Are recumbent bikes good for commuting? Pros and cons


Recumbent bikes look fun and unique. Though they may appear uncomfortable to those who have never tried it, they are in fact remarkably comfortable. Before buying my current commuter bike I did a lengthy research on recumbent bikes as a possible option.

Are recumbent bikes good for commuting?

Recumbent bikes can make into excellent commuter bicycles. They are fast, comfortable machines designed to provide an efficient ride in style. They are especially good for longer commutes if you want to arrive fresh without feeling the stiffness caused by regular bikes. Some pains associated with cycling are completely non-existent with recumbent bikes. However, there are certain types of commutes that they are not best suited for, which is why it’s good to understand what their pros and cons are.

Advantages of recumbent bikes

Aero position – speed

On a normal bike your wind resistance is the greatest factor that reduces your speed above 16 mph (25 km/h). It can account for over 50% of your energy expenditure. This means that you need to pedal extra hard to go faster, and you aren’t getting linear return for the energy you put in. When you ride a recumbent bike you are in an almost lying position. Instead of your entire body catching the wind it’s only your feet and a small portion of your body. This means that your aerodynamic drag is reduced a great deal, up to 90% depending on your speed and the type of recumbent bike.

They are comfortable

Instead of your body weight resting almost entirely on a small area on the saddle, recumbent bikes provide a much larger contact surface with the seat. They may not look very comfortable at first glance, but they are deceptively comfortable.

Additionally recumbent bikes reduce stress on the shoulders, elbows and wrists because they do not bear the weight of the rider.

The comfort doesn’t end at the weight distribution. On normal bikes, especially on bikes with drop bars or flat handlebars your natural position is to look down at the wheel and what’s immediately in front of you. In order to see further ahead or what’s on the side you need to raise your head in an unnatural position, which becomes uncomfortable after a while. Not so with recumbent bikes. You’re naturally looking further ahead and can comfortably see your surroundings. Because of your position your backwards visibility is limited. This is a trade-off for the added comfort. Since it is important, especially in city traffic, a rearview mirror mounted on the bike or on the helmet is necessary.

They command respect

There is a natural curiosity in all of us and since recumbent bike riders are rare, they are treated with a certain amount of respect. Drivers accept them better as part of the traffic, which is not always the case with regular cyclists.

Less likely to be stolen

In most cities recumbent bicycles stand out from other bikes and can be spotted easily, which makes stealing them less attractive since thieves don’t want to draw attention and want to be able to walk away without being noticed.

Locking a recumbent bike can be a challenge at first and a D-Lock will not be sufficient, but a folding lock will more than likely do the trick.

Disadvantages of recumbent bikes

Limited off-road capabilities –  curbs

Having limited off-road capabilities is by far the biggest limitation of recumbent bikes. You can’t shift your weight on them like on a regular bike. Your weight distribution is always the same on the front and rear wheels. This makes certain tricks, such as bunnyhopping or getting onto curbs beyond a certain height is impossible. If you have lots of curbs or potholes you can’t avoid it is definitely a deal-breaker.

No backpack

It’s almost silly to mention this, but since most commuters carry some stuff to and from work, we need to state the obvious. With a recumbent bike you’re limited to panniers or bags that attach directly onto the bike frame.

No back ventilation

Since you’re in a lying position there is zero air flow that keeps your back  cool. Keeping it warm may be good on a cold winter day, but it can be really unpleasant on a hot summer day. The inconvenience can be reduced with a mesh-back seat and by wearing a moisture wicking t-shirt, but it won’t be eliminated completely.

Poor maneuverability

When it comes to maneuverability upright bikes are unbeatable. Recumbents are hard to maneuver at slow speeds in city traffic. With dedicated bike lanes and cycle paths you should be fine, but zig-zagging through bumper-to-bumper traffic is nearly impossible on a recumbent.

Hard to climb steep hills

We mentioned earlier that from an aerodynamic perspective recumbent bikes are far superior to other bikes, and they can go much faster with the same effort. This advantage becomes negligible when it comes to climbing. In fact, since you can’t stand out of the saddle on a recumbent bike, you’re entirely dependent on the power output of your legs. On upright bikes you can recruit muscles other than your legs, which makes them a better choice for those with hills on their way.

Questions answered

What type of commutes are recumbents suited for?

In conclusion we can say that recumbent bikes can be useful commuters. They are best suited for longer rides on flat, paved roads due to their limited off-road capabilities. They excel in speed, comfort and offer a ride in style unmatched by other bicycles.

What type of commutes are they not suited for?

A recumbent bike is not a good commuter bike for those who have a short, slow ride with maneuvers among cars in city traffic. They are also not good off-roaders, so if your commute leads through forest paths or have to get on and off curbs, they’re probably not the best option for you.

Are recumbent bikes hard to balance?

Recumbent bikes are not hard to balance and quite easy to ride once you get the hang of it. Initially it takes some practice, but it’s just as easy as riding a normal bike.

Are recumbent bikes difficult to start?

Recumbents are not difficult to get on, but because of your riding position on the bike starting them off requires a different technique than upright bikes. If you’re a confident cyclist you will have no problem learning how to get on a recumbent bike.

Are recumbent bikes dangerous?

Recumbent bikes aren’t dangerous. They are as safe as any other bike on the road. Your safety comes from being seen by others on the road and being able to see the road and interact with traffic.

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