Just lie back and cycle into heaven ...

Eric Kendall goes recumbent cycling
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There's a lot wrong with most bikes: the saddle, for a start. Then there's the unorthopaedic bend you have to put into your back to reach the handlebars. And, above all else, when it comes to efficiency even a lightweight racing machine has the aerodynamics of a double-decker bus once you get on board.

Which is why recumbent riders are so laid-back they're almost horizontal. It's not just a question of attitude. You really do lie back, though you're not in fact much lower than you are on a normal bike. Gone is that sick joke of a saddle, and, even more important, out on the roads, gone is the tendency to fly head first over the handlebars, as you do when your bike hits something at speed.

By taking the good bits of a bike (wheels, pedals and chain), and arranging them in a sensible way, designers of the recumbent version have created a format that looks bizarre, even unridable, but works beautifully. Though there are lots of varieties of recumbent bike, the common factor is that the pedals are out in front rather than beneath you, allowing a relaxed sitting-back posture which is also efficient for turning the pedals. All your body weight is supported on a mini sun lounger, so neck, spine, wrists, hands and backside don't suffer the contortions and pounding that they do on a conventional bicycle. Handlebars, positioned either above your lap or beneath the seat, are there for steering and operating the controls, not for leaning down on or pulling up on.

With that many differences, riding a recumbent is definitely a new skill to grasp. The closer you get to one, the more you wonder whether some hideous joke is being played on you by the rest of the world. From swinging your leg over to falling off, everything is unfamiliar - there's not even much to hold on to while wheeling it to a quiet stretch of driveway for a tentative first go.

The process of learning to ride a bike, for most of us, happened too long ago to recall in detail, and it's probably just as well. Learning to ride a recumbent now, aged 31 and three-quarters, was essentially a repeat of that distant experience, but much quicker. Instead of Daddy running along behind with my best interests at heart, it was the man from the shop who owned the fantastically expensive machine that I might just crash. Shaking him off, whatever his motivation, was an excellent incentive to get it together.

It's all about taking a chance: balancing on two wheels never seems a good bet in the cold light of day. Sitting back with your legs out in front of you makes getting the pedals going much more committed than when they're just a few inches from the ground and you're only a step away from standing on your own two feet. As you prepare to push off for the first time, being too analytical and thinking about how you'll balance makes life hard. Letting things come naturally, aided and abetted by minimal cerebral input, is the way to do it, so the experts say; I had no problem at all.

Once you're on your way, within minutes it feels so natural that you can begin to appreciate what's going on. Contrary to expectation, the handling is precise - the bike goes where you point it - and it feels amazingly responsive to your pedalling input; these are definitely machines for speed. With the excellent weight distribution (low and towards the back) braking is encouragingly smooth and powerful, and while banking over to corner fast, you can still pedal with ample clearance.

Just to confuse things, and to gratify small boys in men's bodies, recumbent trikes add another dimension. They are mercifully simple to ride - you can even leave your feet on the pedals when you come to a halt - though going, not stopping, is what these things are all about. They're so low to the ground that the sensation of speed is fantastic. The handling is quick and active, and lifting the inside wheel in tight corners gives a satisfying, slightly hairy indication that you're trying hard enough; lifting it in shallow bends means you're about to break the land speed record. On the right surface, you can even do hand-brake turns, which should be reason enough for people to go out in droves to buy them.

Recumbents can be successfully ridden in all kinds of traffic conditions but they excel on the open road, going farther, faster and with less effort. The mechanics of having a seat behind you to resist your push against the pedals is superb, allowing your upper body to relax and your lungs to breathe efficiently while your legs do the work. The aerodynamic advantage is also significant, particularly with the addition of a fairing, which can be fitted to most designs of recumbent cycle.

Where to learn/ try/ buy

Some bike shops stock recumbents, but for the UK's biggest range and expert tuition, try Future Cycles (01342 822847) in Sussex. For the full experience they offer day and weekend hire, with money back if you like it so much that you decide to buy a recumbent. Weekend breaks including B&B, tuition and two days' hire cost pounds 115.

Other outlets where tuition is available are: Gear of Glasgow (0141 3391179) and the Avon Valley Cyclery (01225 442442).

Prices for recumbent cycles start at pounds 399, though the average is around pounds 1,000; recumbent trikes cost from pounds 1,600 to pounds 3,000.

Go faster

The British Human Power Club (BHPC), 15 Station Road, Dyce, Aberdeen AB21 7BA, is the racing organisation for recumbent cyclists. Races are held at closed tracks and often involve recumbents with full body shells. The streamlining creed is based on the fact that on a conventional bike at 18mph, 80 per cent of the forces slowing the vehicle come from air resistance, and as the speed increases, so this percentage rises. No wonder cyclists always think they're riding into a head wind.

Speed records, such as 68.7mph for the solo flying 200-metre record, and 48.5 miles for the world hour record, make you wonder why conventional bike racers bother to get on the road at all.