A Bicycle Built For You?

Sore shoulders and a bum knee forced writer Rhonda Owen to put away her bike years ago. But after spotting recumbent cyclists—laid-back and loving it—wheeling around town, she decided to give it a whirl. It should be as easy as, well, riding a bike. Right?
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Look at me, the easy rider, stretched out and laid back, gliding serenely along the pavement on a two-wheel recumbent bicycle, a steamy breeze ruffling my hair and sunshine warming my skin. This is going well, I think. Until it’s not. My glide becomes a wobble, and for some reason, the bike will only turn to the right. A concrete wall rushes toward me, and I really, really need the bike to go left. Or stop. Where are the brakes? My feet slam heel-first into the pavement, causing my knees to lock and propelling me up and …“Use the brakes!” shouts David Fike, owner of Fike’s Bike rental business at River Trail Station on North Little Rock’s downtown riverfront. He’s my coach as I check out the recumbent bicycle, whose lines resemble those of a motorcycle “chopper.” “Not your feet! HANDS! Put your hands on the brakes.” Oh, those. I’d forgotten about them while trying to steer and stay upright and stop simultaneously. Silly me.I’m checking out the recumbent—a low-riding bike with a long wheelbase, wide comfy seat and high backrest—because I had heard the style was perfect for former bike riders like me whose knees and back can no longer take the pressure of piloting an upright road bike. Before I eased into the big bucket seat, Fike explained that the laid-back posture the recumbent requires would make it possible for me to ride for hours without my neck and shoulder muscles pinching into hot, screaming knots of pain. I liked the sound of that. When I relaxed against the backrest and grasped the handlebars, which are positioned about shoulder level, I had the sensation of sitting in a recliner even with the not-too-difficult challenge of balancing on two wheels. Ah, yes. This could work.

I had become curious about recumbents after seeing several people riding them—three-wheel models called trikes, as well as the two-wheelers similar to the one I’m sitting on—on the Arkansas River Trail. Researching the bikes on the Internet, I learned that they’ve been around since the early 20th century and were very much in vogue until 1933. Their popularity plummeted after they were banned from cycling competitions when a French rider outpaced riders on conventional bikes. Recumbents’ popularity resurged after 1986, when a recumbent rider topped 65 mph to win $15,000 from chemical giant E.I. Dupont. But the majority of recumbent enthusiasts aren’t motivated by the possibility of big bucks. Fike says they’re typically people who want a more comfortable ride or may be recovering from injuries that make riding an upright bike impossible. The people who rent the recumbent bike Fike has me riding usually want to try it for the novelty of the experience.

“Let’s get you started again,” Fike says. He holds the bicycle steady as I try with first the right foot, then the left to push off and get the wheels turning. Foot to the ground, left, right, and I’m off. This time, the front wheel wants to go left. But I’m pedaling. Moving forward. It’s going well, I think. Until it’s not. I notice that my knees are knocking the handlebars every time the wheels turn. My shoulders are pinched to ear level, and my knees ache. This isn’t what I expected after talking with Meridan Zerner, a cycling instructor at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas. “Because the recumbent’s got a big bucket seat, you have more comfort in the rear or gluteal area,” she’d explained. “With that and the high backrest, you stabilize your pelvis better and take the stress off your back.” Zerner also said the handlebars’ upright position is supposed to let me relax my shoulders and neck. Also, because the bike’s center of gravity is over the rear wheel and I’m sitting with my legs parallel with my hips, my knees shouldn’t be protesting. But they are.

Disappointed, I think perhaps I’m not the recumbent type.

I decide to ask Fike to do something to stop my knees from whacking the handlebars. Hesitantly tugging the handlebars to the left, I swing out into a wide U-turn. By a hair, I avoid hitting a seasoned cyclist—who must think that because she knows what she’s doing that I do, too—who dares to pass me. I react by jerking my bike farther to the left. Now look at me. I’m off-road. Bouncing along a pitted grassy area, I angle the bike toward the pavement. A trash can blocks my path. I need to stop. Really?

This time, I coach myself: BRAKES! I squeeze the hand brakes just as the bike’s front tire taps the can.

A few minutes later, I’m with Fike, who says the problem isn’t me, but simply that the seat and handlebars need to be adjusted to fit my height, plus my leg and arm length. Aha. He moves the seat back and raises the handlebars slightly. When I push off this time, I’m in a comfortable laid-back position, knees flexing at an angle slightly higher than my hips. Shoulders relaxed, neck straight, I glide forward. No wobbling. No aches, no pains. This is going well. Very well. I feel like I could ride for hours. Next time, I will.

Look at me, the easy rider.

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