RAAM and Recumbents

The future of Cycling, Getting Older, and Brain Cancer

story by Jim Parker,

Do recumbent bicycles give racers an unfair advantage in the Race Across America (RAAM)?  This issue was raised after Maria Parker, my wife, was the first female solo finisher in the 2013 RAAM.  So, as we approach another exciting year of RAAM, which will have at least two recumbent racers, I decided to delve into this claim and develop an evidence-based answer to the question.  There have been many great RAAM performances on standard and recumbent bike relay teams; however, this discussion will be limited to solo RAAM attempts in the Recumbent and Standard division only (HPVs not included).  All of the data used for this analysis comes from www.raceacrossamerica.org.

Out of six RAAM attempts on a recumbent, two did not finish (DNF).  That’s a 33% DNF rate.  Out of 826 attempts on a standard bike, 359 did not finish, yielding a DNF rate of 43%.  Therefore, standard bike racers have a higher rate of DNF than recumbent racers in RAAM.Jim Parker RAAM bent story4

Only three Americans have  finished RAAM on a recumbent (L to R): Timothy Woudenberg, John Schlitter, and Maria Parker (photo by Lucia Parker 2/15/2014 at Bike Sebring. Barbara Buatois of France is the only recumbent RAAM finisher not in photo).

What about average speed?  Looking only at those who officially finished, the average speed of women on a standard bike is 10.85 mph.  Compare that with an average speed of 10.55 mph for women on a recumbent.  The gap is even bigger for men, where the average speed is 12.04 mph vs. 11.36 mph, standard vs. recumbent, respectively.  Therefore, on average, the recumbent in RAAM is slower for both men and women.

What about the very fastest performances?  For women, the fastest average speed is 13.22 mph for a standard bike (Seana Hogan, 1995) and 10.59 for a recumbent (Barbara Buatois, 2010).  For men, the top speed is 15.58 mph (Christoph Strasser, 2013) vs. 11.42 mph (Tim Woudenberg, 2010), standard vs. recumbent, respectively.  Once again, in the speed category, the standard bike comes out ahead of the recumbent.

However, recumbents fare better when the average speed is age-adjusted.  For men age 50-59, Woudenberg and Schlitter are ranked 10th and 13th, respectively, of the 39 men who finished RAAM in this age group.  For women, Buatois’ average speed ranks 24th of 45 in the 18-49 age range.  Parker’s average speed is the fastest of the four women age 50-59 who have finished RAAM.

An analysis of the DNF rate by age-range reveals that the DNF rate for women age 50-59 on standard bikes is a whopping 70%.  For men on standard bikes in this age group, the DNF rate is 51%.  For men or women on recumbents in this age group, the DNF rate is 0% (0 of 3).

An analysis of the 60-69 age group shows that of 20 attempts by men, there were 9 DNFs, for a rate of 45% (a bit less than men 50-59).  One woman aged 60-69 did not finish.  No one 60-69 has made an attempt on a recumbent.  We will watch with interest this June as Dennis Johnson makes the first RAAM attempt in this age group in the recumbent division.

I hope this analysis puts to rest the notion that racers on recumbents are somehow cheating or have a speed advantage.  From a statistical viewpoint, the small sample size of recumbent racers in RAAM makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions.  However, RAAM’s top-speed records are all held by standard bike racers; with the one exception being Parker’s age-group performance.

If this analysis proves anything, it’s that standard bike cyclists over 50 have a much harder time finishing RAAM than those under 50, and a much harder time finishing than recumbent cyclists over age 50.  This applies especially to women 50-69, who have a DNF rate of 73% on standard bikes.  The baby-boom generation is now entirely above the age of 50.  Therefore, I would suggest to RAAM’s directors that they continue to promote and encourage entry by recumbent riders.

Whether or not a recumbent gives a speed advantage, I would prefer to race across America on one because I don’t want to risk severe saddle injuries, Shermer’s neck, and head-first crashes.  I feel more comfortable on a recumbent and I have a better view of the world in front of me.  Some people may disagree with me on that, but we can all agree on the following: finishing RAAM requires a reliable crew, planning, and luck— but most of all it requires fortitude (guts, heart, endurance) from the athlete… regardless of the bike he or she chooses to ride.

I believe that bicycles should be allowed to evolve and different types of bicycles should be allowed to compete alongside each other as they did before the UCI imposed rigid bicycle design rules in 1934, and as RAAM rules allow.  Directors of RAAM have made exactly the right decision in awarding the top “First Finisher” award to the first man and first woman across the finish line, regardless of the type of bike they pedaled; as well as awards for all of the division winners.  Ultracycling has been a haven for recumbents in a broader cycling world that shuns them.  If USA Cycling would take a cue from RAAM and the UMCA,  more people would come to enjoy competitive cycling, especially as they get older.  We greatly limit the potential growth of cycling when recumbents are banned from competition or recumbent racers are viewed as cheaters.

  RAAM 2014Jim Parker RAAM bent story3

Jacquie Schlitter will compete in 2014 RAAM, raising money for 3000 Miles to a Cure.

I will be cheering for all of the RAAM contenders this year, but especially for Jacquie Schlitter; not because she is riding a recumbent, but because she’s a friend and she’s raising money for brain cancer research.   John Schlitter, the first person to ever finish RAAM on a recumbent, just lost his sister, Cindy, to brain cancer.  Now this cancer is threatening to take Maria’s sister, Jenny, from us.  I hope everyone in the ultracycling community will help our cause, and the other causes of RAAM cyclists. Cycling for a greater purpose will really help keep the pedals turning in June.  To donate for brain cancer research, go to: http://www.3000milestoacure.com/. If you want a chance to win one of five cool recumbent bikes or trikes, while helping raise money for Jacquie’s RAAM expenses, go to: http://3000events.com/.

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  1. Lee Kreider says:

    Thank you,Jim, for this data.

  2. Paul Gagnon says:

    Great article full of amazing facts and stats however I’m holding on to my belief perhaps a placebo,but one that works for me:ON A BENT I DO HAVE AN ADVANTAGE….which gives me the confidence to put it out there with men half my age…love my Carbent and my Catrike 7oo wonderful innovations in cycling technology opening up cycling to everybody who wants it and loves the fun of healthy competition.

  3. Jim Dibble says:

    Very nicely done, Jim!

  4. Norman Suguitan says:

    Always pleasure to read jim’s writing. I am just happier riding my bent and that is good enough.

  5. Nicholas says:

    I heard the suggestion that a recumbent is “cheating” by a few regular bike riders. However they are the same people most likely to follow with “recumbents can’t climb.” My answer is always, “which is it? It can’t be both a cheating machine that makes me faster, and an inferior machine that makes me slower?” Those two cancel out and make it just the bike I choose to ride.
    We choose the platform according to the benefits that works for us. It is simple, DF riders choose bikes they know are less aerodynamic, but believe climb better. I choose a bike that I know is more aerodynamic, but in my case requires a lot more effort from me for climbing. No one is cheating, we just choose different strengths.

    • Paul Worden says:

      It’s amusing that normal bike weekend riders talk about recumbents ‘cheating’ while hiding in a pack of riders and drafting.

      I DO like riding a conventional bike short distances but for many reasons I prefer a ‘bent.

      I have ridden both recumbents and diamond frame bikes around the same 25 mile loop many times, with equal acclimatisation time on both types. Solo, the less radical recumbent is around 1 mph faster and the low seat racing recumbent a bit over 2 mph faster (moving average.)

      More importantly, unlike fellow DF riders, I am not shaking my wrists to relive numbness or stretching to ease the pain in my back. I am 71 years old and my recumbents allow me to stay with and sometimes overtake much younger riders. When/if I become more decrepit, I’ll change to a recumbent trike and just before they nail the lid on I might be using a bit of electric assist.

      You can lose your ability to balance, lose three limbs and an eye and still ride a bike. But it will be a recumbent. The second best fun you’ll have laying down.

  6. Gunnstein says:

    Statistical analysis on a sample size of 6 is meaningless. Even for the 826 standard bike riders the sample is rather thin. But statistics aside, good points about “cheating”, and welcoming people who don’t fit the UCI straitjacket.

  7. “An analysis of the 60-69 age group shows that of 20 attempts by men, there were 9 DNFs, for a rate of 45% (a bit less than men 50-59). One woman aged 60-69 did not finish. No one 60-69 has made an attempt on a recumbent. We will watch with interest this June as Dennis Johnson makes the first RAAM attempt in this age group in the recumbent division.”
    What type of bent will Johnson be rolling?
    Loan me a V and I keep him company.

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