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Mike Burrows Myth Busting: Can You Climb Hills On A Recumbent Bike?

Burrows at work on one of his legendary 8-freight bikes

As the man responsible for such notable machines as the Windcheetah ‘Speedy’ trike, the Ratcatcher and the Ratracer, Mike Burrows is something of a trailblazer in the world of recumbent cycle design. Being a founder member of the British Human Power Club , he is strong advocate of laid-back cycling – for racing and recreation – and is eager to dispel any myths surrounding the mode.

Riding recumbent holds several advantages over regular upright cycling. Compared with traditional frames, their more streamlined profile and lower centre of gravity give recumbents reduced aerodynamic resistance and more efficient braking. But owing to the fixed laid-back riding position – you cannot jump on the pedals when tackling a steep hill – some people have suggested they do not climb as well as their diamond-framed cousins.

Mike Burrows on a laid back bike at Hog Hill | MadeGood.bikes
Mike Burrows on a laid back bike at Hog Hill

Mike makes three points to counter this claim:

  1. It is people climb hills – bicycles descend.
  2. In cycling there are no such things as hills, only resistance to motion. Bradley Wiggins illustrates this point well, being able to sustain a high power output regardless of the obstacle, be it a head wind or an Alpine ascent.
  3. It is scientifically not always true.

To demonstrate the third point Mike timed himself riding up the same hill on either a recumbent or a regular bike. He repeated the climb several times, each time upping his intensity level. The tests revealed that at certain heart-rates the laid-back bike was actually able to climb quicker than the upright. Only when riding flat out did he find the regular bike was able to catch up.

To give a fuller answer to the question Mike also draws on research carried out by doctors at the former pro-team ONCE, which compared riding on the saddle with riding out of the saddle when climbing. Their research found that, for some cyclists at least, riding out of the saddle can make sense because it uses muscles other than the main leg muscles – e.g. the upper body. Using these other muscles can offer relief to the legs which would allow the body to recycle lactates and achieve a higher overall power output.

Scale model of the mike burrows lotus bike | MadeGood.bikes
Scale model of the mike burrows lotus bike

Out of the saddle climbing is clearly not possible when riding recumbent, but you will use and develop different muscles and techniques when riding this way. The point to take from this is that different bikes will suit different riders and riding styles.