Recumbent riding on a diet

Yes, my ride is going on a diet, from three wheels to two. I’m now the proud owner of a 2003 HP Velotechnik Street Machine GT.

Street Machine GT

The new bike HP Velotechnik Street Machine GT

I’ve wanted to have a two wheeled recumbent since the beginning when I bought my trike. I actually thought I’d get a two-wheeler when I bought the trike, but got caught up in the go-cart fun-ness of the trike. It was not a bad decision, it’s been a great ride and is still my go-to ride for touring. And a trike has almost no learning curve, unlike a two-wheeled ‘bent.

I’ve been watching the ads for used recumbents for a while, off and on. There didn’t seem to be that many available, unless I wanted to travel a long distance to see it, or buy one sight-unseen and have it shipped. But I found out something that probably, had I thought about it, makes so much sense it should be a no-brainer: there are more for sale at the end of the season.

I spotted the bike first on Craig’s List. I’ve never bought anything on that site before and had only recently sold something there. But now I found several possible and affordable bikes on it in the local area. I hadn’t thought a lot about it in advance, but it was clear, now was the time to buy, if I wanted to.

I had thought about getting a long wheelbase recumbent (LWB) but I know a few people who really enjoy their short (SWB) wheelbase bikes too. So I had no preconditions on that. A LWB would be easier to get used to initially, but I didn’t really give that much thought. I had test-ridden ‘bents in the past and was sure I could learn to ride any of them.

Street Machine GT 2

Cranks & chainrings

So when I saw the bike I, it seemed like such a good deal on a very desirable bike, that I had to have it. It was ten years old, but had been kept indoors the entire time and only ridden less than 40 miles. It was essentially a brand new bike. The model is still produced, although it’s frame is now aluminum, it has changed very little. So I made contact with the seller, saw the bike and bought it.

So, I got it home and fussed around with coming up with a way to transport it on my trike carrier. I ended up making an arm out of PVC pipe that goes where one of the trike wheels fasten down and holds the frame of the bike. The rear wheel goes where the trike’s rear wheel goes. It works, but I still will use an extra tie-down strap to be sure.

Now riding a two-wheeled recumbent is not the same as riding a two-wheeled conventional bike. There are similarities and the principles are the same, but everything is backwards, or upside-down, or something. Your muscles don’t know what to do at first. They need to be retrained. I knew this, so I wisely did not just go out into the street and ride in traffic right away. I went to a place with a wide open surface that I could wobble around in without getting near any cars: the WalMart parking lot far away from the building.

Yes, I parked in the part of the lot where only tractor-trailers and RVs go and got my new bike off the rack and ready to ride. I sat on it. I had one foot on the ground and on on the pedal. I rocked back and forth a little. It was the moment of truth. I took a deep breath, pushed the pedal hard and lifted my other foot off the ground and promptly fell on it.

Street Machine GT 4

Rear triangle

No harm done, probably nobody saw it. The bike is okay. Dust things off and try again. This time remember to lean back in the seat. I mash the pedal and wobble a few feet and end up back on the ground. Well, this is embarrassing.

But I’m not giving up that easily. Back into position and try it again. This time I’m going to go further than a few feet. And I do. This time, somehow, I get my second foot up onto the pedal and contributing to my acceleration before I can fall over and I’m off, heading straight for a curb. Somehow, I turn and point myself away from the curb and into the parking lot. I’m riding! Nor very pretty, I’m wobbling around, but I’m not falling over either. I build enough speed to stabilize and concentrate on steering down the aisle markings as if there were cars parked between the lines to avoid. Had there been actual cars, I would have scraped some paint, but that’s why I’m out here in the boondocks.

Turning turns out to be both easy and hard. It’s easy to turn, but hard to turn where you want. I try just balance. It’s good for very gentle, wide radius turns, but not sharp enough to be useful. Forcing the handlebars to turn was not productive either. It liked to go straight. Then I remembered someone mentioned counter-steering. I turned the handlebars one way, then leaned the other way and turned the handlebars back. I made a nice tight turn. Almost too tight. So I rode up and down the aisles a few times, practicing turning.

So now let’s see if I can stop this thing. I rode back towards my truck and squeezed the brakes. I put my foot out to the ground, but somehow still fell over. Okay that’s going to take more practice. Better get riding again and try another stop. I pick myself up, get set, go and fall over again.

Okay, out of four attempts that made four falls and I decided to take my success of riding around and making a few turns and quit while I was ahead. Baby steps and all that.

Bicycle Man

Bicycle Man Alfred Station NY

I gave it a couple of days and let it digest. Over the weekend, I went to the Bicycle Man Rally in Alfred Station NY. Bicycle Man is the closest recumbent dealer to me at about 100 miles. They were having a special event for their customers and it was a good excuse to drive down there. It’s where I bought my trike about four years ago.

Of course, the one thing they encourage you to do, rally or not, is try their bikes out. They have a nice very low-traffic road behind their shop that you can ride up and down all you want. So I went and tried out some recumbents. I told the salesman what I was doing, how I just bought a SWB bike and needed some courage or at least practice to ride it. He had me try a few bikes, starting with a LWB and moving up to a SWB very similar to mine. With some coaching and advice, I was able to ride up and down the road on them.

So, besides the activities there for the day, I left with my confidence boosted and some tips for riding my Street Machine. It’s a sign of how close-knit the recumbent community is that several people told me they had looked at the ad for the bike I bought themselves.

So a day or two later, I’m back at the WalMart parking lot and ready to ride again. This time, I was able to take right off and ride. I spent some time again riding around the lot making turns and getting comfortable. I got up the courage to ride in lanes with actual cars and even rode past the entrance to the building. Well, this is fun! I made several stops without falling over and got going again. Finally, I rode all the way around the whole lot, behind the building and around the back and out the other side and back to my truck. All without falling once. I called it a resounding success.

Later, I drove the bike up to the Amherst bike paths and rode towards the UB Campus. The paths there are a bit like a roller coaster, so I had to work to get up some little rises, then ride the downhills afterwards. None of it was straight, so I got a lot of steering practice. There is also a lot of foot traffic to navigate around.

I remember at one point coming up behind two ladies walking and there were a couple of bikes oncoming, so I couldn’t pass. I also couldn’t slow to their speed and stay upright! So I had to stop. I must have blurted out something like “I can’t go that slow.” and they turned around. I explained that I was learning to ride this crazy bike and felt like a kid who just got his training wheels off. We laughed about it. I laughed so much I had a hard time getting going again. By the time I did and caught up to the women, they had gone quite a ways. I stopped at benches a couple of times and sat down for a break and eventually, made a short loop around a section of the trails and headed back to the parking lot. I couldn’t have gone more than a few miles, but it felt like a lot. I used to rollerblade those trails from one end to the other and back. Today I probably didn’t do a quarter of it.

But it’s progress. And it was enough that I’m confident that I’ll master riding the Street Machine. Even on the street.

Learning to ride a recumbent is completely different from a regular bike. And the same. It’s different because every reflex you learned to ride a diamond frame bike is now wrong. It’s the same because you are now going through the same process you went through back when you rode your first bike. You’re learning responses to balance. You’re instilling muscle memory. You’re learning to relax. And you’re enjoying every little success as if you’re the first person that ever experienced it.

I remember learning to ride a bike as a kid. I must have had a hard time at first, because I remember other kids having bikes while I didn’t. I walked. Part of the problem probably was that I didn’t have a bike that fit me. My bike was inherited from one of my uncles and was way too big for me. It was a big heavy baloon-tired bike that was great once I could ride it because it was indestructable, but was not easy to learn on.

I remember having a breakthrough one day when I was at my cousin’s house. There was a tiny little bike that nobody used because they had all graduated to bigger bikes. It couldn’t have had more than 12 inch wheels. So I was just goofing around on it, not even pedaling (my knees would have been up to my chest) but just rolling along on it. Next thing I knew, I was balancing. I’d give it a big push and roll around the driveway doing turns and circles and having a great time.

I transferred that skill eventually to my own – too-big – bike. I remember learning to get a running start, putting the pedal straight up and standing on it, simultaneously using my body weight to push it down and the bike forward, while using it as a step to swing my other leg up and over the seat. I don’t know how many times I fell over before I mastered that, but I remember that it helped to push the bike up to the porch steps and stand on the first step to get it started.

So learning to ride my new recumbent is a little like that, though thankfully not so hard the second time around. I’m looking forward to it becoming as effortless and exhilarating as only riding a bike can be.

Posted in Cycling

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