Recumbents and Velomobiles

Banned by the Union Cycliste International in the thirties because their performance advantage was considered unsporting, recumbents or Human Powered Vehicles remained no more than an evolutionary footnote in cycling history until a few innovative souls began racing them again in the 1970s. Riders of modern HPVs can achieve speeds in excess of 85mph in competition but regular cyclists can benefit from some of their features such as improved comfort, more efficient aerodynamics and better weather protection.

You never forget your first time. After the initial bewilderment, the false starts and hysterical wobbling you catch the spirit, and with a heave that pushes you deep into your seat you glide into the world of recumbent riding: cycling's equivalent to the flying carpet. You're not on your bike, you're in it. The combination of sofa-like seat and head-up riding position make you feel like you're watching the country pass by in panoramic wide-screen.

You can't somersault over the handlebars, so you can fit (and use) the most powerful brakes available. You can't ground the pedals, so you can keep pushing round corners. Recumbents might look dangerously close to car-bumper level, but in fact on most city recumbents the seat is higher than that of a car. Instead of looking through you, cycle-blind drivers are more likely to give you a double-take.

It may take you some time to fully appreciate the qualities of a recumbent, for the riding style is quite different and both your brain and your body will need time to adapt. You certainly can't stand on the pedals and 'honk', and you use different muscles, all of which can make hill-climbing slower, especially for the novice rider. But the overall speed is still competitive, if you include the downhill stretches: recumbents are generally more aerodynamic than uprights. Recumbents are more expensive than regular bikes, partly because they are more complex to manufacture but mainly because they are still made in relatively small batches. Prices are slowly dropping as they become more popular due to manufacturing economies of scale.

Recumbents vary just as much as uprights: there are trikes, tandems, tandem-trikes, load-carriers, racers, tourers, city-bikes, and more. Alongside the usual variations of components, suspension, and frame materials comes the question of wheelbase. Recumbents with the wheels close together are often speedier and more manoeuvrable; the long wheelbase varieties are traditionally more popular for touring, and are easier for beginners to ride. The recent emergence of medium wheelbase recumbents is an attempt to reap the benefits of both styles.

Then there are cultural differences. North Europeans tend to prefer under-the-seat steering with relatively short wheelbases, where-as Americans tend to go for longer wheelbases and above-seat 'easy-rider' steering. Then there are many countries where recumbents are as yet virtually unknown.

Have a spin on a recumbent, and you'll love it! Stealing along with the wind in your hair, not just down the back of your neck, on an exclusive machine designed by someone you may well be on first-name terms with, you're part of cycling's cutting edge. A great view, great comfort: just lie back and enjoy!

Velomobiles

A velomobile is a fully enclosed recumbent, three or four wheeled pedal-powered vehicle. The improved aerodynamic efficiency of the lightweight body-shell allows higher cruising speeds as well as protection from the elements.

Velomobiles can offer a higher level of mobility than the motor car, need no fossil fuel, cause no pollution, have full weather protection, and have higher comfort and safety than a conventional bicycle. Magic machines? Maybe.

The trick is to combine a full fairing for weather protection and aerodynamics with lightweight, practical design. It is a fascinating concept, and challenges the supposed advantages of the motorcar. The velomobile is a human-scale alternative, which can catch the attention of the vast non-cycling public. Some velomobile owners ride 10-20,000 km per year: more than many car drivers. It's an idea to change people's lives.

The term 'Velomobile' covers a wide range of vehicles. Some have fairings which are removeable for fine weather, others are of monocoque design. Some have the option of motor assistance to extend their range and make hills easier. Detail is important: ventilation has to be just right, lighting is usually integrated in the design, and the weight must be strictly controlled. Most velomobiles designed for human power alone weigh in at under 30kg.

Some velomobiles are built for speed, others are designed to work for their living, offering owners a relaxed, comfortable way of getting around. No need to take a bag of weather-proof clothing to work every day, in case the weather changes. You have your own personal space, warm and dry. There is a vibrant subculture of velomobile owners, many of whom cover tens of thousands of kilometres a year. Their popularity in the often icy, windy flat-lands of Denmark and the Netherlands is understandable.

Building velomobiles is not easy. The designer has to juggle ergonomics, aerodynamics, practicality, durability and economics. The shell needs to be light, but strong; apart from any knocks, it will receive a huge amount of shaking and jarring over its life. Visibility, too, is important, as are ventilation and lighting.

There has been quite a surge in the number of velomobiles made and sold over recent years, primarily in Northern Europe. The whole genre is attracting interest, and velomobile designers get together regularly at international conferences on the subject.

Velomobiles are never going to replace bicycles. For simplicity, effectiveness and cheapness there is still nothing to beat just jumping on a bike and pedalling away. But the velomobile occupies a very special niche in the transport market. It offers people an eco-friendly way of travelling – a car replacement, without the problems of running costs, high insurance, and pollution.

Interestingly, good old fashioned wind sails have found their way onto recumbent trikes recently, such innovation in the search for environmentally friendly transport solutions and on-going developments in technologies such as solar capture and hydrogen fuel-cell are set to have a very interesting and positive effect on the future evolution of velomobiles.

Is there a velomobile in your future? Maybe not.

Your children's future?

Click here to visit Cyclorama's selection of some of the world's very best recumbent bikes, trikes and velomobiles.