As the article said “You’re cradled in a bucket seat and as you lean into a long-banking turn, you have the exhilarating sensation of being on a toboggan with wheels”. To a cyclist, this was an exciting prospect.
Many in the non-cycling community believe that Riley invented the recumbent bicycle. Instead Riley had copied the essential elements of a bicycle designed and built by the ex-airline pilot and bicycle innovator Captain Dan Henry.
While Riley never admitted copying Henry’s recumbent, the similarities between the designs are numerous, especially the long wheelbase and remote steering. While Henry used a chain and sprocket for the fork-steering connection, Riley used a Cardan universal joint from a socket set. Why neither of them used the much simpler connecting rod between an offset pivot on the handlebars and one on the fork, I do not know. One interesting consequence of the use of a u-joint is the coupling ratio varies with the position of the joint. This could be used to improve steering control by having the steering be least sensitive when the steering is straight and becoming more sensitive with increasing steering lock. (Riley may have seen that the preWW2 Velocar used a Cardan joint to connect the handlebars to the fork.)
(A note here that chopper-style kid’s bicycles like the Schwinn Stingray are technically semi-recumbent bicycles and, for that matter, the children’s Big Wheel tricycle and its variants are recumbents. Here I am only interested in the reemergence of the adult recumbent bicycle.)
Henry was not the first to experiment with recumbent bicycles since WW2. Gunnar Fehlau, in his book “The Recumbent Bicycle”, describes the obscure work of the engineer Paul Rinkowski on short-wheelbase recumbents starting in the late 1940’s and continuing on for four decades.
In addition, Alex Moulton of small-wheeled-bicycle fame experimented with a Grubb recumbent prior to settling on an upright posture for his improved-bicycle design in 1962. Moulton found that recumbent pedaling produced thigh fatigue when pedaled for extended periods and rejected the recumbent approach. It was a lost opportunity for recumbent evolution, given Moulton’s innovative product improvement abilities.
Henry’s recumbent bicycle may have influenced the east-coast arm of the subsequent human-powered vehicle movement, Prof. David Gordon Wilson of MIT. He must have been aware of Henry’s article, because he wrote an article, “Where Are We Going in Bicycle Design?” published in Bicycling the previous month. He also included a photo of Henry’s recumbent in Bicycling Science, the book he coauthored with Frank Roland Whitt in 1974.
From 1967-1968 Wilson sponsored a design competition for man-powered land transportation. The winner, W.D. Lydiard, designed and actually built an enclosed mid-wheelbase recumbent bicycle. Traditionally recumbent bicycles either had the cranks behind (long wheelbase) or ahead of the front wheel (short wheelbase). Those with a long wheelbase were inconvenient to transport and had a lightly loaded front wheel that could wash out on slippery surfaces. The short wheelbase designs had an overloaded front wheel that consequently resulted limited-front-tire life and in skittish handling. If the cranks are located in the ideal location, above the front wheel, the bottom-bracket height was usually so high that the rider is placed in an uncomfortable posture. I refer to the issues with these approaches as “the recumbent packaging problem”. Refer to “Recumbents and Convergent Evolution”, below.
The Avatar 2000 recumbent was very similar to the preWW2 British Grubb recumbent. Both use indirect steering with the handlebars coupled to the fork by a connecting rod. Differences were the Avatar’s seat was higher and more upright and the Avatar had a shorter wheelbase due to the use of a 16” front wheel. The Avatar’s wheelbase is 63”.
So there is a circuitous linkage between the Ground Hugger and the Avatar 2000.
In 1984, after becoming somewhat bored with upright bicycles, I purchased an Avatar 2000 from Angle Lake Cycle in Seattle. It was serial number 085 and it had been sitting in the store window for several years.
I was disappointed with both the on-the-level speed and, even more so, the hill-climbing speed of the Avatar. On the positive side, the extreme comfort riding the Avatar on the level terrain somewhat compensated for the reduced speed by eliminating fatigue from secondary effects like a sore seat, sore back and numb hands.
I did make one component change that significantly improved its hill-climbing ability. I replaced the conventional cranks with a Power-Cam crankset which I had purchased several years before.
Using a Power Cam on a recumbent was suggested by Edward P. Stevenson in his book “The High-tech Bicycle”. The Power Cam did not work well when standing up on the pedals and forced you to climb seated. On a recumbent you couldn’t stand on the pedals so a Power Cam on a recumbent made a kind of sense. Stevenson was correct and it improved hill climbing. The Power Cam had only two chainrings, however, so an adaptor plate was machined to allow the mounting of a third granny chainring.
The increased comfort of the recumbent posture allowed me to take longer rides than on my upright and I logged a lot of miles over the 22 year period between 1984 and 2006. I eventually added an arm-power attachment to the Avatar to scavenge some of the power I was loosing through the inefficiencies of my leg pedaling. See “Arm Power and the Avatar Recumbent” below.
In 2006 I started mountain biking regularly and put the Avatar in moth balls. I began with a hardtail and later purchased a full suspension bike. My hardtail acquired road tires and became my road bike. I didn’t ride on the road much, however, because of numb hands and tired back from sitting in one position for extended periods. I didn’t have this problem when riding on dirt because of a continuingly changing body position and the reduction of road vibration due to the full suspension. The level of comfort riding an upright bicycle off-road was acceptable.
It was on a car trip up to Snoqualmie Fall for breakfast on Labor Day that I was reminded of the number of time I had ridden the scenic hill climb up to the falls on the Avatar. I have never done that ride on my converted mountain bike because of the associated lack of comfort. Realizing what I had been missing the last six years, I decided I would ride the recumbent on the road and the upright on dirt, thus having the best of both worlds.
The first few miles back on the Avatar after the six year hiatus were a bit shaky and the long hill climb back home was a painful grind. But when riding on the flats what I was left with was the feeling of being in a touring car where I could comfortably view the scenery while exercising at the same time. For me, the recumbent bicycle has returned.