Biking the back roads of Harvard last week with Chris Paulhus, I started off feeling superior. For one, I sat much taller on my conventional road bike that Paulus reclining on his recumbent cycle -- an elongated, low-slung beach chair on mismatched wheels. Even better for my ego, I had to wait at the tops of hills for him to catch up.
But on the downhills, Paulhus dropped me like President Clinton dropped Lani Guinier. Not only does gravity favor a heavier rider on a heavier bike, but the recumbent rider meets less wind resistance.
Paulhus, a fiftysomething mechanical engineer from Harvard, ordered his first recumbent bike in 1980, the day after saddle sores took the fun out of cycling a century in Rhode Island.
"It takes a while to get used to. It took about 1,000 miles before I could really lean into corners easily," he said.
"The basic thing is comfort," he said. "There's no neck strain. You're totally relaxed from the hips up." His arms hang naturally to reach brake levers on a straight handlebar that goes under the seat and is connected by a rod to the 16-inch front wheel for steering.
Many people aren't used to seeing recumbents, and Paulhus gets lots of astonished looks and comments. One time a woman remarked, "He does so well for a handicapped person."
The bike is less efficient for going up hills than a standard diamond-frame model becaues a recumbent rider can't use the gluteus (buttocks) muscles as effectively and must rely more on the quadriceps (thighs).
But on a flat stretch, the aerodynamic advantage can add 1 or 2 mph to Paulhus' speed.
Ken Lamura, an oral surgeon from Holden, recently bought a 21-speed Lightning recumbent cycle when, recovering from surgery, he had trouble sitting on a regular bike seat. It has the same short wheelbase as a conventional bike, compared to the 63 inches on Paulhus' bike, so it's "a little bit more twitchy but a lot more responsive," Lamura said. It also has handlebars up front instead of under the seat.
Lamura said he doesn't intend to quit riding his regular bike but enjoys the recumbent "just for a change of pace."
At workshops Paulhus presents at League of American Wheelmen rallies, the most common questions are about efficiency and safety, he said. Except for the few seconds after he crests a hill and becomes invisible to motorists still climbing behind him, he doesn't worry about drivers failing to see his low-riding vehicle. In intersections, where car-bike accidents are most likely, most drivers can't take their eyes off his bike and give him plenty of room, he said.
Paulhus once predicted that by now, about 5 percent of bicyclists would use recumbent cycles, and he is disappointed that they are still oddities.
"Recumbent riders have to be individuals," he said. "If you follow the crowd, you're not going to last long on one of these."
The Recumbent Club of America, formed in 1990, claims about 1,500 members. For more information, call the club at (206) 630-7200.
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