Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Urban commuting recumbents: best models and requirements

I specialize in selling 'bents for urban commuting and touring. Individual rider requirements may vary outside the NYCity Metro area. These are my notes about the challenges bent riders face here and the models I currently recommend.

NYC urban commuters and tourers tell me they need:

a) Even if heading out of the city, riders need to traverse 5 - 25 miles of city traffic before hitting suburban roads, so good stability in stop, slow and go traffic is important (a low center of gravity helps);

b) many touring trips begin with taking the regional light rail (LIRR, Metro North, NJ Transit, Path, subway, etc.), so bents MUST meet rail restrictions, e.g., must be less than 80 inches in length (no long- or medium- wheelbase), and you must avoid getting grease on fellow passengers;

c) bents need to fit in apartments, around sharp corners, into an elevator, or up the stairwell of a 19th century brownstone (should be narrow, light, short);

d) bikes should be lockable and not too vandalize-able;

e) bike geometry should position your head high enough for drivers to see you in normal traffic (a mere safety flag isn't good enough);

f) high-racers in a "non-twitchy" geometry can work for riders who are comfortable "hobby horseing" in traffic and are able to get their feet on and off the pedals quickly, though many prefer the lower bottom bracket and lower center of gravity of 26x20s and 20x20s;

g) a tight turning radius is vital to negotiate corners at low speed (so the stretch LWB bents aren't great);

h) chain tubes or other chain protection is a plus, not only to keep your clothes clean but to avoid getting grease on fellow train riders;

i) easy to mount accessories like lights, racks, fenders and mirrors;

j) fat tires should fit fine.

Some cities' buses have bike racks which can't handle 'bents. NYC buses don't have bike racks, so it doesn't affect us.

City commuters seem to generally prefer these bents:

HP Velotechnik Street Machine Gte

HP Velotechnik Grasshopper fx

- HP Velotechniks (Street Machine Gte and Grasshopper fx) lead the pack for replacing a car and for riding to work. I like the GHfx because it folds and is designed to take on planes, trains and buses, but prefer a SMGte for long trips. While plenty high in traffic, the GHfx's head height is about 4" lower than a SMGte and slightly more aerodynamic.

Since both the GHfx and the SMGte were specifically designed to handle urban commuting and touring, they do it well. What's great: chain tubes; chain ring covers; fat tires and studded winter tires fit fine; full suspension; high quality racks/fenders/kickstands; mesh and body link seats are cable-locked; easy to install dynamo lighting systems; excellent fairing options.  And best of all, stylish design and a full choice of colors.  And that is important in NYC.

Cons: expense, so a bit painful to lock on the street; some vandalize-able parts. Basically, the HPVs are perfect urban commuting bikes, esp. with secure bike parking.

- Rans' V-Rex and Rocket are nearly perfect with the Rocket better than the V-Rex because a) it is smaller, b) studded winter tires fit along with fenders and c) the Flip-It with Ahead makes the front fork and wheel lockable.  It's too bad that the Rocket is out of production (at the time of writing).  Any that remain in stores should be a good deal since they'll be used and/or amortized.

Rans has always been superb in its design and support for loaded touring, so it's natural for their 'bents to work well for commuting. The V-Rex and Rocket easily take racks and fenders and both frames with mesh seats are easy to lock. Points for being steel and strong. Studded tires won't fit with fenders on rear wheel of V-Rex. Neither bike is terribly expensive, so there's less heartache in locking it up on the street. Some but not all vandalizable parts can be secured (e.g., sprint braces, seats).  The Flip-it build is nice and narrow, making it easier to manage the bike inside buildings.

On the down side, wheel upgrades are needed to handle potholes, cobblestones, old rail lines, etc. at normal speed. V-Rex fork/stem not lockable. New riders may find the Rocket relatively unstable at crawling speed. Current design for V-Rex makes for a wide, real-estate-hog of a bike.

- Volae's Tour takes first prize for bang for the buck, but for a few hundred more, the Century is the better bike. Both are superb frames with excellent stock components and chic and stylish designs.

Being stick frames, they're a bit hard to lock, so we designed and imported a high quality locking solution so carbon seat, wheels, stem and fork can be secured. If one prefers the mesh seat, it's easily cable lockable (and rather comfortable). Rack solutions are good: we've figured out how to fit the excellent Tubus racks onto Volaes, but riders can also use a standard Old Man Mountain rack. TerraCycle makes a good under seat rack. Standard fenders fit fine. We custom-specced an Urban Century(tm) specifically for urban use (with strong wheels, puncture-"proof" tires, and a travel frame for easier storage and travel.

Truly, I love Volaes because they're high quality and a pleasure to ride and behold. I only wish for more wheel space in the frame so we could safely install studded tires along with fenders for riding in snow. They're particularly apt for city streets for several reasons: elegant but not flashy, safe and high quality components, light and thin and easy to carry up stairs, good head height on streets, perfect rear-view mirror mounting. Due to the numerous size variations, riders get a bike that fits like a glove. Good TerraCycle fairings are available. In sum, they're darn nice bikes.

The only downsides might be:
Not many skilled dealers besides New York City Recumbent Supply and fairly extensive dealer training is required to provide proper fitting.
Generally designed for a lighter payload. Rider plus luggage has to be less than 250 pounds.

Cruzbike Sofrider.
I've been positively impressed by the models from Cruzbike. The Sofrider, in particular, is a good city bike due to its low cost, good speed, tight turn radius, full suspension, room for fat tires, and easy lockability. For a rack, use the Old Man Mountain Sherpa. See my blog entry about how to install it. Ordinary Planet Bike fenders work, but they provide incomplete coverage; for total coverage, use two rear fenders. It's good to have a city bike that looks unimpressive, and the Sofrider fits that bill.  In fact, I get more questions about whether I made the bike myself and fewer awkward questions about how much the bike costs. I've heard rumors of on-line complaints that the front tire slips when powering up steep inclines on a wet road. I live in a hilly area of Brooklyn, and I ride in the rain, and don't experience terrible slipping. I've solved this, in part, by installing a fat front tire, learning to ride with steady constant pressure, moving my body weight towards the front when starting on a hill. When none of those work, you can walk the bike up the hill but I think I've only had to do this once. (No commuter will be disqualified for touching the ground with his or her feet.)

Any of these bikes will pay for themselves within a year, when used for daily commuting, based on daily savings plus resale value.

1. HP Velotechnik Grasshopper fx
2. HP Velotechnik Street Machine Gte
3. Cruzbike Sofrider
4. Cruzbike Quest
5. Volae Tour

"Best City 'Bent for the Buck" is probably the Cruzbike Sofrider.

If a person has $3,000 - 5,000 to invest in a 'bent to replace their car, an HP Velotechnik is the way to go.  Looking to spend less?  Go with a Cruzbike.


Robert Matson
copyright 2009 Robert Matson

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Does a long chain get dirtier than a short chain?

A diamond frame rider named Joel posted the following message on Peter White's Google Bicycle Lifestyle forum:

>> I have always been curious about the long chain on most recumbants.
>> To this decidedly-not-an-engineer that seems a possible source of
>> maintenance issues.
>> Are any recumbant designers experimenting with the drive shafts that >> have been popping up on bikes of late? Is this even an issue?

(Photo: Timo Sairi's shaft drive prototype recumbent -- with smile. www.pyora.fi)

The following was my reply on the forum:

First of all, please understand that, like diamond frame (DF) bikes, recumbent models vary in quality and have a wide variety of designs. Some of the manufacturers' engineers have addressed the problems mentioned, and some have not.

First of all: 'bent designs

There are two basic 'bent designs: long wheelbase and short wheelbase. I only work with short wheelbase 'bents since a) they are the best adapted to the widest range of uses and b) the manufacturers I choose to work with only make short wheelbase models and c) I like them better.

Chain wear:

My belief is that chain metal experiences wear when it moves and hinges to pass over cogs, and no additional wear as it moves through the air. 'Bents use identical gearing systems to uprights, with identical cogs and pulleys except that many 'bents also use one or two guide wheels -- called idlers -- to maintain chainline and tension. It seems that, overall, long chains wear slightly slower than short chains since any given link is passing over a cog fewer times over a 100 meters of travel distance.

Accumulation of chain dirt:

It seems to me that dirt is introduced onto a chain from the bike's own tires, from other nearby vehicles and from the wind. It is logical to believe there is a saturation point for dirt on any given link on any given chain; once a chain link is covered with dirt, no more dirt will accumulate.

Naturally, a 2 meter chain saturated with dirt will be hold more weight in dirt over it's length than a 1 meter chain saturated with dirt. However, I would anticipate that each dirt-saturated chain link is saturated with the same amount of dirt.

Chain care:

It's the same on 'bents and DFs. A 2 meter chain will have more dirt over its length than the one meter chain; so a two-rag cleaning job on a 'bent will be (roughly) a one-rag job on a DF.

Protecting the chain from dirt and your pant legs from the dirty chain:

The most common way to protect the chain from dirt, as on DFs, is with fenders. Everyone knows about those.

Specific to 'bents, the next most common chain protection is the chain tube, best implemented by HP Velotechnik (HPV). HPV's chain tube is intended to protect the rider's legs from chain dirt, to slow down the accumulation of dirt on the chain, and to help prevent chain dirt from getting on the clothes of fellow passengers when you take the bike on a train (or ferry, etc.). This photo from the HPV website shows the chaintubes.

Dutch manufacturer Flevobike, with their Green Machine 'bent, follows the Dutch tradition of attempting to design a low- or no-maintenance bike. They fully enclose the chain. It's an intriguing solution since they seem to be using the chain-protecting case as a structural element. But it's also about 50% more costly than a similarly specced HPV. The metal chain cover appears almost certainly to be structural, efficiently serving a dual-role.

If the bike is not an HPV, I prefer to fit it with fenders, at minimum. With the HPVs, the chain tubes come standard.

Alternatives to Chains:

Shaft drive:
Timo Sairi (www.pyora.fi), a Finnish architect has designed a shaft-drive 'bent, not yet in production. One can see it here. We do not think the rider is Mr. Sairi.
More info. http://www.recumbent-gallery.eu/finnish-recumbent-with-shaft-drive/

Gates carbon:
While the most promising cost-effective solution would be Gates Carbon Belt Drives, there are numerous design challenges involved in having a long belt drive. At Interbike 09, Gates belts were shown as tandem timing chains, so we are hopeful to see them on a bent some day.

Imagination Drive:
An entirely maintenance-free and weightless solution that is available everywhere for free.

All best,

Robert Matson
copyright 2009 Robert Matson

Friday, December 4, 2009

HP Velotechnik. Yes it's true. Lower prices.

Demonstrating the best of business ethics and their deep commitment to cycling, at Interbike 2009, HP Velotechnik announced a slight price DECREASE for 2010.

2009 StreetMachine Gte, base price: $2,590 (USD)
2010 StreetMachine Gte, base price: $2,390 (USD) (With the same specs on both bikes. _NO_ component downgrade.)
This is extraordinary.

Generally, in all areas of business, whether it's bikes or sofas or soilant green or milk, every year, manufacturers increase prices to reflect inflation on raw materials, labor, real estate, shipping, etc. To gain marketshare, factories sometimes choose to NOT raise prices one year, just to slightly undercut their competitors.

With foreign companies, who may benefit from fluctuating currencies, they can get "secret" double benefits from better exchange rates along with the typical annual increase. No one would have thought twice if HPV raised prices 4% due to inflation. Or left prices static to encourage customers to buy their products. However, what THEY did, was LOWER prices on some key models.

Why? Their explanation: the better exchange rate between Euros and dollars meant they were making a bit more money on each bike sold. And they're willing to pass back that benefit to the people who buy and ride their bikes. In other words, quite simply, they lowered prices BECAUSE THEY COULD without impacting product quality.

What other business in the modern world would extend themselves in a similar way?

Does that mean they may raise prices again if the dollar strengthens? Possibly. Either way, 2010 is a good year for buying HPV products.

The economy is tough in The States right now. Not many of us have $3000 or so to spend on an HP Velotechnik. However, the overall cost/benefit of buying a high quality bike remains in favor of the bike: overall, the bike will save you substantial amounts of money.

There is no better time than now to get rid of the costly burden of a car -- or the extra car -- along with your gym membership -- and replace them both with a Street Machine or Grasshopper*.

You'll save time that you'd otherwise spend on your commute plus the time spent at the gym. You'll save money on car costs. You'll be more fit. Your heart will be healthier. And you'll be a lot happier. I can almost guarantee it.

* I do continue to think Volae's are darn good too, and an incredible value.

Robert Matson
copyright 2009 Robert Matson