You’re in a hurry, you’re praying you don’t get caught speeding, and you’re thinking if you can just catch the next light, you won’t be too horribly, inexplicably, unforgivably late.
And then you see it, the sight that lets you know you’re not going to make it: two fluorescent flags, hovering over that glorified Big Wheel, and that guy with the death wish, pedaling along without a care in the world.
That guy’s name is Gary Lightfoot, and before you honk, or curse, or share an unfriendly gesture, there are a few things you ought to know. First, Gary doesn’t ride that thing – technically it’s a recumbent trike – for the sake of being eccentric; he’s got a pretty compelling reason. Second, he’s not oblivious to drivers – he’s actually something of an expert about the dangers of the road. And third, contrary to popular opinion, he’s got nothing against going fast: he’s had that trike going more than 60 mph downhill.
Before he took up the recumbent trike, Gary actually loved to go fast on two wheels. An avid motorcyclist, he traveled the world on a motorbike, logging more than a million miles in 27 different countries.
Then, in August, 1999, as he was returning from the Smoky Mountains on the Blue Ridge Parkway, he came around a curve and saw a pickup parked in the grass on the side of the road. It wasn’t moving, so he kept going. And then, at the last second, it pulled out of the median and blocked both lanes.
“I woke up five weeks later at (the hospital) with 25 broken bones,” said Gary.
As a result of the accident, Gary suffered some brain damage that affected his sense of balance. His days of riding two wheels were over. However, he needed to exercise as part of his rehabilitation, so his son suggested he try a recumbent trike.
“I’ve been riding it ever since,” he said. Embracing his newfound hobby with a vengeance, Gary lost 85 pounds, and his lab results continue to amaze his doctors. He’s an active member of the Blue Ridge Bicycle Club and has been the club’s high mileage rider for several years.
“For the last two years I have ridden my trike more miles than I have my car,” he said. “I think I’ve got a 11,000 miles on my car in a year and a half, and that’s about what I do in a single year on my trike.”
He averages 11,000 to 12,000 miles on his trike annually, with the bulk of those miles being in Transylvania and Henderson counties, and some in Buncombe. A few years ago he almost reached 15,000 miles.
“Not bad for a 74-year-old,” he said.
Gary’s trikes – he currently owns two – are made by the Australian company Greenspeed. They feature chromoly frames, a type of steel, which is known for its excellent strength to weight ratio. One of his bikes has 42 gears, and the other has 28; he used to have one with 91 gears.
The relatively high gear range helps compensate for some of the inherent challenges involved in riding a recumbent cycle.
“If you’re on a bike…you can stand on the pegs and use your weight to push the pedal down, so you don’t need as low a gear,” he said. “On a recumbent, you’re reclined back and there’s none of your weight on the pedals. It’s only what you push forward with your legs.”
Consequently, Gary’s trike accelerates slower than a regular bike. On the other hand, a recumbent’s low profile gives it superior aerodynamics. (The world speed record for human-powered vehicles (83.13mph) was set on a two-wheeled recumbent bike). As a recumbent rider, Gary said he’s the slowest in his bike club going uphill, but coming downhill, he’s one of the fastest.
There are several unique elements of recumbent trike design. Rather than a traditional handle bar, Gary steers with two handles at his sides that control the front wheels. A trigger on the left handle shifts the front gears, and a twist shift on the right lever controls the rear derailleur.
It takes three normal bike chains to make a chain for his bike, which runs the length of the frame. To adjust for different size riders, the front tube that holds the pedal crank can be extended or retracted. A device called a gobbler takes up the chain slack to account for adjustments to the frame.
When asked what the county and city could do to improve the cycling experience in Transylvania, Gary says he thinks the community does a good job of attracting cycling tourists, but for people who want to ride and retire here, he thinks the Ecusta Trail project would make a big difference.
“If that turns into a rail-to-trail, that could be a real economic boon for both the county and the city,” he said, citing the success of the Swamp Rabbit in Travelers Rest, S.C. “If you look at the data on cities and towns who put a rail-to-trail in, they might complain about it when they do it, but then they applaud it about four or six years later when they see how good it is.”
Not only does Gary ride recreationally, but he also takes his trike into town for light shopping, stowing groceries and other goods in the two panniers on the back of his trike. Navigating traffic on a recumbent trike can be challenging: not only does it accelerate slower, but its low profile makes it less visible to motorists. Hence, the flags.
“A recumbent (rider) needs to do everything they can to increase visibility,” said Gary. “So, bright clothing, bright paint job, reflective material. I’ve got all that, but I still have some close calls.”
Gary says he definitely gets his share of honks and “single digit waves.”
“I’m sure they’re just conserving energy,” he says, grinning. “You never know whether the horn is positive or negative, but there are a lot of people who wave, so there’s a reasonable number of friendly people.”
Gary highly recommends a recumbent trike to anyone who wants to get out and exercise, but who has trouble keeping his or her balance on a bike. There’s actually a store in Greenville, S.C. called Tandem, Touring and Recumbent Bikes (TTR Bikes) that carries them. To learn more about recumbents, one of Gary’s favorite online resources for recumbent bikes and trikes is bentrideronline.com.