Alternative cycling: Recumbent bikes

"Lawn chair on your left!" That's what some bike riders now call out when they whiz past pedestrians.

They are among a group of older athletes who are ditching traditional upright bicycles for a more comfortable alternative: the recumbent bike.

Upright bikes often cause stain on the shoulders, neck and back. The recumbent alleviates much of the pain because the rider sits back in a large mesh seat with his or her feet extended out toward the pedals. "It's comfort like you wouldn't believe," says Neal Drago, an avid recumbent rider.

Although recumbents have been around since the mid-1800s, they started appearing on city streets and bike paths in the 1990s. The riders were usually aging athletes whose aches and pains didn't allow them to ride regular bikes.

Charlie Ervin is the owner of Two Wheel Drive, a local bike shop that was one of the first in Albuquerque to sell the unusual-looking recumbents. About eight years ago he met a middle-age customer with carpal tunnel syndrome. The woman had tried all types of bikes, but the pain persisted -- until she hopped on a recumbent.

"It hit me right then that it really was an important bike," Ervin says. "She said she had gotten her life back."

Soon "there was sort of a mass realization around the country," says Ervin. And more bike manufacturers began making recumbent models.

Today, Two Wheel Drive stocks several styles of recumbents. So do other local stores like Sportz Outdoor and Bike World. Mike Snyder, manager of one Bike World location, says he sells 12 to 20 recumbent bikes each year.

Why a recumbent?

Even though recumbents have grown in popularity, they remain part of a specialized market.

Ervin says recumbent riders typically fall into two categories: the "geeks," who like the technology and novelty of the recumbent, and people whose medical conditions stopped them from riding regular bikes.

Kurt Olson is a geek. The 53-year-old psychiatrist laughs when he recalls the first time he saw a recumbent bike. "I said, 'What the hell is that?' It was wild." He now owns four recumbent bikes and two recumbent tricycles, which are lower to the ground than the bikes.

"Recumbents are certainly more comfortable," Olson says. They are also nice alternatives to gas-guzzling automobiles. "I start up the car about once a month," he brags.

Recumbents aren't always a ride in the park. Unique pains can be associated with them, such as "recumbent-butt," a numbness in the derriere that can develop during long rides. And visibility can be a problem. Once seated in a recumbent, it's impossible to turn around to look back. Most riders mount rearview mirrors to keep an eye on traffic behind them.

The bikes are also low to the ground, so riders often carry bright flags to make themselves seen by other drivers.

Drago, an avid rider of recumbent tricycles, says drivers are surprisingly considerate of recumbents.

For 45 years Drago was a mechanic and an avid upright biker. He used to work all morning and take his bike out for 10- or 12-mile rides on his lunch hours.

Different frame of mind

But all those years working under cars left him with shoulder and neck pain that threatened his riding. He couldn't imagine what would happen if the wheels on his bike stopped turning. "I don't think I could be happy being sedentary," he says.

Seven years ago he discovered recumbent bikes and quickly grew enamored.

Drago says recumbents exercise different muscles and are generally slower than regular bikes. But he likes the differences.

"It's a whole different frame of mind. You can relax, see the scenery, enjoy life," says Drago, who is retired.

Greg Ogawa, 42, also turned to recumbents when a medical condition left him unable to ride an upright bicycle. Ogawa says he doesn't care about the technology of the recumbents. "For me, it's just another way to ride," he says.

He has a theory about why recumbent riders tend to be older. He says he thinks younger people are self conscious and afraid of looking different.

Another reason could be cost -- recumbents run $500 to $5,000, a bit more than most upright bikes.

But most recumbent riders say it's a small price to pay for the extra comfort. And most who try a recumbent say they'll never go back to a regular bike.

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