HP Velotechnik Scorpion fs: comfortable, stable, easy to ride...and fast.

Robert's Review from Interbike, 2009.

The fully-suspended Scorpion fs rides like a dream. Amazingly, it also folds at no compromise to ride quality. When I made an appointment to test ride it at Interbike 2009, I expected it to be fun, fast, and generally very good, but the actual experience far exceeded anything I could have anticipated.

It reminded me of the first -- second, third, fourth and 100th -- time I drove a BMW car; I expected something special, but had no idea a car could be so responsive, smooth and capable. The Scorpion fs is the same. If you require exceptional quality, you will like this trike.

"Responsive" is the word for the Scorpion fs: fast acceleration, fast braking, smooth as silk, hugs the road, grips the turns at very high speed (and without lifting a wheel) and can brake quickly without raising the rear wheel. And all that means three crucial things: it handles properly in high performance situations; it's safer; and you can ride up, down and sideways on fairly steep hills without flipping over (exactly like you want, but can rarely get).

Mind you, having said that, a strong and skilled rider -- or a very incompetent rider -- can lift a wheel during a very sharp high speed turn IF he/she tries very, very, very hard, and intentionally does everything wrong and has enough upper body weight to offset what the engineering is designed to prevent. However, this took such extraordinary effort that it was ridiculous and I can't recommend you try it. Simply, this is a stable bike due to advanced engineering. There's not much you can do to mess it up. The bike also runs true: it holds a straight line without steering input and I could take my hands off the handle bars without the bike veering one way or the other. (Note: Hands-free cycling is unsafe on all bikes.)*

Like other HP Velotechnik machines, the Scorpion fs is an extraordinary vehicle. Being designed for riding where stability is critical (mountain and high speed riding especially), the center of gravity is low. However, the frame is sufficiently far off the ground that you have decent ground clearance. Average sized riders will find their eye level below that of a car driver but, in the tradition of HPV's designs, the rider has a relatively upright posture, as seen in the photo. So, you'll have excellent line of sight which provides both better safety as well as better sight-seeing.

For riders who expect to ride frequently in and among car traffic, the regular Scorpion or Scorpion fx may be better options, both of which are excellent trikes and position the rider with a higher head-level. However, if full suspension and performance are important to you -- rough roads, off-road, high speeds, or you simply like the smoothness of a suspended ride -- this is a bike you'll love.

NB: These notes are NOT recommendations for inexperienced riders to attempt high-performance riding on this or any other bicycle. Likewise, I do not recommend hands-free riding on ANY bicycle. The test described here is merely useful for a professional to see whether a trike runs true and should only be done at slow speeds on a level surface.

HP Velotechnik Grasshopper fx

Reprint of Robert's personal review, originally posted on Bentrider On-line.

Positive aspects: Folds quickly and easily, aerodynamic and fast, full suspension, great high-speed handling, accessories look great.
Negative aspects: Optional under-seat steering upgrade requires a skilled rider.

First, I should reveal that I'm in the industry -- I’m an HP Velotechnik dealer in New York City. However, I'm also a happy owner of a Grasshopper fx (“GH fx” or just “GH”), which serves as my “luxury” urban ride. Like everyone in New York, I don't have any extra space; I store my Grasshopper in my home office. If I want to take a bent with me on the train or bus, the GH fx’s fast fold and carrying bag are ideal. Also, to grab my space on the street, I like a fast ride with nimble, positive handling. And since I have to lift and carry the bike any time I go out -- down/up the stairs of my apartment building, down the stairs to train platforms, wedge it into elevators, etc. -- a light and compact bent is a good bent, too. Lastly, I ride in all weather, year-round, and need to carry cargo, so strong, well-designed racks, fenders and light systems are a must.

The Fold: quick and easy.
Another reviewer on Bentrider Online has criticized the folding mechanism, but I can't imagine what the gripe could be. I like it. And I know more than just a little about folding bikes -- I also own a Brompton folding upright, possibly the world's most successful folding bike, and a Montague folding MTB, which, in my hands, is possibly the world’s most abused folding bike. The Grasshopper (in my hands) folds as well as any of them -- easily, quickly, smoothly and intuitively. The frame is stiff and straight with a strong hinge design. Ride quality is that of a top-end fold-less bent. And because it fits into a bag, I can carry it onto trains or buses as luggage. In other words, it’s a true folding bike in every way (though not as small as a Brompton).

Aerodynamic: Fast on the flats and downs, slightly slower uphill.
People are often surprised to learn that the seat height on a GH fx is 5" lower than the bottom bracket which, with the dual 20” wheels, provides a moderately low center of gravity. In spite of this fairly aggressive design, the seat height of 21” and the appropriate front-end geometry make this a full-fledged touring and commuting bent. The GH fx is fast on the flats and stable at speed, even when fully loaded. My machine has the optional under-seat steering, but the standard GH fx comes with aerodynamic above-seat steering. Sometimes I wish I had the speed and turning advantage of above seat steering, but I like the relaxed comfort of USS. It’s a toss up.

It goes without saying that it’s hard, slow work pedaling a bent up a long steep hill. Add to this that the GH fx, like any dual 20" bent, is additionally challenging to balance at slow speeds, like 3 - 5 mph. Some novice riders might benefit from the stability provided by the gyroscopic action of a big rear wheel (such as on a HPV Street Machine), instead of the GH’s small rear wheel. However, in my experience, the GH handles better on hill climbs than other small-wheeled bents, and, at any rate, as you become skilled and stronger, hill climbing only gets easier. (For context, when I talk about hills, I’m referring to 7 to 12 degree climbs.)

Handling at speed.
At normal and high speeds, the GH fx handles like any HP Velotechnik -- it’s positively awesome. With an intuitive and stable ride, and a moderately low center of gravity, it feels secure and responsive on the turns. It’s an unforgettable riding experience.

At low speeds, it's fine, but the optional under-seat steering (“USS”) upgrade on the GH fx puts a fly in the ointment. As a result, unless you really must have USS on the GH fx, or are an experienced rider, I’d recommend choosing the standard above-seat steering configuration.

Here’s what you need to know about the under-seat steering configuration on the GH fx. First, the ointment: everything about the bike is outstanding, just as you’d expect from the minds behind HP Velotechnik. But, as is normal with USS (but admittedly frustrating), there’s a limit to how sharply you can turn at slow speed before the handlebar (or your hand) hits the seat. Therefore, when you need to make a particularly sharp turn, you need a little momentum (and good balance) so you can bank into a sharp turn.

For me personally, it rarely creates problems in normal New York City riding, which is full of 90-degree turns at intersections, fast starts and sudden stops. The only time I find it truly irritating is when I need to ride at walking speed around obstacles like bridge stanchions (or tourists) or when stopping at a red light where I also need to make a close right angle turn (in this last case, I simply pick up the bike and pivot). Mind you, this is a common issue with under-seat steering bents as well as long wheelbase bents, so admittedly I’m nitpicking an otherwise phenomenal bent.

All in all, this means the handling of the Grasshopper fx has a longer learning curve than other HP Velotechnik bents. The balance issue caused by the two 20” wheels is no big deal and simply requires time in the saddle. The limitations of the under-seat steering option are easiest resolved by simply ordering the standard above-seat configuration or...putting in time and practicing your handling skills.

Weight-weenies be gone: this is what a high-quality, fully-suspended, folding bike weighs.
I can lift the Grasshopper fx with one hand, so I don’t really consider its 33.75 lbs. to be heavy. Still, for a fully-suspended, folding bent, rated to carry 275 lbs. and designed for touring and commuting, it would be hard to find the excess weight (maybe a half-pound could be knocked off the drive train and wheels of the stock build). It is unreasonable to compare this type of machine to a 26-pound non-suspended, non-folding Volae Team, for example. Good rear suspension adds weight as do front shocks. Solid, high-quality folding mechanisms add weight. And touring/commuting bikes, as a rule, are over-built to withstand punishing back roads and still keep rolling.

Comparing the GH fx to my tiny, unsuspended Brompton, which weighs about 31 lbs. (with hub dynamo), or my Surly Cross-Check (diamond frame) which weighs about 30 lbs., I can’t consider the 33.75 lbs. Grasshopper fx to be heavy, especially for a bent. Does it make me work harder while riding up a hill? Undoubtedly, but I don’t notice. And, at any rate, I’m happy to have full suspension and a quality build when I hit bad asphalt while ripping down the Catskills....

Options and accessories fit easily and perfectly.
The Grasshopper fx’s accessories attach neatly and elegantly, as you’d expect from HP Velotechnik. Fenders mount securely and look good. Racks install quickly, are incredibly strong, and look like they belong. The kickstand holds the bike firmly, even when fully loaded. The lights have appropriate mounting points and electrical cables can be run through the frame. The GH fx always looks stylish and classy and even lycra-clad roadies give it the “cool bike” salute.

Long and short, in skilled hands, whether in the above-seat steering config, or with under-seat steering, it’s an amazing ride that does everything, goes anywhere and folds easily to boot.

HP Velotechnik Speed Machine - Cool Bike

HP Velotechnik's hot rod: the Speed Machine

I'm now stocking an HP Velotechnik Speed Machine 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 bump in the road doesn't throw the bike off the ground or off my line.

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 seems to be written by a fellow without much knowledge of bikes, not a lot of experience with the Speed Machine, and even, possibly a personal vendetta, though I can't think of why this would be.  (He 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 other absurd comments, he criticizes the Speed Machine's front shock as comparable to that used in Walmart bikes (I guess he knows something about Walmart bikes).  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.  The front fork is beautifully designed, both internally and externally, and is truly worthy of the HP Velotechnik reputation.

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.

I like that the Speed Machine covers quite well the need for a fast "club" bent as well as a touring and commuting machine.  I would still prefer a Street Machine for a long trip just as I'd prefer a Speed Machine for a brevet and a Grasshopper fx as the commuter-extraordinaire.  But I see a lot of space for the "fast machine" on a tour of a month or less.

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.

Volae Tour (The Quiet Giant)

Personal ride review from Robert.

On a January 2010 quality control ride I took out an ordinary Volae Tour. In this case, a "quality control ride" means I take an ordinary stock build on a fairly challenging day-trip to see if I still like the bike -- and can honestly recommend it -- after many miles, many hills, and I'm tired, cold, hungry and chafing*. The only changes I made to the Tour were that I switched in Volae's carbon fiber seat instead of the mesh seat and installed a pair of MKS platform pedals with Power Grips (leather foot straps). I wore ordinary sneakers instead of bike shoes and clipless pedals; old trail shoes to be precise. Didn't even bother with bike shorts (*which I regretted, but that's how you get the chafing).

With my riding partner pedaling his Volae Century, we headed out on Richard Rosenthal's famous River Road, Bradley, Tweed hill ride (thanks to NY Cycle Club library). We did a double-hill version of one segment of the ride, ending in Manhattan after 62 mi. and 3,600 total vertical feet of climbing (that's equivalent to climbing Bear Mountain three times from sea level). I then added another 22 miles plus the Brooklyn Bridge and the Prospect Heights hill to wrap the day at 84 miles and about 4,000 feet of climbing. OK, so: lots of miles, lots of hills and using only platform pedals with sneakers (*and chafing).

Let me put it this way: there ain't NOTHIN' wrong with this bike. Along with very steep, slow, slow grinds in the granny gear at crawling speed -- without any loss of balance and never a foot on the ground -- we also hit downhills of 40 mph and some fast and rough descents on pretty crappy (rough and pitted, NY State-style) roads with cars. Handling is perfect, sensitive, secure, intuitive, responsive, no marshmallow feel, you really know where the bike is against your back, and low speed stability is fine. It was dark when we got back, but the bike has many good locations for lights. No problems whatsoever. And it accepts quality Tubus rear racks, standard fenders, and Terracycle underseat racks.

Summary: There is nothing I wouldn't do on this bike. It's a great machine at any price. But here's the kicker: this is Volae's ENTRY LEVEL bent. Volae bents get even better from here.

Note, later: In 2012 Volae changed their designs from a fixed- to a movable-boom and redesigned the seats.  The movable boom makes it possible to adjust for leg length without changing the bike's center of gravity. It's a good development. The carbon fiber seats are a touch wider at the base. These are all good developments.

Origami, by Azub

The "Origami," made by Azub in the Czech Republic.

This pretty folding recumbent bike arrived the other week.  This is an Azub Origami.

Kitted out with SON dynamo hub and full light system with Busch and Mueller Lumotec Lyt headlight and the ever-reliable Bumm Toplight Plus at the rear, fenders, shock-absorbing Schwalbe Big Apple tires, and a rear rack welded into the frame, it begins to approach a reasonable answer to the Brompton for the recumbent bike world.  I'm not sure anything comes close to a Brompton in terms of sheer magic of fold, small size and ride quality, but designers keep taking swipes at the top of the pole, always getting closer.  For recumbents, inherently long and heavy, it's a worthy challenge to make a folder that is just as fun to ride as a non-folding bent.  The Origami folds pretty easily, the seat can remain attached, there's nothing too weird or complicated about it, you (I) can pick it up with one hand once it's folded.  It weighs about 36 lbs with the extras shown here which, in fact, is only about 6 lbs. heavier than my 30 lbs. Brompton with all the same accessories, so we're well within striking range.  I think a dyed-in-the-lycra weight weenie -- I originally mistakenly wrote died-in-the-lycra, which is awfully friggin' bleak but, frankly, barely registers as a slip for the cycling realist -- could get it down to 30 lbs. by throwing money at the problem.  This is the Shimano Alivio 8-spd drivetrain, so it's not as if we tried to shave grams anywhere.  Bike payload is 100kg (220 lbs).

Interesting note: the red paint is matte as opposed to gloss.  That was a nice surprise.  Matte colors are less common on bikes in the USA than gloss colors and, IMHO, lend a refined appearance.  But those attached to gloss will need to be aware of this.

Ride Quality
When you have a small-wheeled bike, you lose the stability created by the gyroscopes of larger wheels.  I think stability is a matter of perception, assuming we have a professional quality bike and strong legs, and riders will only notice greater or lesser stability at extremely low speeds, like on steep hill climbs or making slow tight turns on city streets.  Azub has done something interesting as concerns this quality.  By stretching out the wheel base of a small wheeled bike, they have counteracted somewhat the "instability" of small wheels.  Of course, when you stretch out the wheelbase, you lose something in turning radius -- it gets larger -- and in compactness -- it gets longer -- but I really like this company's creativity, both in this solution and in other places.  Since the Origami has above-seat steering and a wheel that turns backwards should you wish, you can make your extra sharp 91 degree turns.  Another note about this "stability" issue.  I tend to look askance at claims that a given bike is "unstable."  Instability problems may be problems of rider balance, skill and core strength in combination with the forces that create instability, like speed, payload, center of gravity, absence of wheels....  Once one masters a given machine, assuming it's a straight frame, round wheels, and an appropriate center of gravity, instability (should) become less an issue.  Is it the bike that's unstable, or is it the rider?  A unicycle is unstable, but you know what?

Wheelbase comparison:
Azub Origami: 122 cm (48")
HP Velotechnik Grasshopper fx: 109 cm (43")
The Grasshopper has that sporty, nimble feel for which HP Velotechnik's are famous, but it also has a tiny bit more of a learning curve, compared to the Origami.  The Origami has a touch of that long bowsprit feeling when making tight turns and navigating within buildings, but you get used to it.

Something cool:
The Origami's seat can be reclined from 50 to 20(!) degrees.  That is unusual.  The result is a machine that can make the upright-sitting crowd happy, but also those riders who want a seriously aero machine can get that too.  I can enjoy an aero bike, so I was pretty happy to discover how far I could recline the seat.  Also, the above seat bars are more an aero praying mantis style than a Harley chopper style.  On both points, you might (or might not) lose something in comfort to gain something in speed, but I thought it was a good move.  It helps confirm Azub's character as a manufacturer of sporty, performance-oriented bents as opposed to sofa-cycles.  They're still working in a crowded marketplace, but they are offering something good that is a little different than the others, making them well worth checking out.

Another note about the seat and the fit.
Azub uses both a sliding boom and a seat slider on the frame.  Fine, it's easy enough to find that perfect adjustment of seat angle and leg length with any decent boom and seat angle adjustment system, but what is really noteworthy is that you can also adjust the location of your center of gravity on the bike, fore and aft, between the wheels.  That's pretty critical with a performance-oriented bent that allows a severe seat recline.  Otherwise, as you recline the seat, you end up moving your CoG over the rear wheels, which causes a dangerously lightened front wheel.  So, the upright-sitting crowd can to dial in their CoG same as the reclined crowd.  Excellent design work.

# # #