16 February 2016

Prone To Revival--And Deservedly So, I Think

Shakespeare never had an original idea--for a story, anyway--in his life.  George Orwell took almost everything that makes 1984 worthwhile--including the notions of "thought crimes," "Big Brother" and its mathematical theme--from We, a novel from a little-known Russian writer named Yevgeny Zamyatin.  (Orwell reviewed the book three years before 1984 came out.)  D'Artagnan was not the creation of Alexandre Dumas; rather, Dumas lifted him--and Athos, Porthos and Aramis--from the first volume of Gaeten Courtilz de Sandras' book called The Memoirs of D'Artagnan.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, we find this:  "There is nothing new under the sun."  So it is in the world of literature and the arts.  So it is in science and technology.  And so it is in the world of bicycling.  In the four decades I have been cycling, almost every "new" idea had been done before, sometimes in the very early history of cycling.  As I mentioned in two recent posts, suspension is one such idea.  Another idea is that of building frames of anything besides steel:  During my formative years, carbon, titanium and aluminum frames were not only created; they were available to the general public (for a price, of course).

Then there are those ideas that never really go away but are nonetheless "rediscovered" by a new generation of marketing types (or, sometimes, actual cyclists who haven't been in the sport for very long).  One such concept is that of the recumbent bicycle.

I am not about to dismiss recumbents, as I have never ridden one myself.  I don't doubt that, as their proponents claim, their aerodynamics can make them faster than standard bicycles.  My concerns about them are twofold:  How well and comfortably can a rider use his or her muscles in such a position?  (At my age, the answer to such questions is more meaningful than it was when I was younger!)  And, how visible is a recumbent rider in traffic?

(I'll admit that the second question is the one that has done more to keep me off a recumbent!)

That there were recumbents before Dan Henry and others were touting them doesn't surprise me.  It's also not surprising to note that in the years just after World War I, some cyclists experimented with riding nearly prone.  Marcel Berthet--for whom the Lyotard No. 23 platform pedal was named--was concerned with aerodynamics, as were other racers and designers who flew or worked with aircraft during the war. 

The Challand Recumbent

But it's truly interesting, if not shocking, to see that some two decades earlier, in 1896 a horizontal bicyclette normale was exhibited in Geneva.  The Challand recumbent, named for its inventor, was said to allow easier mounting, improved stability and greater thrust on the pedals. It had just one problem, though:  It weighed about three times as much as its rider!

Berthet and others who revived recumbents after the War used them in record attempts. Charles Mochet designed his own recumbent--dubbed the "Velocar"--and used it to set records for the kilometer, mile and hour.  In the case of the latter, he broke a 20-year-old record by half a kilometer.

His exploits ignited a debate as to whether the "Velocar" was actually a bicycle.  The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) answered that question in the negative, and banned recumbents, as well as aerodynamic devices, from racing in 1934.  The UCI then declared all of Mochet's records invalid.

Given all of the controversy about pharmaceutical and mechanical doping, the controversy over recumbents seems almost quaint now.  Recumbents are, I believe, here to stay, just as--unfortunately--doping is.



  1. UCI, is that FIFA for cyclists? Contemptible and self serving...

    As much as I curse wind resistance, one of the greatest joys of cycling is to sit observe the world from fairly high up and with a good view of the road ahead.

    1. Coline--I guess the UCI (or FIFA) hasn't changed in 80 years, has it?

      I agree with what you say about riding tall, so to speak. Even if I got over my fear of riding a recumbent in traffic, I probably still wouldn't ride one regularly because I prefer the view from a regular bicycle.

  2. Rode a longish brevet in the company of a recumbent rider. It was a hilly course, and the 'bent climbed like a brick, but i couldn't catch him on the downhills. Like you, i'd be reluctant to take a recumbent into traffic due to the poor sight lines, though i'm told that it's easier on folks with certain back problems.

    As for the UCI, well, they finally did allow Moser the aerodynamics that helped him break the 50K hour, but turned around and denied Obree similar advantages that helped him break Moser's record. They rode upright machines, though. The hidebound UCI will likely never fully accept the recumbent and its aerodynamically facilitated speed records.

    1. Mike--I have wondered how recumbents ride on hills. Your description is interesting. Although I'd like to try a recumbent some time, I don't imagine I'd ride one regularly unless I were living in the country or someplace else where traffic isn't an issue.

  3. I sometimes feel that the UCI has been criticized too harshly for that decision. It seems to me that the idea then was to assure that bicycle racing would be a competition between athletes and not engineers.

    What makes it quaint today is that we are (hopefully) coming out of a period when bicycle racing was a competition between biochemists.


  4. Leo--I am all for anything that will ensure that bicycle racing is a "competition between athletes and not engineers" and that we are, as you say, "coming out of a period when bicycle racing was a competition between biochemists." Perhaps--as more than one person has suggested--the UCI should do like the NJS (Japan's track racing association) and approve only certain kinds of bikes and components that are low-tech and sturdy.

    I don't criticize the UCI's decision to ban recumbents or aerodynamic devices. I do, however, criticize the UCI for its hypocrisy regarding doping and other kinds of cheating. It seems to look the other way, then act shocked when high-level doping is revealed. The UCI is also self-serving in ways that I don't want to get into here, as it would take more time and space than anything else I've written about.