In the last post, I mentioned that my friend Don Bynum doesn’t ride a conventional bike — he rides a three-wheeled recumbent, a Catrike. I first saw one of these years ago, when a guy rode one on the first century ride I did. I was impressed by its quickness.
Don likes to tweak those of us who still ride our “prostate crushers” and proselytizes for the three-wheeler. It bears a closer look, methinks.
Recumbent bikes come in two- and three-wheeled versions. The three-wheelers can have either two wheels in the rear — a “delta” — or two wheels in front — a “tadpole.” I think it’s safe to say, without any empirical corroboration, that the “tadpole” trike is the favored variety. A seat (and it’s properly called a “seat” and not a saddle, because you sit in it like a chair) is slung in the middle. The pedals are mounted on a boom that sticks out in front. The resulting balance is excellent — and you don’t have to be moving forward to stay upright.
Don tells a familiar story about adopting a recumbent. Conventional upright bike saddles hurt too much. He says he spent about $1500 over a five or six-year period on “anatomically correct” saddles, but “a 10-mile ride would leave me completely without feeling in my ‘tender parts’ for a couple of days.”
He rode a two-wheeled recumbent, but when he decided to move to the Hill Country of Texas, he got the Catrike. “Since I was obviously going to be riding in hilly terrain and getting clipped back in if I needed to pause to keep my heart from exploding, or to enjoy some sight, getting back going was going to be very difficult [on a 2-wheeler],” he said. “There is a great benefit in this area, where hills of 18%+ grade are not uncommon, to being able to simply put on the brakes, relax for a minute, then just start up with no ‘clip-in drama.’”
During our ride, Don often pulled out into the traffic lane and sailed by the rest of us, even when we were motoring along at a nice clip. On downhills, the thing simply takes off. Don says he’s comfortable hitting speeds above 45 mph, even on curvy roads. He’s posted several videos of him flying down grades.
Its downhill speed is obviously helped by its weight. Don says the Catrike Road weighs about 32 pounds, and he loads it up with other equipment. “I purposely carry more water than I need and often ‘bail out’ my fellow riders who go off into the hills with only two half-liter bottles on board, where no 7-11 can be found,” he said. ”I often carry six 700mL bottles and can add three more in a bag on the luggage rack if needed.”
That extra weight is also a big disadvantage. Whenever we hit even a slight upgrade, Don fell behind. The Catrike is geared low enough that he can climb most any hill he encounters, and often pedals up hills his diamond frame friends are forced to walk. “It needs lots of gears and the low end needs to be really low,” Don said. ”I think my rear cassette has a 32 tooth low gear.” But he says he’s getting better at keeping up with other riders, and on our ride, he would pull in to rest stops less than a minute after we arrived. And he admits it does have a harsh ride on rough pavement.
What about safety issues?
The Catrike is low to the ground, no doubt about it. That means it can be hard to see. Don says the big problem there is riding alongside parked cars. Where a road biker is perched high enough to be seen in a rear-view mirror (and theoretically avoid being doored), the Catrike is down out of sight. But he contends that most of the time, that odd appearance works to his benefit.
“The thing looks so weird that it seems to register on drivers’ addled brains when even a large Harley, much less a Cannondale road bike does not,” he said. ”My big traffic problem has, so far, been people stopping me to inquire about what the heck it is, how much it cost and where to get one — most turn pale at the response to the cost question.” (MSRP on a Catrike Road is $2,950, according to the Catrike website.)
Another important safety consideration — always wear cleats. “There is a natural tendency to, in a moment of crisis, try to put one’s feet down to help stop,” Don said.” The result is very likely to be running over your own feet and legs, pinning them under the front axles so badly that another person must lift one front wheel off the ground, help get one leg out, then go to the other side and repeat the process.” With cleats, the rider just focuses on braking.
But you’re not likely to fall off a Catrike (Don cautions that delta-style recumbents have a higher center of gravity and are more susceptible to rolling). And even mossy low-water crossings are not a problem. “You get wet,” Don said, “but a steady hand and just coasting through seems very safe. And if you hit the water at 25-30mph it is very cooling as well.”
Don says trike owners are probably going to have to become their own mechanics, because of the very long chains found on recumbent bikes. Even though the drive train components are the same as you find on an upright bike, bike shops generally aren’t good at setting up recumbents, Don says.
Finally, Don urges trike owners to get out there and ride: “I regret that most Catrike riders seem to be absolutely freaked at the idea of a hill bigger than a freeway overpass in Houston or a ride longer than 10-15 miles. But that is their loss.”