‘Bent, Not Bento

We’ve been thinking about the issues of fitness, health and transportation around here, and are looking at recumbent bikes — or, in my case, recumbent trikes. Our nearest ‘bent dealer is three hours away, so I took the day off to test drive the entry-level model we’ve been considering.

Serious recumbents are expensive — three or four thousand dollars and up, depending. Even entry-level ‘bents aren’t cheap, and entry-level trikes cost more than two-wheelers. We’re considering a ‘bent as a car replacement, though, which changes the picture a bit. An entry-level ‘bent, at one-tenth the price of a good used car, doesn’t seem quite as extravagant as it otherwise might.

I knew that I wanted a recumbent for comfort (as well as for the sake of my spine), and I wanted a trike for stability. Underseat steering was a must, as my arms aren’t happy when held out or up for hours at a time. All three of the trikes I rode today met these criteria, but the three could not have been more different.

sun.jpgOnline, it looked as if the Sun EZ3 USX ($950 USD) would be the perfect choice. It was sitting, appropriately, in the autumnal sun, in all its silvery glory, when I arrived at Recumbent Bike Riders. (If it’s a six-hour round trip, call ahead.) Rob, the store’s owner, quickly adjusted it to my size and I tooled around the shop’s large (and mercifully, empty) parking lot.

I loved it. The Sun’s wheelbase felt long and elegant. The cycle flowed across the lot, and I felt utterly relaxed. The Sun is a delta trike, meaning that the double wheels are behind the rider’s seat, and the single front wheel provides directional turning. Reality intruded only when I needed to steer or shift: because my legs are short, the seat was too close to the steering bar (a situation that might be partially remedied with a more complex adjustment). I was forced to hold my elbows too close to my torso, cramping my arms and hands. Not so good.

z.jpgInside, I spied a Sidewinder (about $1600 USD). The Sidewinder is a tadpole trike; the dual wheels are in front. The Sidewinder’s single rear wheel steers — a feature I found very counter-intuitive. I found myself thinking hard about directional matters, which, oddly, helped not at all.

Counter-intuitive or not, the Sidewinder was a blast to ride. It’s positively nimble compared to the Sun, and has a tight, and hugely entertaining, turning radius. The geek in me loved the kooky differential (what’s up with that?), and I liked the looks of the frame, with its curved side bars, very much. The model I rode was an oh-so-suitable ruby red — a bit of dash that only added to its appeal.

However, something about the Sidewinder’s seat/pedal axis just didn’t seem right to me. (In fairness, Rob had pointed out that he thought I’d need different seat bars to get the right angle. Yes, I’m short!) Although this trike was the most fun to ride, it wasn’t particularly comfortable. I was beginning to feel a little bit like Goldilocks — in love with an idea, but not finding anything that was just right.

cruiser.jpgThen Rob suggested the notably plain-framed, stripped-to-the-basics TerraTrike (about $1300 USD). It wasn’t glamorous, like the long and lanky Sun, nor sexy like the Sidewinder, but something clicked. The TerraTrike is another tadpole, but with front wheel steering that felt very natural. The steering felt almost primitive, in a lovely, historic way — reminiscent of a very early motor car. Rob thought that the pedals were just as high as on the Sidewinder, but the angle on the TerraTrike felt much better. My arms fell perfectly into place and the trike felt “just right”. No glam, no tricks, but well-suited to me. Good enough for a long day’s cruising.

turnpike.jpgSome, though not all, recumbents can be ordered directly from dealers, but we had already decided not to go that route. I’m mechanically inclined, but no longer interested in fiddling with everyday things, so we want to be within driving distance of a shop if/when troubles arise. A long drive on a day like today when the air is crisp and clear, the hills are beautiful, and the turnpike empty, is almost as relaxing as touring on a cycle. And, in any case, it’s important to support the guys who do keep ‘bents in stock so that they can be tried before purchase.

It was all I could do to resist the temptation to bring the thing home on the roof of the very tiny car I’d driven. In the end I did the responsible thing — we’ve got a few issues to clear up here, as Allium’s huge international employer is cleaning house after some spectacular failures, and we’ve got to figure out how to manage the garage so that the trike can live there, too. Rob threw a bit of a wrench into the works, too, when he pointed out that he’s expecting to see some more, good-quality, entry-level ‘bents this coming spring. Can I really wait until then? This was one sweet afternoon . . .

Turnpike photo from Flickr

Update (11/7/07): After a series of unpleasant emails from Sun representative Joe Z., I will not recommend Sun products to anyone, and definitely won’t be buying one myself. If you’re interested in a lower-priced recumbent, I’d urge you to wait until spring, when Sun is expected to have a great deal more competition as newer, less-expensive models from other companies join the field.