Published: Silent Sports, August 2000
Author: Rolf Garthus
Part IV: Testing Recumbents
Recumbents, as we've seen in previous articles in this series, come in all shapes and sizes. To decide which one is best for an individual cyclist, you really need to test ride a number of different bikes. The following is a look at some of the more popular and readily available recumbents and the companies who make them.
The bikes presented herein are for the sport/performance cyclist looking to significantly increase comfort without sacrificing performance. We will be looking at bikes by Vision, Lightning, Easy Racers and Rans. These companies are owned and managed by an interesting assortment of scientists, engineers and inventors. Most of these companies have over 20 years of recumbent building experience and we feel all of them will be around for a long time to come. Some of the bikes we tested are best for loaded touring while others are better for club rides (fast day riding). Almost all of them double as great bikes for commuting. Sizing for recumbents differs from sizing for uprights. Upright bikes are sized according to inseam and torso length. The most important measurement for sizing recumbents is the riders x-seam.
Joel Smith, a structural engineer at Boeing, together with Grant Bower, also an engineer, combined forces and experience to organize Advanced Transportation Products and produce the Vision line of recumbents in 1992. Smith had been designing and selling a recumbent called the R-20 since 1990 and Bower had been designing his own recumbents since 1985. From the beginning Vision has adhered to the principle of keeping it simple. The frames are simple yet durable and functional. The chain-line management is light and clean thanks to designs that don't require drive side idlers and cumbersome mid-drives. Vision manufacturers the most complete line of recumbents on the market. Many models can be converted from over seat steering (OSS) to under seat steering (USS) and some can even be converted from short wheel base (SWB) to long wheel base (LWB). In addition Vision makes an extensive line of full suspension bikes and one of the most popular tandems on the market.
We think the Vision seat is one of the best and it can be removed in seconds to make car-topping very easy. Visions are designed to seat the rider high enough to be seen in city traffic yet aerodynamic enough for aggressive club riding. The result is a great all-around recumbent that's equally well-suited for touring, going fast, smelling the roses or commuting.
We road tested several performance Visions including the VR40, VR44, VR45 and VR65 (Sabre). The only negative we found with the Visions was their lack of ability to fit shorter riders. The VR40, 44 & 45 only fit down to about 5' 5" and the VR65 only fits down to about 5' 7".
The price of the VR40, combined with its extreme versatility, have made it Vision's top selling model. It's equipped with a 4130 CroMoly frame and Shimano Tiagra/Deore components. The 2 inch main tube allows this bike to be configured as a LWB or SWB. As with most Visions, riders can choose between USS or OSS and a suspension or rigid front fork.
The VR44 and VR45 are built on 4130 CroMoly frames that utilize a 1.75 inch main tube instead of the 2 inch main tube used on the VR40. As a result, the VR44 and VR45 are lighter but cannot be converted to LWB. The difference between the VR44 and VR45 is in the components. The VR44 has Shimano 105/Deore LX quality components while the VR45 combines Magura hydraulic brakes with Shimano Ultegra & Deore XT quality components. Both weigh in around 26 lbs. depending on equipment. These models come with the riders' choice of OSS or USS and we found them to be easy to learn to ride, respectably fast and extremely comfortable. They seat the rider high enough for dealing with city traffic yet aerodynamically enough for really long day rides. I have often used a VR45 on several day rides in the 90 to 140 mile range.
The Sabre (VR65) is Vision's newest performance bike. It uses dual 24 inch wheels and places the rider in an extremely aerodynamic position. Vision tested this bike in the wind tunnel at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and it tested out slightly more aerodynamic than an upright bike rider in a tight tuck on aero bars. The VR65 Saber is the aerodynamic equivalent of a racing road bike with a person always in an aero tuck, triathlete position. When riding a VR65 Saber you have 36.8% advantage over a rider in a normal upright position on a road or mountain bike (see results below). The Shimano Ultegra component group leaves little to be desired. Our testers felt that the handling of the Sabre was very similar to the handling of an upright road bike. This bike seems to want to go fast. The seating position is higher than many of today's ultra high performance recumbents but this has several advantages. This higher seat position is better for riding in city traffic where you need to see and be seen over automobile hoods and fenders. Also, the higher seat position allows a design which does not require drive side chain idlers. Here are the results of the test showing the amount of drag measured in pounds force. Remember, the higher the number, the more drag there is on the rider and the bike.
VR40 USS: 20 mph = 4.4 30 mph = 10.6
VR40 USS w/fairing: 20 mph = 3.8 30 mph = 8.7
VR65 Saber: 20 mph = 3.0 30 mph = 7.0
VR65 Saber w/fairing: 20 mph = 3.0 30 mph = 7.0
Road Bike top of bar: 20 mph = 4.6 30 mph = 11.8
Road Bike aero tuck: 20 mph = 3.2 30 mph = 7.0
Lightning has been building record-setting bikes for over 20 years. You can visit their web site at www.lightningbikes.com to read up on the vast list of accomplishments. Lightning's Tim Brummer is a world renowned former Rocket Scientist. His list of accomplishments include draftsman for components of the B-1 Bomber, Composites Engineer and Senior Engineer for Hughes Helicopters, Launch Operations Engineer and Senior Engineer for Martin Marietta, Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Lightning's records are somewhat unique in that many of them were achieved with practical bikes that can be used for longer tours and even commuting. Lightning characterizes their bikes as follows: "The frame geometry, weight distribution and stiffness all work together to produce the best performing recumbent bicycle made today." I have ridden over 12,000 miles on P38's (some of the mileage using the F40 fairing) and I think Lightning's somewhat boastful claim is pretty accurate.
Lightning positions the bottom bracket higher than the seat, which places the rider in a very aerodynamic and powerful riding position. The other secret to Lightning's success is distributing 55% of the weight on the rear wheel and 45% on the front. This weight distribution puts more of the rider weight on the larger rear wheel for better rolling efficiency and yet puts enough weight on the front wheel so it holds well in the corners. The P38 and the Stealth are by far our favorite choice for shorter riders who want a SWB bike. Our testers found the handling to be great once they got past the initial adjustment period. I once had my P38 over 60 mph on a downhill and found it to be extremely stable.
There are a few legendary recumbents out there and the P38 is one of them. One of the most important characteristics of the P38 is its famous climbing ability (check out the climbing page of the Lightning web site to see what P38 riders are saying about the climbing ability). It's impressive. My hill climbing experience on this bike is consistent with what others are saying. The reason it climbs so efficiently is the space-age 4130 CroMoly frame, which makes this bike laterally stiff to maximize transfer of power from the pedal to the rear wheel. It's available as the standard P38 with a Shimano 105 level component group or as the P38 XT with Shimano XT components. he Lightning Stealth uses both a telescoping boom and a sliding seat with only two frame sizes to allow proper sizing of a wide variety of riders. It comes in small/medium and large/extra large. The design geometry is patterned after the famous P38 and the frame is 4130 CroMoly. The 26"/20" wheel combination provides excellent rolling efficiency. It ms available with a Shimano Alivio quality component group or as the Stealth B2 with a Shimano 105 level component group.
Easy Racers has been a leader in the recumbent industry since 1979. The Goldrush, designed by Gardner Martin and ridden by "Fast Freddy" Markam, won the coveted $18,000 Dupont Prize for the first bike to break 65 mph. You can visit the Easy Racer web site at www.easyracers.com.
Easy Racers has refined the Tour Easy and Gold Rush models into some of the most trouble-free and best handling bikes on the market. Both are LWB models with an upright seating position and low bottom bracket height that makes learning to ride them extremely easy. Also, both models use a 700C rear wheel and 20" front wheel for excellent rolling efficiency. Loaded touring is an excellent application for these models due to the option of using both front and rear panniers. Put a front fairing on either one and you'll have a bike that can hold its own with just about anything on a fast day ride. Both the Gold Rush and the Tour Easy are available in the Expedition (EX) model or the Speed & Sport (SS) model. The EX models are equipped with fatter tires and a 20" (406mm) front wheel and linear pull brakes. The SS models come with narrower tires and a 20" (451mm) front wheel and side-pull brakes. The EX models seem to be more popular due to the versatile front wheel, which accommodates every tire from very narrow to very fat. The Gold Rush and the Tour Easy come in four frame sizes. Shorter riders are encouraged to take an especially close look at these models because they allow their feet to be planted securely on the ground at stops while also getting a bike that uses larger, more efficient wheels.
The Tour Easy has a 4130 CroMoly frame and standard equipment includes the Cobra seat and a 21 speed gearing system. We recommend the optional 24 speed and Coolback Mesh seat upgrades. The component group is generally in the Shimano Deore LX & Deore XT range. The Tour Easy EX has a wide 19-113" gear range and the Tour Easy SS has a 19-25" gear range.
The aluminum frame Gold Rush comes equipped with the Cobra Seat and a 24 speed gearing system. Most riders get the Coolback Mesh seat upgrade. The components are in the Shimano Deore XT to XTR quality range. The gear range is fairly similar to the Tour Easy.
Rans was established in 1974 on the plains of western Kansas to build Sailtrikes. Shortly after developing the first Sailtrike, Randy and John Schlitter decided that the comfortable seating position on their Sailtrikes could be incorporated into a bicycle. Since then Rans has evolved into a world leader in the recumbent bike and kit plane industries.
The Rans V-Rex is one of the most popular SWB bikes on the market today and the classic Rans Stratus is an extremely popular LWB bike. New for 2000 is the Rans Velocity Squared. This LWB features a unique (for LWB bikes) high bottom bracket and comes with a Mueller fairing as standard equipment. The SWB V-Rex comes in two sizes that fit riders from about 5' 6" and up (41" to 50" X-seam). The leg extension is adjusted with a sliding seat. The V-Rex is noted for its very solid and laterally rigid 4130 CroMoly frame and is equipped with SRAM 9.0 level equipment. We highly recommend it for larger riders looking for a SWB but it also works very well for average size riders.
The LWB Stratus is available in 35" and 40" sizes to fit X-seams from 37.5" to 48.5". The 35" Stratus is one of our favorite choices for shorter riders because it allows them to place both feet comfortably on the ground at the stops while having the rolling efficiency of larger 26" rear and 20" front tire combination. The Stratus, with its 4130 CroMoly frame and SRAM 9.0 component group, is one of the most price competitive LWB bikes on the market. The LWB frame absorbs road shock and the handling is easy to get used to.
The Velocity² was designed with a higher bottom bracket to maximize aerodynamics and rider power. The stiff, oversized tubing, 4130 CroMoly frame and the front fairing, which is included as standard equipment, make this machine very fast. We found that this bike handles best at speed and we recommend it for longer, faster rides. Low speed handling takes some getting used to and some riders may find it unsuitable for commuting or any application with lots of starts and stops.
- Rolf Garthus