How To Save The Recumbent Bike From Extinction: Part 1
The community of recumbent riders has an inferiority complex. Like a child seeking the approval of a neglectful parent, we perform remarkable feats, breaking speed and distance records, innovating in design and manufacturing, all the while hoping that the rest of the bicycle industry will recognize the recumbent as worthy – Worthy of the same status as the road bike or mountain bike. Worthy as a valid option for a potential bicycle buyer without apology or reservation. Worthy to sit beside traditional cycling options in a typical bike shop or department store.
The key to acceptance is not setting records. The recumbent has a 100 plus year history of record setting and that hasn’t brought it out of the margins.
Inclusion in a competition is not the key. This is just a recurrence of an old wound in the history of recumbents. The exclusion of the recumbent from UCI competition may have been unfair but that is not the reason the recumbent finds itself where it is today. It is a fallacy that the path taken by the road racing bike and its phenomenal commercial success was somehow stolen from the recumbent due to its exclusion from UCI competition. Surely a product with so many advantages can succeed without the assistance of a race sanctioning body.
If the recumbent is going to succeed, those who promote it are going to have to unlearn the habits of the past. We cannot behave as though the bike is a neglected child seeking validation. We cannot constantly compare it to the road bike, coveting its popularity while whispering about it’s weaknesses to others like some jealous lover. We cannot continue to demand respect from an indifferent industry. It hasn’t worked for over a century and it’s not about to work now. We need to make our own path.
That path is about strength. I’m not talking about measuring the strengths of the recumbent in the way we have been doing it for the past century. That was always just a comparison to the standard bicycle and its derivatives. The main strength of the recumbent is in the way it allows a rider to relate to the world and others during the journey.
At first thought this aspect alone may appear to be trivial, especially when we are used to considering weight, speed, aerodynamics, gear ratios, rolling resistance, frame materials – all things that matter when the performance of one machine is compared to another – None of those things truly differentiate the recumbent from other bicycles. The only factor that matters is the quality of the cycling experience.
The manufacturers have been trying to sell recumbent bikes to riders based on features and comparisons to road bike derivatives because there is a persistent assumption that this is what matters to prospective buyers. A further assumption is that if these are the things that sell road bikes, then they are the things that will sell recumbent bikes. This is not so.
The one aspect of recumbent marketing that has been ignored is the story. Every item we purchase has a story beyond the function of the thing itself. The road bike has a story fueled by the decades of epic battles waged on roads and mountains in far away lands by those with names as legendary as the heroes from ancient Greek literature. When one buys a road bike, one enters the world of that story. Every ride has the potential to cast the rider as a heroic figure in that story. Those riders don’t just hop on their bikes and pedal off. Those riders invest in the mythology of all the riders that came before them and rode a similar mount. They cover themselves in the colors of the tribe to which they identify. Like a knight donning armor embossed with a heraldic crest, in their minds they are transformed into something greater. They believe they are part of the story. What is purchased with the machine is beyond the measure of grams and exotic materials.
For passionate fans of the recumbent, the story that we’ve bought is not as epic. We’re typically a group that appreciates technology and novel engineering solutions. We see how the numbers stack up and assume that these things should be just as compelling to anyone seeking a new ride. For us it’s a natural fit. The recumbent made technical sense to us before our first ride and it always will. We, the passionate yet completely rational, completely miss the point.
To compound this error we’re also the ones that usually go into business building and selling these machines, once again believing that like water and air, the attraction will be naturally self-evident to all. In truth, we mainly attract those who are most like ourselves, for whom the equation balances and everything would make sense even if no one else was there to facilitate the discovery.
The story of the recumbent is missing because we’re so wrapped up in the technology that we don’t tell it. Even worse, we often tell the wrong story. Like the road racing bike there are some epic battles and triumphs in the story of the recumbent, but that’s not the essence of recumbent cycling.
The story we need to tell is one of seeing the world with our heads up, able to take in everything it has to offer – everything we’ve left home to see – while proceeding in comfort with minimal effort. This bike places us in the best position to enjoy our environment and interact with the people around us in a natural manner. Cycling induced aches and pains rarely invade our adventures because the machine fits our natural body position. As a result, there is nothing between us and what we came out to see. These are the benefits of the recumbent bike. These are the benefits that matter to prospective recumbent riders.
Our story isn’t one of speed and battle. It’s a story about experiences and quality of life. It’s is a story about a journey and sharing the adventure. It’s not just about the bike.