What IS that thing?
It's called a 'recumbent' bicycle. The word recumbent refers to the seated position, they are sometimes known as "Laid Back Bikes" or "Human Powered Vehicles". They usually have two wheels although some have three.
Why ride one?
Because they fast comfortable, safe and very good fun.
The fast ones are much faster. All all the land speed records are held by recumbent or semi-recumbent designs. The real question you are asking is, will you be faster on a recumbent? The answer is,"maybe". There are so many factors involved; how long you've been riding, how long you've trained on the recumbent, style and weight of the bike, topography - hilly, mountainous, flat. Since the biggest factor limiting speed is aerodynamic drag, if you want to go really fast, use a recumbent with the smallest frontal area or a fairing. In this case, the answer is yes, they are much faster.
They are very comfortable. Your weight is spread over the entire area of your back, so there is much less pressure. The more reclined the seat, the less pressure there is on your backside. The handlebars are either above the seat at shoulder level, or below the seat at a position where your arms hang down naturally, so there is no weight on your hands. This combination creates a comfortable ride making long distance riding free from neck strain, saddle sores, and wrist pain.
Brakes that really stop you and feet and body much nearer to the ground. In the unlikely event of a crash you won't go over the handlebars and you are unlikely to bash your head or break your collar bone. The worst you normally suffer is road rash on your bum.
We think so, but if you don't agree, don't ride one. Simple!
Are they hard to ride?
No. It may take you a little time to get used to the feel and handling of the bike. Some people ride them straight away, others take a little time to adjust. Be forewarned though, recumbents use different muscles, so even if you are a very fit upright rider, you will have to train the new muscle groups before you start getting a performance advantage.
Do they go up hills?
Some people think that because you can't stand on the pedals, that you can't ride up hills. You have to develop a new technique. Depending on how steep a hill you're climbing, you may want a low granny gear (and a good set of lungs), which will enable you to spin your way to the top. Usually you can keep up with some of the upright riders, and if any time was lost climbing, you will make up for it on the downhills and flat ground.
Are recumbents hard to see?
Since recumbents are relatively uncommon, they are always noticed. The effect is similar to riding down the street with no clothes on, you will be the most conspicuous thing around. If you ride in a position where you are obscured by other traffic you will of course be invisible, although this would be true whatever vehicle you were in, and you should adjust your riding style accordingly.
How do you steer it?
Generally, recumbents have either 'above seat steering' (ASS), or 'under seat steering' (USS). On the above seat steering models, the handlebars are located at about shoulder height either in front of the knees with the arms pointing out, or behind the knees with the elbows bent and the arms tucked in. On the under seat steering bikes, they are located just beneath the seat. If you are sitting on a chair right now, let your hands hang loosely at your side; this is where your handlebars would be. Handling is the same with all styles, since recumbents, like all bikes, are actually steered by movements of your body weight.
Have recumbents been around a while or are they a recent invention?
Recumbents have been around since the mid 1800's with the Macmillan Velocipede and the Challand Recumbent.
In 1933 Charles Mochet built a supine recumbent named the "Velocar". Between the years of 1933 and 1938 pro racer Francois Faure, while riding the Velocar, set several speed records for both the mile and kilometre. In Paris on July 7, 1933, Francis Faure broke the 20 year-old hour record of 44.247 km. by going 45.055 km.
Unfortunately Faure's hour record created a controversy amongst the Union Cycliste Internationale (U.C.I.), the governing body for bicycle races. The controversy was based on whether the Velocar was a bicycle and whether the time records were legal. In February 1934, the U.C.I. decided against Faure's record and banned all recumbents and aerodynamic devices from racing. That is the reason why recumbents have not gained popularity in the racing scene, and why they have not been mass produced by bike manufacturers. For over a century since the introduction of the Rover Safety Cycle, built in England in 1884, the design of the basic diamond frame bicycle has hardly changed. Read the full story.
How long does it take before I'm up to speed?
It normally takes a few minutes to get riding and a couple of days to feel confident in traffic, but it may take a year or more before a recumbent feels like an extension of your body in the way that your conventional bike does. Don't forget how long you have been riding. Whether you persist depends on whether you are motivated and enjoy the learning experience. I think it is part of the fun!