Faired recumbent vs moped: Can pedal power beat a motor in a race?

We put a faired recumbent bike to the test to find out just how fast they actually are

Clock12:02, Sunday 3rd December 2023

If you think road bikes are fast, think again, as they pale in comparison to faired recumbents. Purely focussed on aerodynamics and speed, they take pedal-powered speeds to new levels, reaching dizzying velocities.

Naturally, that’s piqued our interest on multiple occasions in the past and here at GCN, we’ve taken on recumbents in races and went behind the scenes on a record-breaking project.

Next, we decided it was time to pit a recumbent in a race against a moped, a vehicle that has been the symbol of urban mobility for decades. Can pedal power overcome a motor? Watch the full video at the top of this page to find out.

But before that, here’s an overview of the weird and wonderful world of recumbent bikes.

What are faired recumbent bikes?

Mechanically, recumbents are very similar to regular bikes, but aesthetically they couldn’t look more different.

Like bikes, they rely on pedal power which turns a chainring and cassette to propel the vehicle forwards. So far, so similar. Except, the rider isn’t sat on top of the vehicle on a saddle, they’re laid down encased inside an aero fairing.

To an everyday cyclist that may sound strange, but it has sound logic centred in the inescapable realms of aerodynamics - a word that is sure to pique the interest of many performance cyclists. As anyone focussed on going fast will know, air drag is the largest prohibiting factor to speed. It’s what most of your pedal power goes towards combating.

That’s why the bike industry has gone firmly down the aerodynamic route, with manufacturers constantly trying to make their bikes more aero, which in turn equals more speed. The problem is, these equipment developments only lead to marginal gains, as the largest cause of drag is the rider. There are ways to minimise this and that’s why professional cyclists spend plenty of time in wind tunnels, attempting to perfect their position on the bike to minimise drag as much as possible, but there will always be limitations.

That’s where recumbents enter the equation. Designed for speed, they’re basically bullets on wheels that place riders in aerodynamic fairings. This greatly reduces drag which in turn equals more speed - a lot more speed! The Human Powered Speed World record is currently held by a recumbent named Eta, which reached a mind-boggling velocity of 89.59 mph.

The question is, is the aerodynamic design of a recumbent enough to conquer a motor?

Recumbent vs moped challenge

For the challenge, we recruited one of the fastest recumbents in the UK.

It’s a fully faired recumbent with a carbon, aerodynamic shell that covers both the bike and the rider. Like for road bikes, the carbon is chosen for its lightweight properties, but it doesn’t completely dominate the shell which also features a small window for the benefit of the rider.

Hidden inside the shell is a monster 85-tooth chainring which is barely comprehensible for road cyclists, who are more accustomed to something in the 50s, or even the 40s for compact set-ups. The chain goes from the chainring, atop a power drive and then down to a Shimano 105 11-28t cassette.

Due to the differing shape and to keep a low centre of gravity, the bike has 20-inch BMX wheels, which are controlled by a steerer located under the seat. There are even retractable stabilisers which can be pulled back into the frame once the rider has set off.

It’s a seriously cool design, but could it overcome the moped? Watch the full video now to find out.

Explore more of our challenges and adventures on the lifestyle section of the GCN website, linked here.

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