Riding the First Recumbent

Riding the First Recumbent

Bicycle Quarterly hasn’t really covered recumbents much. It’s not that we aren’t interested, it just seems difficult to do such totally different machines justice. And yet recumbents are a perfect fit with Bicycle Quarterly‘s research into the history of cyclotouring. During the mid-1930s, recumbents were quite popular among French cyclotourists.
Many saw them as the bikes of the future. While the racing world outlawed recumbents soon after Francis Faure set an hour record on a recumbent in 1933, cyclotourists and randonneurs couldn’t have cared less about what the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) thought: That recumbents weren’t “real” bicycles.
Recumbents appealed to “real-world” riders because they seemed to offer speed and comfort, in addition to novelty. Quite a few companies offered them: Mochet, Ravat, Vélostable… They even participated in the 1930s Technical Trials, where they were given their own category, because they couldn’t compete on weight with upright bicycles. Randonneurs in Paris-Brest-Paris were allowed to ride them, too. And for a while, recumbents received a lot of positive press.
But then they faded away. By the late 1930s, almost half of the “for sale” ads in magazines like Le Cycliste listed recumbents. I’ve often wondered: What happened?
The literature is silent on this issue – they just stopped talking about recumbents. Most riders who rode recumbents back then unfortunately no longer are with us. The best way to understand 1930s recumbents today is to ride one.
Imagine my excitement when Christophe Courbou, the organizer of the French Technical Trials, showed me his latest find: a mid-1930s Mochet Vélo-Vélocar. Mochet was the brand that started the recumbent craze of the 1930s. His machine was ridden to that infamous hour record.
Georges Mochet first developed a four-wheeled, pedal-powered car, the Vélocar. This became quite popular – people even rode across the country in them. Then Mochet had the idea of cutting the car in half, and making a bicycle out of it. Hence the strange name: Vélo-Vélocar. (It’s the bike version of the Bike Car.)
“Can I ride it?” was my immediate question. Classic bikes fascinate me, but I am not a collector. I want to ride them: How do they work? What are their strenghts and weak points? What can we learn from them. Could this be another forgotten gem like the 650B randonneur bikes that we discovered in the dusty annals of history?
Fortunately, Christophe’s Mochet remains in perfect condition. It clearly hasn’t been ridden a lot. Unfortunately for me, I am too tall for the bike. The size can be adjusted, but this requires a lot of work, including lengthening the chain. After the Technical Trials, there simply wasn’t enough time for this.
So I tried to ride the Mochet as is. I had to splay my legs to clear the handlebars. And I found I couldn’t keep the bike upright.
Perhaps I was too tired from riding that day’s gravel stage of the Technical Trials. Having to keep my knees from hitting the handlebars (which immediately turned them sharply) didn’t help. I am glad nobody photographed my attempts: They were too busy catching me as I kept falling over!
Christophe has more practice, and he managed to ride the Mochet impressively well. But even he wasn’t keen on heading into the surrounding hills to try the Mochet on steep ups and downs.
The problem seems to stem from the universal joint in the steering. It’s beautifully made, just like the rest of the bike, and it turns very smoothly. But the handlebars only have an indirect connection to the front wheel.
On an “upright” bicycle, you simply look where you want to go, and the bike follows. On the Mochet and similar 1930s recumbents, you have to think about where you turn the handlebars and how far. That active thought process made it so difficult for me to ride the Mochet. It apparently takes a while to become intuitive. I can’t imagine that you’ll ever get the same feedback about what your contact patches are doing as you do on a “regular” bike.
Christophe also reports that sitting on the Mochet isn’t very comfortable – recumbent seats have come a long way since 1933. When you consider how highly evolved the best French cyclotouring bikes already were in the 1930s, it’s no wonder the recumbents didn’t really catch on. They clearly needed more development before they’d become viable alternatives to “upright” bikes.
So we now know that it wasn’t the UCI banning recumbents that caused their fall from popularity. The machines simply didn’t work well enough. The riders who bought them, often sold them after the novelty had worn off.
And yet – I want to try one for a longer ride. The old photo of the touring countryside is just too evocative. Christophe has promised that the next time I visit, we’ll fit the Mochet to my taller body, and then I can have a go. I can’t wait!
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Comments (41)

  • Simon Kellett

    So you ride a machine that you admit does not fit you correctly, for a few minutes and conclude it is the bike’s fault ?!

    September 14, 2016 at 4:33 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Sorry for the misunderstanding. I am trying to figure out why recumbents became popular in the mid-1930s and then fell from favor. We know it wasn’t the UCI, so what was the reason?

      September 15, 2016 at 2:50 am
      • erick

        i still think thar the UCI had a lot to do…. normal people want to be like the racers…

        September 15, 2016 at 11:34 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          Today, the influence of racing is much greater – TV now brings the Tour bikes right into your living room. In the 1930s, it was different. The races were reported in the newspapers, and the bikes didn’t matter.
          Most of all, the timeline is wrong for that argument: The UCI banned recumbents in 1934. That is when they became popular. Four years later, they fell from favor. Hard to see the UCI ban being instrumental for that!

          September 15, 2016 at 5:34 pm
  • Till Ehlermann

    I’m very happy to see BQ trying recumbents. They have never been in your Focus, although more and more long distance cyclists prefer them over “uprights”.
    If you consider testing other recumbents, especially more “modern” ones, you should try a “Bacchetta CA” or a “Cruzbike Vendetta”. They are completely different and you can get a glimpse of what recumbents are capable of (and what they are not).

    September 14, 2016 at 5:05 am
  • jeffoyb

    Why not try riding a few modern, optimized recumbents at home? Angle Lake Cyclery is a specialty shop with expert staff located an hour south of Seattle. I bet you could have a fun afternoon trying out a variety of recumbents, including trikes. I’ve heard some shops charge a modest fee for such test sessions. When I did it, it was a blast. I found the various steering options to be intuitive. There are quite a few carbon models. …And the seats are nice these days. Your Compass tires are catching on in that scene!

    September 14, 2016 at 5:29 am
  • jeffoyb

    PS: Underseat steering a short wheelbase model gave me the biggest smile! Like riding a magic carpet: I couldn’t see any bike below me at all! …In my test session I most appreciated bikes set up to duplicate my uprighting hip angle. Then it took me 6 months to feel natural on a decent ride, and a year to fully adapt for uphill power, but the adaptation was backwards compatible and then some: it didn’t hurt my uprighting legs, but left me w better power. In the end I also had more hip angle tolerance and could ride easily even with the “open” hip angle of some recumbents (which I didn’t like at all at first — no power).

    September 14, 2016 at 5:38 am
  • erick

    Mike burrows have some pretty recumbent designs, have a super clean front wheel drive design, and there are the velomobiles too, would love to see BQ point of view in this designes

    September 14, 2016 at 5:38 am
  • erick

    also in the fisrt minute of this “1930” video you can see a very nice micro recumbent with a direct stem connection to the wheel

    September 14, 2016 at 5:46 am
    • Paul

      Holy cow! Some of those films were from the middle of WWII? Is this Poland?

      September 14, 2016 at 6:25 am
      • Jan

        It is video from Prague, former Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic).

        September 14, 2016 at 11:28 am
    • Gunther

      Third episode is from Paris. The Hersé family on a triplet at 2:54 – 3:07?

      September 14, 2016 at 3:46 pm
  • Jay Guerin

    We rode a Ryan Duplex recumbent tandem for a time. What a beast. Eleven feet long and under seat steering. The linkage from the steerer to the front wheel was a little loosey-goosey. And forget about maneurability. Only kept it for a few months then sold it with a classified ad in 2 hours to a couple who were thrilled to get it..

    September 14, 2016 at 7:51 am
  • Jonathan Gehman

    When you wrote “His Machine was ridden to that infamous Hour Record” are you referring to Christophe Courbou’s bike in the photos or one of Georges Mochet’s bikes in general? It appears to be more of a general purpose bike than a racer but maybe all it needed was to be stripped down to get the job done. That recumbent hour record has always interested me, if the UCI hadn’t disallowed it there would certainly been a flurry of activity around those bikes. I’ve always wondered what a Six Day race meet with Upright bikes Vs Recumbents would have been like.
    Even if this isn’t the actual racer that set the record, I really enjoyed seeing the photos and reading about it. I’m looking forward to reading your report if you get to wring it out a bit.

    September 14, 2016 at 8:41 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Referring to Georges Mochet. Christophe’s bike is the standard touring model, and certainly hasn’t set any records!

      September 14, 2016 at 1:51 pm
  • kennethsamuel

    After my 600k this year my hands hurt, my butt hurt, my shoulders hurt; I think I may be ready to try a recumbent.

    September 14, 2016 at 8:42 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You may try optimizing your upright, rather than get a recumbent. There is a reason we offer so many parts that are different from what you find on most modern bikes. Better handlebar shapes, like our Compass Randonneur, probably will take care of the hurting hands. More flexible fork blades, like the Kaisei “Toei Special” blades, will help your shoulders. For your behind, experiment with different saddles, but also know that as you get stronger, you sit less on the saddle, and saddle problems will become less of an issue.
      It’s a common misperception that recumbents are more comfortable over very long distances. When I see recumbents in PBP, their riders don’t look more comfortable than those on good upright bikes. Some of them have to be lifted off their ‘bents. Imagine sitting in a lawn chair or in your car for 24 hours without interruption…
      This is not to say that recumbent riders cannot be comfortable, but they certainly aren’t automatically more comfortable than uprights.

      September 14, 2016 at 1:57 pm
      • splitlevel2

        It’s true that a recumbent is not going to give you as much opportunity to move around and switch positions. Recumbent seats, however, particularly on high racers, will be more like sitting in a recliner than a car seat or lawn chair. Most of the weight should be spread out across your back. 24 hours in one position would be hard regardless; PBP is a challenge for most normal humans on any bike.
        Anyway, would be great if BQ kept up the recumbent investigations and history. Loved this post and would welcome more of the BQ approach to recumbent issues, there is so much to explore, myths to bust, and data to gather.
        It’s one of the pleasures of my life deciding which bike to ride in the morning; both are fun and I learn more about each all the time.

        September 14, 2016 at 4:05 pm
      • Oleg Tsyganov

        Good point, however you ARE automatically more comfortable, but complete comfort can take a lot of fine-tuning, however experimenting with seat recline and seat shape is not much more difficult or even that much more expensive than with saddles on uprights (unless you absolutely want carbon – but carbon DF seats are not known to be dirt-cheap either, unless you go with cheap chinese knockoffs that are prone to breaking unless you are light).
        Anyway, there is a limit to upright optimization and while being reasonably fit helps with saddle soreness, some people ride brevets because it is the only thing that helps them to stay in somewhat reasonable shape, and there is simply no amount of ‘optimization’ will help you if you weight 200+ pounds and have to ride very upright due to back issues… which are completely non-issue on very reclined ‘racing’ bents.

        September 20, 2016 at 7:16 am
  • Keith Andrews

    Thanks Jan … had a Avatar 2000 and a fair amount of experience with an Easy Racer back in the days. You may recognize my Avatar … (serial # AR-0038) … it appeared in the movie Brainstorm.

    September 14, 2016 at 8:46 am
  • Ryan

    You should try to find a Counterpoint Presto. I believe they were made in your area, so you might be able to track one down. I bought mine (mail order) from Angle Lake Cyclery almost 25 years ago. Sadly no longer made, but I think another company kept the design going for a few years.
    It’s short wheelbase, upright steering model. A Recumbent Cyclist News review at the time said “it was the only recumbent that can be ridden with the finesse of a road bike” and the a track stand was “almost possible.” I can’t do a track stand on ANY bike, but I can definitely attest to the intuitive handling. Like a nice upright, you never really make any conscious steering input with the bars, except at very low speeds. On twisty mountain descents, you sort of steer with your butt 🙂
    It’s a blast!

    September 14, 2016 at 9:27 am
    • Ryan

      Also, the Counterpoint Presto frame essentially was one long and fairly flexible tube from the cranks to the rear triangle. It may have been my first experience with “planing” 🙂 It really flies up the hills!

      September 14, 2016 at 9:36 am
    • Bill Gobie

      My first recumbent was a Presto. It was indeed a sweet bike with good road manners, although very flexible. The main tube was too light. The boom (the tube projecting out front carrying the bottom bracket) flexed like crazy. The booms tended to break off the fixed-boom frames. Mine had a folding boom. Those proved durable owing to the hinge construction.
      The Presto probably was the first short wheelbase recumbent with good handling at all speeds (I got mine up to 50 mph once). If you can find one it would make a good starter ‘bent, and could be entirely satisfactory for someone not looking for the ultimate in performance.
      Descending on a good recumbent is the closest most of us will ever get to flying a fighter jet. It is a rush! It is far easier than descending on an upright. Alpine descents on an upright can be very taxing because a lot of weight goes onto your hands when not pedaling, plus there is the extra stress of riding in the hooks for better control and braking. There is none of that on a recumbent, plus you are automatically in a good aero position with no special contortions required.

      September 14, 2016 at 6:22 pm
  • Bill Gobie

    The first time I saw a photo of the u-joint steering on a Mochet I thought it would make for a difficult initial riding experience. With practice I expect an “Aha!” moment occurs when one’s brain discovers the correct reflexes, similar to riding a conventional bike with reversed steering. Mark Twain’s quip comes to mind, “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it. If you live.”
    If the Mochet had direct steering the upright head tube angle would cause the grips to swing unacceptably far sideways when turning. Modern long wheelbase recumbents have much slacker head angles, for example 59 degrees on an Easy Racer. The handlebars are nearly aligned with the steering axis so the grips move side to side much less. I would guess Mochet retained the head tube geometry that was known to work well on uprights and built his recumbents around that.
    A long wheelbase recumbent is typically the easiest type of recumbent to learn. With a little experience on a long wheelbase one is more likely to have a positive experience on a more challenging beast like a high racer.

    September 14, 2016 at 10:01 am
  • bradci

    Great post! And it seems appropriate for a recumbent that the rider in your photos is sporting a neck brace. 🙂

    September 14, 2016 at 10:19 am
  • Bill Gobie

    Besides weight, a couple of additional performance limiting factors come to mind with this bike. The seating position is not particularly aerodynamic. Fast unfaired recumbents put the rider in a much more reclined position. Assuming the seat is padded for some degree of comfort, the padding absorbs energy with each pedal stroke. You can experience this on modern recumbents. Some bikes can be equipped with either a more comfortable padded or mesh seat, or a high performance very rigid unyielding fiberglass or carbon fiber seat. There can be a remarkable difference in power transfer.

    September 14, 2016 at 12:00 pm
    • Bill Gobie

      Another factor that may have caused recumbents to fade away is that your feet simply must be attached to the pedals for performance riding. If your foot falls off a pedal, it will stop when it hits the ground while the bike continues onward… this is called leg suck. Prior to clipless pedals that meant you had to use toe clips, cages, and straps. Us graybeards know dealing with toe straps is hard enough on an upright. Leaning forward to mess with your feet on on a recumbent is an advanced technique. I can do it, however it would not be a pleasant maneuver for a neophyte.

      September 14, 2016 at 6:28 pm
  • David Cambon

    There is a hiracer recumbent that accepts 650B and is a candidate for the Compass Loup Loup Pass 650Bx38mm tire:
    I think the logical conclusion of the Mochet Vélo-Vélocar for cycletouring is the modern-day Easy Racer Tour Easy, which works like a charm and is easy to ride:
    I wrote an article about Paris-Brest-Paris & Recumbent Bikes:

    September 14, 2016 at 4:35 pm
  • rothrockcyrcle

    Recumbents are still in rapid development. Machines of today are far superior to those I rode 20 years ago. And the superiority is not due to the use of composites, but in their fundamentals.

    September 14, 2016 at 6:43 pm
  • Tim Evans

    The four period riders appear to have the same size wheels, front and rear, as opposed to the Mochet Velo in this blog.

    September 14, 2016 at 6:55 pm
  • Virgil Lynskey Walker

    I had a Catrike for a few years. I forget the model. It was very fast on the flat and straight downhill, and very comfortable but slow slow slow uphill. I loved being able to look up at trees etc., and it was great for slow relaxed riding, or long tours where you had plenty of time. I got to talk to a lot of interested people and, especially, dogs, who would come over to touch noses (mostly: but angry dogs are terrifying at eye level)! It was *very* exciting on fast off camber downhill corners, and diabolical on rough chipseal or gravel, where the front wheels would always be fighting each other. It also attracted a lot more attention than I could endure from homicidal drivers who seemed to take it as an especial affront to their manhood. I spent a few hours recently trying to catch someone on a Barchetta.CA on a brevet. I’d close the gap on hills, he’d blast away on the flats and downhill and seemed to have no problems keeping up with the stronger DF riders, but I think real mountains may have been a different story.

    September 14, 2016 at 7:22 pm
  • John Duval

    It is irony that recumbent bicycles led me to wide tires, which in turn led me to design a high performance upright bike for wide tires, which led me to Bicycle Quarterly. And since then, recumbents started using mostly skinny tires. For a while I rode both upright and recumbent. I even built a recumbent with Babyshoe Pass tires and low-trail geometry; it is the best recumbent I ever rode.
    But with Compass tires and handlebars, and ISM saddles, comfort is no longer an issue. Where the recumbent was once the salvation from pain and discomfort, now it simply feels confining, in position, and where or how I ride.

    September 14, 2016 at 10:05 pm
  • Richard Freeman

    A universal joint is the wrong technology for the application. They were designed to allow a small angular offset but not the 30+ degrees on a Mochet. I would imagine the steering feels a bit bumpy because the rotation isn’t smooth or even at that angle. It’s non-linear in a rotational sort of way. Current recumbents use pushrods or chain drives to solve the remote-steering problem, same as some of the cargo bikes you’ve tested.

    September 15, 2016 at 10:30 am
  • SmoothestRollingBike

    The most comfortable recumbent is Rans Stratus XP with Compass 26″ x 2.3″ Rat Trap Pass Extralight tires.
    Nothing even comes close.

    September 15, 2016 at 1:27 pm
  • trplay

    Congratulations, you finally write about a great category of audax bikes. Now enter modern times and check out today’s recumbents. Can’t climb? Did you know a recumbent won this years prestigious climbing series the California Triple Crown?

    September 16, 2016 at 10:25 am
  • Oleg Tsyganov

    Recumbents indeed have their limitations, and some of those began being addressed only fairly recently.
    For instance, I’m overweight and it does not seem that that weight as going anywhere any time soon, so 400+ distances are a torture. After 600 km brevet, I’ve desided that I’m switching to recumbents for good. However:
    Seat fitting is nearly as finicky as saddle fitting. Tailbone soreness and numb feet are common.
    This is only one that does seem to fit me like a glove – unfortunately, I have it borrowed for a time :(.
    Also, talking of California Triple Crown. It was done on FWD MBB recumbent – ‘an oddity among oddities’, as Jason Perez rightfully commented.
    I’ve tried both conventional RWD and MBB designs, and I’ve stayed with MBB. While it does have some quirks when it comes to handling, for some reasons (I have an idea, actually – tissue hysteris, not unlike where your ‘suspension losses’ come from) it is climbs MUCH better, pretty much as good as DF bikes. Of course, ‘engine’ is overwieght and it weights 45 pounds by itself, so team rides with roadies are tough to say the least, but at least narrowly manageable, unlike what I experience on RWD.

    September 20, 2016 at 5:36 am
  • sascha kaltwasser

    A little correction about the recumbent. The recumbent on the Pictures is not a Mochet Velo-Velocar ist is a Velorizontal also build by Mochet. It is a little bit simpler build as a Mochet Velo-Velocar. It is using more Standard bicycle parts like the rear-derailleur and the two sizes of wheels.

    September 20, 2016 at 8:07 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Thank you for the correction, Sascha. I was wondering about the different wheelsizes compared to the bikes in the historic photo.

      September 20, 2016 at 8:19 am

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