Brooding mountains: Pyrenees 2013
Brooding mountains: Pyrenees 2013

One inevitable thing with the passage of time is that we will age. Not only do we slow down and become less able but our past lives begin to catch us up. At the same time that this slow degradation occurs we lose confidence and our ability to make changes lessens. Things that would have been a breeze a while back become major challenges.

My own life has been a roller-coaster of changes, both positive and negative, with little ever staying stable for long. I’ve had to adjust to this and make so many changes to manage my life that I’ve kind of got used to it. The last few years reflect this strongly as I learned to cycle and to cycle long distances alone whilst managing my mental health. It’s been a colourful, sometimes difficult, and always interesting time. It’s very well documented that people who suffer poor mental health have a shorter life expectancy. The stresses and strains that emotional turmoil places on the physical well-being of people takes a toll over time and I’m feeling that I’m reaching a point where a few changes could make a world of difference to my cycling longevity and enjoyment.

For the last few years I’ve suffered physically with my emotional struggle manifesting itself through my body. Past injuries and physical traumas rear their heads and a balancing act is required to keep it all going. Examples of this are neck and upper back pain that I have suffered since crashing a paraglider in an accident that broke my spine and almost took my life. My ankles become so painful that I can hardly walk, and my hips inflame readily regardless of hat I do.

In order to combat this as best I can I am willing to look at anything that may help. I have written about using relaxation techniques, Pilates, and Yoga on a regular basis. I invested in the best bike I could possibly afford. Fly is built for me and around my own physiology, riding style, and requirements. When I climb aboard it feel like putting on an old pair of gloves in comparison to Irene, a fine bike in her own right.

Resting after a big effort: Pyrenees 2013
Resting after a big effort: Pyrenees 2013

I’ve ridden thousands of miles with no injuries other than the occasional crash and some of this is down to the bikes I have chosen and Alasdair at MSG’s incredible ability to set them up to suit me. I accepted that this was as good as it gets if you spend  many hours in the saddle. But is it? I’m beginning to wonder and have begun investigating alternatives that may aid my ailing spine in particular.

All of us ride upright bikes that are both very similar in the riding position and have changed little in many years. My bikes all sport Brooks saddles and I tour on one of the wider versions or the sprung type depending on where I’m going. Spreading my weight and sitting correctly has helped my comfort and longevity as well as my ability recovery from daily rides. My cycles are relatively upright rather than stretched out. This suits me and also contributes to comfort on long days.

My damages spine repaired well but its legacy remains and my neck and shoulders suffer, even on shorter rides. Cycling and associated activities has aided my ailing limbs and muscles bringing greater flexibility, strength, and endurance. I have excellent mobility in my joints and the recent x-ray I underwent has shown my hip joints to be in good condition. Riding also helps circulation, removal of toxins, physical and mental fitness and makes you feel well as the released endorphins circulate around your body. Exercise is known to help those who suffer depression in particular.

Until now I have not even considered whether there might be a better way of doing it. A couple of years ago I had made a derogatory comment about recumbent cycles saying that if I ever went near one I should be shot. I didn’t then understand what they were about or have any need to try to. I was firmly in the camp where you sit on your bike and pedal and for most of us this works well enough to look no further.

Hardest climb of the trip : Pyrenees 2013
Hardest climb of the trip : Pyrenees 2013

Last weekend I had a chance to try one out for myself. The recumbent in question belong to my friend Mark and Michele and I were going over to try out a tandem to see how that felt. Marks recumbent cycle is of the short wheel base version where the cranks stick out at the front. It has twenty inch wheels and sits low to the ground. On seeing it I suddenly thought “how the hell do you ride that?”

Getting on was no better. I sat down and lay back pulling the tiller steering bar to my chest assuming a position known as hamster. I should say that there are many different steering types but this one was a tiller that you move from side to side with your arms relaxed at your side and bent upwards. I felt like I was trying out my coffin and all my confidence disappeared in one big puff of smoke. I could see no way of getting going at all despite what I had read about starting out.

Mark pushed and off I went, except I didn’t. I wobbled and bailed out. Michele and Jo leaned on the gate and giggled which didn’t help my confidence. After a couple more abortive attempts Mark suggested that we went down the road to where it was flat. I rode Fly and Mark flew down the road at a speed Fly had to work hard to match. Turning into a feeder road for an industrial estate that was closed for the weekend it was all too soon my turn again.

I sat back in the recumbent and failed again to get going. I knew what it was. I was tense and needed to relax. After a few breathing exercises I had another attempt and found myself riding along on this strange machine. Mark followed on fly exclaiming that it was a felt like a nice place to spend lots of time. Once going I relaxed completely and found myself in a world of comfort that before this moment was unimaginable in cycling terms.

I lay back and enjoyed the ride. I stopped and started several times before we turned onto the Tarka Trail. I had no more problems after that although the whole experience was so different I knew that time would be needed to adjust completely. It’s all so strange. The laid back position, having your feet high, and having the wheel you are steering underneath your bottom. My hips felt open and not compressed by my body weight and gravity’s influence. My chest felt more open also and my breathing was calm and relaxed. I would have grinned from ear to ear had I not been concentrating so hard on not falling off or hitting other riders on the trail.

From my new position I found I could look all around me and in particular upwards and outwards. My legs were definitely wondering what was going on and from what I’ve read it takes a few hundred miles to condition the muscles to being used in a slightly different way. Riding back to mark and Jo’s house I took on the hill that leads there. I don’t know if it was harder or just different but it certainly wasn’t off-putting. Spinning the pedals the main thing I noticed was that my breathing was easy and not taxed by the hill. This suggested that once my musculature adapted that most hills would be possible if taken a little more gently.

Descent: Pyrenees 2013
Descent: Pyrenees 2013

This is the biggest difference between recumbent cycling and uprights. You cannot stand to pedal or accelerate. You gain from being able to push back in the seat once your legs are strong enough to do that without risking injury. I don’t doubt that I would be a little slower up hills, even after a few miles. The question is, does it matter? I was left with the notion that cycling doesn’t have to be as demanding on my body as it has been to date and this felt like a revelation.

Returning the recumbent to its garage I felt I wanted more. Michele and I then set off on Mark and Jo’s tandem. It was pleasant enough but all I could think about was getting back on the recumbent. Although Michele was quite nervous initially, the tandem proved easy enough to master. You have to remember that it turns like a lorry and has the same brakes as a solo bike. Other than that it was great fun. If only I could shake the recumbent from my mind I may have engaged a bit more with it but I felt ever so slightly smitten with my new laid back experience.

I’ve never been one for worrying what other people might make of what I do or how I go about it. The idea of sitting in the equivalent of an armchair and pedalling along is an attractive one. Learning new skills is always exciting, especially those that challenge our preconceptions of something we think we already understand. Riding a recumbent does exactly that. Since we were babes we’ve watched men battling it out on the latest upright machinery and manufacturers have given us a wide choice of diamond framed bikes from which to choose.

Recumbent bikes were banned from competitive sport in the 1930’s and don’t have UCI recognition in any format. They do hold all the world speed records for human-powered vehicles though but they remain outside the mainstream to this day. This non-acceptance has stifled their development and popularity. Manufacturers are small outfits and there is a huge variety in styles and ideas of what makes a good recumbent bike. Take a look at American riders  and the number of long wheel base bikes with ape style handlebars and you will see what I mean. Europeans tend to go for under seat steering and most models are short wheel base where the front wheel sits under the rider with a boom sticking out of the front.

French humour :)
French humour 🙂

Unusually for this day and age the internet doesn’t have that much information either and as I researched possibilities I felt I was engaging in a dark art. I was pleased to find that those who ride laid back bikes do all the things that every other cyclist does. You can find articles on rides around Iceland, to te Himalayas, Israel and most other destinations. It seems that if you choose to ride recumbent bikes its your attitude that matters and not what you ride. That sounds familiar doesn’t it?

There are fw UK dealers and getting to test a few would probably means a trip to Edinburgh or Cambridge. Not exactly down the road is it? Several dealers have disappeared recently and those who survive do so on meagre sales.

So here I am immersed in a world that has me trying to work out how to get my hands on a recumbent and more importantly the money to get hold of one. Where there’s a will and all that. I’ve already decided to sell Irene and a few other things so watch this space for an update on how its going and I’ll keep you posted.

Meantime there’s another ride to organise and a book to finish writing 🙂

See you next time