Whenever I write about bicycles, I inevitably receive emails from older folks who are interested in adult three-wheelers. "I'm a 71-year-old whose balance is not as good as in the past, and I'd like to take up recreational bike riding but don't trust myself on a two-wheeler," wrote Marion Levine of Laguna Woods last month, voicing a common concern. So I called up my dad, Norm, an 82-year-old retired aerospace engineer who used to hit the bike path once a week, and put him atop some of the hottest new upright and recumbent trikes.
Slow but sure grocery hauler
Three-speed, upright-position trike with the conservative styling and rear basket you'd expect to find in retirement communities.
My dad liked the low, step-through frame design, which makes it easy to get aboard; the simplicity of the three-speed twist-shifter drive-train; and the small turning radius, which aids steering and U-turns through crowded sidewalks at low speeds. The bike includes two 20-inch rear tires, a 24-incher in the front, a rear coaster brake and a front handbrake, a comfy wide seat, grips with a small protuberance for the heel of the hand to prevent numbness and a spring-loaded brake lock to stop the bike from rolling away when parked.
The Tristar is agonizingly slow compared with recumbent trikes. My dad immediately complained that the otherwise comfy upright seating provided poor pedaling leverage due to the cranks' placement directly underneath the rider rather than somewhat forward. He also faulted the frame's lack of built-in connectors to hold a water bottle, the lack of a quick-release lever for the front wheel and counterintuitive shifters that switch gears while coasting but not easily while pedaling. Also, it's a bit unstable in higher-speed turns.
$439, or $599 for Tristar HD, which accommodates riders who weigh more than 300 pounds. (425) 251-1516; http://www.seattlebikesupply.com.
Faster, further, fitter
Sun X3 AX:
A 24-speed aluminum-frame recumbent with a wide mesh seatback and tall handlebars designed for performance riding.
Fast, fun and comfy chopper-style fit. It's "totally satisfying — cycling made easy," my dad said. "This encourages me to ride a bike for a couple hours. It's as comfortable as an Electra Townie (a popular two-wheel semi-recumbent) but more secure." The easy-to-position sliding seat is 20 inches off the ground and simple to slip into. Dad rated it the best trike of the test group.
Measuring more than 6 feet, it's long and hard to transport. Expensive for people on a fixed income. "I'd go to EBay and see if I could find a used one for $600," my dad said. (A similar lower-end model, the EZ-TriClassic SX, goes for $850.)
$1,695. (800) 666-5000; http://www.sunbicycles.com.
Sports-car speed, but too low
"Tadpole"-style (two wheels up front) steel-frame performance trike with 24-speed drive-train and stealthy seat-level steering handles.
Instant speed. Perfect balance, even when taking corners fast. Great hill climber. My dad liked the low handlebar position for being "easy on the arms."
The seat, just 11 inches off the ground, was very difficult for my dad to get into. The super-wide turning radius makes it impractical in tight quarters, which Dad considered a deal-breaker. Also, it's so low to the ground that drivers can't see you from their cars unless you attach a tall flag.
$1,499, though lower-end TerraTrike models start at $699. (800) 945-9910; http://www.terratrike.com.
Snail's pace and tipsy
Camping World Adventurer Three-Speed Folding Trike:
Traditional upright-position three-speed with 20-inch wheels, coaster brake, front-wheel hand brake, fenders and cargo basket that folds up at the mid-frame and handlebars.
Convenient step-through frame. It folded up quickly and fit into the cargo bay of a small Scion TC liftback.
Slower and clunkier than the Torker Tristar, which shares its inefficient, too-vertical pedaling position. Lacks water bottle mounts on the frame and a tool-free quick-release hub on the front wheel — I had to use a wrench to remove it so the bike would fit in my car, a needless hassle for a fold-up model. My dad said it felt "tippy" on all turns and was so slow it left him pining for a more comfortable and higher-performance machine. "But I'd use it if someone gave it to me," he said.
$433.33. (888) 626-7576; http://www.campingworld.com.