It wasn’t until my late 30s, following an occupational neck injury, that I became a recumbent rider. No longer able to get on the drops of an upright bike, it was that, or stop riding entirely. I’ve never looked back.
My first recumbent was a Lightning P-38, which I kept for much more than a decade and loved. Next, a Rans V-Rex, a venerable machine, sadly no longer manufactured. It was a bit slower than the P-38, but a faithful steed. I was aware of trikes, and out of general interest, kept up with their development, but never imagined I’d own one. Then age caught up to Mrs. Manor and me. It’s sneaky that way.
She’s older than I, and seeing the bare beginnings of a balance issue, decided to trade her beloved Rans Stratus for a trike, but which? ICE and Catrike each make a low, light, narrow, skinny tired model, the VTX and 700 respectively. We both appreciate fast machines, but there were several features of these fastest of trikes that were more than we wanted or needed. Both are expensive: the 700 begins at just under $3000, and the VTX, $5000. We’re careful with our money, and with proper planning could afford either, but there is something about spending in the area of $5000 base price for a trike that seemed a little much.
The skinny tires were a problem. We’re not off-roaders, but the roads on which we ride tend to be hard on tires, and we’d rather ride than fix flats, so we needed slightly less skinny, slightly less high pressure–95 rather than 120 PSI–and rather more sturdy, tires. Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires in 1.35” width work nicely. They’re pricey, but last a very long time and are relentlessly rugged. They’re also skinny enough to allow me to retain at least a little roadie self-respect.
The very low seats and riding posture—eternally looking between one’s feet to see the road—were also an issue. As one gets older, sports cars still hold their allure, but getting into and out of them does not. Besides, any design that puts unnecessary strain on the neck is not a good idea for me.
The designs of those two machines also require chain routing using plastic tubes, which I find less than elegant. Both also use thumb shifters, and we have, for decades, become used to grip shifters. We could, of course, adapt, but adaptation for the sake of adaptation seems unnecessarily–adaptive.
So it was that we chanced upon Terra Trike, and their Sportster model, which is something like a VTX or 700 with a wider track between the front wheels, and with a higher, far less radical, seat. The aluminum frame and clean chain routing–we opted for Terra Cycle idlers front and rear–also beckoned, but I resisted–at first. Mrs. Manor immediately took to her new trike, which we outfitted with an Aerospoke rear wheel. Why Aerospoke? They work and eliminate the need for wheel truing, and they look cool. I’ve used them for decades. Sure, they’re a bit heavier than the lightest possible spoked wheels, but I’m well past the age when a few grams here or there are going to make the slightest difference to me. Let the 20-somethings worry about that; there are always plenty of them to snatch up the latest techno-cool goodies.
As Mrs. Manor and I rode, I noticed that the Sportster was a bit slower overall then her Stratus, which meant I’d be lugging along on our frequent shared rides. Fortunately, the sales manager at my favorite recumbent shop–Easy Street Recumbents in Austin, TX–wanted to give my V-Rex a good home, and I ordered my own Sportster. I’m still faster than Mrs. Manor, but the difference isn’t so striking. In this part of the US, Easy Street is the best-equipped, best-stocked, sharpest recumbent shop around.
Initial Impressions and Adaptation:
Sitting so close to the ground, everything initially seems very fast. I found myself braking and leaning in corners I would soon take with ease and abandon until I understood the realities of trike handling and traction. Short wheelbase recumbents like the P-38 and V-Rex turn fast, but the Sportster feels even faster. In fact, I struggled for awhile with the steering because it was too tight. The Sportster has a direct steering system. The bars are connected directly to the axles, which provides immediate and sensitive road feel and steering input. That’s the good news. The bad news is it provides immediate and sensitive road feel and steering input.
The steering was so tight I had to actually forcefully push the bars to change direction, which led, particularly on speedy downhills, to some wild back and forth oscillations when the front wheels were upset by bumps. Apparently some folks prefer this. For a day or two I thought the system was just a bit tight and would surely loosen up. When it didn’t, I checked the Terra Trike website where, sure enough, there was an informative video about adjusting one’s steering. The process is a little fidgety, requiring a subtle balance between two allen bolts in the horizontal and vertical axes. The trick is to ensure the silver washer under each handlebar is able to spin freely with finger pressure, but without excess up or down play. Once I sorted that out, the trike tracked straight, true and normal, the steering was light and precise and felt relaxed at any speed. For later 2016 models, Terra Trike has introduced a more advanced steering system that resembles bicycle headsets. It’s said to track smoother and work better. Perhaps I’ll look into it one day, but the system on my early 2016 trike works nicely.
Mrs. Manor loves the fact there is no need to unclip, to drop a foot or balance at stoplights. One merely slows to a stop, keeps the trike in place with pedal pressure, and relaxes, waving at people in nearby vehicles who always gawk, point and smile, while taking a leisurely sip of water.
This brings up one important issue: clipless pedals are a necessity. If a foot slips off the pedals, it’s easy for it to be sucked back under the frame with disastrous orthopedic consequences. A cheaper alternative is little heel cables or other kinds of straps, but why spend several thousand on a quality trike and skimp on $100 dollar shoes? I use the Shimano SPD standard, which is much easier to walk in than most others. Besides, they provide the most efficient power generation, and with a trike, there’s no need to constantly clip/unclip.
One problem produced by the direct steering is mirror vibration. Using Zefal Cyclops bar-end mirrors, we’ve had to learn how to interpret often blurred imagery, as every bit of road vibration is transmitted directly to the bars, hands and the mirror. The long handlebar stems and bars of upright recumbents tend to dampen most of those problems. It’s normally not a danger, but can cause a few anxious moments until one adapts.
I have relatively long legs–lots of leverage–and quickly learned the trike rewards smoothness rather than brute force. Mashing the pedals allows the long boom to obviously, unambiguously flex. Spinning efficiently produces no such twerking, and the frame feels quite solid.
Another interesting quirk relates to the relatively low frame. I have size 12.5 feet (European 44), and allowing my foot to hang straight down at the bottom of a pedal stroke, my heel is a hair from touching the ground. In a normal peddling attitude, it’s not an issue–there is more than adequate clearance–but going through dips in the road it’s easily possible–and a little disconcerting–to scrape one’s heel. Simply leveling both pedals avoids the problem.
The designers at Terra Trike also provided a thoughtful cooling feature: ride through water and the front wheels produce a refreshing spray on the undersides of the hands and forearms. I could get fenders, but then I’d have to add playing cards in the spokes, a bell, streamers on the bar ends, and the accessorizing just never ends.
In terms of weight, the Sportster is about the same as my V-Rex, which is due to the aluminum vs. steel frames. That said, the Sportster feels light when maneuvering and carrying it (to negotiate doorways, just pick it up and turn it sideways). An interesting, and mildly annoying, feature of trikes is their tendency to roll away for no apparent reason. Just as people that don’t ride bikes have no appreciation for the fact that very few places are truly flat, people that don’t ride trikes have no appreciation for the fact that trikes will tend to roll away on a leveled pool table. Brake locks are a necessity, and the Sportster’s work very well.
In fact, the front disc brakes–trikes tend to have no rear brakes–were a revelation. I’ve always had high quality Shimano brakes, but they can’t compare with the Avid BB-7 discs. They’re positive and powerful, requiring little finger pressure, making it easily possible to loft the rear wheel at will. There is no squeal or grab, and feel is excellent, so brake steer is under the rider’s control if they choose to use it, not the opposite. “Brake steer,” by the way, refers to the tendency of some trikes to pull/steer in the direction of whichever front brake is most strongly applied. Some designs have stronger brake steer tendencies than others. The Sportster’s is virtually non-existent, and easily controllable by light brake pressure input.
Pedal steer is yet another trike feature/bug. Mashing the pedals rather than spinning tends to produce this. It’s not something that actually turns the machine, but does make one feel as if the trike wants to lurch slightly back and forth down the roadway. I had the problem until I learned how to properly relax and pedal smoothly, and it vanished. That’s a trick all recumbent riders need to learn. Fortunately, it’s not difficult and doesn’t take long.
Until I got a P-38, I had no idea how much of one’s upper musculature is used in riding an upright bike. Keeping the upper body, particularly the shoulders, arms and hands relaxed, and letting the body spin while anticipating gear changes and changes of direction allows one to avoid drama and maintain a high average speed. As with shooting, smooth, not fast, is rewarded. Smooth is fast.
All of the stock components are high quality and work smoothly, and the welds and finish are first rate. I can’t say I’m wild about the flat paint scheme, and would have preferred a redder shade of red, but it is growing on me. One interesting product the folks at Easy Street introduced me to is White Lightning’s Matte Finisher. Spray it on dirt or grease, let it sit a few seconds, and it wipes everything off, leaving the matte finish pristine. It’s one of those products that really does work as advertised at a reasonable price.
The Terra Cycle idlers are simply the best, most durable in the business, but as smooth and precise as they are, the driveline is not perfectly silent. It’s not loud or annoying by any means, but there is occasionally a bit of sound to remind one they’re propelling a chain-driven contraption.
The standard mesh seat is easily installed, removed, cleaned and adjusted, and is very comfortable. Even though the Sportster doesn’t have active suspension, it’s a good compromise between performance and comfort. A more or less mandatory addition should be Terra Trike’s Seat Bag ($39.95), which slips perfectly over the top or front of the standard seat, providing plenty of room for tubes, tools, wallet, cell phone, etc. It is well designed and flows with the lines of the seat, and also has integral grommets on top that align with the grommets in the seat tubes. These allow one to slip a flag though them into the seat tube. No extra flag mounts are required. I sewed on a few Velcro straps for a pump to allow a bit more internal room.
Terra Trike provides a single mounting space on the frame for a water bottle mount that seems to have been designed for the Terra Cycle Adjustomatic Bottle mount. One might think it might get in the way of pedaling, but Mrs. Manor and I are not skinny-legged teenagers, and we have no difficulties with two bottles. The mount, at $42.00, positions two full-sized bottles perfectly, eliminating the kinds of contortions many bottle mounts require.
One annoying issue is computer mounting. I know there are all manner of mounts available, but all Terra Trike would have to do is extend this portion of each handlebar about ¾” to 1” to provide a computer mount on both sides of the cockpit. It wouldn’t interfere with the rider–brake and shifting cables protrude more–and would eliminate a bit of extra expense for purchasers. Even so, a $38.00 Terra Cycle Multi-Purpose Accessory Mount solved the problem nicely. The mount comes with arms of different lengths and diameters, so be sure to specify what meets your needs when ordering. The mount also gave me an additional handy anchoring point for cable routing. There are cheaper mounts, but everything Terra Cycle makes is very well designed and produced, and worth a few extra bucks for genuinely American made hardware.
We opted for Velogenesis Seat Strut Clamps, which make seat adjustment more precise and solid, and Purple Sky flags with their slick little rubber light mount. And speaking of safety, we installed three–yes, three–separate Planet Bike Superflash Turbo taillights.
Why three? Motor vehicle drivers aren’t used to recumbents in general, and trikes, lower still, are even harder for people to recognize. They look at them, but because trike silhouettes are unfamiliar, they don’t register; they don’t see them. So two lights mounted on the back of the seat and one higher on the flag makes us about as visible as possible. They’re very bright and Planet Bike claims a 100 hour run time on two AAA batteries, which seems about right. They come with two sizes of mounting clamps and rubber mounting shims, making installation easy, and battery changes are quick and equally easy.
How fast is the Sportster? For a trike, it’s fast, and it feels very quick. It accelerates rapidly, brakes very well, tracks straight, and corners as if on rails. Cornering is one of the things about trikes that is just purely fun. New owners often head for parking lots and spend an hour or so screaming in circles, grinning like the village idiot. In real terms, the V-Rex was about a mile per hour slower than the P-38 and the Sportster is about a mile per hour slower than the V-Rex in overall average speed. However, keep in mind these are subjective impressions, and I’ve aged nearly a quarter of a century from my first days on the P-38 and my first days on the Sportster. As with all my recumbents, the machines have been much faster than me. On familiar downhill stretches, the Sportster equals the non-pedaled speeds the V-Rex attained. However, on flat stretches, the less aerodynamic Sportster with its slightly more upright and open riding posture, is clearly a mile per hour or so slower than the V-Rex for the same apparent energy output. Climbing ability is on a par with the V-Rex–really very good–and as with all recumbents, relies on smooth spinning rather than energetic mashing of the pedals.
The Sportster, available in three versions and three colors, occupies a middle to upper-middle of the road place in price, components, speed, performance and value in the trike world. For those on a budget, Terra Trike features the Rover, with a model at $999.00, the lowest priced, quality trike on the market. We’ve ridden our Sportsters on asphalt, concrete, bike paths and gravel and been more than satisfied. For older riders, trikes are an obvious, smart choice, but for hip riders of any age, they’re waiting to please and the Sportster, more than most.
UPDATE, 07-05-16, 1755 CST: One issue I neglected to address is the prices of recumbent bikes and trikes. They are expensive. For an entry-level trike, ignoring the Rover, one can expect to spend about $1500. This may seem outrageous–and outrageous or not, it’s a lot of money–but the economics are pretty straightforward.
Many people will pay up to $300 for a bike, which will get them a low level machine with mediocre components. It will be adequate for four or five short rides around the neighborhood a year, but most such bikes spend most of their time collecting dust. Spending between $500 and $1000 for a bike, whether a mountain bike or street bike, will buy a pretty decent machine with better components and a lighter more advanced frame. It’s essentially a starter bike, a machine to learn on, but much of what one learns is that you get what you pay for. Cheap components, wheels, tires, all of the parts that make a bike, tend not to last. They don’t feel right, they don’t work right–for long–and serve mostly to teach anyone that is remotely serious about bicycling what does and doesn’t work and last.
Recumbents of any kind are for people that are serious about riding and will do it regularly, whether as training, recreation, or as part of their lifestyle. They expect to keep their bikes for many years, and want them to last. They want to spend their time riding, not replacing parts. These are not machines that tend to collect dust. A $300 bike one rarely rides is of little value compared to a much more expensive machine with thousands of miles on it.
Why are recumbents so expensive? Manufacturers make, compared to mass-produced upright bikes, few of them, and they are, in many instances, still essentially hand made. A manufacturer can save a great deal of money buying two thousand brake sets compared with two hundred. In addition, recumbents require special fabrications. Trike handlebars, for example, can’t generally be used on more than a single model, and certainly aren’t exchangeable with upright bikes. They also use 2X+ the amount of chain a standard bike uses, to mention nothing of front and rear idlers not required by uprights.
None of this, of course, matters if one doesn’t have the money to spring for a new trike. That’s where the used market comes in. There are all manner of bike exchanges throughout the country on the Internet. Bent Rider Online, for example, has a message board listing a great many used recumbents for sale.
Recumbents, compared to top quality uprights, aren’t actually any more expensive, but compared to lower quality machines, any upper quality bike or trike is expensive. Thinking of them as investments helps. My P-38 ended up costing me quite a bit less than $200 a year for all the years I enjoyed it. Many people spend more on movie theater popcorn each year than that.