How To Save The Recumbent Bike From Extinction: Part 6
Last time I examined the availability of recumbents for kids and made suggestions about standardizing the design of kid’s recumbents. The idea is that a standard design would allow many manufacturers to produce the bikes at roughly the same cost, thereby making the retail price affordable and stable. Recumbents for adults could also benefit from this kind of design discipline. As the recumbent has evolved we’ve seen many variations on the recumbent form.
At first, we just had long and short wheelbase designs, each defined by the distance between the wheels and the location of the crankset. From the very beginning we see design variations, some of which are expected. For example, we see variations in steering types – Over Seat Steering and Under Seat Steering. However, the variations soon grew seemingly without limit; compact long wheelbase, crank-forward or semi-recumbent, low racers, high racers, mid racers, front wheel drive with static or moving bottom brackets, center pivot steering, rear suspension, full suspension, big wheels, small wheels, big and small wheels, Mesh seats, shell seats, shell/mesh hybrid seats, steel, aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber-I could go on. For a product with less than 2% of the market the sheer number of choices is dizzying. What is with all of these variations?
As I said, some variation is a natural by-product of the design process and is to be expected. I suspect that the runaway effect occurred as a result of the kind of people that are naturally attracted to recumbents. These are usually technology-loving engineering types with a rational and scientific bias. The recumbent could be made to perform better. In the minds of these recumbent pioneers it could be made to not only outperform it’s predecessors but all of its 2 wheeled brethren. We could all then stand back and point saying look how much lighter, lower, faster, efficient, cooler, insert-your-boast-here, our recumbents are. They’re just as good if not better than the best road bikes.
I have nothing against improvements in design. However, here I think we see evidence of what brings us to the sorry state of the recumbent market today. It was improvement for its own sake. It was a keeping-up-with-the-Jones’ design strategy. Today we have recumbent bicycles designed to be more than a match for any road bike given riders with equal abilities. We just have no riders.
No riders mean no sales. No sales means no market. No market means no more recumbents. Nice work.
What happened is that those doing the manufacturing lost sight of who they serve. Maybe they didn’t ever know who they served. They focused instead on the machine they were building. Did anyone stop and ask if the prospective recumbent rider wanted a full carbon frame with racing components and a mid 4 figure price tag? If the answer was ‘Yes’ did anyone count exactly how many people wanted such a thing?
Surely there is a buyer for such a machine. There’s one buyer for just about anything. The question is “Does this buyer represent the core audience?” In other words, Is this the typical prospective recumbent cyclist? I don’t think we have to guess. It is clear that these super high tech bikes were built with the hope that it would convert road bike riders-elite, hardcore road racing types-en masse. It didn’t happen.
At least it didn’t happen in numbers large enough to sustain a market. Recumbent technology peaked but the demand for the technology wasn’t there. The real question remains – What do prospective recumbent riders want? I’m not talking about the people who collect exotic bikes, I mean the core customer that can sustain a market.
I suspect that the typical prospective recumbent rider can be served by one or two recumbent designs, each being fitted with modest yet quality components and conventional frame material. I also think that such a bike would serve 90% of the cycling needs of this customer.
If you don’t think one model of anything can make for a viable business, let’s look at an example. How many mobile phones does Apple Computer make? Now it makes 2 models but long before that it only had one, which it upgraded regularly. It’s largest competitor, Samsung, has more phone models than I can count. For some reason Apple doesn’t go out of the mobile phone business in the face of Samsung’s hundreds of models. Why? They know what the Apple customer wants and they design accordingly. Their customer, satisfied with the phone’s function, also reaps the intangible benefit of status by owning something made by a company with a story and image they identify with and aspire to. Yes, there’s that story thing again.
The key is getting one design right for the needs of most prospective recumbent riders. Instead of offering dozens of models, design one bike to be upgradeable. This way when the cyclist feels they’ve reached the limit their bike’s capabilities, they can change components. For example, a bike could be designed to accept a rear swing arm but sold with a rigid bolt on rear triangle. When a new cyclist has grown used to the handling of the bike they can upgrade from a rigid triangle to a swingarm and shock. They can always go back to the rigid rear triangle if suspension doesn’t suit them or the mission at hand. For example, I may want rear suspension for cruising around but I might want a rigid frame for hauling things. I may want to attach an Xtracycle FreeRadical to it for really big cargo. The point here is to allow for maximum versatility at minimal cost.
The specific example isn’t important. What is important is that we start with the person – the prospective recumbent rider – and we never loose sight of that person throughout the design process. When we’re done we may not have the most technically advanced recumbent bike ever built, but we’ll have something much better. We’ll have something lots of people want to ride. We’ll also have one (possibly 2) standard designs to take advantage of cost efficiencies. A solid customer base has to come before exotic designs or the recumbent will surely become extinct.
Just as with the children’s recumbent bike, if there’s no builder that will take on this design challenge the DIY builder part of the recumbent rider community should. We need the equivalent of the Ford Model T in recumbent bike form. Any bunch of folks that can design land speed record breaking bikes should be able to do this. And the stakes…well the stakes are much higher than any speed record. The future of the recumbent is in our hands.