Recumbent vs. DF for Brevets?

9 05 2011

Challenge Fujin SL...

I’ve now ridden the same amount of brevets on a DF as I have on a bent. That’s still only just a little farther than 300K in one shot so I’m not posting my thoughts to suggest my opinion is the final answer, but I know this a topic of interest to folks that are aspiring or new randonneurs.

Let me start by saying that although these two types of bikes are quite different they can both work well for riding long distance events like brevets. I will go into some details about each platform’s strengths and weaknesses below, but if you love bents or you’ve always wanted a classic french rando bike go for it. Despite everything I say below I think loving the bike you ride is far more important than almost anything else. The only two caveats I will throw into the mix are that a rando rig needs to be reliable and comfortable.


  • although the number of successful bent randonneurs is fairly small they demonstrate that recumbents can do very well for these types of rides
  • a suitable bent will cost more than an equivalent DF road bike, but no more than a specialized rando DF
  • there are many ergonomic options when it comes to bents and not all will work well for every rider in terms of performance and comfort
  • because they are less common I found it harder to equip my rando bents [luggage, food, water, navigation and lights] than my rando DF and I was less satisfied with the results
  • most bents climb somewhat slower for the same rider than a DF…since brevets feature a lot of climbing it makes sense to select a bent that climbs as well as possible for you
  • you can’t shift weight on a bent easily to unload wheels for obstacles which makes some terrain harder to ride
  • bents can be very aerodynamic which means you’ll be fast on the flats, downhills and shallow climbs [compared to the same rider on a solo DF]
  • laying down in the rain can have some challenges as zippers and vents for cycling rain gear assumes an upright posture
  • a properly selected and setup bent can be very comfortable for long distance rides
  • a rando bent will garner a lot of attention – that could be good or bad depending on your attitude
If you are not already familiar with bents I think the biggest challenge is that there are so many different types and each will work differently for you. There is no easy way to tell a new bent rider which bent is going to be right for them and a parking lot test generally is worthless. Which is why you’ll notice that folks that get into bents tend to go through a few different models until they find something that really clicks with their body and their style of riding. The other thing is that if you are new to bents you will have to give your body time to adapt to the new position and also the handling of your bent. That means it may be 3 -9 months before you are at a steady state with your machine ready to perform at your best. So keep that in mind. You’ll need some lead time before the rando season you want to ride a bent in to get the right machine, get conditioned and get it setup.

The other challenge with being a bent randonneur is that most rando clubs are nearly 100% DF riders. So you won’t have a lot of platform specific support on hand to help you get your rig sorted. And once on the road you’ll be faster where other equally fit DF randos will be slow and vice versa. This makes riding together quite hard unless you each go slower than your normal riding speeds which may not be feasible. OTOH if you are lucky and your rando club has some bent riders who are in your general speed range congrats you will have someone to ride with.

I did mention that bents tend to climb slower than the same rider on an equivalent DF. This is true for most people and should not be underestimated given how much climbing most brevets feature. Don’t let this freak you out if you want to ride a bent, but also don’t believe the bent propaganda some vendors/sites spew about bents climbing just as fast as DFs. When you are 250K into a ride and facing a ton of steep climbing those folks won’t be anywhere to be found. Make sure that the bent you select climbs well for you. There are a number of bents with a reputation for climbing fast. I’d start with one of those and see what happens. Don’t weigh down your bike with unnecessary stuff and select tires that roll well. At slow climbing speeds weight and tire rolling resistance are key.

Although setting up a bent for brevets is a bit harder due to the fact so few people use them for that purpose you don’t haves access to the same rando specific products that the DF crowd does – ultimately if you get a bent that is comfortable, performs well [especially climbing!] the rest of the details aren’t a show stopper.

I started a site that showcases recumbents used for long distance rides [brevets & ultras]. David Cambon, uber recumbent randonneur, is featured on the site and has taken over stewardship since I don’t have a bent at the moment. It’s worth a look to see what other bent riders are using and how they have their bikes setup. David has written an article for the BC Randonneur website called “PBP & Recumbent Bikes” that is definitely worth a read. Finally Bent Rider Online has an ultracycling sub-forum that doesn’t see a lot of action, but it’s worth a look and if you are patient you’ll get answers to your questions.

Boulder Bicycle All Road 650B rando rig...

DF [aka uprights aka safety bikes]:
  • the choice of 95%+ of randonneurs
  • easy to find a standard bike and adapt it or get a speciality rando rig
  • costs varying from low to very very high depending on how specialized/custom you want to go
  • limited ergonomic options work for most people, but there are a some who can’t make a DF work for these distances
  • with so many DF randonneurs getting help selecting and setting up your bike is no problem
  • DFs tend to climb well and can be very aerodynamic when ridden in a paceline
  • a lone DF randonneur in a stiff headwind has to work quite hard
  • because most rando clubs are filled with DF bikes it’s not hard to find someone to ride with
  • shifting weight on a DF allows it to tackle challenging terrain well
  • a properly selected and setup DF can be very comfortable for long distance rides
You can’t throw a frame pump at a brevet without hitting a DF bike. This ubiquitousness is one of the main advantages of the DF platform. You’ll have a ton of other randonneurs to ride with, to ask questions of and to copy smart setups. That means you can short circuit the learning curve and the solutions you come up with will be, relatively, common so they will be, relatively, easy to implement. Heck you can call up Mike Kone at Boulder Bicycle/Rene Herse and order up a complete 700c or 650B randonneur rig with everything setup for your first brevet.

The other advantage is that DFs climb well for most people. Brevets are almost never flat so getting up and over the climbs is a key challenge if not the key challenge. As Kent Peterson aptly points out you can never make up time lost on the climbs by riding faster down the other side. So this means that any bike that lets you climb faster over a long ride will be a big benefit. For most people that’s a DF.

So lot’s of randonneurs ride DFs and most people climb faster on a DF, but brevets are long rides are DFs comfortable for the long haul? The simple answer is yes. If they weren’t DF randonneurs would have a major incentive to try a recumbent. Since DFs are so common and so similar to one another the ways to get comfortable on them are well understood and easy to implement. That’s not to say that there aren’t randonneurs with comfort issues on DFs, but to be fair there are riders on recumbents with a number of comfort issues as well [recumbutt, numb feet, wrist/neck issues, etc…] However, the more experienced you are with riding a DF or a recumbent in brevets the more likely you are to have solved any comfort issues and reached a point where you are simply cranking away on the bike. My longest DF ride so far has been ~18hrs and I got off the bike very tired, but with no significant discomfort. With a rest I could have climbed back onboard and cranked out more KMs.

I also think it’s important to distinguish between comfort [or lack of discomfort] and enjoyment. On my rando bents I was very comfortable with no major discomfort – let’s call it 9/10 on the comfort scale. On my DF rando bike I feel the occasional minor discomfort [ie. tightness behind neck that goes away with a 5 second stretch] – let’s call it 8/10 on the comfort scale. However, when it comes to enjoyment the static position on my bent that was very comfortable is also kind of boring and the I dreaded the climbs because they felt so hard in that one position I had to stay in. Finally on my bent I was always alone on a brevet due to the lack of other bent randonneurs – let’s call it 7/10 on the enjoyment scale. On my DF rando bike I can move around and I feel very engaged in the ride. I actually enjoy the climbs [to a point!] on my DF since it goes up them so well and I can find company for part or all of the ride – let’s call it 9/10 on the enjoyment scale. That difference is why I am on a DF rando bike right now and not a bent.

Peter Noris at PBP on an Easy Racer bent...

Will I ever go back to a rando bent?

I don’t have a 100% answer to that question. My guess is yes I will. I like bents and I think they are a lot of fun to ride so I can’t imagine that I won’t get another one sometime in the next few years. The SWB [short wheelbase] format is what I am most used to and they are reasonably easy to setup as a rando bent. OTOH I’ve never owned a LWB [long wheelbase] recumbent like the Easy Racer in the photo above. Beyond just the fun of trying something new I’m thinking that a LWB with a fairing and body sock might make riding in the cold wet winter here on Vancouver Island more pleasurable. The hold up is basically the cost $3-4K and the fact I have yet to secure a test ride on an ER bike. I can save up the needed money for a bike I love, but bents are funny machines and one that looks great may ride poorly for you so I am being cautious. I don’t see myself getting rid of my DF rando bike so if I did get a bent it would be in addition to my DF.

Should you go bent or stay upright?

As I noted above I think the decision should primarily be guided by what you want to ride and what type of bike you are stoked about. If you own a suitable bent and want to ride brevets go for it! If you don’t have a bike and are trying to decide which way to go take a look at some of the options and see what inspires you. If you really don’t have any ideas I’d start with a DF as it will be easier to get a suitable one, easier to setup and if you are a regular rider it will be easier to get into rando shape.



9 responses

9 05 2011


Thanks for an excellent article! I love coming to your blog and reading the high quality material.


9 05 2011

Vik, I think that’s a pretty good summary of the randobent scenario. I would like to emphasize to lazyrandoblogospherians that there are vast differences between the performance of some recumbents and others, in terms of their randosuitablilty. Most ‘bents are absolute dogs on brevets. They don’t climb well and brevets are all about climbing. However, marathon cycling recumbents are evolving and improving as we speak. There are a few that now appear to offer the same (or better) performance as an upright rando bike, even as far as climbing is concerned. See, for instance, randonneurs Dana Lieberman and Willie Hunt smiling and laughing on their marathon ‘bents, even as they were riding the Race Across America last year.

If anybody wants to make a contribution (with photo) to the Long Distance Recumbents site I will next be at an internet connection in about eight days. I am presently bike touring in the northern boonies on my winter recumbent on a photo expedition attempt to get a more scenic background shot for the Long Distance Recumbents blog. The background that’s up there now is a shot I took of the David Thompson Highway last summer, which is featured on some of the Alberta Randonneur brevets,

D Cambon/Randobarf

9 05 2011
Tom Hovan

Excellent post Vik. I too find your evaluation to be very objective of the differences as they apply to long distance, and the ‘real’ terrain we encounter at these events. I am happy to say though, now that I have 3 mostly-bent seasons under my belt, that the climbing gap keeps on shrinking and rando events here in the Appalachians no longer give me pause due to the climbing. Getting enough quality saddle (err… .seat) time in is what concerns me way more.

As for the evolution of ‘bent design, in the past there was somewhat of a natural opposition in ‘bents between good climbing ability and good aerodynamics (witness a good climbing/ relative parachute like the P-38; or the aero wizardry of a faired Rotator which climbs like molasses). Nowadays, I think we are seeing those characteristics in decreasing conflict. Bikes such as the M5 CHR, various offerings from MetaBikes, and the several carbon highracers on the market (Carbent and Bacchetta CA2.0) are truly starting to offer folks the best of both worlds. For me, my Musashi has become my fair-weather rando machine. I just wish it took fat tires and fenders up front.

9 05 2011

@Tom – wider tires and full fenders are my holy grail now. What do you ride on brevets when it’s raining?

9 05 2011

Hah! I love what an optimist you are. Comfort is either 8 or 9 out of 10, and enjoyment ranges between 9 and 7. The middle of the scale isn’t even in play. We’re quibbling about where we want to be on the very cusp of perfection in our lives. What a lovely world.

I’ve never ridden a bent before, but in absolute terms toward the end of every ride of 200 km or more I’ve done, I’ve never been above a 2/10 for comfort. That might be an exaggeration. It’s hard to be comfortable after riding that far. I remain at no more than 3/10 even after I’ve had a shower and gone to bed.

10 05 2011
Tom Hovan

Vik – I have been riding a Bacchetta Giro 26 in “sloppy” conditions. The only big downside to that bike is the weight. Stripped down it weighs 33 lbs. It doesn’t stop me from being a mid-pack rando though.

10 05 2011

@Ben – I’m not suggesting I get off my bike or bent after 300K and feel like going for a run! Being tired, maybe cold and wet, etc… is a common factor to both kinds of bike so I took that out of the mix.

What I was trying to evaluate with those numbers was aches/pain/discomfort which I find low on both kinds of bikes, but a bit better on a bent.

As far as enjoyment goes that’s just a gut feel based on how I feel throughout the ride. Again I’m not docking points for general factors that affect both types of bikes – say high traffic, harsh weather, exhaustion, bonking, etc…

BTW – not going to argue with you, ut if your enjoyment level was really at 3/10 on every brevet I doubt you’d keep riding them…=-)

10 05 2011

Tom – what do you do for rain gear? That was one area that I wasn’t ever happy with my solutions.

Do you have any photos of your Giro online?

10 05 2011

@Tom – found your Giro on BROL – sorry hard to keep all the screen names straight! Nice fenders. If I end up with a high racer I’ll copy that for sure…=-)

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