Friday, February 3, 2012

Cruzbike continued

So, as of now, here's the tally for how long it is taking me to learn to ride a Cruzbike Sofrider, moving bottom bracket recumbent bike for the first time (your own results may vary):

Day 1:__0:45 (hr:min) (mastered the basics)
Day 2:__1:00 (hr:min) (ready to ride on road)
Day 3:__2:00 (hr:min) (Improving technique. Working on: figure-8s, tight and open loops, S-turns, increasing speed, climbing, handling uneven surfaces and dirt.)
Day 4:__1:00 (hr:min) (Improving technique. Working on: S-turns, increasing speed, climbing, handling, sprinting, getting a workout.)

Yesterday, I put aside work to squeeze in another hour on the new Cruzbike Sofrider demo bike.  I was looking to get in a workout and also continue improving my handling skills on this frame, which handles like nothing I've ridden in the past.

There were two unexpected experiences.  First of all, even though I began to feel comfortable on my last time out, after four hours on the bike, this time, I wasn't able to just get on, give it a kick and ride off.  Like last time, the first 10 minutes were spent reacquainting myself with the pedaling and handling: I sat down, pushed hard on the pedals, and immediately pulled myself off-balance.  Darn it.  After a few minutes of persistence, recalling what I learned the last time, and soon I was riding up and down the bike path in front of my building, getting more comfortable before heading out into the street and off to Prospect Park.

I found a few tricks for reminding my muscles how to ride the bike:
1) Riding one handed, not two-handed, with a loose grip, reminds my body about what it needs to do. I could feel the handlebars pulling and pushing against that one hand, reminding me of the rhythm I needed to adapt.
2) Decide whether I'm going to let the handlebars pull against my fingers, or press against my palms; choose one or the other when I start so my body/mind is ready to respond.
3) Have active hands on the bars, but a light touch. Open my palms so the bars can press (or pull) as I pedal.
4) Pedal softly.

I was looking simply to get a workout yesterday.  I had intentionally skipped my morning U.S. Masters Swimming practice so I needed the workout.  Once in the park, though, I decided to keep working on handling skills again, instead of strength.  This is because, given my current skill level, I simply can't apply full strength.  With only modest effort, my speed goes high enough that it butts up against my handling skills.  I could see that my legs were going to get very little work until I could steer through the speed.  For those who don't know it, I will mention that the Prospect Park loop is also constantly rolling hills with one fast down and one hard up, and one flat section of about .75 miles.

Some aspects of handling remained easy -- the figure 8s and loops, the starts and stops, the sharp turns are basically no problem.  What I found challenging though was maintaining good control on S-turns -- slaloming -- at speed.  I was using a drill that I always give beginning bent riders when I'm teaching them to ride.  For the first few repeats, you begin with shallow S-turns at moderate speed.  You're seeking to understand how to use your body weight and handlebars to control the bike in combination with the forces generated by speed.  In the drill, you gradually increase the slalom curves from low-speed shallow turns to low-speed deep turns, and, as you feel comfortable, you continue on to fast and shallow and fast and deep (the hardest to control, this is not for novices).  I'm looking here for very precise control, where the bike ends up exactly where I want it, as if I'm steering around a 90-degree turn in traffic.  This exercise is maybe more critical for the urban rider than the country rider.

The drill is a good skills test.  How precisely can I control the mass of bike and rider?  As I got faster, I started to see the limits of my ability: I could not be precise in my higher speed, deep turns.  I'd find the bike suddenly over-turning.  Was the weight of the bottom bracket pulling over the wheel?  How do I control that?  I found myself needing to concentrate constantly.  Other riders may find as I did, that this is a very different experience to riding something like an HP Velotechnik Street Machine Gte or a Volae Century, which nearly drive themselves from the beginning; you just relax the upper body and pedal.  On the Cruzbike, I was finding my upper body needed to be much more engaged.  Well, of course, I said to myself.  I had already found that this is precisely what provides the speed advantage when applying force: the whole body is involved and not just the legs.

There was something on my mind as I was working on my drills, adding a feeling of urgency.  (Urgency may not be the optimal state of mind for learning new skills, by the way.)  Earlier that day, while reviewing a NY adventure race calendar, I got the idea for using a Cruzbike Sofrider in the April 1 "Fool's Rogaine" adventure race, if my skills were up to it.  (The Fools Rogaine is an April First, six-hour, running, cycling and orienteering race on a broad variety of terrain.)  Mind you, generally these are technical trails (but you don't know until you're on them) and it could be a good trial for the Sofrider as a trail bike.  (Or it could be suicide.)  So, I was beginning to put pressure on myself to "hurry up and get it" (again, no self-kindness there).  I wanted to master the bike immediately, but I also understood that mastery takes time.  I also know, when working with a high-performance design, it's normal not to "get it" immediately.  My progress was probably normal, but I still wanted to "get it" now.

Today, I decided to call Maria Parker and Dan Fallon, both Cruzbike racers, to ask them questions about handling, particularly on the slalom curves.  I found they both have a lot of experience and are humble and honest -- about what the bike does and what they do to control it.

Everyone does their own type of riding, so one needs to adapt advice from another's environment to one's own.  In my case, I'm adapting techniques from road racing into an urban environment (and maybe onto trails).

In a video, I noticed Maria using a very slow cadence.  For me, that seemed a sensible technique that would allow good coordination between the feet and hands.  On the phone, she mentioned she also generally sits forward during turns.  That could be seen on the video as well.  While riding rear-wheel-drive bents on city roads, I too generally sit up when I need high maneuverability and vision -- when turning, at intersections, changing lanes -- so I can imagine this.  I'll have to play with that on a Cruzbike.

Dan Fallon has raced both rear-wheel-drive bents as well as front-wheel-drive moving-bottom-bracket recumbents and seems to have thought a lot about the similarities and differences.  His stable of Cruzbikes includes a Vendetta, Silvio and Sofrider, by the way, so clearly this guy is a believer.  He also owns (or used to own) a Bachetta Ti Aero, but he has now gone Cruzbike.

Dan trains in a mountainous area, so he has a lot of experience with the Cruzbike on the ups, the downs and the flats, including incredibly long and high speed downs and equally long up-hill grinds.  A key insight he gave me was that the Cruzbike can get twitchy at high speeds, like above 50 mph or so, as it reacts to imperfections in the road or from cross-winds.  His preference is to hold back the bike on the long downhills.  (The "prudent individual" will say this sounds obvious, but, in the moment, it can be easy to forget.)  While he backs off on the downs, he hammers on the ups.  The result is an excellent overall time.  This may run counter to some bent-riders' temptation to take the downs at maximum speed (because though speed is dangerous, speed is also fun), but then go slow on the ups.  I interpreted his words mainly as a comment on strategy.  To use the Cruzbike design's advantages, apply your energy on the climbs.

This made sense to me and illuminated how the Cruzbike can deliver very good overall times.  One's average time can be very good, though one's "maximum" speed may be lower compared to a bent that feels smoother at high speeds.  People should realize that I'm a cautious rider, and what I got from the conversation is that the Cruzbike may not be a bike I would want to take at high downhill speeds.  It's a bike that climbs quickly and handles the flats as fast as I would want to take them.

IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT SAFETY: To the everyday, mortal rider like me: do not attempt to ride any bike at the high speeds taken by skilled racers like Maria and Dan or other pro racers.  (And do not attempt to ride any bike at the speeds easily driven by cars.)  Not only do racers have exceptional gifts, skills, strength, experience, and training, they may also be taking exceptional risks in order to achieve wins or set records.  Furthermore, their bikes may be customized for their use.  Personally, when I talk to riders about buying bikes, I strongly dislike it when the conversation turns to speed because, simply, speed is dangerous and speed maims and kills.  But also, speed is about you, the rider, and your capabilities.  Interestingly, when I speak with racers about bikes, we're rarely talking about speed as much as handling and power/force transfer.

I'm saying that because it's the right thing to say.  It's also a "cover your ass" statement.  Most bent riders are going to go out and ride at the speed of cars anyway and brag about it on Bent Rider Online.  I'll say it one last time: ride at safe speeds.


Dan had stories that supported my belief that this could be a good trail bike.  He finds it's superb in situations where you need to pick your path because the design allows you to see the contact point of the front, drive wheel.  When a rear drive-wheel slips, you can't see why.  Good point.

Amusingly enough, he also experienced the intense concentration I felt I needed on the Cruzbike.  He assured me that this is only at the beginning and, after a while, the bike feels natural.  He no longer gives it a second thought.  I was glad to hear that.  He recommended that I ride only the Cruzbike, and nothing else for a while, if possible.  This is what he did.  It could hasten my skill development.

A specific suggestion he made, for technique, was always to increase wattage (force) gradually at the pedals.  He finds that quick speed increases throw the bike off balance.  One of the drills I give people, when teaching them to ride a bent, is to start with a strong first push, and we'll do this several times in a row.  Meanwhile, on the Cruzbike, it was always at the start, when I had just pulled the bike off the wall, that I had the most trouble.  I'd get on it and attempt to get going with a good strong kick.  Here, that doesn't work.  With the Cruzbike, you need to start slowly, and increase speed slowly.

Well, that's the news from the "Cruzbike learning center."  I'm still thumbs-up about it and maybe even more so after speaking with Maria and Dan.  Stay tuned to see if ultimately I ride it in the April 1 Fool's Rogaine adventure race.  That'll require me not only to feel comfortable on the Cruz., but also to feel comfortable with my MTB skills in a bike orienteering format.  It's more than just ordinary riding.  We'll see how my training goes.

Stay healthy,
Robert Matson
New York City Recumbent Supply
The Innovation Works, Inc.
copyright 2012 Robert Matson


  1. Hi Robert,
    We don't have many hills around here, but I top 40 mph whenever I get the chance on downhills. Here's a link to a recent ride with a 44.7 mph downhill.
    On a Cruzbike, you should initiate pedaling in a controlled manner, as you are discovering. It all becomes second nature, comfortable cornering, high-speed downhills, fast climbs... with time.

  2. CAN the Cruzbike go fast downhills? Does a donkey have a tail?

    In the AZ mountain area where I live there are long 9 mile descents, and there are spikey, switchbacks. I've exceeded 55 mph on the Silvio on a long descent with a nice tailwind. But for me the thrill isn't worth the risk.

    In September I joined 150 other cyclists (as the only recumbent) for a 54 mile, 5,300 feet of climbing circular race. On a looping 12.2 mile descent I purposely held it back, i.e., didn't go as fast as I could.

    Many of the riders I spoke with after the race reported that they reached into the 50 mph range on that descent. NONE of the riders that went faster than me on the descents got to the finish line before me. I decided my goal was to finish the race fast and to hang back on the crazy long descents. I was passed by only two racers on the ascents.

    For me racing is a strategy, not an impulse. I get a much bigger thrill (and sense of material accomplishment) passing others going uphill than just letting gravity pull me downhill.

    - Dan Fallon

  3. I've had the Sofrider for about 2 weeks and have put about 70 miles on it so far. I've never ridden a SWB bent before, but that may have made the transition easier (??) and I've only been riding the Cruzbike instead of switching back and forth.

    I rode about 40 miles the first (extended) weekend and then didn't ride until the next weekend. When I got back on the bike, it felt like I had just been riding and my body hadn't forgotten anything. So far, I'm really pleased with the choice to buy this bike.

    If anybody's interested, you can read about my experiences here: