History of the Modern Day Recumbent
Makers of the first recumbent (a trike) to go 60 mph (in 1980).
Led by Tim Brummer, their machines continue to press the envelope of speed. Toward that end, their 5 day, 1 hour, and 8 minute Race Across America record has stood head and shoulders above the crowd since 1989.
By Martin Krieg
When the 1934 UCI decision turned a very conformist, top-down driven world into believing that a recumbent was not a real bicycle, recumbents disappeared from the mass consciousness for 35 years. Or in other words almost two full generations thought they knew what the bicycle under their Christmas tree was supposed to look like.
From time to time we hear stories of recumbent bicycle sightings in the 1940s and 50s such as the one Dale Clark, owner of longtime recumbent shop, Angle Lake Cyclery, had heard about a recumbent rental bike concession at Green Lake in nearby Seattle. He was told of a fleet of armchair bikes that were in use around the lake during that time.
For the most part, recumbents remained hidden from all but a few Americans. The window to a different possibility was reopened in 1969 when Popular Mechanics published photos and a story about the recumbent called a Groundhugger that hang gliding expert, Robert Q. Riley, had been shopping around in Southern California.
This video of Robert Q. Riley’s recumbent was shot with 8mm film in 1965 in Griffith Park Los Angeles.
Now back in the day, Popular Mechanics was the leading tech magazine when, before the Internet, that was how people got their information about the latest and greatest. Owned since 1958 by the William Randolph Hearst empire, their readership still stands at over one million
Several years before Riley (right) hit the jackpot with Popular Mechanics, it’s a little-known fact that the Ground Hugger was introduced at a dealer show run by Howie Cohen, the man who brought Nishiki and other Japanese bicycles to America.
Called West Coast Cycle & Supply, at a private showing, dealers placed orders for about 50–60 of them, but Riley and his partner ran out of money and couldn’t deliver. If it were not for that, they would have introduced a production recumbent in 1967.
As it turned out, Riley’s bike ended up only being available if you built it yourself from the plans the PM credential helped him sell thousands of sets of. As a result of this visionary success, he has gone on to become a prolific creator of plans for electric automobiles as well as his other cutting edge innovations in the recreation, fitness, and medical industries. He keeps his original Groundhugger plans current and is also now having success with the carbon fiber recumbent plans he now also sells. You can buy his plans at our site.
You can also hear the podcast he and I did together if you do tune in you will learn Robert Riley is beyond legendary.
The seed for a different way to pedal a bike had been re-planted. By 1973 Chet Kyle, a California college professor with his faired upright Teledyne Titan and Jack Lambie were riding what they think were the two only known streamlined bikes on the planet.
Also in 1973, in the middle of the USA, in Kansas, Randy Schlitter had begun making sail trikes that took advantage of the recumbent seating position. For the next ten years, his company, Rans, would end up selling 1,600 of these wind surfer bikes for $800-$1,200 apiece.
Here is the Rans Sail Trike in action.
Then in 1975 he spent a couple of hours replacing the two back wheels on the sail trike with one wheel so that he could go out for bike rides on it. When his brother John, who was racing competitively, couldn’t drop him on his Colnago, he started working for Randy to build the recumbent bicycles that were the result. This well before John helped to start Bacchetta. And as such, making Rans America’s oldest recumbent bicycle producer.
If you want to hear Randy talk about a lot of the above and how he also got into the airplane business, here is the podcast we did:
And here up close and personal, is the also amazing man, Jerrell Nichols, to whom Randy, earlier this year, entrusted the bike part of his business.
Also in 1975 Kyle and Lambie, the two streamliners, formed the IHPVA. The officers and board of directors of the IHPVA included such notables as Tullio Campagnolo, owner and president of Campagnolo — then the largest racing-component manufacturer in the world, Sir Hubert Opperman, O.B.E. Australian Member of Parliament and renowned holder of numerous long-distance cycling records, Eddy Merckx of Belgium, many time winner of the Tour de France, and famous authors Frank Whitt and David Gordon Wilson, creators of the best-selling cycling book, Bicycling Science.
Soon on both coasts small time tinkerers began to crop up. Some such as Dr. Alan Abbott, who in 1973 set a world record when he went 138.8 mph behind a race car, were interested in how they could change the look of a bike so they could go faster.
In 1975 Abbott went 38.8 mph on this bike.
Also in 1975, Gardner Martin, who with his wife Sandra was on the cover of the famous 1969 Woodstock album (she still has the quilt!), was busy making custom parts such as gas tanks and fairings for motorcycles of which he owned in his own words in an interview he did with Kelvin Clark the “best and fastest ever built” when he saw a magazine cover that would change his life. By Chet Kyle, it read “Are Streamline Bikes in Your Future?” In the article, the challenge, “Let’s have an anything-goes speed contest race in the spring of 1975,” excited him. Gardner got busy.
Soon, 13 bikes showed up at at a drag strip in Irwindale CA. where Garden went through 3 different riders and got a top speed of 34 mph. The winning speed that year was 44.69 mph by Ron Skarin on Kyle’s upright Teledyne Titan. Two years later, in 1977, at the Ontario Motor Speedway, Norm Gall a well known S Cruz racer went 42.6 mph on this, the Belly Bike.
It would form the nucleus of Easy Racers, the second oldest recumbent bicycle company in America.
The same year. In 1977, the two-person While Lightning trike, conceived as a Northrop College class project went 48 mph. Tim Brummer was the chief engineer.
When in 1978 White Lightning hit 50 mph, it was featured in Sports Illustrated.
By 1979 the White Lightning tandem trike had become the first to hit 55 mph. And in 1980 it hit 60 mph.
Tim Brummer, went on to make his mark as a leader in the aerospace industry but felt called to start making bicycles full time in 1991 when the Space Shuttle mission drew to a close. However, instead of three wheels, with the experience he had gained, which included access to wind tunnels for testing, as well as his knowing how and where to source the aerospace materials he needed, he switched to two wheels and soon his Lightning bikes became the bikes to beat in the IHPVA racing circles.
Here is the interview we did.
Rewinding back to 1978 the Vector built by the Versatron Corporation a parts manufacturer for war missiles in Sonoma, CA, was going neck and neck with Lightning to raise the bar to an even higher level. It was then that the Vector went 56 mph on their single while their tandem trike went 62 at Ontario Motor Speedway in S Cal, the 2½ mile track that would get torn down the next year.
Also in CA, Jack Baker, Smitty Smith, and Milt Turner were busy entertaining people on the S Cal boardwalks with the first ever SWB called the Hypercycle. It did nosies and on some of the bikes they sold, they put a skateboard wheel in front of the chairing so it could be ridden for a short way with the back wheel off the ground.
Here is the podcast Jack Baker and I did before he died in 2011 (RIP).
Sometime in the early 1980’s, Smitty and Jack teamed up to form S&B Recumbents. Under that name, they brought the Hypercycle SWB platform to a much higher spec and much enhanced performance. They even made a line of trikes as far back as the mid 90’s.
On the East Coast, in the Boston area in the mid 70s, the MIT professor and IHPVA board member, David Gordon Wilson, talked about earlier, had commissioned his students at MIT to build a bike similar to the one Fred Willkie had built in Berkeley, CA.
Soon, he also convinced Bike shop owner Dick Forrestal and his partner Harold Maciejewski to build the LWB recumbent bicycle that he called the Wilson-Wilkie that he had been riding to and from his college, often in a suit, since 1975. Soon the team would take on engineer, Dick Ryan, who would later keep the Avatar tradition alive with the Ryan Recumbent.
Avatar began building bikes in 1977. Until I hear otherwise, it appears their their first bike came to market in 1980. Each of them was numbered and when they started out, they sold for the unheard of price of $1,699 for a bicycle or $5,896 in 2015 dollars.
Also in 1977, using Wilson’s power plant, on June 12, the Gossamer Albatross became the first fully human-powered aircraft to cross the 22 mile English Channel. Based on aeronautical engineer Dr. Paul B. MacCready’s design, it was pedal piloted by Bryan Allen.
By 1982 the Avatar 2000, though slower than the Lightning or Easy Racer, still had gone 52 mph at IHPVA speed championships.
In 1983 the Avatar even made one of the most widely read pre-internet publications of its day, People magazine. At the time of this article, 145 people had become elite Avatar owners.
The Avatar lasted until 1989. It was then that Dick Ryan took them over and simplified the design as the Ryan Recumbent. From 1989–1999 his company sold 1200 LWB Vanguards and 250 tandems before he sold to Greg Peak of Longbikes who could not make a go of the bike and has since pretty much returned his energies to the wheelchair business he long had run.
Dick talks about all this here.
Ryan also made a beautiful delta trike that the Center for Appropriate Transport people in Eugene, OR, have been selling since Ryan left recumbents in 1999.
In 2001, I wrote:
Too much FUN. A grown man should not feel compelled to smile so almost uncontrollably so much. Nor should the very act of turning on to a different street be so very much looked forward to. No not at all. If you feel guilty having this kind of fun, you don’t belong on the machine responsible for all this, an adult trike (see “Why Trike”).
Nor are they worthy of your interest if you still feel like riding a bike in comfort should be an outlawed activity. But if trike riding sounds interesting to you; when you finally decide that the joyous experience of three-wheeled performance is something you are worthy of, the Penninger trike may likely have your name on it …
Also pretty much when Ryan started up, he convinced Bob Bryant to begin publishing Recumbent Cyclist News. Important to the fledgling new industry, RCN was a professional publication, RCN not only reviewed recumbents and trikes, but it offered classified ads, letters to the editor, a calendar of recumbent events, a home-builders corner and guest articles. RCN also helped to establish a nomenclature for all the different designs that were starting to come out such as SWB, Short Wheel Base, LWB, Long Wheel Base, USS, Under the Seat Steering, etc. It did this with a new media that had begun to emerge, the internet, pre-web bicycle newsgroups such as rec.bicycles.misc, rec.bicycles.rides and ba.bicycles, etc.
While recumbents never had their own newsgroup, though Martin Krieg did begin, alt.rec.bicycles.recumbent. because it was an alt newsgroup, many ISP’s did not offer it as an option to their new clients, those who paid a monthly fee to read ad-free and graphics free discussions that had begun to to take place all over what was also called the Usenet about every topic under the sun.
While the Avatar was soon busy w/raising the profile of bicycle from a toy to a serious transportation option Easy Racer and Lightning were still battling it out for top speed honors. Both of them had their sights set on winning the 18,000 dollar DuPont prize for being the first HPV to break 65 mph.
As they chased, from 1983 to 1991 Steven Roberts was busy touring the nation on one of three different heavily modified Avatars (Winnebiko — 1983–1985, Winnebiko II — 1986–1988 and then the BEHEMOTH) that were loaded down with electronic research gear.
He wrote a book called “Computing Across America, the Adventures of a High Tech Nomad,” that the nation’s press widely celebrated thus raising the recumbent possibly for even more people.
It was also during this time, in Berkeley, CA, in 1983, that Eli Rubin introduced Martin Krieg to the LWB that former Bicycling Magazine tech editor Jim Langley had built on the other coast in New Hampshire.
Krieg, who had come back from a major head injury to ride an upright bicycle across America in 1979, was overcome with joy. He had thought his days riding quality bikes were finished. Unwilling to torture himself anymore on bikes with down turned handlebars, he had become a short distance 3-speed rider. He didn’t know there were any options to the road and touring bikes that appeared in the stores and bike magazines of the day.
He so much wanted everyone to know about the recumbent that in the Fall of 1985 he began organizing a ride across the U.S. for the National Head Injury Foundation. Unaware of Steve Roberts, he was going to do it on Eli’s bent and pull a huge cargo trailer.
Having already garnered support from the mountaineering industry, he went to the second ever Interbike in Long Beach hoping to pick up a few bicycle sponsors. Well as luck would have it, Linear Recumbent who had exhibited at the first 1984 Interbike held in Reno, was joined by a breathtakingly beautiful recumbent called the Via made out of Reynolds 531 steel tubing.
The excitement Krieg felt for this bike was felt by its builder, Mark Hajek. Mark had a background in building race cars and had successfully fabricated a LWB, under-seat-steered recumbent that caught the attention of many of the show’s attendees. The bikes lines and its welds were all impeccable. If that were not enough, in between the show and Krieg’s scheduled start for the following April, he also built a fiberglass cone shaped trailer for Krieg to pull.
In the end, Krieg’s ride was a huge media sensation and reached 40 million people. While Krieg was riding what was arguably the most sophisticated street-legal bicycle on the planet, the Via Recumbent across the USA in 1986.
Freddy Markham, the Olympic cyclist who would go on to set 20 World Records was all the news when on little known Hwy 305 off the Loneliest Hwy in America, in Battle Mountain, NV, he went 65 mph in the Easy Racer Gold Rush. The course he and Gardner Martin chose has gone on to become the home of the World HPV Championships. Set at 4500 feet where the air is slightly easier to push through and with a drop of 2/3 of 1% or about 30 feet per mile, theirs was a perfect course. So much so that the Gold Rush is now in the Smithsonian.
Here is the podcast Freddy did with Martin Krieg:
Krieg felt that with all the attention recumbents were getting, he could use that energy to help him build a coast to coast bicycle highway as he also got them more known about as well as accepted. Toward that end he played a big part in building an industry to support his vision. He first attempted, from 1987 to 1994, to legitimize recumbents with display advertising in his Cycle America Regional Directories.
Then when the web came about Using BikeRoute.com as a portal, by building web sites, he helped to legitimize the operations of well over a hundred different small recumbent builders as well as businesses that sold them, many of which are still in business today.
In 1994, Krieg’s story finally got published as a hard back book, “Awake Again, all the way back from head injury.” After a two year foray into Hollywood where he and his publisher were considering TV movie deals for his story, his publisher, a billionaire named Waymen Spence, a man who was carving a name for himself in the bike industry with the Spenco line of products, disappeared from scene. The company went silent. Krieg’s phone calls and emails went unanswered.
What was odd was that they were also planning a coast to coast bicycle author tour. Krieg would only find out why years later the communication had ceased. His publisher had taken his life.
Not knowing what had happened to his once very bright future, he decided to use his fleeting fame on the recumbent bicycle industry. In fact it was his review of the BikeE that he built his story into that helped that bike gain acceptance in regular bike shops. The BikeE people circulated Krieg’s review far and wide.
Well it’s almost 30 years since Krieg’s recumbent ride across America and he feels more hopeful than ever. He thinks we are now on what many feel is the precipice that will steer both the recumbent and the NBG into the mainstream.
Example pioneering businesses some of which continue to support the National Bicycle Greenway vision besides Lightning, Linear, Angle Lake Cyclery, Bicycle Man, Bilenky Cycle Works, Recumbent Bike Riders, and Easy Racer include:
Kirk’s Bike Shop in Ramona, CA. In fact, more than just one of the first bike shops in America to stock recumbents, owner Kirk Newell was one of America’s first IHPVA racers. With The Other Woman, a tadpole trike, covered by a shell that consisted of foam panels and aluminum strapping with fiberglass folded over, he personally pedaled to 40 mph in 1981 at the Pomona Fairgrounds in the 200 meter pursuit.
With a new trike body patterned as much as possible after the Vector that had come to dominate HPV racing, and using the mold for a sailplane canopy, along with other improvements such as chrome moly tubing, he hit 47 mph the following year. Out of the 30 who had entered the competition, he took 6th place.
Kirk’s machine was so much like a real bike, as it could do more than just go straight ahead, that he was convinced to bring it out of retirement for a criterium race. As such in 1984 at the La Jolla Criterium, the Cat 1 racer who had never ridden Kirk’s trike before, took a close second behind the feared Fast Freddy Markham. And this was in a race that included Greg Johnson, the man who was once ahead of the Vector in a race, only to drop out due to a lost chain. The last photo shows Greg Johnson, on his supine bicycle leading the Vector.
Ever since they were re-introduced, as all this activity was taking place, recumbents long have fought to gain acceptance by the upright crowd. One development that stands out as an icebreaker in this regard is the Bilenky Viewpoint, made by Bilenky Cycle Works.
Before highly respected frame builder, Stephen Bilenky took it on in the mid 90s, it was called the Counterpoint Conveyance and Angle Lake Cyclery in Seattle, WA, one of America’s first bent dealers, had an exclusive on it. It was originally designed by a musician named, Jim Weaver. By the time Bilenky brought it to market, it had been tweaked and reinforced in many different ways.
What makes Stephen Bilenky’s Viewpoint important is the fact that it had the effect of smoothing out the tension that existed between the two worlds. It showed that off the race track and in the real world that recumbents were serious bikes; that they were genuine machines to be taken seriously. And that biking for performance could be done comfortably.
A lot of bents came and went along the way. Many entered the marketplace and stayed too!
Here for example, are the bikes Rob Gentry has sold at Recumbent Bike Riders in College Station:
PA Radius, Trimuter, Calfee, Cannondale, Reynold’s Weld Labs, Haluzak, Vision, Linear, SideWinder, Optima, Burley, BikeE, Trisled, Sun, Cycle Genius, KMX, Challenge, Longbikes, Lightfoot, Volae, HP Velotechnik, Hase, RANS, Easy Racers, Lightning Cycle, Greenspeed, AZUB, ICE, Catrike, TerraTrike, Performer, MetaBikes, Trident and Bacchetta.
Larry Black is also one of the original recumbent dealers in America with Mt. Airy Bicycles and College Park Bikes in the Washington, DC, area. When we did his web site for him, he wanted a simple, catchy name back when stuff like that was available. He chose bike123.com.
Like myself, Larry also rides a HiWheel bike.
Here is a video of the spectacular crash he just did on one at a Hiwheel race in Frederick, MD.
Recumbent and Tandem Riders magazine, the producers of this show also go back to the beginning.
Peter Stull at the Bicycle Man, whose web page we got on line in 1996, has been at it so long that from 2003 on he was the BikeE parts go to guy after they shut down their operation. He also has the only bent shop so huge, it is visible from the moon. Soon, the on-line version of this presentation will be augmented by the podcast he and I are doing that discusses the recumbent History Museum his shop also houses.
You don’t want to miss the fun podcast he and I did.
Modern Recumbent History Sponsors
- Lightning Cycle Dynamics
- Kirk’s Bike
- Linear Recumbent Bicycles
- Bilenky Cycle Works
- Bicycle Man LLC
- RBR Recumbent Bike Riders
- Rhoades Car
- Angle Lake Cyclery
- Denver Recumbent
- Easy Street Recumbent
- Easy Racer
- Rose City Recumbent
- Bike Friday
- The Used Bike Shop
- LaBent by LaDue
- Mt Airy Bicycles
- College Park Bicycles
- Back Country Recumbent Cycles Rapid Transit Cycles
- Trident Trikes