O, to the Pain-Free Bicycle I go!

It’s really true. A bicycle does not have to be a deliverer of pain.

Years ago, I just took it. I’d ride a lot, as much as I could, get off of my two 26” wheels and hurt for a little while, recover, and do it again. Sometimes I found myself going as fast as I could so the pain would end as soon as possible; other days I’d go for long, long rides and suffer only towards and at the end.

There were two different categories of pain involved. First and obvious is the pain of what we shall charitably call the undercarriage. I have met people who have tried many different bicycle seats — and they make a huge variety now — until they found their One. Unfortunately their One Seat often cost quite a lot, many of them as much as a workable used car, and I learned the hard way [ahem] that the One that feels good right now may be the Wrong One after a pile of miles. The makers and aficionados do not call the things “seats”; they call them “saddles,” for never-clear reasons: my personal theory is that it is because of the rhyme with “straddle”, or worse ☺

I did manage to get past this part of the situation, by taking one huge “saddle” I had spent some money on and a nice big handsaw, and cut a 2” wide and 2” deep channel down the middle from stem to stern, and wrapped it creatively in fine plastic mesh from my sweet Lori’s favorite fabric store, using my favorite hemp string to pull the mesh into the channel. This worked OK; pain variety #1 was brought down often 95%, 85% on a bad day, 70% after a very long ride. Sufficient.

But the second variety ended up much worse. Wrist pain a la carpal tunnel, and periodic numbing of fingers, and finally, what is commonly called “tennis elbow”, elbow and shoulder stress. It appears that leaning some of one’s upper-body weight upon one’s hands while absorbing road vibrations, for hours at a time, is not a great idea for me. Lots of people do it, and work up to it and do a whole lot more than I have ever; but I work in IT typing every day, play keys in a band too, and am not of the most robust physique; and I found that this all was not going to cut it for very long. I did find some creatively-shaped (and uncheap) hand grips that reduced this problem, and if I wasn’t typing hard and playing hard I think I might have been OK for longer — but the music is a life-essential, and the bills have got to be paid and the bicycle doesn’t, and no matter what I did and tried, the arms and hands got worse and worse.

But there is more than one kind of bicycle. Most of the time we think of “bicycle” as two big wheels, a more or less diamond-shaped frame, and miscellaneous other things (like a straddle-saddle) bolted onto corners here and there. There are, however, bicycles which don’t sit a straddler up top and dangle legs down: some have real seats in which the rider actually sits comfortably, not unlike the living room with the feet up on the ottoman. But this ottoman has pedals which actually drive you places ☺

For many years I didn’t believe it at all. I had heard of the things, called “recumbent” bicycles by the pros and the trades (and often “what in the world is that” by casual onlookers), but I couldn’t believe they would be much help. First of all they looked profoundly odd. Second of all they looked unsteady, and questionable in a long list of ways. And third they were insanely expensive.

But after coming to grips [ahem again] with the fact that the big-wheels-and-diamond was going to wreck my arms and hands if I tried to get enough exercise with it, I gave it to a friend who had no transportation, and was sad for a while. Then I found myself doing the research yet again, and I found that prices were lower, on some recumbent models I had not seen before. And then one day I wandered into my favorite local bike shop just for old time’s sake, and saw a recumbent sitting there, looking up at me. It said, “Yes, I know I’m weird, but try me, I’m fun.” So I gave it a whirl around the parking lot. It was different, and not bad at all, and I noticed a distinct lack of pain. I thought, well, great beginning, at least it will be a lot less bad than before. But it was a grand before taxes, and that’s a lot of dough for Sweet Lori and me. So I walked away sad.

A couple of months later, I received a mysterious phone call. It was Steve, from the bike shop. He said there was a recumbent, similar model to the one I had tried, which had come in used. Only half a grand.

Unfortunately S.L. and I had just discovered that our home badly needed a new roof. So that happened, as did a bit of credit-card debt. A bit after that, we agreed that my long-term persistence in this world might be improved a lot by better exercise, so I called my friends at the bike shop again. Steve was on vacation — but they had another recumbent in, similar model. So I tried it on, and bought it, wondering what was to occur.

The second, third, and fourth times I rode it, all sorts of bits of my body were demanding that I explain where the pain went. I gently explained that it was gone forever, and asked them how they liked the new-to-us bicycle. They explained back to me that this was not a bicycle, I must be delusional, and recommended that I take a long refresher course with the eyes about the difference between imagination and vision. I smiled and invited everyone to pedal, and we did.

And it is true. There is zero pain, because I sit on a real seat and not a straddlongulation device, and because my hands simply rest gently on the grips. It is still shocking to me how much less strenuous this thing is to pedal, relative to every other bicycle I’ve had. Starting off is easy with a little moving start, or by lifting myself a bit forward for just long enough. I am looking forward to longer and longer rides. In fact, my limiting factor right now is the fact that I don’t have a bicycle lock yet, so I have to keep my round trips short enough for the bathroom at home! There is something major to be said for pushing my feet forward to move forward, as opposed to pushing down or around to move forward.

One of the things I read about recumbents, before I tried mine, is reports of difficulties on hills. One reason given was, on a recumbent one does not “step on” the pedals to drive oneself up a hill: it’s leg pressure forward, and no body-weight pressure for the extra shove. I laughed myself to pieces after my first half mile, thinking about this. I don’t know whether it’s because I am very used to using gears, or what, but I have had exactly the opposite experience, hills are so much joy now it’s impossible to describe. It does not feel like a bicycle at all when I start up a hill, it feels like a motor scooter that I happen to be in more charge of. Sure, I downshift easily and slow down a lot, but my trusty friend Bill, who has had thousands more miles of bicycling than I and all of it non-recumbent, trained me a while ago using his shifting patterns, so it’s not radical or unusual what I am doing.

Possibly most amazingly, this ride is a whole lot more steady on a wet road. A long while back I bicycled as primary transportation, all weather, in northern New Jersey, which means rain and snow: I learned quick that my bolted-diamond of the time was very prone to slip sideways, even after I replaced the narrow tires with wider knobbies. Yesterday, driving (riding; it feels like driving!) from work, I was caught in major flurries and wet road, and found myself much steadier than I had expected, or ever before experienced on two wheels. And this even though my balance is not what it once was.

And I found myself doing the research again, and studded tires for bicycles can be had ☺

When’s my next ride? Hmmm…soon, thank God…

© 2017 Jonathan E. Brickman. 
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Licence, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/