Why Do We Do This?

The essence of a country is found not in its tourist attractions but in its small, hidden details, details that go easily unnoticed by tourists traveling quickly through a place.  How the air of a place feels blowing across your skin.  How people in the countryside smile with a curiosity and interest that is sometimes absent in the eyes of city dwellers.  To experience these details of a place, you need time to travel slowly.  We chose to travel by bicycle because it forces us to slow down.  For 20 months, we will travel and learn about different parts of the world, different cultures and, last but not least, ourselves.

The legend of the Panamericana got hold of us the moment we heard of it.  We want to uncover some of the thousands of stories and rumors about the longest street in the world. The Panamericana gives us the opportunity to travel through countries as different as black and white: through the snows of the Andes and the deserts of Mexico, through the affluence of the U.S.A. and the poverty of Bolivia, and along vast salt flats as well as misty roads at the ocean’s edge.  Only two languages, English and Spanish, open the doors to 28'000 kms. of cultures and peoples.
Riding a bicycle on a journey like this could be tortuous.  Long days in the saddle that leave your back and neck throbbing.  Numb hands from hours of leaning on the handlebar.  Howling headwinds that slow you down to a near-standstill.  We chose to avoid some of these problems by using recumbent bikes.  Riding through countries on recumbents is like sightseeing from the comfort of sofas.  With an open view of the landscapes spread out before us, with our hands resting comfortably at our sides, and with minimal wind drag, traveling by recumbent bicycle lets us travel with and through nature – rather than against it. 

“Isn’t it difficult to go uphill with these bikes?” So many times we had to answer this question – THE big question when it comes to recumbent bikes.

First of all, a direct comparison between normal bicycles and recumbents does not make a lot of sense. Unlike normal bikes, recumbents cover a wide spectrum of bike models; different wheel sizes, frame geometries, and seat heights equate to near-endless variation in recumbent design. Within this range there has also been a lot of change within the last years. Recumbents are not strange and heavy experimental vehicles anymore. We chose the Challenge Seiran because we wanted a bike with two 26” wheels. It is a lot easier to find spare parts for such wheels in remote areas, and bigger wheels roll better on rough roads, as well. Among the 26” recumbents we tested, the Seiran seemed to have the most sophisticated and reliable construction, thanks to a combination of its low weight and sportive geometry.

Climbing a hill on a recumbent is not harder or easier than climbing with a normal bike, it’s just different. During the many days we cycled together with other bikers on normal bikes, we found out that we cycled more on a constant force level than our cycling partners. They increased their pedal power on climbs, especially on short ones. We, however, always pedaled on a high frequency and with less force. They were faster on short hills, but during the longer climbs, our speeds leveled out.

One thing you can not do on a recumbent is get out of the saddle to stand and pedal. The many “toureros” on normal bikes we met didn't go out of their saddles often though and also prefered to pedal on a more constant force level. The advantage of pedaling out-of-the-saddle on a normal bike is the load being distributed over more muscles. On a recumbent it’s always the same muscles you have to use and they therefore get tired faster. This can be a problem for untrained recumbent bike riders. On a long bike trip though the muscles get trained sufficiently so you can ride all day long.

At a certain point during steep climbs, the climb gradient becomes too great to continue pedaling with a low force. When this happens, bikers on normal bikes keep riding (standing or pushing very hard while sitting), but recumbent riders need to dismount and push their bikes. A clear disadvantage? Not necessarily. Climbs that steep are very rare. Main roads usually are built on a 7-8% incline. There are those persons who would never push their bikes for one single meter and love the road the steeper and crazier it is. For them a recumbent is not the right bike. Pushing a recumbent uphill is a lot easier compared to pushing a normal bike (holding the handlebar) which becomes exhausting after a few minutes due to the asymmetrical load on the body. Pushing a recumbent can be done by pushing it from behind, grabbing the rear panniers. Steering is astonishingly easy by balancing the bike to the right and left. Even on bad roads we did not have problems steering our bikes like that. The longer we were travelling, the earlier we started pushing the bikes – even on hills where we could have been riding. Using different muscles and not having to focus on steering the bike on low speeds became a welcome change during long and hard cycling days.

There are many other advantages and disadvantages of riding recumbent bikes:

  • Up to 30% less wind drag. A major advantage (+)
  • Higher risk of technical failures due to higher complexity of the bike construction (suspension) and less experience of recumbent bike manufacturers (-)
  • Whole upper body is relaxed. Problems with a hurting neck, wrists and hands or the butt hardly ever occur (+)
  • Rain more directly into the face while riding in rain (-)
  • No need to wear special bike clothes (pants with pads). We travelled wearing normal shorts and T-Shirts (+)
  • Much longer chain life (we cycled from Alaska to Chile using one chain without overstretching it) due to plastic casings and lower pedaling forces. Less chain cleaning necessary (+)
  • Slightly more expensive than a comparable normal bike (-)
  • Better handling of attacking dogs. They never reach your legs; a move with the arms makes them stay at a safe distance. In extreme cases, when dogs don’t back down, you have your arms free for defense measures (+)
  • Less flexible in heavy traffic (long wheel base), harder to make quick turns (-)
  • Stable ride due to long wheelbase (+)
  • Heel can collide with front wheel in narrow curves (just on very low speeds) (-)
  • Whole luggage above rear suspension. All the weight on the bike is grouped together in one main area (good for aerodynamics too). Better steering without panniers on front wheel (+)
  • Difficult to start riding (you can start only from sitting position with pedal strokes) (-)
  • A safe distance from trucks: South America is famous for dangerous situations between trucks and bikers. This problem occurs a lot less with a recumbent. Truck drivers seem to use more care with objects they can not clearly identify as bicycles. We never had trouble with trucks passing by too close. Bikers riding with us (behind us) said the difference was amazing (+)
  • Reduced mobility of bike (for example in a narrow stairway up to a hotel room) due to slightly increased length (-)
  • Reactions of people very funny and motivating (+)
  • Possibility of attracting to much attention increased (people who don't like to be talked to a lot should maybe not go biking in places like South America anyway) (-)
  • Waving to people a lot easier (no load on the arms) (+)
  • Drinking from bottles easier (no load on arms, bottles accessible without moving the upper body (-)
  • Riding with a full stomach easier (we even filled our stomach as much as we could before long, boring and exhausting climbs to profit from the sleepy feeling and the energy reserves) (+)

We wouldn’t hesitate to do a long cycling trip on a recumbent again. For those who want to travel by bike and travel comfortably, riding a recumbent is the only way to go. Because you don’t have to strain your neck to take in the view, the entire riding experience is exponentially more comfortable. All details are insignificant when compared to the big point of it all: the feeling! Riding a recumbent is like being in an open air cinema; it’s like watching scenery and people passing by from the comfort of a favorite chair.