On July 5, 2016 I published a review of my then new Terra Trike Sportster.
By then, I had several months of experience, and the review has been reasonably popular since. Now, more than a year later, I’ve put a great many miles on the trike, and spent time tuning this, greasing that, and adjusting pretty much everything, so it’s time for a long-term review. Before I get into my observations, however, a bit of review of recumbents in general, and recumbent trikes in particular.
Recumbents still comprise a small portion of the overall bicycle market, by some measures from 1-5%. This is, no doubt, partially due to their high cost relative to many upright bikes. One can find a decent mountain bike for $500, and a decent road bike for somewhat more, however, other factors are involved. Because they’re pricey, few parents are going to buy 3-4 trikes for their growing children over a 10-year or more span, and most manufacturers, recognizing that reality, don’t make trikes for children anyway. Recumbents are made almost exclusively for adult-sized people, and adults willing to spend quite a bit of money at that.
This too is relative. Compare a $500 mountain bike ridden a few times a year, spending the rest of the time gathering dust in a garage, to a $2500 trike that is ridden, because it’s much more comfortable, regularly for a decade. $250 a year is a small investment for the health benefits. Many people spend that much going to the movies in a year, or dining out in a month. Most recumbent/trike buyers use their machines, getting the maximum value of their purchase.
This is Mrs. Manor’s old Rans Stratus LE. At $2600 It’s representative of long wheelbase recumbents, and currently sells for $2600 dollars, without Aerospoke wheels and the various accessories depicted.
This is a Rans Rocket,
a new iteration of a previous Rans model of the same name. Rans has changed hands in recent years, and has tightened its model offerings, focusing, for short wheelbase models, on single maintube construction. The Rocket currently sells for $2695 dollars and is representative of short wheelbase recumbents. Many other manufacturers buy Rans’ standard seat for their bikes.
This is a Rans Rifle, which sells for $2975 as depicted here. It’s a high racer, and as the others, is representative of that type across all manufacturers. It’s designed, in every way, for speed, and as such, really isn’t a beginner’s recumbent.
Do not, however, think recumbents excessively or exclusively expensive. Trek is the number one American bike manufacturer. It’s top four road bike models cost from $6500 dollars to $11,000 dollars. That’s far more than the vast majority of the most outrageously equipped recumbents cost.
Uprights are made in vast quantities, which helps to reduce their cost, while recumbents remain, in many respects, handmade. In addition, many parts are not interchangeable with other models, and certainly not with uprights, increasing component costs. It’s interesting to note that most of the innovation in bicycle design–apart from various materials such as carbon fiber–is occurring in recumbents, and particularly, trikes. The double diamond frames of uprights have remained little changed for more than a century. The manufacturer of the best selling line of trikes–Terra Trike–-has sold only around 50,000 units since its founding. Compared to the output of a giant like Trek, that’s small, but in the recumbent world, it’s substantial indeed.
When we bought our Sportsters, we specified Aerospoke rear wheels, but our dealer–Easy Street Recumbents—out of Austin, TX, had considerable difficulty getting them. We also tried to get Aerospoke front wheels, but that proved impossible. Unfortunately, Aerospoke seems to be out of business (see here and here). This screenshot (below) from their website, which is a slight variation of the same thing for the last several months, is apparently all that’s left of them. Fortunately, there is a new company, Encore, that may be able to take up the slack.
My initial impressions of the Sportster have changed relatively little. It is a light and fast trike, not as fast as the few fastest trikes on the market, but more than fast enough for most people. As I’ve put on a great many miles and done necessary maintenance, I’ve been impressed by not only the simplicity and intelligence of the design, but the ease of maintenance. In my initial article, I wrote:
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.
It took a little while before I got the hang of adjusting the steering tension. The trick, as I noted last year, is to leave just enough play to allow the chromed washer under each handlebar clamp to spin freely with finger pressure. This requires careful adjustment–a bit of fidgeting–of the clamp bolt and the cap bolt, but it isn’t difficult. In some ways, having bars that allowed the grip angle to change without moving the entire bar would be helpful, but that would add weight and complexity, and would be more of a convenience rather than a necessity. Still, one can hope.
The wheels/axles are mounted by means of two bushings rather than two bearings, but the tolerances are tight, and as long as one keeps things adequately greased, the steering is smooth and tight. Doing that is easy. One merely removes the cap bolt, loosens the clamp bolt and pulls the bar off its post. A few whacks with a rubber mallet–you have one of those, don’t you, gentle readers?–and the entire wheel assembly slides off the frame. One has to unbolt the steering tie rod too, of course, but that’s easy as well. Reassembly is in the reverse order. All of this is well within the means of anyone halfway competent with tools, and requires only metric Allen and open/closed end wrenches, no special bicycle tools. It’s not high tech, but it works well. Simplicity has a beauty all its own.
This is the new, 2017 Sportster. It is substantially changed, featuring a single, not two-piece–maintube, 24” rather than 20” front wheels, and a steering system with adjustments similar to bicycle headsets. Sportsters come in three models, ranging from $2399 to $3999. I don’t see the 24” wheels as being any real advantage, and the steering system is said to improve high speed handling, but I have no difficulty with that now.
As with all new machinery, one needs to learn all the nuances. At first, The Sportster seemed very fast and twitchy at speed, particularly going downhill, but mastering that was merely a matter of relaxing the hands, arms, shoulders and upper body, and making steering inputs gently and in a relaxed fashion. I’ve managed 42 MPH downhill, and felt completely stable. Pedal steer and brake steer have all but completely vanished as well, again, due to riding in a relaxed manner. That doesn’t mean slow, by the way; it’s just a commentary on using the trike efficiently.
Terra Trike does not manufacture suspended machines as some other manufacturers do. I don’t miss suspension for a moment. The standard Terra Trike seat is very comfortable, and even though it has an aluminum frame–they tend to transmit more road shock than most steel frames–the seat acts as a shock absorber, which, in concert with some frame flex, does the job quite well. Granted, I ride almost exclusively on paved surfaces, but have done some gravel roads, and a little off road riding. I didn’t miss suspension there either, though obviously, wider, lower pressure tires would help for any off road riding. I’m running Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires, 1.35” wide and 95 PSI. Suspension adds expense and weight, factors that should be taken into account in making a purchasing decision.Speaking of steel frames, this a Terra Trike Rover, which comes in several models from $1099 to $1599. It is the least expensive, quality trike on the market. Note the square frame. It features 20” wheels–one needs at least a 26” rear wheel for maximum speed (the Sportster has this), but even at the lowest price point, the Rover has disc brakes. The high seating position, for this trike, is a feature, not a bug.
And speaking of wider, lower pressure tires for off road use, Terra Trike introduced the Rambler AT this year. It’s a modification of the popular Rambler model for off road use, and costs only $2399. It features a round-tubed steel frame (lighter than square), and 24” X 2.1” low-pressure tires with off-road treads. Suspension is obviously good for exclusively off road use, but again, how much do you want to spend, and how gung ho are you? The AT will more than suffice for most people that don’t want to do the most technically demanding off road riding. If one desires that kind of riding, a fully suspended upright mountain bike is going to be the hot ticket anyway.
The Sportster, obviously, is lower, lighter, and faster, and its seating position is much more aerodynamic, without being extreme. The frame has more than adequate ground clearance, but there are a few minor quirks. It’s possible, if one isn’t paying attention, to scrape one’s heel on the pavement when traversing dips. I have large feet–size 12–but it’s easy to avoid by simply leveling the pedals when crossing a dip.
As I noted in the original article, clipless pedals are a necessity. If a foot slips off a pedal at speed, it’s easy for it to whack on the pavement and be pulled under the frame crossbar, potentially causing serious orthopedic damage. With any trike, unclipping for balance when stopping is unnecessary, and clipless systems make power transfer as efficient as it can be. I recommend the Shimano SPD–mountain bike–standard. The shoes are much easier to walk on.
Cornering a trike is purely fun. Trikes turn very rapidly, and the Sportster’s turning circle is small. One can easily turn 180° on the narrowest street. With a little practice, one learns just how fast one can corner without leaning the upper body, and that technique allows high speed cornering. One advantage of most recumbents over upright bikes is the ability to pedal through corners. With the low bottom bracket of uprights, pedaling through corners can allow the inside pedal to whack the pavement, levering the rear wheel off the ground. When that happens, it’s time to get out the condiments, because you’re about to become hamburger. It’s possible to flip a trike, but you have to work at it, and pretty much be asleep at the wheel, so to speak.
An additional trike quirk is evident when traveling the shoulders of highways, most of which are designed for run off. On an upright or two wheeled recumbent, one remains perfectly upright regardless of the slope of the shoulder, but on a trike, one tilts a bit. This initially feels odd, but after awhile, one simply leans the upper body as much as necessary to compensate, just as one leans to negotiate high speed turns.
The Sportster has a direct steering system. The bars are attached directly to the wheels. This tends to transmit vibration and road shock to the bars. The solution is simply to avoid death gripping the bars. It’s good technique to keep a relaxed grip anyway. The tradeoff is the Sportster’s road feel is exceptional, the steering precise and immediate.
The Sportster is comfortable, and even more so after we properly adjusted the handlebars, the seat position and angle, and learned to relax and use the machine efficiently. All of this took a bit of time and experience. No sore crotches, backs, necks or arms. Long rides provoke only the kinds of muscular discomfort one gets with any hard aerobic exercise. It’s a pleasure to ride, from 10 miles to 30 or more.
Another interesting quirk has to do with taillights. We use Planet Bike Superflash Turbo taillights. They’re very bright and long lasting. I originally mounted several directly to the frame of the seat, but discovered the frame, by design, flexes enough to cause the lights to come apart, and lost one before I realized I needed to mount them differently. I simply sewed a strip of ¾” nylon webbing to Terra Trike’s Seat Bag ($39.95)–which should be a mandatory purchase for any Terra Trike–and clipped a taillight there. The bag absorbs any shock, and the light flashes happily. With another light mounted at head level on my flag’s sender pole, it’s hard for drivers to overlook me. Visit the original article for the other accessories we use. They’re all still present and working well.
Everything that needs to be regularly checked or maintained is easy to reach and requires, for the most part, only common metric-sized tools. Bottom brackets, pedal replacement, etc. require some specialized tools, but use the same specifications as those used on upright bikes of all kinds.
Gripes (Minor): One annoyance I’ve found is 20” wheels, while light and stiff in cornering–that’s a good thing–are also small enough to be relatively inflexible when changing tires. I can change a 26” tire without tire levers. I’m strong enough to wrestle the tire off the rim and back on, but not with high quality 20” tires. The solution is the Quick Stick, $2.95, sold by Terra Trike. It’s a large, specially shaped plastic tire “iron.” I use two, and they make the chore much easier. One might do the job, but with two, it’s a piece of cake. They also fit easily in a TT Seat Bag.
One changes front tires, by the way, by resting the trike, on its side, on the opposite side wheel. Place a cloth under the down hub to keep it from being dinged. One doesn’t remove the wheel itself. While that’s possible, it requires removing the disc brake. That’s not hard, but why go to all that extra work when it’s simplicity itself to simple turn the trike on its side? That, by the way, is also how one negotiates doors.
Another gripe is a lack of places to mount a computer. By simply extending the grip portion of the handlebar ¾” to 1” inward, there would be enough room to mount a computer on each bar, saving riders some money. There is more than enough leg clearance to allow this. There are certainly all manner of aftermarket mounts available, but it would be easy to do and a nice touch.
My final gripe has to do with the parking lock buttons. The Promax brake levers, which seem to be an industry standard, look just fine and work well, but the spring-loaded locking buttons rust. Granted, I sweat like there’s no tomorrow–Mrs. Manor doesn’t–but both of my buttons look like they’ve sailed the seven seas. I thought about dipping them in the flexible polymer stuff used to coat the handles of pliers. It’s cheap, colorful, and would probably work, but the buttons are not removable/replaceable, and the springs won’t allow for coating under the buttons, so that method won’t work. I’m about to try painting them, but using plastic locks–that would require a redesign–or at least plastic buttons, would avoid the rust issue.
Final Thoughts: Mrs. Manor and I are satisfied with our Sportsters, and with Terra Trike’s customer service. Every time I’ve had a question, their responses have been cheerful, immediate, and accurate, even with ephemera such as axle bolt torque specs, which is not something one can take for granted these days with any business.
Living with the trikes for more than a year, we understand every shortcoming–very few–and appreciate the design philosophy that produced them. The new Sportsters seem to be an evolution rather than a fix, new technologies and more efficient manufacturing methods incorporated into the same basic design rather than fixing design flaws. For example, the 2017 one-piece frame, rather than the 2016 two-piece frame, is probably slightly lighter and cheaper to produce (the rear stays look to be slightly redesigned), but is unlikely to produce any significant advantage for the rider beyond no need to occasionally check the tightness of two bolts. Were we to buy new Sportsters, we would likely specify 20” front wheels, but otherwise, enjoy the new refinements. But our 2016 models are more than good enough, and the refinements so slight, I can’t imagine spending the money.
For those that want a reasonably priced, fast trike, primarily for road use and maintaining fitness and training, the Sportster is a great choice. And if you’re into touring, off road riding, or even want a tandem trike, Terra Trike has those too.