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A Whole New Ride: Three-Wheel Bicycles

Recumbent tricycle gains ground

En español | David Lawson first tried a recumbent tricycle when his chiropractor told him that commuting to his job at the University of California, Santa Barbara, on a mountain bike was wreaking havoc with his neck and posture. Lawson had been an avid mountain biker for years and was determined to find another exercise he enjoyed.

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Larry Smith racing on recumbent bike.

Larry Smith racing on a recumbent bike. — Courtesy Smith

That was in 1996, when the recumbent bike was in its infancy. But Lawson found a bike store that carried them, tried the low-to-the-ground three-wheeler and fell in love.

"It was like sitting in a lounge chair," says Lawson. "Before, I was all tensed, with my shoulders to hold up." Now retired and 63, Lawson says, "If I don't get to ride every couple of days, I'm sad. I need that endorphin fix."

Today, more older riders than ever are riding recumbent trikes. As the price has come down, more younger buyers are trying trikes, but the 50-plus crowd continues to lead the trend. TerraTrike and Catrike, the two biggest companies that sell the style, estimate that at least 75 percent of their customers are over 50. It makes sense: Recumbent trikes benefit riders who experience many conditions common in older people.

The third wheel

The recumbent bike is clearly more comfortable to ride than an upright bicycle, but why add another wheel?

"The reason why trikes are the fastest-growing segment of recumbents is ease of use," says Jeff Yonker, marketing manager for TerraTrike. "Two-wheeled recumbents have a sharp learning curve for pedaling, balance, and starting and stopping." For many older riders, not having to worry about balance is a big plus. Anyone who pedals a trike for an hour can attest to the cardiovascular benefits. Why not be comfortable as you're getting exercise?

But if you think that because you're sitting comfortably, you're not getting much exercise, think again. The legs and heart are pumping just as they are on a regular bike. "I had my rheumatologist appointment today, and he was impressed with my heart rate," says Bob Cardone, 71, a lifelong biker who started to have problems with his neck and back after riding thousands of miles over the years.

And some older riders simply can't ride upright bikes anymore. For Cardone, who lives in the Atlanta area, "It was either stop biking altogether or ride a recumbent." He switched to a recumbent 12 years ago, choosing a trike because "it was much more fun."

Next: Upside and downside of recumbent trikes. >>

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