Recumbent tricycle for HSPers

Modern ultra low ‘tadpole’ style


I use a recumbent ‘tadpole’ tricycle. I think three wheels are much better than two. I don’t know if you have ever seen one. Most bike shops do not even carry them, or know little about them. Many of us are familiar with upright bicycles and upright tricycles but how many of us are familiar with the modern ultra low recumbent tricycles with two wheels facing forward?

David on his tricycle
David on his tricycle


Recumbent tricycles have the pedals out the front, three wheels, a full comfortable supportive reclined seat, and are very low to the ground. ‘Tadpole’ configuration has two wheels at the front and one wheel at the back. They are much more comfortable than a regular upright bike or upright trike.


Recumbents of any form were banned from push bike racing in 1935 by the International Cycling Federation but are currently making a strong comeback. Many Australian schools now race 3 wheel recumbents under a new association.


There is a big difference between what we learned about riding a bike as a kid and learning to cycle efficiently as an adult. Many parents feel pride when their young child first learns to ride a bike. Learning to ride a bike has become a rite of passage for many children. It is often very difficult as adults living with HSP, especially when we can no longer ride a bike but our small children can.


HSPers can make good use of recumbent tricycles but we will never be as fast as many people who do not have HSP. I have found that I can travel faster than many youthful school leavers but not as fast as my regular cycling peers.


The key to good cycling technique on any cycle is to pedal your feet in ‘circles’, not in ‘squares’ and to have a proper ‘fit’ between your body and your cycle. Make sure it is properly set up for you. Much can be learned about cycling from the internet. Good cycling shoes can make a big difference.


Shoes that let you exercise your whole leg

Cycling shoes that clip onto special pedals let me exercise my whole leg not just part of it. I can both pull and push with my legs. Most bicycles are fitted with flat platform pedals that only allow you to push. People usually first learn to ride a bike with these flat pedals on it. The more serious rider clips their feet onto the pedals with cycling shoes and matching pedals. Proper cycling shoes are the key to exercising your whole leg.


There are two basic types of cycling shoes, ‘mountain bike’ and ‘road’ shoes. I find it very difficult to walk in road shoes due to the design of their pedal clips. I don’t need any more wobble in my walk than HSP gives me! I use mountain bike shoes and matching pedals. Mountain bike shoes can also be known as SPD shoes. These have the clip section indented in the outer sole of the shoe. I can walk in mountain bike shoes. They are ‘walk-able’ cycling shoes.


Mountain bike shoes clipped onto their pedals allow me to pull up with my feet as well as push down with my legs. Ordinary flat platform pedals do not allow me to pull up with my feet while cycling. I can use a far better cycling technique and spin the pedals at a much faster rate (higher cadence) using mountain bike shoes than flat platform pedals. Quickly spinning the pedals around also reduces the strain on the knees.


Another advantage of these shoes for HSPers is that my feet are kept in place while cycling by my shoes. Without them it is difficult for me to keep my feet in the right place due to my HSP.


Muscle exercise and development

I can exercise and develop all the different muscle groups in my legs, if I use mountain bike shoes with good cycling technique. Before I got my tricycle, my calf muscles were wasting away but now they get regular exercise and have developed some definition. My quadriceps at the front of my thighs are also ‘bulking up’. The hamstring muscles in the back of my thighs are stretching and developing. The muscles in my shin used to lift my feet are also being exercised and developed. My bottom muscles (glutes) are toning up. The small muscles in my hips used to lift my entire leg are also becoming stronger and being developed. My cycling will not cure HSP but I can help what muscles I have to become stronger.


Other health benefits

There are several other health benefits for HSPers, when they regularly ride three wheel recumbents.


I do not get swelling in my ankles any more. There is a basic cycling technique called ‘ankling’. ‘Ankling’ is where you bend your ankle to assist your pedalling. The regular bending of the ankle while pedalling assists pumping any fluids back up to my body. I can best use this technique while my feet are ‘clipped in’.


The comfortable recumbent seat also helps develop and tone core trunk muscles making it easier to keep my balance while walking or while using a wheelchair.


Riding a recumbent is a fully supported exercise. If it gets too much I just stop and have a rest. I also get a good general cardio and aerobic workout that strengthens the heart, fully uses the lungs and diaphragm, loses weight, improves circulation, improves cognitive skills and is not as boring as a static exercise bike in front of the TV.


Balance can be an issue for HSPers. I do not have good enough balance to walk or ride a bicycle. With three wheels the tricycle stays upright. Without the need to balance, I can put further effort into my cognitive abilities of pedalling, steering and braking.


There are improvements in my endurance and general fitness. I can ride a long way. I sit for most of my waking hours. It is easy for me to choose not to exercise. When I started to ride a recumbent tricycle, I could only travel 3.6km. Now that I am fitter, 50km is not difficult for me.

By riding my recumbent tricycle around, I’m improving my fitness and getting outside more often. I enjoy exercising this way.


My self esteem has also improved by riding a recumbent trike. I get to participate in large cycling activities with many able bodied cyclists. These events are not races. Some activities are fund raisers for people with disabilities similar to HSP. They are good fun to join in. The largest one I have been in had 10 000 cyclists. I get kudos from other cyclists for simply turning up with a recumbent tricycle. They notice the unusual mode of transport, not that the rider operating it is disabled. They do not need to know I cannot go as fast as many of them or that I have HSP. No one needs to know I’m disabled when I am riding one of these. Some people who previously know of my disability cannot believe I can participate or ride at all.


I also appreciate being able to ride with my wife and family and friends. It is good to be able to do something outdoors together. They are often surprised how well I can keep up with them.


Going over hills

At the start of the 'Ocean Ride for MS' in WA
At the start of the ‘Ocean Ride for MS’ in WA

Using all the different muscle groups in my legs adds about 10% more power to my cycling. This does not sound like much extra power but it can be the difference between comfortably getting over the hills I may encounter or not. Fortunately, most recumbent trikes have very low gears. If the hill looks too steep, just change to a lower gear and ride up the hill at a slower pace. If you find the hills are still too big you could add an electric motor to your recumbent tricycle.


Three wheel recumbents are also known as Human Powered Vehicles (HPV). Human Powered Vehicles are a viable alternative to using a car in your local area. They can carry small loads and can easily travel many kilometres from home.


If you have not done any exercise recently, I would recommend you first see a GP and tell them what exercise you are about to do. You may wish to consult your physiotherapist or occupational therapist or other health professional. They are not likely to know about recumbent tricycles and HSP but they do know what exercise is good for you.


Difficulties, what difficulties? There are no difficulties here!

The most difficult aspect of a recumbent tricycle is simply getting in and out of them. They are often very low to the ground. I use my arms a lot for this. A low wall or a shallow hole in the ground or a post to hang on to means I have no difficulty getting in or out of them, once I learned how. If there are none of these supports around, I lock the brakes and use the front wheels to push myself up or to sit back down again easily.


If I am unfortunate enough to get a flat tyre while riding, I simply get off and quickly fix it. I carry all the necessary equipment. The vast majority of times I never get a flat tyre. Some tyres are made so tough they almost never get a puncture. Recumbent trikes are less likely to get flats than bicycles.


If I have a crash, I’d much rather be on a recumbent than an upright bicycle or tricycle. At one time I crashed my recumbent trike at 51km/h. I was not injured and suffered only minor bruising. Being so low to the ground meant I did not have far to fall; also I crashed feet first. I’d rather crash feet first than head first. On a upright bike I would have gone over the handlebars head first. This crash did not hurt me much. Not all crashes are this good. Some crashes are quite injurious. I do not recommend crashing.


Many recumbents can quickly be folded in half and fit easily into a small car. It can be an advantage to get a recumbent tricycle that folds. I can easily get mine into a small car and drive to the start of a ride.


The two wheels in front ‘tadpole’ style means they can steer and brake very well; often better than a two wheel bike. They are so low to the ground that they are very stable going around corners. Nor do I need to ‘unclip’ my foot every time I stop at traffic lights. I simply watch my two wheeled peers try to unclip their feet in time before they fall over.


Medical equipment or an expensive indulgence?

Recumbent tricycles have many health benefits and can be seen as medical equipment for HSPers. They can also be very expensive. They are at least twice as expensive as the equivalent quality two wheel bike. Don’t let the expense put you off. Think of these tricycles as a piece of medical equipment for your HSP rather than an expensive indulgence. Learn to ride with good cycling technique, use mountain bike or ‘SPD’ cycling shoes, and most of all have fun.


David Moller

Western Australia

September 2013



  1. Hi

    I am considering getting one of these (I have hsp) and would love your views!

    I am used to cycling with toeclips and would use ordinary shoes as that means I can get on and off without faffing around changing shoes. I might go for the electric assist model. I am surprised tadpoles do not seem to have been recognised as possible physiotherapy aids!

    1. Hello Clive. I have so many questions for you. Where do you live? Is it hilly where you are? Are there bike paths near your home? Do you have to ride on the road? How busy are the paths and roads? Does your HSP affect the speed of your thinking? What style of riding do you do? What is your previous experience riding a bike? Do others ride with you? Will others ride your trike? Are you able to fix flat tires and other mechanical faults by yourself? Can you get off a trike and walk by yourself? Do you need to carry any walking aids? Do you need to commute to work regularly? Do you need to carry heavy and bulky loads?

      This is not a recumbent. It is a urban, short distance, load carrying, low speed, upright, heavy, ‘tadpole’ tricycle of low to medium quality. They are great for carrying small children on flat ground as you can easily keep an eye on them while riding. If you do not need to carry small children, I suspect an ordinary upright tricycle would be cheaper and do just as good a job.

      A cargo style of tricycle may not be the best choice for a HSPer as it encourages a slower riding style and would be difficult to use without electric assist. This cargo trike is also an ‘upright’ where the saddle height may present a danger to a HSPer getting on or off it. The saddle may also be too narrow for many women’s ‘sit bones’. I would find riding a cargo trike to be frustrating as it would catch the wind very easily and make it hard to pedal.

      Electric assist may be an advantage for HSPers living in hilly areas however it may also prevent HSPers from getting some serious exercise. At first, exercise on my trike was very difficult but gradually I could ride faster and further.

      I am not surprised that many physiotherapists and other health professionals do not recognise the health benefits of riding a recumbent tricycle as most of them are not cyclists and only deal with people who have been injured while riding bicycles. Dealing with sick or injured people all day may color the way you think.

      May I also encourage you to wear modern ‘clip-less’ cycling shoes as toeclips require a heaver and bulkier shoe.

      I hope this is not too negative. It is just that I too have had to embark on this HSP journey. : )

  2. Hi David,

    Can you share the brand name and model of the ‘tadpole’ recumbent trike that you have, it looks like a really nice one.



  3. Hi Glen
    My trike is a Inspired Cycle Engineering (ICE) sprint 26X. (Yes it is very nice!)I opted for the carbon graphite hard shell seat as I wanted to make it easier for me to ride. (no seat flex and lighter.) It has indirect steering to dampen vibrations on my hands and make the steering turn in the correct direction. This trike is low enough to go under some of the barriers I encounter. As I have HSP I need all the advantages I can get.:grin:

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