How to haul a toddler on a rbent bike.
June 20, 2006 8:43 AM   Subscribe

Is there a way to carry or tow a toddler on a recumbent bike? And, by the way, what bike should a fat 40-year-old start out with?

I've read all the previous questions on recumbent bikes I've been able to find, but none of them have fit my specific situation.

I'm a reasonably fit 40-year-old woman who weighs just under 250 pounds. I can walk comfortably and well for up to four miles or so (I haven't tried farther). I'm interested in getting a bike so I can ride with my kids, now 5 and 2. I'm drawn toward a recumbent because of my weight; in recent years when I've ridden my regular bike I've been uncomfortable even with a special saddle, and have also had trouble with pressure on my wrists and hands (too much computing over the years).

So, my first general question is whether anyone has a bike recommendation. I've been looking around a bit and can't make up my mind. On the one hand, I'd like to not spend too much money; I'm afraid that if I spend $1500 and end up not riding, I'll feel guilty and wasteful. On the other hand, I'm concerned that if I spend too little, I will get a bike that is not comfortable or that is otherwise hard to ride, and that will undermine my efforts to ride. So I want to find that right balance of not-too-much-money and good-enough-bike-to-reward-my-efforts-and-make-riding-possible.

I am anticipating riding on groomed or paved trails, on sidewalks, and on occasional paved roads, nothing too rough. Where I live, there are only slight hills to climb.

My second, more specific question is whether it is possible to put a toddler on the bike in a carrier, or to tow a kid trailer. My 2-year-old is not ready to pedal on his own yet, and God willing there will be another baby or two in the next few years, so to be able to use the bike as I'd like--riding with the kids to places we now drive because they are just that little bit too far to be a convenient walk--I need to be able to tote a toddler. I'm I interested both in the question of whether hardware exists (I've googled without success), and whether the bike is easy enough to pedal that a 30-pound toddler won't make it impossible.
posted by not that girl to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (25 answers total)
I think you could pull a trailer with a 'bent but the trailers are pretty expensive. The recumbent's are even more expensive. It sounds as if you're pretty overweight, but people of your weight (like me) ride conventional bicycles comfortably. Part of it is having the right seat and part of it is just getting used to the seat. Real cycling shorts which have padded inserts and don't have the seams between your body and the seat help a lot too. You can always invest in a trailer and if you don't use it you could sell it because they're pretty popular. As recumbents are still kind of specialty items I don't know how much money you would lose on that but I imagine it'd be a lot more. I'm not against the 'bents, I hear people really love them, but I know they're expensive. Also, I mountain-bike and I don't think you could do that on a recumbent. Good luck.
posted by JamesMessick at 9:01 AM on June 20, 2006

I work by one of Seattle's major bike paths, and I see a lot of people towing kids in trailers like this one (maybe not that brand). I think I've seen 'em on recumbents too; from looking at the website's image, and depending on the recumbent, it seems like it might be able to attach to a 'bent in the same way it attaches to an upright bike.
posted by hattifattener at 9:17 AM on June 20, 2006

When I was a child, I got towed in what we called the 'caboose'. Pretty much a trailer as James refers to above. They're much fancier these days than what I had, but it got the job done and didn't add too much weight to pull.

Also, I kind of agree with what James said about recumbents. If you're riding for fitness or speed, they're not going to be your answer. They're kind of the 'leisurely stroll' of bikes.

From what I remember riding them years ago, they're not as maneuverable as regular bikes.

Best bet? Go to a specialty bike store near you and ask if you can try one out in the parking lot. They'll also have suggestions about what will work best for your frame and weight. And, if they're good, will be able to fit you with the best bike for your needs.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 9:19 AM on June 20, 2006

Huh, these guys have trailers for offroad use, which isn't what you were asking for NTG, but is interesting nonetheless.
posted by hattifattener at 9:21 AM on June 20, 2006

You might also want to consider a "cruiser" type bike like these. I know people who do lots of bike path/rail trail riding and they swear by them. I've tooled around on one a bit and the seat is the most comfortable I've ever used. Could be a nice alternative to an expensive recumbent. Shouldn't be too much trouble attaching a trailer either. Have fun!
posted by nnk at 9:29 AM on June 20, 2006

Oh! Another nice feature of the cruiser bike is that when you're stopped (and seated) your feet rest flat on the ground. Pretty nice when you have a trailer full of kids behind you.
posted by nnk at 9:31 AM on June 20, 2006

There would be no real impediment to using a trailer with a recumbent, unless the trailer's hitch was designed very specifically for a diamond-frame bike. You'd probably want a 'bent with a full-size rear wheel—some use 20" rear wheels, and those would work, but would pitch the trailer forward a bit. Most trailers attach directly to a chainstay, so that shouldn't be an issue.

There are plenty of high-performance recumbents, but yeah, the whole genre is a niche, and therefore more expensive.

Using a rack-style carrier on a recumbent would be more of a challenge, as those are designed to fit diamond-frame bikes; while I'm sure they'd fit some recumbents, it would take more chewing gum and baling wire.

With the right gearing, you can haul a lot more than a 30-lb toddler. Pretty much any bike with a triple crank (which includes pretty much all recumbents) will have as low a gear as you'd need.

Used bikes are always a better deal than new, and you can sometimes score embarrassingly good deals. Check around. With diamond-frame bikes, you could probably find something pretty good for $300-400; with 'bents, it's less settled, but this might be a good place to start looking.

Finally: you don't say how much time you've spent on conventional bikes, but everyone who starts riding regularly feels uncomfortable on them for about two weeks. After that, you get used to it. Also, riding on sidewalks is a bad idea. Your risk of a bike vs car accident is something like 8x greater. (Not to mention slower, and illegal unless you dismount at every crosswalk.)
posted by adamrice at 10:13 AM on June 20, 2006

hey not that girl - would you mind dropping me a line? my email is in my profile. I have a question for you.

(no email for you)
posted by pinky at 10:22 AM on June 20, 2006

I just got a $250 burley trailer for my 13 month old and I've pulled it with a new road bike and I did end up getting a special attachment for my recumbent. One thing you should be aware of is that pulling 20-30 pounds of extra weight takes some getting used to, so I'd suggest riding whatever bike you end up getting by yourself for a few days to get used to it before attaching a trailer.

Also, the most important thing is getting a helmet on your youngest inside the trailer. We've found it difficult to get our baby not to freak out and want to pull it off her head, but I suspect she'll grow out of that.

I think another added difficulty would be finding some safe places to ride that will remain safe if your five year old decides to do figure 8's or can't ride in a straight line. I would expect after the age of 8 or so that kids can use normal bike lanes on busy streets safely but before that I would stick to wide open safe areas.
posted by mathowie at 10:28 AM on June 20, 2006

I don't ride, but my impression was that recumbent tend to be lower, so you aren't as visible. That could be a little more dangerous. Obviously it would depend on the bike.

I know that you're less visible on sidewalks as you're coming to a crossing (drivers don't expect you to be there) which is massively dangerous.

Particularly if you're going to be towing children, visibility and where you ride would be important considerations.
posted by willnot at 10:40 AM on June 20, 2006

The Fat!So? message boards have a great thread about biking and fat folks, including a discussion about recumbant vs regular vs trikes. You have to join the forum to read and post.
posted by kimdog at 10:58 AM on June 20, 2006

If you're riding for fitness or speed, they're not going to be your answer.

Not that this has anything to do with the question, but recumbents have been banned from racing since the 1930s because they were too fast, and all the human-powered vehicle land speed records are held by recumbent or semi-recumbent designs. This won't come into play for the average rider, but in specific cases (when powered by a competition-level human, in race conditions), a recumbent can be much faster than a standard bicycle.

That said, I've seen people in Seattle pulling kids in Burley trailers on their recumbent bikes. Most of them have flags for visibility, and I think that (at least around here) people are more aware of bikes with trailers than they are of bikes without trailers. So towing a trailer probably balances out the visibility issues of a recumbent.

I also weigh around 250 pounds and have some wrist problems, and I second adamrice's comment that everyone feels uncomforable on a bike for a while. It took me about three weeks of commuting by bike before I adjusted to riding and it started being fun. Keep in mind that there are a lot of "special" saddle designs, and not all of them will work for you. The least comfortable saddle I've ever ridden on was an extra-padded one that I think was sold as a women's saddle. (My wife couldn't stand riding on it either, so it wasn't entirely a body geometery thing.) If you have a good local bike shop in your area, I'd recommend taking your current bike in to them and asking them to do a custom fitting for you, and ask them if they would let you try out a few other saddles to find one that works for you. Spending a couple hundred dollars on a fitting and new saddle for your existing bike is probably a better value than buying a 'bent.
posted by hades at 12:21 PM on June 20, 2006

nnk, I am completely sold on the Electra Townie already. Ready to go test-drive one at the local bike shop. Thanks for the tip.

Thanks to everybody for thoughts and ideas.
posted by not that girl at 12:23 PM on June 20, 2006

As the father of 4, and a trailer-puller for the last 5 years, here are some things to know:

First and most importantly-- Helmets, helmets, helmets. For you and for your passengers. Buy one that fits amazingly well. Don't let a crappy helmet be the reason "you don't feel like riding today".

Trailers at anything over a leisurely pace are a parachute on wheels, compared with riding alone. Putting in the little orange flag on the stalk, even more so. Given that you want to lose some weight, the added resistance may be good for you. (I'm not a trainer by any stretch.)

The extra weight of the trailer will allow you to discover every single gentle rise on your trip. Start off with small, really flat trips.

Invest in a blinking reflector/light for the back of the trailer. You can get them at bike shops, or, surprisingly, at Home Depot.

Get a bike with a wide range of gears, you'll need lower gears to pull the trailer up inclines. My bike with a 42 tooth chainring and a 28-tooth gear on the back wheel is barely low enough. If the bike has a third chainring (the sprockety part up by the pedals), you should be fine. (Most bikes seem to have this these days, and if you're seriously considering a 'bent, you very likely will get one of these as standard equipment.)

The biggest downside to a recumbent in my mind has always been that you can't 'stomp' on the pedals for a quick boost of speed for evasion or to help get up a hill. Recumbents are more like a, less like a dragster.

You might also consider recumbent trikes, which would be more stable at lower speeds.

I recommend the Burley line of trailers. After investigating the choices it was the only one I felt I could trust my offspring to.
posted by Wild_Eep at 1:12 PM on June 20, 2006

more like an 18-wheeler...
posted by Wild_Eep at 1:15 PM on June 20, 2006

If you're looking at the Electra Townie, one thing to consider (and a good question to ask your local bike shop) is whether you want the women's frame or not. I personally don't trust them; they just look weaker to me. But I don't have any evidence to back that up. Unless you're going to be doing an awful lot of riding in a skirt, there's really no advantage to a women's frame. And even then, I'm not convinced--I've ridden my men's style frame in a kilt a few times, and didn't have a problem.
posted by hades at 1:19 PM on June 20, 2006

Second (third? fourth?) the caution on sidewalk riding. Not only is it more dangerous than riding on the road, but it'll require more evasive maneuvering, which'll be a problem for your little passengers. Practice riding on the road solo for a few days and check out what John Forester has to say and you'll get comfortable with it.

If you're going to be riding on paths, make sure you have a bell or at least no problem yelling at people in your way. With a trailer in tow your stopping distances will be longer and your opportunities for quick action fewer than without the cargo. Wherever you ride (this especially includes the road) try to make yourself visible -- lights and reflectors are not an option. Helmets too.

I am not an expert on recumbents but IMHO it'll be easier to use your feet to support the bike at a stop if you get a cruiser or comfort bike, at least in the beginning. Also a traditional design will be much less expensive and easier to sell or give away later than a recumbent of similar quality.

Comfort issues: First, make sure the bike fits you before you buy it (a good reason to buy from a bike store where they know what they're doing -- ask around if it isn't obvious to you which local ones are good vs. just out to sell bikes without regard to issues of fit.) Ride for a couple of weeks before messing with the saddle; you may have to try several before you find one you like. Also, bike shorts (w/padding!) can make a huge difference, especially if you're going to be on the bike for more than an hour a day, or are a naturally sweaty or chafe-prone person (don't ask how I know this :) )
posted by Opposite George at 4:09 PM on June 20, 2006

At least what I've read about the upright/recumbent debate suggests that recumbents are better for level speed, but you can't get the extra power uphill by putting your weight on the pedals. Some 'bents have an extra low granny gear to compensate.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:38 PM on June 20, 2006

That's funny, KirkJobSluder, because I've heard that people blow their knees out on recumbents. As the argument goes, because of the back you have something other than your weight to push against, which means your stroke can have more force than your full weight. If your 200lbs+ you probably shouldn't put your full weight into any peddle stroke, ever (yes, I did just pull that number out of my ample bottom).

On level ground and downhills, aerodynamic drag is by far the most significant speed limiting factor (that, and fear/death). Remember, drag goes up by the square of windspeed, so 40km/h takes almost twice the power of 30km/h! In those situations the most aerodynamic vehicle will be fastest.

As slopes get steep, you start to put a significant portion of your power into raising the self weight of the vehicle. Diverting some power into going uphill reduces your speed, which drastically reduces the aerodynamic drag. It doesn't take much of a slope before you end up putting more power into 'up' than you do into 'fast'.

I believe recumbents are heavier and more aerodynamic..
posted by Chuckles at 7:43 PM on June 20, 2006

It doesn't take much of a slope before you end up putting more power into 'up' than you do into 'fast'.

Okay, I guess that doesn't exactly follow, or at least it is a little meaningless.. The point is, at some point you will hit equivalence, and from then on aerodynamics are less important than weight. Exactly when you hit that equivalence is completely dependant on you and your vehicle.
posted by Chuckles at 7:50 PM on June 20, 2006

Sheldon Brown on Comfortable Saddles - more padding can make discomfort worse!
posted by Chuckles at 7:55 PM on June 20, 2006

We've been fairly pleased with our Chariot Cougar after a year of regular use. The suspension makes the ride a bit more comfortable for the passengers and the fact that it folds flat means it can stand out of the way in the house.

The rolls-royce of the child trailer world is probably the Winther Dolphin. Don't know if you can get them across the pond though. Not cheap, but last forever by all account & hold their value well.

Re Wild_Eep's post: I'd personally say that there are quite a few things which are much more important for your safety than wearing a helmet. Good bike maintenance (brakes!) and getting some training if you're nervous about your on-road bicycling skills are probably more important than helmets IMO. Avoiding accidents in the first place is far better for you than any piece of polystyrene can be — Ride safe!
posted by pharm at 5:27 AM on June 21, 2006

To make my response slightly more relevant to the original question, I should point out that the Chariots attach to the bike with either a Weber hitch (popular with some other make s of trailers) or their own custom hitch. Both replace the skewer which goes through the rear wheel & can therefore fit just as well to a recumbent as to a safety bicycle. The Dolphin can either use a Weber hitch, or their own which attaches to the rear triangle of a safety bicycle, so on a recumbent you'd probably have to use the Weber hitch version at a guess.
posted by pharm at 5:33 AM on June 21, 2006

As a few people have already indicated, getting a trailer working with most recumbents won't be much a issue. The back wheel geometry is the same or similar enough in most circumstances to allow connection without modifications, plus at least one trailer vendor has a special recumbent coupler. In fact, one of the big bicycle trailer names, Burley, has a line of recumbent bicycles. My wife owns one, in fact, although not used with a trailer.

But here, I'm going to add support to the recumbent trike idea, and not just because I own a trike in addition to a two-wheel recumbent.

A trike is about as close to the ideal personally-powered urban assault vehicle I've found. Barring shenigans on your part, you simply cannot fall off of one into the path of oncoming traffic or just breaking a fundamental part of your basic dignity. You want to go slow, go slow. No wobbling around trying to maintain balance. It's amazing how much energy in a bicycle ride around residential and city areas is spent just keeping the damn thing upright while starting and stopping at signs,lights. Not to mention slowing and stopping for general road misbehavior on the part of the typical contingent of car-, biker-, and pedestrian-based idiots.

Kids and passers-by often love recumbents, and trikes especially. The twist on a common item of experience seems to really spark young kids' attention. Depending on where you ride, there's an excellent chance you'll get comments and questions from pedestrians, other riders, and passing cars. In my experience, "cool" remarks outnumbered the "dork" ones by a factor of ten. If you're a social person, it could be quite an amusing or uplifting experience for you.

There are a lot of trikes out there, but given that money is factor, I'll recommend looking into one of the most popular models, the basic EZ-3. It's hardly high-end, but has good construction and reasonable design. is rated for riders up to 250 pounds, sells for around $800 new and is frequently found on EBay for much cheaper. There are higher quality levels of EZ trikes, or other models, if you want to spend more, too. You'll find people on the net who slag the EZ-3, but I think for the price it's a helluva trike. In the two-year gap between my 80-year-old mother-in-law's giving up driving and her giving up her mortal existence, she bought a EZ-3 trike and was thrilled to ride it all around town. She loved her steed and when we visited I rode it on the trails for 10-12 miles. No mistaking it for a high-performance machine, and my own trike blows it away in quality, comfort, performance, (and purchase price), but all-in-all a very decent ride.

And the final reason to think about a trike is they are just a lot of fun to ride. I cannot fully explain why it is, but all the people who have tried out my trike -- regular Joes and Jills with no special bike experience, every one of them -- really got a kick out of the ride. Simple equation: you like your ride better, you ride more, you get more exercise.

Here are a couple of resources frequented by many recumbent riders of all ages, weights, and experience levels. The International Human Powered Vehicle Association IHPVA mail lists have many helpful participants if you have a question about a trailer or a good recumbent bike or trike to purchase. The June archives of the trikes list show a thread about inexpensive beginner trikes and the hpv list is always active. Also, there is the BentRider Online magazine forums which are extremely popular with recumbent riders, around 5K users and 160K messages to-date.

My only caveat about a trike is that hooking up a trailer can be more of trial, but it can and definitely has been done. You can read the above lists and forums for people's experiences on that score. I will say that if electric boost is something you are interested in, that also has been done by a number of recumbent bike/trike riders.

Addressing the stray recumbent-oriented remarks and issues brought up: those who think recumbents are 'leisurely stroll' bicycles have never been exposed to very many recumbents, particularly models like the carbon fiber low-rider machines. One of the two peaks of the recumbent-riding spectrum are the performance-oriented riders. Those guys (almost always guys, but a few females) can shut down most anything short of professional racers. And if they have full fairing, they can probably whip Lance's ass.

Then there's a long plateau before the second peak which includes typical riders like myself, leading up to the other recumbent peak. It's what one might call the "fatties" (as preemptive defense against the overly sensitive, I have morbidly obese relatives, and am not exactly the skinny child I was long ago). Anyway, there are many overweight recumbent riders who like the laid-back full-view ride in the moving reclining chair. Actually, that description fits a lot of us regardless of our weight.

With respect to blowing out your knees, well, only the sadly ignorant would brace against their seat back to produce high strain. Spin, spin, spin, whether you have a recumbent or a regular bicycle (affectionately known as "wedgies" by various recumbenteers). Regardless of bike geometry, most casual riders spin too little and push too hard. A recumbent is no protection against or aggravating factor to knee damage from improper riding. Same goes double for hills. You properly climb a hill the same way anyone who's not in a hard-core race would: you gear lower and spin. Even easier with a trike because you can't fall over -- should you need to go 0.5 miles per hour up your mini-Everest in granny gear, do it and enjoy the ascension. If I, in fact, did a full-flex push against my bike's seat back, I'd probably break the seat supports and dump myself backwards as a reward for my stupidity.

That said (and screw the tsk'ing MetaTalk thread), ultimately it's not about the bicycle configuration and how much money you spend. It's about getting out there and doing it, getting the exercise, enjoying the outdoors, getting you and your kids exposure to life outside the plaster walls. Quality is always an important factor, and definitely adds to one's pleasure in riding, ownership, and maintenance, but it's not critical to break the bank account to enjoy a bicycle. Even a lake-dredge Wal-Mart markdown bicycle is going to be more efficient and faster than walking or pushing a stroller. And with minimal tuning, probably a lot more fun.
posted by mdevore at 11:09 PM on June 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

I want to pop in and thank mdevore especially for the detailed information--I'm sure it will be helpful to more than me.

I bought an Electra Townie about two weeks ago and am loving it. I can already ride 3-4 times as far as I could on my old ratty hybrid, everyone who admires it and tries it out instantly wants one (OK, every middle-aged woman friend of mine who tries it out, but still). I've been hauling the toddler around in a loaner Burley D-Lite and doing great.

The unexpected limiting factor turns out to be my 5-year-old. In retrospect, I should have realized that even the most energetic kid on a single-speed bike wouldn't be able to keep up with someone on a 21-speed, even if that someone is fat and pushing middle age. And by "not keep up," I mean that matching his pace is usually too slow for me to maintain my uprightness. But all in all, the bike is good.

Thanks for everyone's help.
posted by not that girl at 10:23 PM on August 9, 2006

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