RECUMBENT RACING (A European perspective)
Pat Kinch talks to Richard Grigsby
Recumbents are the fastest bikes around - period. Riding one is fun; racing one is exhilarating. Pat Kinch gives you the low down on getting ahead.
When you see cycling club also-rans lapping Cat 1 riders at over 40mph in bikes that look like glazed bath tubs, you begin to understand that racing recumbents are fast. What also becomes apparent is that the right bike makes a real difference. It's still the combination of a good rider and a fast bike that wins, but a very fast bike and a mediocre rider can do surprisingly well.
Events in the United Kingdom are organized by the British Human Power Club (BHPC). The 300-strong BHPC exists to "stimulate innovation in design and development in all spheres of HPVs" and is supported by an informative and often hilarious newsletter. The club has interests in air, land, and water based HPVs (for competitive, recreational, and utility activities), but the meets are racing oriented.
The European scene is more buoyant, with larger numbers coming from Holland and Germany. Good news for us is that the European Championships will be held in Leicester this year (1996). Several hundred machines will take part in a wide mixture of events including sprints, time trials and points races.
Historically, recumbents were banned by the UCI in 1934 after Cat 3 Francois Faure broke the world hour record. Although the majority of the ratifying board were in favor of legalizing Faure's 45.055km record, some thought that he was unworthy of the title because he was only a sprinter!
Faure's record stood for just two months. On April 1st (no, really) 1934, the UCI published rules outlining what they thought constituted a bicycle. Recumbents were outlawed because the bottom bracket was not "below the saddle".
Both the British Cycling Federation and the RTTC (Royal Time Trial Championships) have inherited the UCI's intolerance of recumbents - so don't get any ideas about doing a 16-minute "10" on your local drag strip or of demolishing the field in the prologue section of a road race...
However, Cycling Plus (British cycling magazine) did open one chink in the RTTC's armour when our recumbent specialist Richard Grigsby took part in a 24-mile hilly time trial. It was part of the Minehead National Cycling Festival; the governing bodies were persuaded to slacken existing rules for the success of the venture. It's a start...
Just riding your recumbent will acclimatize you with the most basic skills. You need to be able to point your recumbent in the right direction, sit on, engage one foot in the pedal and start without any bother. This takes practice. Some can do it first time; others fall off for half an hour before getting the hang of it. Find a large, gently sloping empty road or car park and just scoot down it with your feet skimming above the ground. When your confidence builds, try gently clipping your feet in and pedalling smoothly away. Keep pedalling around corners and unclip early so both feet are ready for balancing the recumbent before you stop. Practice racing starts by clipping one foot in and pushing off hard. Clip the other foot in as soon as the empty pedal comes around so you can make a sprint-start. Rev-out in your starting gear before changing up.
A warm up is essential. Firstly, recumbent racing is pretty brutal on the body as it's very specific and uses different muscle groups than "normal" cycling. A 10-minute warm up will lull your legs into a false sense of security and let you get the hang of the best lines through the corners. If access to the circuit is limited, you could use a turbo, but in the informal, not-so-serious world of recumbent racing, best do it out of sight - otherwise you will be ragged about it for the next three years...
Most race meets have a short time trial or "prologue" to seed the field into fast or slow races. If you want to clean up in the slow races, then put in an appalling time in the prologue and show your true colours in the mass-start points races! This wolf-in-sheep's clothing strategy is known as doing a "Weaver", after the man who perfected the act in the 1994 European Speed Championships.
Short wheelbase recumbents are the only machines worth racing on. Low racers have become popular because the rider hides the rear wheel with his or her body and avoids the worst of the wind higher up. I ride a Wasp made by Kingcycle specifically for racing. It has front wheel drive, which avoids passing the chain under the seat and can prevent loss of lock. Correctly placed chain pulleys ensure the steering is unaffected by pedal action. The Wasp uses a 16-speed Sachs Ergo Twist drivetrain. The twin 26 inch Campagnolo Shamal wheels are unique to this bike; production Wasps use 24 inch front wheels with a 26 inch rear. The rear luggage carrier is fully functional to comply with BHPC regs. It also provides a reasonable tail "fairing" to smooth airflow over the bike.
Getting the right position is crucial for racing. You need to be able to produce full power and have plenty of comfort combined with the best aerodynamics. I find a more upright position the best, with my neck upright rather than half-reclined as some might prefer. The feet should be "hidden" within the body's profile, so the toes don't rise above the shoulders and the heels don't dip below the hips when viewed from the front or rear.
Most race meets have a short time trial or "prologue" to seed the field into fast or slow races. If you want to clean up in the slow races then put in an appalling time in the prologue and show your true colours in the mass start points races! This wolf in sheep's-clothing strategy is known as "doing a Weaver", after the man who perfected the act in the 1994 European Championships.
Getting a good start in the points race is very important. There aren't many who have the speed and ability to carve their way back through the field once everyone's started. A typical race could contain up to 25 recumbents of all shapes and sizes. I time my warm up laps so that I arrive on the front of the grid. On a banked velodrome there are two techniques, depending on what sort of recumbent you ride. With a "low racer" you can do a hand start: put your upper hand down on the banking and clip both feet in ready for the start. If you don't have a low racer (and don't have ape-like arms) then your best bet is to hang onto the barrier at the top of the banking. As soon as everyone starts, push off using gravity to get you into the lead. Use the height of the banking and smoothly sprint down to the inner line so you race over the shortest distance possible.
Or wheel-sucking. Drafting another recumbent is permitted in all races. I use this technique either to escape from other riders in my group or to extend an existing lead. Jumping onto the back of a faired bike can raise your average racing speed by 3 or 4 mph, which would be impossible to achieve by yourself on an unfaired machine. To be successful you must be aware of whats coming up behind you. There's no point in trying to jump on a faster recumbent if you time the effort too late and immediately blow up. Build up your speed as a faster recumbent approaches and sprint onto its tail, getting as close as possible to get the maximum pull. If the race is in a velodrome you could use the banking for that extra push to get onto a faster bike. With experience you will get to know the other riders, not always faired, who you can use to up your speed. Be aware of the wind's direction and get yourself the best position behind or slightly alongside. Don't always assume that fully-faired recumbents slice through the corners; the riders may be sailing their bikes the long way around to make the most of the side push of the wind on the fairing - assuming it's in the right direction.
Do this pretty much the same as you would on an upright bike: pick the shortest and smoothest path through the bend. Take advantage of your recumbent's bottom bracket position and keep pedaling through the corner. If you are on the limit of your tires, it's best to freewheel as it's less likely to cause the front wheel to wash out. Be prepared for faster recumbents coming around you and, apparently, cutting you up - they could be going 10 mph or more faster! Properly-designed faired HPVs can be sailed into the wind and will take a completely different line: rather than clipping the corner off they will follow the curve, staying wide to make the most of the side wind.
Sprinting on a recumbent is more subtle than on an upright bike. Basically I just up the power and hope nobody can stay with me. You must anticipate well in advance and keep an eye on powerful riders to make sure no one gets too much of a gap. Using other riders to lead you out is fine so long as you leave yourself enough power and space to go round them before the line. To give you some idea of the speeds riders have to spring from... Average speeds for the fastest unfaired recumbents will be 30 mph, adding on 5 to 10 mph for faired recumbents. Top European faired riders will be doing over 50 mph along the flat and over 70 mph downhill in favourable conditions!
1) JUMPING AWAY: If you are caught in a group and you don't fancy your chances in a sprint then you will have to make a break before the final 500 meters or so. You can either go it alone or jump onto a passing rider who is doing a few mph faster than you. Don't try to jump onto something too fast or you will blow up and waste a load of effort - only to end up caught and dropped by those you were trying to get rid of!
2) BRAKING: With an upright road bike, braking is only really necessary when hammering down hill because the wind pressure will slow you down as soon as you stop pedaling. Because of their superior aerodynamics, fast recumbents roll for ages so you can stop pedaling earlier and use the brakes to scrub off surplus speed just before a corner. As soon as you are getting upright, power away to get back up to race speed. The usual road racing cornering etiquette prevails so don't try to push in front of another rider who has already entered into a corner.
3) GETTING UN-LAPPED: In recumbent races the leader can "un-lap" the rest of the field. If you get un-lapped, you can end up sprinting for the flag a lap early... this is guaranteed to catch plenty of riders out and requires a lot of concentration in the closing stages of the race, just when the adrenaline is really pumping! Keep an eye on the fastest faired recumbent and if it passes you on your penultimate lap then get ready to out-sprint your rivals.
4) DRINKING: In longer races I use a Camelback drinking system. This is either strapped to the inside of the fairing or worn on my chest. If you have room for a bottle and cage, then mount one or two within reach of your main tube.
5) EATING: Most meetings time the races before and after lunch. This means that you are either hungry or full up before racing. Sip on a carbohydrate drink to make sure you are not dehydrated before the race starts. Don't have much to eat at lunch time but snack regularly to keep some food in your stomach. The 1992 European Championships scheduled a 30 minute criterium half an hour after the start of a typical cheese-laden lunch. Most visitors were caught napping and missed a warm-up and a good position on the grid...
(Pat Kinch has been racing recumbents since the late 80's and remained the undisputed UK king through most of the nineties. Until 1995 Pat held the faired hour record at 46.96 miles, riding the Kingcycle Bean. This article originally appeared in the June 12, 1996 issue of Cycling Plus magazine.)