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The bicycles of the 1860s, particularly those designed in France, were essentially semi-recumbents (Hadland and Lessing (2014)). Since they were front-wheel-drive and direct-drive, these bike were essentially the first direct-drive recumbent bicycles, albeit semi-recumbent and lacking a transmission hub or freewheel. The illustration above shows an example (from US patent 59,915 to Lallement).

To achieve higher gearing, the size of the front wheel was gradually increased – leading to the well-known high wheeler bicycle, also known as the ordinary or penny-farthing. The large front wheel required the rider to have an upright posture, rather than semi-recumbent, so as to prevent interference between the rider’s legs and the circumference of the large wheel when steering. This upright riding position, combined with the height and forward position of the rider, resulted in a bicycle that was very unsafe, prone to throwing the rider from great height over the handlebars when a large bump was encountered, or under heavy braking.

To address these safety concerns, the safety bicycle was introduced in the mid 1880s. This design, which has not changed significantly in layout to the present day, moved the rider to a lower, more rearward, position by employing chain-driven rear-wheel-drive. This reduced the pitch-over risk, but retained the same upright rider position of the “ordinary”.

The alternative idea of addressing the safety issue by reducing the size of the front wheel and gearing-up the drive system was proposed in several designs, most notably the Crypto Bantam bicycle of the 1890s, shown below. As with the safety bicycle, this design placed the rider lower and slightly further back than the “ordinary” design, with ensuing safety benefits. However, the safety bicycle was already well established and the Crypto Bantam design did not catch on in significant numbers.

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1893 Crypto Bantam. Front-wheel-drive with step-up planetary transmission.

Shortly after this, in the early 1900s, bicycles with a true recumbent position - rather than merely semi-recumbent - were introduced (see below). However, these were chain-driven and rear-wheel-drive, a testament to the popularity of the “safety” bicycle.

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1902 Jarvis recumbent: Early bike with full recumbent position

Surprisingly, the idea of combining a direct-drive front hub with a recumbent riding position was not proposed until about eighty-five years later. In 1987, Dirck Hartmann of California patented a direct-drive hub and front-wheel-drive recumbent, shown below from US patent 4694708. Hartmann’s also patented many other direct-drive hub designs.

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1987: Direct-drive recumbent proposed by Hartmann.

In the late nineties, Thomas Kretschmer of Berlin developed a direct-drive recumbent bicycle having a very shallow head angle (45 degrees). This bike (shown below, from German patent DE19736266 (A1)) included a centering spring for the steering to improve the handling. Kretschmer also proposed a multi-speed hub design (German Patent DE19824745 (A1)). Details of Thomas Kretshmer’s direct-drive hub and related bikes were also published in the journal Human Power (Kreschmer (2000)).

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1999: Thomas Kreschmer’s direct-drive recumbent. Low head angle and centering spring.

In the early 2000s, John Stegmann of South Africa proposed a direct-drive recumbent bicycle design that takes full advantage of the cargo-carrying capacity afforded by the long wheelbase and absence of chain (Stegmann (2002)). Stegmann also emphasized the need for a viable hub for direct-drive. Stegmann’s design proposal motivated Velotegra’s proprietor to build a direct-drive recumbent bike to test the viability of the direct-drive recumbent (Garnet (2003)). The bike, illustrated below, used an adaptation of a Schlumf Speed-Drive™ bottom bracket gear to provide a makeshift single-speed direct drive hub.


2003: Jeremy Garnet’s direct-drive recumbent – first frame

A year later the original frame was replaced with a better quality frame and components, see below.

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2004: Jeremy Garnet’s direct-drive recumbent – second frame

In 2008, a study (Garnet (2008)) was published to determine the required frame and fork geometry to minimize pedal force feedback and provide user-friendly handling. As part of this research, a variable-geometry frame was built, see below. For a summary of the results of the study, please see the design page.

Variable geometry bike

2008: Variable-geometry frame to test different head angles and front wheel trail.


Hadland and Lessing. (2014). Bicycle Design: an Illustrated History. Cambridge, Massachusetts. The MIT Press. p. 473.

Stegmann, John. (2002). “Chain of Thought”. Velo Vision, no. 8, pp. 22-25.

Kretschmer, Thomas (2000). “Direct-drive (chainless) recumbent bicycles“, Human Power, no 49:11-14.

Garnet, Jeremy. (2003). “Delving into Direct-Drive”. Velo Vision, no. 12, pp. 18-20.

Garnet, Jeremy (2008). “Ergonomics of Direct-Drive Recumbent Bicycles”, Human Power eJournal, Article 17, Issue 5.