Friday, January 28, 2011

From Wedgies to Bents

Champion cyclist Barbara Buatois of France, riding a Performer Low Racer Caliper, completed the 2010 Race Across AMerica (RAAM) nearly 20 hours before the next two fastest entrants in the Solo Female Under 50 category. The second and third place entrants rode conventional diamond frame road bikes

From Wedgies to Bents
by Bevin Chu
Taipei, China
January 27, 2011

The Decision

I recently decided to switch from "wedgies" to "bents," i.e., from conventional diamond frame bicycles to recumbent bicycles. The move will be permanent. The move will be one way. I do not intend to ride conventional diamond frame bikes, ever again.

The Reason

What drove me to such a drastic decision?

The short answer is, two bad spills on a conventional diamond frame bike, less than half a year apart. The first spill necessitated three months of physical therapy. The second, which occurred only two weeks ago, will probably necessitate an even lengthier period of physical therapy.

It's a shame, really. Under different circumstances, such a decision would not have been necessary.

The fact is I rode conventional diamond frame bikes most of my life, with nary a mishap. I never took any spills because I was riding on First World street surfaces, in major cities such as Washington, DC, Houston, New York, and Los Angeles.

Neither of the two spills I took recently had anything to do with riding skill. In neither case did I "lose my balance." Yes, I am considerably older than I was in junior high school. Yes, I have slowed down quite a bit, thank you very much. But I can still track stand until the light turns green with no problem.

No, the spills were caused not by pilot error, but by Taiwan's woefully substandard street surfaces.

Both times I was riding in a straight line at walking speed. Both times the front tire skidded sideways and dropped me on the pavement in a split second. Far too fast to react.

The first spill was caused by an abnormally low "curb" only two centimeters high. My front tire glanced against this nearly invisible "curb" and abruptly skidded sideways. A split second later I was down. I fell on my right side and injured my right knee and right elbow. My right elbow swelled up grotesquely, necessitating three months of physical therapy.

This spill was followed by a second spill, less than half a year later. The second spill, which occurred only two weeks ago, was caused by glazed ceramic tiles on the sidewalk. My front wheel rolled onto the icy slick tiles, and immediately slipped sideways. A split second later, I was down. This time I fell on my left side and injured my left knee and left shoulder. This time my injuries were even more severe. My left knee swelled up to the size of a cantaloupe. X rays of my left scapula show a wavy horizontal line that is probably a fracture. The doctors are uncertain. The injuries will necessitate an even longer period of physical therapy.

Left Knee: No fracture, but considerable soft tissue trauma

Left Shoulder: Possible horizontal fracture in scapula

The second spill was for me, the final straw.

Diamond Frames: Not for Tall People

The conventional diamond frame bike design has an intrinsic defect: It is unsuitable for tall cyclists.

The conventional diamond frame bike positions the cyclist above the pedals. This means that a tall cyclist is forced to sit at a stratospheric height above the pedals. The tall cyclist may fall as much as two meters before impacting the unyielding street surface below. The damage inflicted to the tall cyclist's bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles by a fall from that height, is not hard to imagine. As the saying goes, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

The World's Tallest Man on a Conventional Diamond Frame Bicycle

A fall from a diamond frame is a fall from a stepladder

The recumbent bike, especially the low racer recumbent, minimizes the probability of such serious injury, through intelligent design. Instead of positioning the cyclist above the pedals, the recumbent bike positions the cyclist behind the pedals. The cyclist is not forced to sit precariously high above the ground. Instead he stretches himself out comfortably, horizontally, behind the pedals.

In the event of a spill on low racer recumbent, even a tall cyclist falls less than half a meter before impacting the pavement. The difference between falling two meters and falling less than half a meter, may mean the difference between a fractured scapula and a mild case of road rash.

Barbara Buatois on her race winning MIT (Made in Taiwan) Performer Low Racer Caliper

A fall from a low rider is a fall from a beach chair

Diamond Frames: Tomorrow's Penny Farthings?

Yesterday, penny farthings were viewed as "normal" bicycles. Diamond frame bicycles, a novelty, were known as "safety bicycles" because they allowed the cyclist to sit closer to the ground.

Fall from a Penny Farthing

Today, penny farthings are viewed as quaint relics of the past. Diamond frames are viewed as "normal" bicycles, as "real" bicycles. Recumbents are viewed as oddities, ridden only by 50 something geeks with goatees. But recumbents are for all intents and purposes today's "safety bicycles," because they allow the cyclist to sit even closer to the ground than diamond frames.

Fall from a "Safety Bicycle" or Diamond Frame

Caption: WHAT'S IN A NAME? Old Gent (lately bitten with the Craze). "And that confounded man sold me the thing for a safety!"

Tomorrow, will recumbents be viewed as "normal" bicycles? Will diamond frames be viewed as quaint relics of the past, alongside penny farthings? Stranger things have happened.

Evolution according to Wedgie Advocates

Evolution According to Bent Advocates

Speaking for myself, the answer is clear. I was once unfamiliar with recumbents. I had no idea what they were. But once they caught my attention, I had to find out.

So I researched them. I compared them to conventional diamond frames, point by point. It was soon  clear that next to the recumbent, the diamond frame was a hopelessly outdated design configuration.

The diamond frame ought to be replaced by the recumbent, asap, for the same reason that the penny farthing was replaced by the "safety bicycle."

The Bent: A Better Design that is Paradoxically Easier to Build

Compare the frame of a short wheelbase (SWB) recumbent with the frame of a conventional diamond frame upright.

The frame of a SWB recumbent is the essence of simplicity. It is hard to imagine anything simpler. It is nothing more than a single tube with three bends. A hole near one end forms the head tube. A split at the other end forms the chain stays. The result is a conceptually elegant, technically sophisticated design safer, more ergonomic, and more aerodynamic than any diamond frame one can imagine.

Frame of a SWB Recumbent

The frame of a conventional diamond frame upright, by contrast, is a complex assembly consisting of eight separate tubes that must be precisely held in place and laboriously joined together. The result is technically obsolete, less safe than a recumbent, and is the antithesis of ergonomic comfort and aerodynamic efficiency.

Frame of Diamond Frame Upright

The only thing the diamond frame has going for it, is familiarity and force of habit. They only thing the recumbent has going against it, is unfamiliarity and a lack of knowledge.

Bents are Wedgies Turned 90 Degrees

On the other hand, conceptually speaking, the recumbent bike is merely a conventional diamond frame bike rotated 90 degrees.

Take a wedgie, which is configured like this:


With the bottom bracket (bb) as rotational center, rotate it 90 degrees clockwise, like this:

bb/feet --- seat/buttocks --- headrest/head

And you have a bent!

Therefore much of the emotional resistance to bents is really unnecessary.

My Diamond Frame Past

When I was in junior high, my dad bought me my first bike, a discount store "English Racer" with upright handlebars, full metal fenders, three speed Sturmey Archer gears, and dual handbrakes.

In senior high I bought a discount store 10 speed with downtube shifters and centerpull brakes.

A year before graduating from college I bought a Peugeot PX 10.

A decade later I bought a Pinarello 10 speed with Campy derailleurs, downtube shifters, and centerpull brakes.

Three years ago I bought an entry level Giant urban commuter. I deliberately chose a cheap bike so I wouldn't have to worry about theft.

Substandard Street Surfaces and Diamond Frame Bikes: An Unacceptable Combination

Woefully substandard street surfaces are one thing. Defects inherent in the conventional diamond frame design are another.

When I rode conventional diamond frame bikes in the US and Canada, street surfaces were consistent and predictable. Because the street surfaces never precipitated any spills, the defects in the conventional diamond frame bike design were never an issue. After all, as long as a cyclist never falls, potential injuries remain just that, potential.

But after moving to Taiwan, the woefully substandard street surfaces here have made this defect in the diamond frame design a very real issue. For this 187 cm (6'-1 1/2") cyclist at least, the two add up to an unacceptable combination.

And since it is considerably easier for the Average Joe to switch bicycles than to persuade City Hall to repave the streets, the solution is clear. Stop riding wedgies, and start riding bents.

My Recumbent Future

I have now decided to sell my diamond frame urban commuter and buy a low racer recumbent.

I will probably buy the Performer Low Racer Caliper, a reasonably priced but high quality short wheelbase low racer made by Performer, a Taiwan based bike manufacturer. It is not the lightest low racer made, but at 11.9 kg (26 lbs) it is light enough. And I can always opt for the carbon fiber seat option to reduce the weight even more.

I looked at the highly praised Dutch low racers as well. Challenge, M5, Optima, Velokraft. But the prices were pretty high, several thousand Euros, more than I could justify spending. One bike, the Raptobike Low Racer, was very reasonably priced at 1100 Euros. But even though it was OEM'd over here, I would still have to pay a hefty import duty. This struck me as one of those times when it really does make more sense to shop locally.

Barbara Buatois on her factory modified Performer Low Racer. Notice the open cockpit with Superman handlebars instead of the stock praying mantis handlebars

Barbara Buatois with Performer Low Racer Caliper YouTube clip

Performer Low Racer Caliper product homepage

Low Racer Caliper
alloy frame with carbon fork / SRAM Attack shifter / Shimano XT rear derailleur / Truvativ Elita 52/39/30 crank 170 mm integrated / 11-34 cogset / sealed bearing wheelset / TRP road brakes / 
20x1.00 25-451 front / 700x23c 23-622 rear / 100 psi
MSRP 39,500 NTD

Performer Low Racer Caliper YouTube clip
Performer Low Racer Folding Front Wheel Drive

Performer Low Racer variant, distributed by ActionBent

Are Low Racers "Too Low To Be Seen?"

I take exception to the claim that low racers are "too low to be seen," and that riders of low racers have only themselves to blame if the driver of an SUV runs them down.

I'm talking of course about "conventional" low racers with seats approximately 36 cm off the ground, and not the ultralow one of a kind machines used to set speed records. Those have seats only a few centimeters off the ground.

Performer High Racer. Seat height is 51 cm. Note that rider's head is higher than driver's head in parked subcompact. Performer Low Racer seat height is 36 cm, or 15 cm lower

A "conventional" low racer is about the same height as many sports cars, wheelchairs, and diamond frame child bikes. The driver of an SUV can hardly argue that sports cars, wheelchairs, and children riding diamond frame child bikes are "too low to be seen."

The driver of an SUV can hardly argue that drivers of low slung sports cars, users of wheelchairs, and children on diamond frame child bikes "were too low to be seen," that they "took their lives in their own hands," and wash his hands of responsibility for running them down.

The notion that the road belongs to automobile drivers alone, and that other road users are merely nuisances who ought to get out of their way, must go. Slow moving vehicles such as bikes must never be ridden on limited access superhighways. But all taxpayers have the right to use a nation's surface roads.