In time trials at the Olympics and the Tour de France, the very best cyclists in the world push themselves to the limits of human capacity — and sometimes, it later turns out, beyond — to sustain speeds in excess of 30mph. At the World Human-Powered Vehicle Championships, a rather less high-profile event which last year was held at a country park in Kent, riders who will never have occasion to converse with Oprah Winfrey complete time trials at around 35mph, lying down.
In fact, it’s partly because they’re lying down that the HPV riders have an advantage. Professional bike races test the prowess of riders, rather than designers. So bikes ridden in them have to stay within a regulated distance of the standard shape developed in the 1880s: biggish, equal-sized wheels; a frame made up of two triangles; a rider sitting on top. This has many advantages, but aerodynamic performance isn’t one of them. HPV riders, on the other hand, are free to slash wind resistance by lying down with their pedals in front of them, and covering their bikes in aerodynamic bodywork. In the Tour de France, that’s cheating.
But you and I aren’t in the Tour de France — or any other race, for that matter. We can cheat if we want to: for fun; for greater efficiency; even for greater everyday practicality. I recently tried out three contrasting ways to break with the norm.
GO ALL THE WAY: Recumbents
If you really want to chase the HPV dream, you’ll need a recumbent bike — rider leaning back, pedals in front, for better aerodynamics and power distribution (pedalling harder pushes you into the seat, rather than lifting you out of it). But you’ll also need to forget much of what you know about riding a bicycle. I had my first encounter at London Recumbents, based in Dulwich Park, south-east London: the HP Velotechnik Spirit, a ‘semi-recumbent’ that looks like the offspring of a Brompton and a high-end office chair. Once in motion, it was a joy, deck-chair comfortable and deceptively fast, but getting started — hitching my feet up to those high pedals — made me remember what it was like to ride a bike for the first time. Every stop meant a dozen abortive, swerving attempts to restart. Three-year-olds on stabilisers whizzed past me.
The other option is to skip the learning curve and try something even odder-looking: a recumbent trike, like the Hase Kettweisel. It has the riding position of a go-kart, and similar entertainment value. With such a low centre of gravity, it feels incredibly secure, and the turning circle is super-tight. They’re very popular with disabled cyclists — you can go hard and fast even with balance problems, and they adapt well for riders without working legs. But they might not be the most practical option around town: I couldn’t help noticing that even the recumbent expert arrived at work on a regular ‘upright’ bike.
THINK SMALL: Moultons
When Dr Alex Moulton, who died last year, rethought the bicycle, he didn’t mess with the riding position. But he found chances for greater efficiency almost everywhere else. The bikes made by his family firm have small wheels (stronger, lighter, tighter steering) on a ‘space frame’ that uses thin steel struts to make something much stiffer than the conventional design, with discreet suspension to stop all that stiffness transmitting every bump in the road to the rider.
Trying several models on the test track at the Moulton manor house in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, the appeal was clear immediately: they combine the swiftness and responsiveness of a road bike with the comfort of something much more sedate. It takes concentration to notice that you’re riding over rutted tarmac.
And they’re all-British, too: basic models are manufactured under licence in Stratford-on-Avon, while the more finely finished frames are still made in the grounds of the house at Bradford, with more money buying you less weight and more highly evolved suspension. It looks like English eccentricity, but it works, and has an international cult following to show for it: four out of five are exported to Asia.
RIDE CLEAN: The Paper Bicycle
The Paper Bicycle, created by the Scottish designer Nick Lobnitz, is not in fact a paper bicycle, but a steel one, and it seems at first rather traditional: a streamlined version of an old-fashioned ladies’ bike, with stately swept handlebars and a straight-backed riding position. Then you notice what isn’t there. Two of the tubes from the traditional design are gone, replaced with a pair of steel loops stretching from the pedals to the hub of the rear wheel. One encloses the chain, keeping it and your clothes clean; the other serves as a carrying handle, and extends elegantly into a kickstand. All the conveniences that more macho designs strip away are built right into the -structure.
And it’s a quicker, nippier ride than its regal bearing would suggest — those frame loops also give it a low centre of gravity. This is not a bike designed to break records; but it might make a trip to the shops more fun. And that’s a future I can believe in.