Building a Better Bike

I’ve enjoyed cycling. I wouldn’t call myself a cyclist. Bicycles are basically a pain in the bum. Also a pain in the shoulders. And if you’ve any pretensions of sportiness you’ll have your head down over the handlebars and will also get a pain in the neck, if you want to avoid running into things.

There must be a better way. While cycling in Spain something low and brightly yellow zipped past very fast with a hiss of rubber and smooth whine of free wheeling derailleur. WTF? I was doing 37 mph down the side of a mountain! The rider  (pilot?) must have been doing at least 50 without pedalling. A gently twisting descent, the yellow thing was out of sight in seconds, no time to take in details but a seed had been planted.

I discovered what I had to have was something called a “recumbent”. They came in many forms and configurations. The technology and design was young and in a state of flux but they had one thing in common: One sat reclined on a hammock facing skywards rather than hunched over the handle bars looking at the ground with a piece of hard plastic or leather stuffed up one’s backside. Yo! There was a better way!

Reality check. These machines were nearly all custom made. There were one or two semi mass produced models but more of a novelty line than a serious bike. They were talking £2000 plus for a credible bespoke machine. Out of the question.

But not out of mind. I’d worked on some mind bendingly complex projects in the past, how difficult could it be to design and build one? I owned three bikes, I could sacrifice one to the cause. I brought home a couple of dumped bikes found on waste ground. After a couple of weeks looking at other designs I decided on a feet in front of front wheel configuration. The pedals would be mounted on a strut extending out and above the front wheel.

I’d done a bit of brazing in the past so this was to be the method of “gluing” the bits together. A mig welder would have been a better choice but cost ruled that out. I had to buy a small 20″ front wheel but otherwise the three bike frames gave me all the bits I needed to build a rolling chassis. With the extended chain hanging almost to the ground and no brakes at all, I was soon wobbling along in a fixed gear on a quiet lane. This was really going to work!

I added lugs for V brakes. A 3 speed hub gear combined with a 7 cog derailleur gave me 21 gears. I sprayed the frame bright red and added a comfy foam padded seat. It even looked good. Weird, but good.

It took a few weeks to adapt physically but soon I was cruising along in what looked like a very cool way, literally “laid back”. The best part was downhill. Going over the brow of a hill was like falling off a cliff. Wind resistance was so much less, even on a moderately steep descent I’d reach speeds of over 50 mph. I regularly overtook cars and motorbikes.

Not all was plain sailing. A common problem with recumbents is “numb bum”. Your weight is mostly on your bum cheeks and after an hour of pedalling at first a numbness occurs, and shortly after a dull ache. Another problem was the amount of interest it generated. I could not go anywhere on it without having to explain the ideas behind it. Even if I never made a stop I’d get other cyclist alongside keen to know all the details and often wanting to race me.

So, an exciting ride, definitely good fun. Design and building made a very interesting project. But I’m glad I couldn’t afford to buy a ready made one for £2000.






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