Touring on a Recumbent in the Mountains
Gros Monde, Newfoundland
Riding in the mountains is a special joy. It is easy to see why Native Americans thought the Gods lived in the Mountains. There is a sense of awe that is sometimes almost overwhelming as you ride above the timberline with a breath taking view of a fearsome landscape above and below.
But like may gifts, you need to be prepared to accept and appreciate it.
To enjoy riding a recumbent in the mountains requires four things:
1. Proper gearing
2. The ability to maintain your balance at low speeds
3. The right attitude
5. Shorter Crank Arms (addedd 3/24/08 – see Are your Crank Arms too Long?)
Let’s start with the assumption that most bikes don’t have Proper Gearing for riding in the mountains. New recumbents and touring bikes now do a pretty good job at this. The 52 fronts seem to be gone for most recumbent riders. Standard Mountain Bike parts work very well for touring, they are rugged and designed to go up hills. I have had very good luck with standard Shimano XT gearing and highly recommend it. A standard triple on the front, 22-32-44. The key is the 22, this will take you up almost anything with a 11-34 on the rear. Again, the key is a 32 or 34 on the rear.
Yes, this gearing means you can’t spin along at 32 MPH anymore. But for most of us that is not an issue. You will have a top end in the mid to upper 20′s depending on your cadence range and a low end that is your stall speed.
I put XTR on my Sat-R Day and that was a mistake. XTR is fine and beautiful but it is over kill for most tourists and it has a downside. When I was in Sardinia, I drew crowds of young men around my bike. My Italian is limited to “Birra Grande” and I didn’t really understand what they were looking at. I thought they were impressed by my strange looking bike. A German Tourist told me later that they were drooling over my XTR components. This is not a comfortable situation on a tour.
Ability to Ride at Slow Speeds
When I talk about slow speeds I mean speeds around 3 MPH. Yes, I know this is walking speed but it is often easier to ride your bike slowly than to push it up a hill. But is also just as important to know when to get off and walk. 3 MPH is around the stall speed for most recumbents with a little practice. This is the speed you can no longer keep the bike up because the gyroscopic forces generated by the wheels are not adaquate to balance the bike. At this point you are balancing it with your weight.
There is a trick to balancing a bike at low speeds that becomes an unconscious habit for most recumbent riders. By turning the front wheel, you make the bike fall in that direction, as the bike accelerates increasing gyroscopic balancing force you straighten the wheel and then turn the wheel in the opposite direction repeating the process. You are riding in a slow controlled weave with the bike slightly tipping from side to side. This trick comes along pretty easily with a little practice.
My rule of thumb is when the folks on diamond frames are walking faster than I am riding, it is time to walk. For all of us, no matter what types of bikes we ride there are places where you will have to walk a loaded bike. It is better to get off and walk for a while than to blow your knees and not be able to ride the hills tomorrow.
The key is to shift early and to walk when you can no longer spin. If you can’t spin you are putting too much pressure on your knees. Time to get off stretch your legs and enjoy the view as you walk the hill.
The Right Attitude
Yes, your recumbent can be fast on the flats and goes down hills like a luge. But for most of us, we don’t fly up hills. If your are riding a LWB, USS recumbent loaded then you will need to learn to enjoy the scenery and to fall into a maintainable pace as you climb hills. You own that mountain even more when you reach the top, if you can remember little things that other riders moving at a less leisurely pace didn’t see.
Climbing on a LWB, USS is not hard work, it is just not fast. Plus you get to smile when folks on diamond frames at the top of the mountain say, “Recumbents Can’t Climb”.
Riding is a lot more fun when you are in shape to ride. That doesn’t mean that you should be 40 pounds below the weight for your height on your Doctor’s chart or that you have ridden lots of centuries. But you should be able to ride and feel comfortable on your bike before staring a mountain tour.
For me, that means riding a 150 miles a week. 150 miles a week for me is when I can feel my body changing and adapting to riding and what I eat no longer matters except to nourish me.
Shorter Crank Arms (added 3/24/08)
I know this sounds wrong, shorted crank arms mean less leverage. But lots of leaverage may not be good for your knees and hips. Riding in Cosica, the hills are very steep, I was able to power my way up the hills by really pushing hard. But the next day I couldn’t do aany hills and I needed to take a recovery day.
Shorter carnks help you spin better and that is a much better for your hips and knees than pushing really hard. I also learned when the hill gets too steep it is time to walk and save your knees for another day.
See Are Your Cranks Too Long? for more information.
You also should have a few 70 to 80 mile rides under your belt. Long rides change the way you ride and help you become one with the bike. You don’t need to ride a century every day while touring but in many places it is 60 miles between places where you can stop. So you need to be able to handle that distance comfortably.
It is also a great help if you have had a chance to ride hills and hone the skills I’ve mentioned in this post. Again, I’ll say riding hills changes your body. Your muscles learn to adapt to climbing and how to find a pace that works best for them. The first time out each year your body relearn these things and they become part of your muscle memory for the rides that will follow.
This year go ride a mountain. When you ride up to the top of a mountain you own it and that is a wonderful feeling.
Enjoy the Ride … Roland