By Stephanie Kanowitz and originally posted on the Washington Post on Oct. 9, 2018
With sweat beading on a hot August morning, Howard Quinn of Catonsville paced the pavement at Mt. Airy Bicycles in Carroll County, Md., studying recumbent tricycles that he and his grandson, Freddy, could share. After neck surgery, Quinn tires quickly on a bike, and the boy has trouble balancing on a two-wheeler.
“It’s in first gear,” Tom Hill told Freddy, situating him on a seven-gear Delta model priced at $1,399. “Here’s your hand brake.” He sounded like a salesman, but Hill, 61, of Damascus in Montgomery County, doesn’t work at the shop. He’s a customer — a frequent customer, having bought three trikes in nine years after undergoing back surgery.
“I like this better. My back doesn’t hurt; my upper body isn’t tired from having to control the bike,” Hill said.
Customer Lynn Carr, 70, a former bike rider and runner, is less enthusiastic. “You really can’t get the same level of aggressive riding as you can on a two-wheeler, just simply because on a two-wheeler you can stand up on the pedals and really get after it,” he said. “Here, you’re sitting.” But riding a trike enables the Mount Airy resident to stay active after two hip replacements and three back surgeries. Carr rides more than 100 miles a week.
Trikes for adults aren’t new, but they’re finding a larger fan base among recreational and more serious cyclists. Sleeker, more aerodynamic, lower-to-the-ground designs are a far cry from the traditional “granny trikes,” with three 26-inch wheels, high seats and large baskets in the back, though those are still around.
“As an overall category, trikes are growing,” said bike expert Jay Townley, futurist at the Human Powered Solutions Group, a consultancy of bike industry veterans that formed in June. “But the big growth is not in the old, traditional upright trike,” he added. “The growth is in what is referred to as a recumbent trike, or tri.”
No group seems to keep statistics on the niche market that is adult tricycles. But shop owners and manufacturers say they are seeing an increase in sales. For example, TerraTrike, which has been making adult trikes since 1996, has seen at least 10 percent growth — and as much as 40 percent — each year. And three trike brands — Catrike, Sun Bicycles and TerraTrike — were represented last year on the National Bicycle Dealers Association’s list of the top 40 bike brands that specialty bike shops sell.
Trikes for adults come in a variety of models and styles. Some are made for speed, some have more upright seats for riders who don’t want to lean back, and some aren’t quite so low to the ground, to make it easier to get on and off. They range widely in price, including one-speed classic uprights with a basket for about $400, and 30-speed recumbents with aluminum frames for around $4,000.
The main market driver is an aging, health-focused population, but also, recumbent “trikes are cool,” said Larry Black, owner of Mt. Airy Bicycles, who has been in the business for 39 years. “It’s like a go-kart or a roller coaster,” he said. “You’re low to the ground.”
Recumbent cycles have a lower center of gravity than upright ones, which makes them more stable and comfortable, said Jeff Yonker, marketing director at Michigan-based TerraTrike.
“It’s like sitting in a beach chair,” Yonker said. “We find that people will actually do as much or more exercise riding as [they would on] an upright bike because they don’t have the pain involved, and so they tend to ride longer and farther.”
The ergonomics of recumbent bicycles and tricycles are the same, but trikes are easier to balance and don’t tip when you stop, said Wayne Sosin, president of Worksman Cycles, based in Queens. Unless, that is, you’re not watching your pace. Whether two- or three-wheeled, recumbent cycles can be surprisingly speedy because of their low profile. “We’ve seen a lot of people crash them by going too fast,” Black said. “The stability is very limited on a trike at high speeds.”
At Black’s two stores, recumbent trikes are outselling recumbent two-wheelers about 10 to 1, and they’re outselling upright trikes at about the same rate. Upright trikes aren’t extinct, however, and offer great utility in some settings.
Sosin, of Worksman Cycles, which has been making adult trikes since its founding in 1898, said one of its main markets for heavy-duty uprights is industrial facilities. “If you walk into a Ford Motor Co. — or the Pentagon, for that matter — you’ll see workers riding around on real heavy-duty tricycles — not really consumer-appropriate, but more for rugged commercial use,” Sosin said.
The company’s upright models for recreation are also in high demand. “Recumbents are far more expensive and far more specialized and far more performance-oriented, but the traditional adult tricycles dominate the demand by consumers,” Sosin said. “Baby boomers, active seniors are probably buying traditional adult tricycles 100 to 1 over recumbents.”
On roads, tricyclists, like bicyclists, must follow traffic laws. They also must follow local bike regulations on helmet and light or reflector use. Trikes also can share bike lanes.
But Black warns against riding recumbent trikes alongside cars. “It’s dangerous because your head is below the average car fender — that’s now an SUV, pickup or minivan — and you can’t see,” he said. “You could put flags and lights on the trike, but it’s your ability to see that’s compromised.”
When Quinn returned from his test ride in Mount Airy, he was beaming. “This is fantastic. This is something that we could both do,” he said, thinking of his grandson. A few weeks later, he returned to the shop and bought a recumbent trike.