Tuesday, May 29, 2012

HP Velotechnik Speed Machine - Cool Bike

HP Velotechnik's hotrod: the Speed Machine

I'm now stocking an HP Velotechnik Speed Machine (abbreviated here as "SPM") for demo rides.  I wasn't sure what to expect since, at the "speed" end of the market, there is so much competition and clamoring for the bragging rights for "the fastest bike."  The Cruzbike Silvio and Vendetta are clearly special.  So, why bring in a Speed Machine?

So far, after a few training rides, I must say I'm rather impressed.  It's a cool bike, just as we can always expect from HP Velotechnik.  Before it arrived, I anticipated something like a Street Machine Gte, just lower-slung, but it's really a whole new vehicle, as different from the Street Machine as is the Grasshopper fx.

First of all, regarding aerodynamics, the leg, body and head positions are in the "typical" range for racers, whether high, medium or low -- very flat and layed back.  What is special is that the frame is extremely stiff, straight and responsive, as we expect from HP Velotechnik, and the frame design allows great power transfer to the wheels.  Till now, I've believed unsuspended racers would be lighter, faster and more responsive, but the Speed Machine handles beautifully with the added benefit that, with the suspension, it hugs the road even when the pavement is rough.  Frankly, I feel a lot more comfortable with full-suspension because, when I'm traveling at high speeds, the inevitable unforeseen bump in the road doesn't throw the bike off the ground or force me to veer into traffic.

The build I have here is fitted with the Concept front suspension, the DT Swiss air shock, Shimano XT hydraulic disk brakes, aero bars, the standard Alex wheel set, and the upgraded XT drivetrain.  Long and short, it's light, responsive, and reminds me a bit of a standard frame road race bike in the way that the faster you're riding, the better it seems to handle.

I've seen a review of the Speed Machine somewhere on the internet that was written by a fellow who seems to have sparse knowledge about bikes and equally sparse experience with the Speed Machine.  Oddly, this guy once contacted me personally to challenge my admiration for HP Velotechnik engineering but then didn't reply after I pointed out the mistakes in his review.  Among his absurd comments, he criticizes the Speed Machine's front shock as being comparable to that used in Walmart bikes (which may tell us something about the kind of bikes he rides).  If you've seen that review and have been negatively swayed by it, be assured that there is no remote resemblance between HP Velotechnik's over-sized Concept suspension fork, with steel spring, adjustable dampening and 50 mm of travel, and your average -- or below average -- bicycle front suspension, least of all a typical Walmart bike.  The SPM's front fork is beautifully designed, both internally and externally, and is truly worthy of the HP Velotechnik reputation.  And, for the record, I do actually have the dubious honor of knowing something about Walmart bikes.  In early 2013, I was part of a 3-person team who competed in an adventure race in Virginia, one leg of which was on a Walmart bike with front suspension.  In addition, I did the mechanical work before the race to try and whip the bike into shape.  Why, for Pete's sake, did I race on a Walmart bike?  Because our team's bike had been stolen, and it was the night before the race, and we weren't willing to spend more than $200 bucks on a replacement that we were going to leave behind with our Virginia teammate.  At any rate, I assure you, as much as I wished otherwise while I was riding it, the front suspension of a Walmart bike has NO resemblance to the suspension on a Speed Machine.  (Our team came in seventh place, by the way.)

A word about the seat angle: while the deepest seat recline is 25 degrees (which is very flat and aero), the seat can be adjusted up to 35 degrees, which is the same as the "medium" setting on a Street Machine Gte or Grasshopper fx.  In other words, this "speed" bike -- for racing or randonneuring -- becomes a highly aerodynamic touring machine by simply changing the seat angle (which takes 5 seconds) and adding racks, fenders, panniers and light kits, which it is built to accept easily and quickly.  Looking at it another way, with the fully suspended build, we have a very nice, fast and aero touring machine that can be easily stripped down and turned into a weekend racer.

I'm very excited about this bike and I think it provides a great new option for the city rider who is limited in the number of bikes he or she can fit into their small space at home.  Many bent riders seem to own a folding bike and two or three bents.  We usually make hard choices between a bent for fast club rides, one for commuting and grocery runs, one for long distance trips, one for off-road, one for pavement, one for folding and taking on the train, etc.

Speed Machine set up for touring. Note that the rider's line of sight is clear
and unhindered by his feet. Darn, that's a nice set-up.

This summer, I'm trying to find time to go through the Adirondacks and Green Mountains using the Adventure Cycling routes.  Now that I've put a few miles on it, I am seriously considering taking a Speed Machine.  While I still need to resolve the issue of taking a non-folding bike on Amtrak or a bus, and whether the high foot position will cause "hot foot" issues -- which I'm prone to have, I think it may be nice to use a highly aero machine like the Speed Machine for the route.  Given how little time I have for the trip -- I won't know if I can get away from work till a week before the trip -- it may be nice to be a little more aero and add a few miles an hour or so to my touring pace and see if I can't complete the 800-mile route a day or two (or three?) faster than I'd ordinarily plan.  We shall see.

Note, a year later:
I'm a working stiff -- if not an over-worked stiff -- which means I don't get to just go out and ride as much as I'd like.  I ride a beater-bent every day to get around town, but the demo Speed Machine sits here clean, used mostly for demos.  I didn't have time to take it up to the Adirondacks last fall to test it as a fast tourer; I intend to try again this July.  However, over the past ten days I've taken it out three times for quick 25-mile training rides in Prospect Park as a mid-day break; I also rode it recently on an 80-mile ride with the NY Cycle Club.  I wanted to remind myself what it feels like and compare it to the Cruzbike Silvio.  If I'm looking for the highest sans-fairing speeds, which do I prefer?  Also, I wanted to remind myself again of the shock absorption characteristics of the Concept 2 fork.  How low do I feel in traffic on the SPM?  Too low?  How is the low speed turning and tight navigating around people, dogs and curbs?  How much speed do I lose on the uphills compared to a Silvio?  How does it handle at 35 mph?  How do I feel about the 25-35 degree recline of the seat, given how accustomed I've become to 35-45 degree reclines?

And I still really love it.  Every time I've come back from a ride, I'm so happy with the speed and handling, and the way it feels on city streets and in traffic.  Yes, my head height is lower than it is on a Street Machine or Silvio, but I don't feel terribly vulnerable.  I have good eye contact with drivers of ordinary cars.  As I'd do on any bike, I'm extremely cautious around trucks and vans.  There's a speed sacrifice on the uphills and flats, compared to a Silvio, but I get some of that back on the downhills.  I love the aerodynamics when a headwind is blowing.  There remains the benefit of the relaxed upper body compared to a Silvio, so, over all, I feel less end-of-ride tiredness.  But there's that quality I love in all HP Velotechniks: the way the bike behaves when you're going fast and hit unexpected bumps.  This is simply a great fully suspended machine.

If I wasn't so concerned with keeping it clean and in low-mileage condition, the Speed Machine could easily become my favorite bike for "vacation riding" -- for my non-commuting bike time -- which is basically training and touring with remnants of a need-for-speed.  It's a really cool machine that can truly serve many purposes: speed, touring and commuting.

The fast-'bent market segment is very cluttered and noisy though, which may cause the SPM to get lost.  Also, at 30 lbs. -- for the stock build that will accept a 286 lb payload (!) -- prospective riders may view it as heavier than some other bikes in its performance/price range (which generally have lower payloads).

It's a cliche that inexperienced riders are preoccupied with bike weight because it is an easy number to compare without understanding what has been sacrificed -- or never included -- to achieve a light weight.  When bike shopping, we're always comparing apples (Granny Smith to Empire) and oranges (Navels and Valencias). 16 ounces of quality that results from good analysis and engineering does not equal to 16 ounces of who-knows-what coming from a bike enthusiast using a shareware CAD program and gut instinct.  Do riders understand the benefits of an oversized main tube and head tube?  Are we willing to accept that shocks are vital for safely handling high-speeds?  Do riders readily understand a list of technical specs?  Or understand that a build specced to support a 286 lb payload might be significantly lightened to suit a 170 lb rider?  (Hint: buy the SPM as a framekit, with the front fork, and then build it with your favorite components and wheels.)

It's an interesting and complex business.  Ultimately, the more I ride and work on HP Velotechniks, the more I like them.  And the Speed Machine, it may be one of those things "of beauty [which are] a joy for ever" (Keats).

Have fun and stay healthy,
Robert Matson
New York City Recumbent Supply
The Innovation Works, Inc.
copyright 2012 Robert Matson


  1. Thanks so much for the review! I am going nuts looking at bikes and now think this may be the bike for me. Great job!


  2. I've owned one of these for a year. I recently got rid of front suspension & replaced with a rigid fork & 26" wheel. Wow.....huge improvement of handling. Not sure why the factory dont offer this option.......


  3. For readers, I'd like to provide a few notes on Vangelo's comment about customizing his SPM with a rigid fork with 26" wheel.

    Rigid fork: many people will prefer shocks on the front fork of a bent, regardless of wheel size. There's a safety aspect to this in that it helps the bike stick to the road when hitting a bump. It also provides a very comfortable ride for long distances. On bents, shocks don't have the same power penalty that they have on standard frame bikes so there are few reasons to get rid of them. Generally the reason is they are lighter weight. Personally, I prefer shocks and find no benefit to the weight difference.

    26" wheel: How this has changed overall dimensions was not mentioned, but this would be important information. If this places the feet higher off the ground, that may effect one's ability to see the road, may alter aerodynamics, and cause problems with blood flow to the feet. In addition, the 26" wheel would normally result in a longer turning radius. A longer radius is fine on a touring bike and, all things being equal, will provide a more stable ride, but this is generally undesirable on a "nimble" bike like the SPM.

    "Improved" handling: "Improvement" is in the eye of the beholder, of course. What exactly does one mean by "improved" handling? For some, optimal handling means the bike is forgiving in jittery hands. For others, optimal handling is a bike that responds to the smallest input. Etc. All things being equal, changing a 20" fork to a 26" fork would result in a lengthened wheelbase which might provide more forgiving handling. The rake may also be affected. Is that better? Perhaps for some.

    While a customer/rider is free to do whatever they want with a bike once they own it, they should be aware of several things. First, many end-user customizations void the manufacturer's warranty. Secondly, there are very few end-users who have more training and experience than the engineers that design HP Velotechniks and, without one's realizing it, a customization may be creating problems and destroying benefits of the original design. The engineers have a notion of what "optimal" means for HP Velotechniks, and the bikes are designed accordingly. Too often, we're exposed to products that are not well thought-out and we begin to believe that we (as riders) know more than those who designed them. HPV's engineers are at the top of the craft and one is well-advised to take the time to understand why they made the choices they have, before altering them with alternative solutions.

    All that having been said, I enjoy hearing what riders have done to customize their machines simply because it's interesting to hear what people feel "would have made a bike better" for them personally. Also, bike usage is very individual and it's interesting to hear what someone has done to meet an individual need. It would be helpful to have more details about alterations, with exact measurements of everything that changed including angles, heights, rake, etc. so we have a meaningful context and a "before" and "after."

    Be well,

  4. I'd wondered about the Speed Machine, but then compared the cost with the Street Machine - or on the other hand some of the 26/20 or 24/24 offerings from Nazca. The attraction of Speed Machine for me would be the lower seat, having found Street Machine as high as I could tolerate with short legs. Street Machine is very nice to ride once you're not trying to get your legs on the floor with its direct under-seat steering.

    Reading the comment above on frame kit - I'll have to try costing it up. If only because it could be a bike I buy in pieces over time :-) The bike whole is a lot more expensive than Street Machine.

    I do wonder how the 20" front wheel would compare to a 24 or even a 26 one some of our unpaved tracks. Most of my riding is on road, though the roads here are pretty poor. We do have Sustrans tracks which may be materials such as shale. I suspect any recumbent could be harder on bridleways where the upright has an advantage in terms of low speed balance.

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