In the 1930's, cycling's international governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) banned recumbent bikes from competition because they gave an unfair aerodynamic advantage. Not to be deterred, bike technology enthusiasts formed the International Human Powered Vehicle Organization, which doesn't discriminate based on frame shape or aerodynamic fairing (streamlined wind shields to reduce drag). Faired recumbent bikes hold every human-powered speed record from 200 meters to 3,000 miles. In September 2008, a faired recumbent bicycle reached 82.33 mph on flat ground.
The most effective way to go faster on a bicycle is to improve aerodynamics. As a cyclist speeds up, air resistance increases exponentially and increased effort reaches a point of diminishing returns. Add a headwind to the resistance created by riding, and aerodynamics become even more important. Wind speeds are slower close to the ground, giving a recumbent bike less resistance to overcome. Also, since a recumbent rider's feet are in front of him rather than below him, he reduces frontal surface area by up to 30 percent. To reduce frontal surface area on a road bike, the rider hunches onto aero bars--a position that constricts the lungs and sacrifices comfort for speed.
Upright cyclists reduce wind resistance by drafting (sitting in the slipstream of another rider). In a paceline, riders take turns blocking the wind for the group. The second rider gains the same wind resistance reduction as a recumbent rider (30 percent). Each successive paceline rider enjoys a compounded drafting advantage, making group riding more effective at reducing drag than a recumbent bike, which cannot safely ride in a paceline.
When a cyclist is climbing or sprinting on a road bike, he can stand and use his body weight to apply extra power to the pedals. Skeptics argue that because a recumbent cyclist can't stand up, her maximum power is limited. However, in the same way you can lift more weight on a leg press machine than a free weight squat, a recumbent rider uses the back of her seat as leverage to push for more maximum power than on an upright bike.
On flat ground aerodynamics decide speed, making a recumbent faster than an upright bike. Bicycling Life claims that riders who ride both kinds of bikes report average cruising speeds three to eight mph faster on a recumbent than upright bike, with faster riders gaining the biggest aerodynamic advantage. However, like any new activity, it takes time to develop the muscles for recumbent cycling. If you are a strong rider, don't expect tremendous speed gains just because you buy a recumbent bike.
Going downhill, a recumbent bike can reach higher speeds because of its heavier frame and superior aerodynamics. Recumbent Cycling Ontario claims that a recumbent's higher terminal velocity permits speeds 34 percent faster than an upright bike. Recumbent bikes climb slowly because they are heavier and the rider cannot pull up on the handlebars. All other things being equal, a road bike is faster on a hilly course than a recumbent.
- Photo Credit Photo by Man Vyi from Wikimedia Commons, Photo by Perfecto Insecto from Flickr, Photo Slim Virgin from Wikimedia Commons
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