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The Bicyclette Normale

Tags: 
recumbent

Why are bicycles fitted with narrow seats requiring the rider to bend over, when most things that are designed for people to sit on resemble chairs? As you might expect the answer concerns events that happened long ago...

At the end of the Nineteenth century, the first golden age of cycling, Challand's Bicyclette Normale was just another variation on the theme of the bicycle; "Normale" referred to the sitting position, which was normal, as you would sit in a chair. Early in the Twentieth Century this style of bicycle was reasonably popular. 

Francis Faure on the front of a bicycle race circa 1925Cyclists competed in races on laid back bikes until 1933, when a "second rate" cyclist, Francis Faure, set the hour record, beating the distance set by French National Champion Maurice Richard (see The Pioneers). Obviously something must be wrong. The governing body of cycle racing, the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), retracted Faure's record, reasoning that he had an "unfair mechanical advantage". Undeterred by this he continued to race against the clock and became the first man to ride 50 kilometres in an hour. The UCI's decision, in conjunction with the spread of motor vehicles, held back cycle development for 40 years. It reduced design parameters to the development of construction materials and refinements to gear changing and braking technology and fixed the rider in the classic upright position. 

During the middle years of the Twentieth Century vehicle design became obsessed with combustion engines, cycle innovation was led primarily by sport with little interest in developing technology that wouldn't benefit a racing cyclist. It was not until the 1970s that a group of innovators from California began designing, building and racing bicycles based upon the normal sitting position. These sleek beautiful machines enclosed the rider in a streamlined fairing, enabling the vehicle to slice through the wind as efficiently as possible. The International Human Powered Vehicle Association was founded; anyone could enter any vehicle, as long as it was powered by a human, or humans.

Early IHPVA event in Brighton 1982

The quest for speed required maximum rider output with minimum wind resistance. Sitting comfortably enables the rider to put more effort into moving and sitting back reduces her frontal area and hence the air turbulence which gathers behind any moving vehicle and holds it back.

These sleek aerodynamic designs weren't going to make the trip to work easier or quicker; but they did influence cycle development. The blitz of innovation that came with the mountain bike - full suspension, Aluminium, Carbon Fibre and too many gears - made it possible to adapt record-breaking HPV's (Human Powered Vehicles) into machines that could be mass-produced for street use. The modern, practical, recumbent cycle arrived, comfortable, efficient road worthy machines that enable anyone to travel maybe further or faster but certainly in greater comfort. 

Cruising through trafficRosemarie Buhler racing in Brighton 2001

Today there are hundreds of manufacturers who design and build bicycles ergonomically - as opposed to adhering to UCI regulations - and annual global sales are in the range of 100,000's. Designs range from low-slung, racing machines to comfortable cruisers that enable the rider to commute through the most congested traffic with ease. So why doesn't everyone ride one? A recumbent cycle as standard mode of transport is still a relatively new concept. Ride a recumbent and you can expect to receive some attention; unless you live in northern Europe where cycling is more accepted and recumbents are seen as an obvious advance on the traditional bicycle. 

As history marches on and the general population grow to accept cycling as a viable mode of transport then the idea of a bicycle as comfortable as an armchair becomes an obvious solution. But there's no need to wait - you have the opportunity to choose one now!