It is a mistake to think that there is such a thing as a "best recumbent" for everyone. Each individual can have a compelling reason for needing something different. Size and shape matter. So do the road surfaces that are expected to be ridden. Injuries force some people to choose one model over another. Some people spend all their time riding in an urban environment while others ride almost exclusively in rural areas. As can be seen, different people need different bikes.
The first decision: Wheelbase
Short wheelbase bikes (SWBs) are usually lighter and have more responsive steering. Most people like the more responsive steering but it can take a bit longer to get used to. Short wheelbase bikes typically have higher cranksets, which position the rider in a more powerful pedaling position as well as a more aerodynamic position. Transporting these bikes on the top or back of your car is as easy as transporting a conventional bike. The disadvantages are a matter of individuality. The fact that the rider of an SWB sits over the front wheel, resulting in a higher seat position, makes it harder for people with shorter legs to get them to the ground. If you plan on riding soft gravel roads on a regular basis, beware of a SWB with a 16" (or smaller) front wheel. A small front wheel tends to plow, making riding difficult. On soft road surfaces a long wheelbase (LWB) or compact long wheelbase (CLWB) will probably be better.
Long wheelbase bikes position the rider between the wheels, allowing the rider to sit lower and making it easier for medium to short riders to put their feet solidly on the ground at their stops. Most LWB bikes and CLWB (Compact Long Wheel Base) bikes have a crankset that is significantly lower than the seat. The resulting riding position is less intimidating for some riders. The longer frame typically has very forgiving steering providing a good choice for riders who find the SWB steering a bit quirky. LWB bikes allow short riders to ride a bike with larger, more efficient wheels. Long distance touring riders like the fact that front panniers can be mounted to most LWB bikes. Finally, there is no heel overlap of the front wheel on a LWB or a CLWB. LWB bikes also provide a smoother ride on the bumps. However, lack of weight on the front wheel may cause LWB front wheels to be more likely to skit out during sharp turns.
Next decision: Steering
Over Seat Steering (OSS) provides a better place for a handlebar-mounted rear view mirror and a computer than under seat steering (USS). (A more fundamental observation is that OSS iscloser to 'normal' and easier to accept with newbies.) A rearview mirror is a necessity since turning around to look backwards while on a recumbent is impossible for most people. Over the seat steering also makes it easier to 'walk' your bike. It's surprising how often we get off our bikes and want to push them somewhere. Into the garage - down a crowded sidewalk to a favorite coffee shop - into the local bike shop for repair - etc. Under Seat Steering (USS), on the other hand, is extremely comfortable and easier to ride than most people think. Getting on and off the bike is also easier since there is no handlebar in your way. You can mount a mirror and a computer to the USS handlebar, but they are slightly harder to use. Steering preference is a personal decision and there is no right or wrong. Try both and discover what you like best.
Other Decisions: Suspension
Several years ago, a design and engineering team from a large conventional bike company flew in from California to test ride recumbents and talk about recumbent design. They each took a different recumbent and went for a ten-mile ride after which they proceeded to exchange bikes with each other. During the exchange process, one of the designers said, "I already know we don't have to make a suspension model." The others agreed. Recumbent seats reduce the pressure per square inch to such a great degree that hitting bumps is simply not the problem that it is on an upright. Keep in mind that they were riding on relatively smooth roads in a rural environment. You may still want suspension if you live in a city with lots of chuckholes. Riders with physical problems may prefer suspension because they experience discomfort from bumps that others don't feel. The downside of suspension is added weight, added expense and greater mechanical complexity. If you're looking for efficiency in a rural environment with reasonably smooth road surfaces I recommend a rigid frame bike. For really rough roads or city riding where efficiency might not be as important, suspension can be great. Here, again, you need to test ride both and see what works for you.
The essence of bicycling - the thing that brings the thrill - is the efficiency and mechanical advantage that we simply cannot get from walking or running. If you want to experience the essence of biking to its fullest extent, choose a light-weight bike with efficient wheels. In my experience, large wheels roll more efficiently than small wheels. In general, look for a bike with a 26" or 700c rear wheel and a 20" front wheel if at all possible. In addition to rolling better you will have better gearing without the added weight and mechanical complexity of internal hubs and cross drives. However, there are some situations where 20" rear wheel bikes work very well. City riding, with frequent stops and starts is a great place for 20" rear wheels. Also, leisure riders may find smaller wheels suitable for long tours.
Crank / Bottom Bracket Height
On a recumbent, an aerodynamic tuck is achieved by placing your feet in front of your torso instead of directly below. The manufacturer actually builds the amount of "recumbent tuck" into the bike during the design phase. The higher the crankset (relative to the seat height), the more aerodynamic the tuck. Many designers feel that bikes with cranksets, on about the same plane as the seat put the rider in a more powerful position for climbing. Higher cranksets do result in a somewhat more radical "recumbent riding position" which can be more difficult at starts and stops. (Recumbents with lower cranksets, bridge the gap between the radically positioned recumbents and standard upright bikes.) Some people find the high crankset bikes more difficult to balance as well.
Seats come in many shapes and sizes, so do butts, backs and thighs. The trick is to match your anatomy to the seat that fits you best. Seats are usually made with a hard pan base or a slung material base. Some remove easily and some do not. Seats can recline or position you more upright. Remember that the more upright you sit the more pressure there is on your butt which may cause problems on longer rides. If you plan on car topping your bike look for a seat that's easy to take off and put on. Recumbent seats make great bug catchers and ruin gas mileage (and compromise the tendency for the bike to stay attached to the car!) if left on the bike when transporting you bike on top of your car.
It Is our sincere hope that this information will be of assistance in allow you to make informed decision. We well put our experience to work for you to make sure you choose the right recumbent the first time.
Please feel free to visit our shop and experience the comfort and performance that a suitable recumbent offers.
To make an appointment to test ride please phone 310-450-3180, 9-5 Monday-Saturday.
The Bicycle Work Shop 1638 Ocean Park Blvd Santa Monica, Ca. 90405