caliper. Disc brakes are preferred over other braking systems because they’re able to overcome challenging riding conditions, can be installed on the front or rear of the bike, and are exceptionally powerful. In fact, disc brakes are a “must” for anyone riding hilly terrain.
Modern drum brakes, often referred to as hub brakes, are not affected by moisture or a bent wheel, making them a better overall option. Keep in mind that older drum brake models are known to overheat.
While both disc and drum brakes are effective in stopping a trike, they are not created equally. Performance is often dependent upon riding conditions, including weather and terrain. Some high-end tadpole recumbents use two brake levers which independently control the brakes on the corresponding front wheel. Trikes are often equipped with locking brake levers which act similar to a parking brake on a car.
Drivetrain, shifter, gears
A drivetrain, shifter, and gears will only be a thought if you plan on getting a geared trike; single speed trikes don’t require these components. When it comes to trike drivetrains, there are two choices: standard derailleur or geared bike hub. While a standard bicycle derailleur is lighter and more efficient, a geared hub is notably lower in maintenance and more reliable. It’s also possible to get a hub with automatic shifting.
Bar end shifters designed for triathlon bikes are common on trikes because they work very well on vertical handlebars. While most trikes require two handed controls, some can be retrofitted to single-handed controls.
There’s more than one way to cart your stuff around. Racks, mounts, and bags are all common ways to transport cargo on a recumbent. Ultimately, the best method to haul your belongings from point A to point B will be very specific to you and your needs.
Just like riding a bicycle or upright tricycle would require, there are some key accessories that you should never ride without. To best protect yourself and your recumbent trike, always be sure you’re riding prepared.
No matter what riding position you’re in,a helmet is always the most important accessory. Even though recumbent trikes place you closer to the ground, it doesn’t mean that you’re not at risk in the event of an accident. Always wear a helmet—even if you’re just going out for a “quick ride around the block.”
Don’t assume that no one is interested in your recumbent bike. In fact, there are plenty of thieves out there who wouldn’t think twice about riding away with any recumbent trike they found unlocked, or locked so poorly that minimal effort can be used to break it free. A durable U-lock is the best line of defense. Avoid cable locks and flimsy chains, as there’s nothing stopping anyone from using a standard bolt cutter to snap right through either, before taking off with your beloved recumbent.
Packing a well-charged bike light into your arsenal of riding stuff is always highly recommended. You might not plan on staying out into the dusk hours, but it doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t happen anyway. Having lights will promote a safer ride. Strategically placing a couple of lights onto your trike will make you visible to whoever you encounter on the road or along your riding path.
Bell or horn
The recumbent position can make it difficult for others to see you because it places you much lower to the ground, so adding lights is one way to enhance your road presence. Another way to do that is by equipping your trike with a bell or horn. While it doesn’t technically make you more visible to others, the sound of a bell or horn certainly demands attention and helps communicate to others that you’re there.
A bike flag
While not especially common, a bike flag is a simple accessory that can make a world of a difference. Flags draw more attention to your road presence; a motorist might not see you or your trike, but there’s a good chance they’ll see the flag. With so many to choose from, they’re an easy way to add some personality and flair while enhancing riding safety.
Water bottle holder
A water bottle holder is a must if you’re to stay well-hydrated. Some recumbents come with water bottle holders, whereas others require that the owner purchase and install one separately.
With so many phone mounts on the market that are meant to fill a variety of purposes and mounting surfaces, it’s easy to assume any phone mount will do. However, what many recumbent cyclists have found is that mounts designed for upright riding tend to be around 90 degrees off because they don’t account for a reclined position. To avoid this annoyance, opt for a mount that allows the user to fully rotate the device, ultimately allowing it to be positioned to whatever angle is necessary.
Because its low to the ground orientation makes it harder for motorists to see recumbent cyclists, mirrors on recumbents are more common than they are on upright trikes and bikes. Standard inexpensive mirrors can be bought just about anywhere where bike parts and accessories are sold, but many have complained that the cheaper models offer compromised visibility due to mirror mount instability, mediocre materials, and overall lousy design. Whenever possible, opt for glass-based mirrors instead of plastic and look for a reputable brand that is known for the durability of its products. Hand bars and grab handles are the best places to affix a mirror. (Note: Installing mirrors on the front mudguards will likely result in excessive shaking and is not advised).
Regardless of what you ride, it’s important that both you and your wheeled steed are protected. Locking up whenever you leave your bike unattended, including when being stored within a garage, wearing your helmet, and making yourself more visible through the use of flags, lights, and bells or horns are all ways you can actively protect yourself. But for those times when the unexpected occurs and you don’t know what to do, consider bicycle insurance. Velosurance is a bicycle insurance company that offers policies for tricycles, too, and having coverage for you and your trike could prove to be lifesaver. Whether your trike’s been stolen, damaged in transit, or has a flat that’s rendered you both stranded, Velosurance is there for you.