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  • Fri September 12 2008
  • Posted Sep 12, 2008
Florida Linda Shrieves | Sentinel Staff Writer Jorge Mejias is accustomed to getting weird looks when he rides his bike. When you're on a recumbent -- a bike that looks like a grown-up version of a kid's Big Wheel -- that's typical. "Sometimes when I'm riding, I notice that people in the cars beside me are taking pictures," said Mejias, 50, an Orlando man who rides about 30 miles a day. "Many people laugh; many people are surprised. Sometimes they even ask me if I made the bike." In the world of bicycling, recumbents are the ugly stepsisters. They're not as sexy or glamorous as road or racing bikes. They're not cool with the young hipsters, like the mountain bikes or the funky cruisers. Yet despite their geeky looks, recumbents have attracted a loyal bunch of fans, riders who say that riding a bicycle in the reclining position -- much like you'd experience on a La-Z-Boy -- is the most comfortable way to see trails and scenery. "It's like riding on a couch. Whenever I ride it, my back is a nonissue. It's a completely different world," says Gary Landwirth, 52, a recumbent rider who divides his time between Orlando and Asheville, N.C. Yet while he loves recumbent bikes, he admits that a recumbent is not a looker. "Whenever I would drive into a parking lot with a recumbent on the top, everybody looks -- and they're not jealous." These bikes, with seats that look like they were grafted from a lawn chair, aren't cheap -- ranging from a low of about $700 to $5,000 for a racing style. Price, however, has not stopped avid cyclists from hanging up their sleek road bikes and trading them in for recumbents. And, as the baby boomers age and get tired of aching backs and shoulder and wrist pain, some predict a mushrooming market for recumbents. All it takes are converts like Skip Beeler. He used to ride in races of 100 miles or more. Two years ago, tired of the back pain, Beeler, 55, tried a friend's recumbent. "Since then, I've never had any more pain," says Beeler, who lives in Cocoa Beach. "It's just amazing, when you talk to people who ride regular bikes, they all tell you the same thing: My butt hurts, my hands hurt, my back hurts. But they don't do anything about it," says Beeler, a physician. "But once you try the recumbent, the people who do try them, it's very comfortable and they don't have those problems anymore." So far, however, recumbents are a tiny portion of bike sales -- less than 1 percent of the market. "It's an interesting niche but not large enough for us to have stats," says Fred Clements, executive director of the National Bicycle Dealers Association. "We want to be optimistic about recumbents, and the market may grow, but it is a pretty mature market and seems settled at present." Yet at Bicycle Outfitters, a bike shop in Seminole, Fla., that sells both recumbents and traditional upright bikes, sales of recumbents are surging. "We have a lot of young guys riding them for all kinds of reasons -- back pain, accidents. Women are riding because of carpal tunnel syndrome," says Jerry Beland. "It surprises us, but 35 [percent] to 40 percent of our dollars come from recumbent sales." At Bike Works in Orlando, which started selling recumbents two years ago, sales "started out slowly and have progressively been getting better," says salesman Alex Ead. "Most of our customers are in their 50s and 60s, but I've had a couple of 30-year-olds buying them recently." Recumbents -- known as "bents" to their fans -- haven't always been popular with other bike riders, however. "As you get older, you're not as self-conscious," says Landwirth. "You don't care as much what other people think. And when your back hurts, it gives you even more incentive not to care." Although many traditional bike riders think of recumbents as slow bikes ridden by even slower riders, Ken Scoates will never forget the day he decided to try a recumbent. He was on his sixth day of a touring race, riding an upright racing bike and struggling along at 15 miles per hour, "when a guy passed me on a recumbent -- he must have been 65 or 70 years old -- going 20 miles an hour." That, he said, "really piqued my interest." So three years ago, when he gave up triathlons because of a bum knee, Scoates bought a recumbent to ride on his seven-mile daily commute. Next, he bought a high-end, carbon-fiber recumbent racing bike. "I didn't intend to get a recumbent race bike. But once I got on a recumbent, I was so comfortable -- holy cow -- I couldn't get back on my other bike," says Scoates, 45, of Orlando. "Now I've got two road bikes hanging on my wall and I keep saying I need to ride them, but somehow I keep finding reasons not to." Linda Shrieves can be reached at lshrieves@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5433.

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