What’s The Deal With Crank Forwards?
For years the bicycle industry has been searching for a way to mainstream recumbent bicycles; to make them simpler, easier to ride, easier to sell — without all of the required hand-holding, explaining and education that dealers must endure. Some recumbents have have gotten less rider-friendly over the years with more reclined seats and higher pedals. The bike industry needed a more comfortable bike — thus the “flat-footed” bike or “crank-forward” bike was born.
The crank-forward bicycle is essentially a stretched wheelbase cruiser/comfort bike with the seat moved rearward on the bike. This allows a lower seat height, and a semi-recumbent “sit-down” riding position. Crank-forwards have full size wheels and no seat back. If you see a seat back or small front wheel, it’s a semi-recumbent. Crank-forwards are built with mostly common cruiser/comfort bike parts. One exception is RANS proprietary seat and post , a very refined and comfortable seat, but with a minimal amount of padding.
With a crank-forward you can sit at a stop with your feet flat on the ground as well as achieve a proper leg extension when pedaling — all with this lower and more relaxed seat position. Imagine an upright comfort bicycle with the wheelbase extended slightly, seat moved rearward and lowered, a larger cruiser-style seat, and riser handlebars. It is possible to have a more aggressive or relaxed riding position — with the change of handlebars and stem.
• Large seat supports the sit-bones
• New rider friendly (no instruction necessary)
• Flat-footed stance (while seated at a stop)
• No wrist, arm or neck pain
• Standard designs
• Full size wheels
Crank-Forward History Beach cruisers, comfort bikes and recumbents have been around for years. Lightning really struck when Electra, the cruiser bicycle manufacturer, unveiled its new Townie line in 2003. They ran full page ads in trade journals showing the Electra classic cruiser and an Easy Racers long wheelbase recumbent in the ad, stating a melding of the two designs into the Townie. Electra’s concept was brilliant. It is trendy, stylish, and appeals to all ages and abilities. Townies have developed quite a following and several manufacturers have followed suit. RANS president and designer Randy Schlitter has been tinkering with these types of bikes for years, predating both Vision and Electra. Vision Recumbents (no longer in business) offered a crank-forward several years ago, but it had a standard (uncomfortable) seat and it didn’t sell well. Crank-forwards are also somewhat related to the Dutch town bike as well. Electra’s Amsterdam is a melding of the Dutch bike and Townie-style crank-forward.
Seat Comfort Mainstream crank-forwards are generally designed for more recreational riding style, but are capable of more. The RANS models are more enthusiast oriented and are designed to be ridden faster, farther and more seriously. Crank-forward seats are wider than those on regular bikes and offer full support of the sit-bones. With the crank-forward’s semi-recumbent riding position, there isn’t much interference between the rider’s thighs and the seat like there would be on an upright bike. While definitely more comfortable than uprights, they are not as comfortable as a full recumbent. Most of the rider’s weight is on the seat. De-weighting or standing up on a crank forward is possible, but also more awkward than on an upright. The more standard seat design is much more affordable to build and makes the frame simpler. Many of you will know from riding a low pedal recumbent that you don’t always use the seat back as much as you think you will. The RANS crank-forward seat does have a rear lip that makes some pushing possible.
An issue for some may be that the seat on mainstream crank-forward bikes are usually rather basic cruiser seats. Most are just marginally comfortable compared to the RANS seat. There are many aftermarket sprung and gel type saddles that will fit the mainstream bikes. Cloud 9 makes two aftermarket seats that work, the Contour Gel, the Suspension Cruiser Gel or the Velo Web Spring saddle. The Real Seat aftermarket saddle looks interesting. At least one Bentrider member has adapted a RANS seat to a mainstream crank-forward seat post.
How Many Gears Crank-forwards are available with 1-, 3-, 7-, 8-, 21-, 24- and more speeds. How many gears you need depends on where you ride, hills to climb and if you want a simple bike or the most gears possible. The 1- and 3-speeds are for beach cruisers and the 7- and 8-speed internals are for commuters. Enthusiasts should consider a triple crank 21-speed or better. 24-speeds are best for more all-around riders and 27-speeds are for the roadies.
Wheels The majority of crank-forwards come with mountain bike style 26″ wheels that will accept a wide range of tires sizes, from 1.25″-2″, perhaps even wider. A few models come with 700c (28″) wheels — which are taller, roll faster than 26″, but are not as robust. Another concern is that the larger 700c can create foot-interference with the front wheel/fender on some bikes. The larger wheeled models also have higher gearing and may have less fat tire/fender and crank clearance. Many of the affordable crank-forwards have single wall rims, which more serious enthusiasts may need to upgrade for strength or durability reasons. Also, if your crank-forward is outfitted with a disc brake wheelset, make sure it has disc brakes as well.
Brakes Most crank-forwards come with mountain bike linear (V-style) brakes. A few road oriented models come with sidepull brakes and a few others are outfitted with disc brakes. All are viable options. Discs offer better stopping in the rain, but are heavier, more expensive and make it more difficult to mount a rack or fenders. Any models that come with coaster brakes are best suited for casual use on flat terrain.
Suspension Because crank-forward bikes place more weight over the rear wheel— some sort of suspension is may be worthwhile. This suspension can be a sprung seat, seeat post or some fat cruiser tires. Just be sure your bike has the clearance for big tires and fenders should you want to install them. Also, be aware that your crank arms might hit the fenders or fat tires on some models. Suspension forks on entry level crank-forwards aren’t that great and you may be better off with a rigid fork. It is also possible to deweight your seat on some crank-forward models.
Performance The cruiser style mainstream crank-forwards are recreational bikes and their performance is mostly on par with comfort bikes or entry level recumbents. Most mainstream crank forward bikes come with low pressure cruiser tires and will be slower. Upgrading to faster tires will improve performance. Both RANS and Electra offer 700c road oriented models for 2009.
Electra states that you can develop more torque with the Townie position. The RANS technique requires pulling into the bars to generate power. I tend to pull a bit on the bars, but mostly I gear down and spin. All said, I’ve found most CF bikes tend to be slower climbers than a road bike or faster recumbents, though I’m certain that there are some folks that are faster on crank forwards. Being able to climb out of the saddle is helpful for ultimate crank-forward performance.
Mainstream Following in the footsteps of Electra, the mainstream bike industry has tried to cash in on crank-forwards. Electra is a tough act to follow — like their cruisers, the Townies and Amsterdams are hip and trendy. Two years ago I wrote about crank-forwards and was told by more than one mainstream maker that they expected crank-forwards to become the new comfort bike. This is not happening for everyone. a few models have ceased production. On the flip side, RANS’ Randy Schlitter states, “We are shipping about as many crank-forwards as bents, and we expect to see this grow well past bents due to the wide appeal of this style of product.”
With recumbent prices rising, and fewer entry level models available, has come the rise in prominence of the crank-forward. Perhaps it is because of the lower prices, because they look more like a regular bike or because they don’t require the added time and education to sell them. With all of the mainstream models available, the sales numbers have to be larger than recumbents. It would seem that crank-forwards seem here to stay.
Selection RANS offers the largest line of enthusiast crank-forward bikes. They offer cruisers, city bikes, mountain bikes, road bikes and even a a cargo hauler. For 2009, Electra has a new Townie Sport 2200 no-suspension, 700c, sidepull brake model for $600 and The Townie Euro 24D, 700c, no-suspension tourer/commuter for $700.
If you are on a budget and after a recreational cruiser-ride, prices start at less than $500 for a Fuji or the Sun models. These bikes are marketed towards riders who may not know or care about the recumbent lineage. The mainstream bikes would be great to keep around for family members, house guests or for a quick ride around the block or down to the store. A hidden market may be for more mature riders who need to be flat-footed for safety reasons. Crank-forwards are available for nearly every type of use. They offer more comfort than an upright bike, and they are easier to ride, lighter weight, less complex and less expensive than a comparably priced recumbents. Crank-forwards offer a fun, unique and perhaps less serious diversion to your main recumbent steed. If not for you, perhaps somebody you know is looking for a more affordable and more comfortable bicycle?
Crank-Forward Buyers’ Guide
Electra Townie, Amsterdam and flat foot cruisers (26” & 700c).
Fuji The Saratogas are new affordable Fuji crank-forwards.
Giant Suede Comfort & Suede Coasting bikes.
KHS iPed is a new compact crank-forward.
RANS is the enthusiast leader and is offering 16 crank-forward models 2009. Sold through dealers.
Sun offers several models: Drifter 7-speed (cruiser), Hybrid Ruskin 21-speed hybrid 700c and Comfort Rover 21-speed (comfort 26”).
Trek has eight crank-forward models including a delta trike, for 2009.
Almost Crank-Forward Stretch cruisers are usually single or 3-speeds, and can be consider-crank forwards. Actually, there is a fine line between the cruiser bicycle and the crank-forward. The Lightfoot Surefoot is actually a recumbent, or perhaps semi-recumbent. The Day6 Dream, the former Giant Revive the Canadian Miele Evox, and Varna Velocipede are semi-recumbents.
Misc. Links You can get parts to build your own chopper crank-forward. There is a RANS crank-forward forum and there is a RatRod bikes forum. Here at Bentrider we have a crank-forward forum as well as a homebuilder forum where these bikes are discussed. Here is a post on Bike Rod crank-forwards.