I HAVE ONE tiny complaint about my new Ryan recumbent bicycle. Every time I brake to a stop, I draw a crowd. Kids and adults swarm around the lipstick-red, seven-foot-long machine, firing questions. Is it hard to ride? Is it fun? And, hey, where are the handlebars? I answer no, yes and under the seat.
"What a cool bike!" they murmur. "What a weird bike!"
The gawkers are right. My recumbent is bizarre, but only because conventional bicycles are so . . . conventional. If a time traveler from 1885 zoomed into 1991 he would instantly recognize standard bicycles, so little has their diamond frame geometry changed.
What has changed significantly over the years is bicycle ownership. Americans buy about 10 million bikes a year for recreation and fitness, nearly three times more than in 1960. Yet these numbers are deceptive: Many adults love the idea of riding a bike more than the riding itself.
The Bicycle Institute of America estimates that of the 110 million bicycles in the United States, about 20 million are gathering dust. Some kids' bikes are turning to rust in garages, but millions more bicycles have been abandoned by adults.
One reason is painfully obvious. Perching on that torture device called a bike saddle hurts. The longer the ride, the worse the effect of gravity and the pounding vibrations of roadshock. Straddling a bike seat can chafe, rub open saddle sores and cause genital numbness. More than just uncomfortable, severe numbness can lead to temporary male impotence and infections in women.
Bike magazine medical columns describe other ailments, an orthopedist's waiting room full of sore arms, backs, shoulders, necks and hands. To ease this misery, the experts drone on about making sure the bike fits your body, wearing padded gloves, getting a padded seat, blah, blah. If this fails, well, you'll get used to it. You'll toughen up.
I believed this garbage for years. I pedaled a succession of spindly 10-speeds and owned a mountain bike I could have ridden up the side of a barn. It was fun, but I hurt. I consulted cycle experts, readjusted the handlebar and seat height, changed bike seats and wore padded-crotch biker's shorts. Still, going for long rides on my neutering scooter left me numb. And worried. I finally quit busting my buns last year when I first rode a recumbent.
That's a clunky word to hang on a streamlined bike, but recumbent accurately describes the semi-reclining riding position. Recumbenteers sit comfortably, their backs and bottoms supported in chair-like seats. They lean back and pedal with their legs extended in front of them. Some recumbents have "easy rider" or "ape hanger" handlebars, others -- like my Ryan -- feature handlebars under the seat.
What bliss! My bike looks wacky, but it feels great. Never numb, sore or stiff, my body and hands stay relaxed as I pedal for hours. At the end of a 30-mile ride, my companions riding standard bicycles walk about groaning, shaking out their legs and rubbing their aching necks, shoulders and derrieres. I continue to sit on my bike-cum-recliner, as comfortable as I was at the journey's start.
Riding a recumbent is also safe. Jam on the front brakes and the long wheelbase bikes won't lurch forward, catapulting you into space. At worst, you will fall sideways instead of flying solo, head-over-heels over handlebars. And the rider's view of the road is wide, virtually panoramic. Ride a conventional bike and you spend a lot of time hunched over, staring down at your front wheel.
Despite their benefits, recumbents and other radically different bike designs are rare, unfairly so. Almost 60 years ago, the bureaucrats who ruled bicycling decided that a recumbent isn't a "real" bicycle. In 1934, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), Europe's high priesthood of bicycle racing, forever barred recumbents from world-wide competition after a recumbent rider smashed a 20-year-old speed record. The UCI declared la bicyclette a` pedalage horizontal "unfair competition," legislating it into obscurity. (They could have put it into a separate category, but that might have encouraged its development, heaven forbid.) In fact, every human-powered vehicle land speed record is still held by a recumbent design.
The UCI ruling discouraged most bicycle innovation for nearly 30 years. Too bad. Most people, especially aging boomers leery of standard bikes, care more about riding in comfort than they do about winning races. But the conservative bicycling industry -- influenced by the prejudices of the wind-in-your hair, bugs-in-your-teeth racing crowd -- keeps peddling the same old line instead of producing imaginative designs that could get more people riding.
Of course, recumbent aficionados admit to some disadvantages. The bikes' length makes them hard to transport (I use a car-top tandem bike rack), and they are tough to pedal up steep hills until you build your thigh and hamstring muscles. All are made by small companies, so they are pricier than mass-produced bikes. My Ryan costs $995, not an outrageous price for a custom-made bike. Other recumbents start at $500.
Meanwhile, I continue to enjoy my weird bicycle, taking the shouted huzzahs in stride. But sometimes I think I am riding a metaphor, that my sleek, laid-back machine is really a smoldering fuse in the bicycle revolution waiting to happen.
FOR MORE INFORMATION and a list of manufacturers of recumbent bicycles, send $2 to the Recumbent Bicycle Club of America, 427-3 Amherst St., Nashua, NH 03063.
U.S. News & World Report writer Vic Sussman can be found most weekends zipping through Rock Creek Park on his recumbent bicycle.