Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Recumbent Bicycles for Randonneuring, Interviewing John Vincent, Part 1: Eliminating Pain

Recumbent bicycles? What do I know? I've never ridden one.

I've seen them race past me, or more accurately charge ahead in a group start never to be seen again, by me at least. Except when it comes to those hills. Sometimes I catch one there.

But I do see them more often now, so I asked my randonneuring pal, John Vincent, to shine some light on the subject of recumbents. Who better than John, a newbie recumbent rider?

I met John on my first 200k this year, the Birkie 200k organized by the Oregon Randonneurs. John is also a member of the Seattle International Randonneurs. The day we met, a very soggy day indeed, John was still riding upright or diamond frame bicycles, and spent much of the brevet regaling me with this whole recumbent thing: the bike he was going to get. At the time, I was so focused on just figuring out the whole randonneuring thing I didn't focus on his recumbent obsession.

But let's hear about it from John who has just made the transition from an upright bicycle to a recumbent bicycle. What I think is most valuable about this interview is John's clarity about the choice to go recumbent. He is not what you might expect. He switched for a purpose, but he is clearly not one of those overzealous converts (I'm not just talking recumbents, I'm referring to all kinds of converts) who is on a mission to convert us.

He just tells it like it is. Refreshing, I think.

What follows is Part 1 of my two-part interview with John. Photos are of John on his new recumbent taken, I believe, by his wife Sandy. The second and final installment of this interview series, Recumbent Bicycles for Randonneuring, Interviewing John Vincent, Part 2: Builders, Relative Merits, Peering into the Future, is here.

After you've read his interview, check out this site about recumbent videos at the 2007 Paris Brest Paris that John suggested as a good resource.

Keep it reclined,


Eliminating Pain

CurioRando: How long have you been riding a bicycle?

John Vincent: 17 years. Since ‘92

CR: About how many miles a year?

JV: Between 5000 and 8000 miles/year.

CR: How many brevets or organized rides?

JV: A couple of 600’s. Went to Paris Brest Paris (PBP) and Glacier 1000, but didn’t finish either. I’ve done a bunch of 200’s, 300’s and some 400’s. Two Super Randonneur years. This is my third SR year.

CR: What do you like most about Randonneuring?

JV: I love the goals. I love the challenge. Love doing something that seems a little bit impossible…that scares me a little bit. I’ve done enough long rides to know that the more rides you do, the better you become.

I’m not really a great long distance rider. There are tons of riders who are truly skinny, long distance riders and who are just exceptional. So I’m just one of the duffers in the back who manage to finish most of my rides. I love the whole preparation. I like to obsess a little bit, it’s fun, and addictive. It is a challenge that an average person can accomplish. It’s part of my nature.

You have to really focus on this. It has to be more than a hobby. The commitment to do a long ride like a 1000k or PBP is just really over the top. It’s far longer than regular people normally ride. I love the whole thing about it. I find that without a goal I don’t really have a reason to ride on a rainy and cold Saturday morning. I think that’s what’s missing from a lot of people’s lives today. They don’t have a goal, don’t have a passion. I’m pretty passionate. I spend a lot of money on it. I don’t have a cabin or a boat. I have a bike. That’s what I do. That’s what I like.

CR: Planning to ride PBP in 2011?

JV: Oh, yes.

CR: I know you recently made the change over to a recumbent, why a recumbent and what got you going in that direction?

JV: I had an MRI on my shoulder a couple years ago that indicated I have Osteoarthritis. Over a period of time I had gotten to the point where every ride I was on was painful in my right shoulder. To top that off, I also have a case of Spinal Stenosis, and they were prescribing Vicodin. I’m just going to be honest about this: I’d be on a ride, and when my shoulder would hurt I’d take Vicodin. I was surviving that way. I’d literally be on a 600k ride and all of my effort went into pain management, not working my legs or my lungs. I was just trying to survive and hang in there, mostly with a lot of shoulder pain. I couldn’t sleep on a 600k. I’d doze for 20 minutes, toss and turn and get up finally, and go. But I couldn’t ever really rest.

CR: What is this diagnosis exactly?

JV: Spinal Stenosis. The kind of Stenosis I have is like an old guy you’ll see. Bones get bigger as you get older, and some of those bones that get bigger and thicker are your vertebrae. If your vertebrae close up a little bit, you’ll eventually have your toes go numb. If you see an old man in a three-wheeled motorized cart at Safeway because he can’t stand up straight or is bent over when walking…that’s what I have. At times, I can hardly walk. I just don’t walk very well. I can do basic things, but I can’t hike anymore. So a number of things are going on at the same time. While that wasn’t really painful, it was causing weakness in my legs. Serious weakness. All of a sudden when I got a recumbent I felt like I had a lot more strength in my legs. I don’t depend on my back as much to support it, and I don’t have any shoulder pain. It’s like a freeing experience. Anything over 15 miles, I’d start to hurt. For years I’ve endured it, and it’s kind of made it a slugfest on longer rides.

CR: Any particular recumbent riders inspire you to make this change?

JV: There was a change in recumbents about five years ago. There was this guy, Dave Karcher, who built carbon fiber recumbents. One of the things that had kept me away from recumbents was their weight. I just couldn’t envision myself riding a heavy bike. I could certainly afford to lose a lot of weight myself, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to go out and get a 25-30 pound bike. And I wanted something fast. I enjoy buying lightweight bikes. Even though I’m not fast, I didn’t want something to make me slower. So David Karcher came out with a carbon fiber recumbent he called a Carbent. He started manufacturing them, and he was a one-man operation. At the same time there was Bacchetta. Bacchetta produced a Carbon Aero and a Ti (titanium) Aero bike. They stopped making the Aero because (from what I heard) of supply problems. These were all high racer styled bents. High racers meaning that you’re sitting up above two normal-sized bicycle wheels when you ride. Plus you are significantly reclined.

I started watching some of the speeds and some of the comments of other riders. In the Northwest we have some incredible recumbent riders. One of them is Michael Wolfe. He is a member of Team Bacchetta and he has a Ti Aero and a Carbent. (Dana Leiberman bought David Karcher’s operation in California and he builds Carbents now down in Van Nuys California). Michael has shown that bents aren’t slow, and that they can climb. Further, at one point I realized my dream of owning a custom upright bike was gone as this pain wasn’t going away. You’re buying a Tony Pereira which is an awesome bike. (See previous post on CurioRando's next Randonneuring bicycle: a Pereira.) I considered a Pereira, but I realized there is nothing I could do on a regular bike without a certain level of shoulder pain, so I made the decision to step up to buy a carbon fiber recumbent bike. I bought a Carbent.

CR: Cool. What do you think are the recumbent advantages and disadvantages for randonneuring?

JV: One advantage is that over the long haul of a ride—this is not uncommon to hear—is the pain that you suffer in your body parts is only in your legs when riding a recumbent. I want all that pain to be in my legs. I don’t want it to be in my shoulders, my hands, my neck and my back. As a person feels more pain, more energy is put into staying comfortable and relieving pain.

On a recumbent there is only one kind of pain. Legs get a huge workout, but I have no pain in my neck, shoulder, hands. Some of the recumbent riders at PBP noticed that when they were 1000k into the event, they were passing riders on upright bikes who had passed them hundreds of miles before. This is because those upright riders were now dealing with various seat and neck problems.

Climbing is a challenge for me, but it has been said that when you can get your legs conditioned you can climb as fast as a seated bike rider. You just have to get used to it. I’ve got a long way to go on this regard. And then going downhill, riding into the wind, and riding on flat ground I’m faster. For me those are advantages for the long distance rider.

Then there have been examples of recumbent success: the four-man team on RAAM (Ride Across America) won this year on 23 pound aluminum recumbents. They beat all the other 4 man teams. Four guys in their mid to late 40’s beat all the diamond frames. They climbed as fast going over the Rockies as all the other bikes. They actually took over first place while going over the Rockies!

CR: Great. Let me ask you…

JV: Let me tell me about what I think is a problem with them. I’m pretty inspired about recumbents, and I’m a little defensive, internally, about recumbents, because I love upright bikes. It’s almost like I’ve had to go against my natural instinct toward upright bikes. Getting a recumbent is almost like moving from being a Boston Red Sox fan to a becoming a New York Yankees fan. I’m rooting for the other side or something. It’s a major change. People--I include myself--have a lot of basic prejudice against recumbents. Now the con side: at this point, I’m just not that fast uphill as I could be because I’m uncomfortable leaning back.

CR: You’re uncomfortable because you feel like you’re going to fall back over yourself or…?

JV: Your feet are up where your head is when you’re climbing. And you can’t use your upper body. On a regular bike I can fight, pull back, and scrabble with the handlebars. When I pull on the handlebars going up hill I end up all over the road. I have to separate my upper body from my lower body. I have to get it in a lower gear because I can’t use my shoulders and arms. So it’s going to take some time for me to stay relaxed and just lean back and push a lower gear. I sometimes feel like l’m upside down. It’s an uncomfortable position and it just doesn’t feel safe. But, I know that people get used to it. Some people say that drivers can’t see you and that‘s why people don’t like them, and I think that is part of why people don’t trust them. I just think that they’re just another form of transportation, and they are as safe as you want them to be. I try to ride defensively.

CR: Advice to those considering going recumbent?

JV: Well, I think there is a fellow up in Canada, David Cambon, and he made a good recommendation: get the lightest bike you possibly can. David has an excellent article about lightweight recumbents that can be found with a Google search. In the randonneuring world, typically carbon is not recommended for upright bikes. But if you’re going to go recumbent, shelling out the money to get a carbon fiber bike gets you a lightweight bike. There is a great deal of difference between a 25 pound bike and an 18 – 19 pound recumbent. I think that is big for any rider.

And then I think I heard a comment from John Kramer who was on the 400k brevet that you just rode on (see this previous post about the 400k per CurioRando), and he rode it on his recumbent. Kramer said “It may take a season." You don’t just hop on a bike as a whim and say this is good or bad. It takes a certain level of commitment to ride a recumbent successfully. I don’t expect to be fast on a recumbent, but I expect to be comfortable and I expect to finish, and it's taking me some time.

For a new person transitioning, give yourself time, maybe a season to improve. I figure I’m at about 80% there right now.

CR: Any realizations you hadn’t anticipated going recumbent?

JV: I didn’t realize the level of commitment that it’d take to become a good recumbent rider. I’d say I’m a much, much better rider now and I can hold a straight line. I can climb some hills, but when I look at the confidence of riding an upright, I look at a hill and I think: no big deal. I can shift into a little gear on an upright, and I can go up slowly, or I can go up in a bigger gear and work harder. On a recumbent there are some hills on which I lack confidence. On an upright I’m not intimidated by any hill. Getting to the point of looking at a hill and thinking it’s no big deal on my recumbent will take awhile. I still have some anxiety on a recumbent when I look at some steeper hills.

CR: Would you go back to an upright bike?

JV: Not anymore. I can’t do it. When I had my recumbent bike being repaired (See Part 2 of this interview where John details the car-bicycle accident he endured) I ‘d sit on an upright bike and go for a 15 mile ride. I wasn’t comfortable. I had such shoulder discomfort that after 15 miles it just didn’t feel good. There are all these pressure points that I had kind of forgotten about.

For me there is no turning back. When my recumbent is being repaired I ride my Glen Erickson singlespeed or my Eddy Merckx Titanium, and they are fine to ride but I just don’t feel the same. When I ride my recumbent I have no discomfort (laughing). Zero pain! So when I’m doing a 20-miler on my recumbent and I’m just doing a little lap around the community and back to the house, I just feel great. I ride faster and recognize its benefits. Sometimes I get into discussions with dedicated upright riders and they just roll their eyes at me.

Once I can stay on my bike and not get off on steep hills, and once I gain some of the confidence that I have on my other (upright) bikes, I’ll be fine. To me the advantage of a recumbent is you don’t have any of the things that distract: sitting on a saddle for 20, 36 or 40 hours tends to have its impact. I also know that my shoulders, neck, toes and hands don’t get numb. I don’t wear gloves any more. I don’t’ need padding from vibration. I hold my handlebars lightly. No weight is being applied there. For me it is a no-brainer: I make it on the recumbent or I don’t ride. There isn’t another way for me. It’s too nice a ride to go back to the pain I was having.


  1. John,

    Nice interview, I look forward to part two. I was the other rider on a bent at the Urban Populaire, so sorry to hear about your accident. I finished with about 8 minutes to spare, but comforably! My bike weighs about 40 lbs though, so something new would help tremendously.

    Thanks CR for posting this.


  2. Interesting. I wonder about the handle bar set-up on John's upright bikes. If he's riding a Merckx -- which I'm assuming is a typical racing bike -- are the handle bars much lower than the saddle? Has John experimented with higher/different bars? I don't have anything against recumbents, but it doesn't seem as if he explored upright-based solutions much before switching?

  3. I have actually raised, and raised and raised and raised again. My last set of bars were townie style bars with reverse brakes and thumbies. They were Nitto Left Bank Bars. Essentially I was riding bolt upright. That eliminated some pain. My Merckx Ti and I had over 50,000 miles riding together. Many many changes over the years. I really disliked doing longer rides with these bars. My bent is soooo much better. I wouldn't go back unless I at the least, had a new shoulder. I think i am getting faster. Why change? Think about it..why would I sit on a seat of leather and the palms of my hands having my "stuff" go numb for hundreds of miles in an event if i could do it in comfort.

  4. Russell
    That was a tough day for this newbie. Hopefully other "populaires" will be a bit easier. Good to meet you and BTW, I've grown a lot since then.
    It is taking me some time to get "used to" my bent.

  5. Excellent choice for a rando 'bent, Sir! Enjoy your rides!

  6. Bon route with your recumbent. Having been bent for over ten years, I hope some of this helps. Thoroughly enjoyable interview. Thanks!!

    Hills: You may never be as fast going uphill and most of us aren't, but it doesn't really matter. Unless it's a very hilly ride, you'll finish in about the same time....or maybe better.

    Efficiency: If you're like most of us when you do a tough ride that you did on your upright, you might say: "I feel so much better." at the end of it on a bent. You're more efficient. There is 20% to 40% less of you making you more aerodynamic. You can go longer distances with less energy expended.

    Head winds: You'll really appreciate your bent into headwinds, if you haven't felt that already.

    The "You're lower and can't be seen myth". Gonna take up some space with this one (grin). When folks say that I ask them this:

    (WIthout fail the answers invaribly are Yes"
    When driving, every see a horse on the road?
    Ever see a cow?
    A deer?
    A dog?
    A cat?
    How about a squirrel?
    A chipmunk?
    Bet you've seen a chunk of glass and steered around it, right?

    So if you can see all of those, why do you think you can't see a 4' high by 3' wide object?

    The truth is because we are so "different" we get drivers attention, and I've found car give me more room.

    Oh...and last but not least: You may find yourself calling your bent "The it makes 'em smile and wave" bike.

    Enjoy the ride.....whichever bike your on.

  7. great comments Joe, about being seen. Wait for part II where we discuss ..ah shall we say... bents and cars.
    see you at an oregon or SIR ride this next year?

  8. Yo John.. I'll be spending Nov to May in FLa and doing a series there. Hey someone has to soak up the sunshine, eh?

    For sure from June to whenever next year I plan on doing Oregon and SIR brevets. Don Boothby owes me a tour!!

    Ride Long and Prosper.

  9. How many miles had John already ridden the recumbent at the time of the interview? It would help gauge his comments about uphill intimidation.

  10. Actually as of today I am pretty cool with hills. I have 2000 since mid May with a few weeks out for repairs. I might be a bit nervous on a 10+ percent grade but handle virtually everything else. The first part was done at the start of summer..late June? I probably had less than 600 miles or so and was still getting used to the ride. This was my first bent experience.

  11. Thanks John. Your experience of intimidation by upslopes is quite legitimate and something I also deal with on my highracer. I was just interested in calibrating your comments with your experience level at that time.

  12. I am 62, and haven't been able to do a brevet since 2012 due to back surgery. I also have shoulder issues. I just got a Metaphysics high racer in the hopes of being able to do long rides again despite these health issues. I am in the process of replacing the 53/39 standard crank with an Ultegra triple. It does have a 12-36 in the back. Here where I live, in the Poconos, 10% hills are everywhere, and 18-20 % are common. Near my house is a 2 mile long 12% average hill. Like you,John, I never worried about these on my uprights. Do you think an average rider can do these kinds of hills on a recumbent without falling over or weaving all over the road? Way to preserve!