Recumbent Bike vs Upright

This article is for people who have questions about Recumbent Bike vs Upright Bike

For as long as I can remember I’ve had bicycles… everything from the old hand me down beater, to 3 speed, to Schwin 10 Speed Road Bike, Hard Tail and Fully Suspended mountain bikes, and now recumbent bikes.  I’ve ridden all types of bicycles so I’m in a pretty good position to evaluated the different characteristics and pros and cons.Most people looking at Recumbent Bicycles are not new to cycling but because Recumbent Bikes are so scarce in the United States and most Cycling Shops don’t carry Recumbent Bikes there is little information on what people who are considering adding a Recumbent to their cycling experience want to know.  People in this position want to compare Recumbent Bikes vs Upright Bikes.

The Recumbent Bike vs Upright Bike

First off it’s important to note that comparing and Upright in the sense of riding position alone to a Recumbent Bike isn’t really possible without actually experiencing the different positions in person by riding.

When you are on an upright bicycle you assume one of two positions:

1. The hunched over,  seat up your butt crack position of Road Bikes or Mountain bikes

2. The upright arms in front of you cruising on the beach position of comfort bikes.  Comfort bikes are heavy and slow for the most part so people choose road bikes or mountain bikes.

A BETTER ALTERNATIVE:  On most recumbent bikes you are in a more laid back, more reclined feet out in front of you position. The differences are not subtle, they are huge.  Recumbent bikes position your spine for comfort. You can enjoy your cycling experience so much more when your head is upright and you are not in pain.  And you don’t have to sacrifice speed on flat terrain, although most recumbent bicycles are not great hill climbers.

There are actually two positions for Recumbent Bicycles.  The first position is much like any ordinary comfort bicycle except your feet are a little further out in front of you.  This type of position is typical for long wheel base Recumbent Bikes from manufacturers like Sun Bicycles or Easy Racers.

This Photo Shows Recumbent Riding Positions

Recumbent Bicycle Riding Positions

Note the extreme postion vs upright position

Photo Source:

In this photograph you can see an extreme laid back position for the first cyclist on his Recumbent Low Rider vs the more upright and relaxed position of the second cyclist on the long wheel base recumbent bicycle followed by the Velomobile.

Most riders starting out with Recumbent bicycles will choose a bicycle like the long wheel base pictured. They are fast enough for most recreational riders, easy to steer, and extremely comfortable. This type of recumbent bicycle handles much better than low racer bike pictured.  But an experienced cyclist on a low rider recumbent can go very very fast on flat terrain.  How fast?  So fast that all the major speed records for cycling are held by recumbent riders.  I’m not going to get into the specifics other than to say as speed increases above 25mph wind resistance and areodynamic drag really kick in.

Because your feet are flat on the ground and you are sitting it’s easy to start and stop.  If you ride a comfort bicycle you can easily ride this type of recumbent bicycle.  The extreme laid back position of the low racer recumbent pictured here is not the kind of bicycle you want to use to learn how to ride recumbent bikes.  At slow speed low racers are very “twitchy” and if you are not experienced you’ll probably just fall over.  These low riders are for more experienced riders who want to go fast and have open roads to ride.

So back on point.  When you are riding a recumbent bicycle you typically have 2 positions – upright with your feet forward and below your hips, or reclined with your feet forward and above your hips.  A mid racer or high racer bicycle will retain the riding position of the first rider reclined with feet up.  Although there will be varying degrees of seat height and crank height.  Keep in mind when you feet are up in the air it can create circulation problems in some individuals which result in numb toes or soreness.  Personally I even encounter this from time to time after years of riding.

Another thin to consider when you have your feet in front of you and up in the air is that you don’t crash head first when you crash, you tip over.  At high speed this can result in some pretty serious leg injuries especially if your feet are clipped into the pedals.  Yes I’ve crashed, but not at high speed and while you are crashing you don’t have time to release your feet from the pedals most of the time.  I’ve never had my feet not release after I hit the ground and I’ve never been seriously injured on my Recumbent.  I have taken some pretty bad falls while being launched over the handle bars from my Mountain Bikes.  So this is a consideration for people who ride in traffic.  And yes I do ride in traffic and I do ride with my feet clipped into the pedals.  My preference for riding is to use Mountain Bike shoes and clips.

Enjoying the Experience – Recumbent vs Upright

I have loved my mountain bikes.  I have fond memories of flying down stairs, curb jumping, single track, gravel roads, cutting across just about any terrain and just going wherever I wanted to ride.  I can’t do this on my recumbent – it’s a road bike.  I have to be more selective of my routes, I have to ride on pavement or very hard packed surfaces (Recumbents set up for touring can handle different terrain than my bike).  Having said that I experience a whole new level of enjoyment on the Recumbent Bicycle.  I ride past people grimacing in pain all the time on their Road Bikes.  They are all hunched over with a 1″ strip of synthetic leather poking up their hiny, they just look miserable.  They are looking mostly down at the road and a few feet ahead of their path.

On the other hand I have a clear view in all directions, I’m completely relaxed and have that big shit eating grin on my face all the time as I pass them.  Now when I say pass them I’m mostly talking about riding by in opposite directions.  I’m not a racer, but I can ride fast when I want to.  On the flats I usually cruise along about 18mph.  An upright road bike being ridden by a recreational rider will be about this same speed.  I could go faster if I wanted to pedal faster but what it the point?  I’m not in any pain riding, I love the experience and I cruise around for fun.  I’m in no rush to get from point A to point B.  Most of the roadies I see are out there in all their tights trying to go as fast as possible all the time.  I don’t really get that, but it is what it is.

When I get back from my rides my back is usually a little warm and sweaty from the reclined position on my bike.  For this reason I wear polyester cycling jerseys and stop now and again to cool it down a bit when it’s hot.  In cooler weather this is an advantage and helps keep you warm.  So it’s give and take depending on the temperature.  But the great thing is when I get home my butt isn’t sore, my back doesn’t hurt and I can resume my normal daily activities.  In the past when I returned from my Mountain Biking escapades my butt bone (That’s the medical term) would be sore, and my neck would be aching.  I loved the ride, but paid the price later on.  There were days I’d want to go and ride again but didn’t want to have to go through the sore butt pain.  Those days are behind me!  No special padded bike tights required now!

Recumbent bikes give you a new freedom to experience the joy of cycling, without the pain.  I’ve seen people in their 60’s and 70’s enjoying recumbent bikes (Usually men, as it seems to be a male centric endeavor).  So just because you are older doesn’t mean you can’t ride… you can.  In fact recumbent bikes are the perfect bicycle as you age.  Better yet why not consider a recumbent tricycle.  With a trike you don’t have to worry about balance issues and you can just stop and rest all comfy in your seat when the need arises.  Its’ win/win.

Recumbent bikes are great for all ages!  One caveat – if I had children below the age of 12 I’d want them on an upright simply so they can maneuver better and cars can see them better.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve almost been hit by people on cell phones and driving or pulling out of parking lots and only looking one direction.  When you are on a bike you have to be careful of drivers, when you are on a recumbent you have to be extra careful because you really can not maneuver as quickly.  It all depends on the type of recumbent you are riding and the position of your feet.  With my bike I don’t steer it as much as I “Pilot” it.  You do a lot of leaning and subtle motions in your turns as opposed to outright steering.

Well I know this is not the end all most conclusive article you’ll read comparing a recumbent bike vs upright but I hope it has somehow helped those who are considering a recumbent bicycle.  If you can find one to test ride that fits your body geometry I think you’ll be hooked.  This is the most enjoyable and pain free experience on two wheels under your own power.  Recumbent bikes are not great climbers and can be really hard on the knees in hilly areas so keep this in mind.

We have an entire section here at Recumbent Bicycle Source listing links to manufacturers for you to explore.

Happy Riding!

If you have comments regarding Recumbent vs Upright Bikes please feel free to leave them below.  You can also leave questions and I’ll try to answer them time permitting.