Broadening test horizons…

Posted on February 26th, 2008 in Driving Emotion,pedal power by Julian Edgar

I’ve just returned from an interstate holiday. Originally from South Australia, my wife and I recently flew back to that state for ten days.

In addition to catching up with family and friends, I also wanted to do some riding. I broke-down my self-built, recumbent, full suspension, pedal trike so that it could be placed in a box for freighting the thousands of kilometres. Because I didn’t want to spend a lot of time reassembling, the box was pretty bloody large.  The cost of interstate freighting was not inconsiderable – but I am still very glad I took the trike.

My home Queensland terrain comprises steep and fairly rough bitumen roads. Most of the roads have no gutters – they’re rural and semi-rural roads. I might be inching my way up a 15 per cent grade one moment, pedalling in bottom gear – and then barrelling down the other side in 81st gear the next. I think the roads are very demanding of recumbent trikes: in fact, it was unhappiness with a commercial non-suspension trike that caused me to start to build my own machines.

But riding the same roads so often has lead to a potentially undesirable outcome: my trike has been developed to perform very well in this environment – but what about in others?

I know its performance at 60 km/h down Magnetic Drive; its exact ride comfort and stability over the nasty bump halfway down that steep hill. I know what it’s like when plunging off the mountain on the Tamborine Village road, the suspension airbags pumping nearly as hard as my heart as the bumps and corners are thrown at the machine in double-quick succession for literally kilometre after kilometre.

But what would it be like on the flat urban roads of Adelaide? How would it perform on the formal cycle ways and shared use pedestrian/horse/bicycle paths? I’ve ridden a Brompton folding bike on some of these routes but would my trike be the major advance that I kinda thought it should be? Or would it simply feel unwieldy, large and heavy – where the lightweight Brompton (or even a Greenspeed X5 recumbent trike) would be nimble and efficient?

I genuinely didn’t know – but I was going to find out!

When the box arrived at my parent’s place at Port Elliot, about 80km south of Adelaide and on the beautiful South Coast, I wasted no time in opening it and bolting the trike back together. A quick ride around the block and then I was set: first trip, Victor Harbor. A cycle path extends along the South Coast from Victor Harbor to Goolwa – some of the most magnificent coastal scenery of beaches and powerful waves you’ll ever see. As a kid I often walked from Pt Elliot to Victor – a distance of about 8 kilometres. The progress that you make on that trip is easily determined by the way in which the Bluff – a sharply rising hill – appears to move against the rest of the landscape.

And, riding my trike, never have I seen the Bluff move so effortlessly and easily.

In fact, after arriving at Victor, I rode the extra distance to the Bluff itself, climbing the very steep road that rises some of the way up it. And, seeing the dirt road that passes part way around the base, I rode that as well. Apart from needing to tighten a loose sway bar link jam nut on one of the rose joints, the trike performed faultlessly.

In fact, I’d go further than that – I was staggered how good it was, especially on the dirt. If I’d shut my eyes and ears, I would not have been able to tell that I was on a bumpy dirt surface. The suspension was that good.

When I got back home, I was one pleased trike constructor.

But it was in night riding that I was most impressed by my trike’s performance. At night you can see much less – yes, even with a very powerful lighting system – and so much more faith needs to be placed in the machine. For example, in Queensland I don’t think I have ever had to ride across spoon drains. In South Australia, these crescent-shaped depressions running across the road are common. Shallow but wide, their shape seems designed to be filled by a 20-inch trike wheel: it creates a suspension movement quite different from that normally experienced.

And it’s when running fast down a short, steep hill, needing to turn across an intersection bisected by spoon drains – and doing all this in the dark – that you need to have real faith in the machine you’re riding. I was immensely gratified with the way in which the trike handled these bumps, ones it had never seen in its development. The steering had poise and precision and the suspension gave isolation yet still had feedback. 

Over the course of the ten days I did about 300 kilometres of riding: a quite trivial journey for any long distance cyclist but by far the greatest distance in the shortest time that I have pedalled in my life. I completed an urban ride around Adelaide (the same one I did on the Brompton); I rode the full length of the Southern Veloway (from Glenelg to McLaren Vale – and back), and I rode the return journey from Port Elliot to the Murray Mouth lookout, crossing rural Hindmarsh Island at dusk with a glorious sunset filling the sky and attentive cows in the paddocks.

And I don’t want to sound like I am completely enamoured of myself and my design, but I was far more impressed with my trike than I ever expected. After the one journey I have also completed on the far lighter Brompton bicycle, I arrived home with no soreness and ready for more – a far cry from last time where I had a complaining bum and sore arms. On some of the longer rides I was certainly very tired when I got home – and I would never claim the combination of my trike and my fitness makes for a fast mix – but I’d always been utterly comfortable and had immensely enjoyed every ride.

Downsides? Clearly my trike is too wide to try to mix it with pedestrians on urban footpaths – much better to be out on the road. (However, on all cycle paths I rode there were absolutely no problems with the trike’s width.) On really winding bike paths, my Luxeon LED headlight has too narrow a beam: I didn’t realise there were kangaroos grazing next to the path behind Goolwa’s rubbish tip until I was almost on them!

But the biggest downside is that the trike doesn’t break down to a tiny, shippable package. Right now, I am working out where I can afford to freight it next, this time with my full complement of camping gear also in the box…

One Response to 'Broadening test horizons…'

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  1. on February 26th, 2008 at 6:20 pm

    You obviously have had a lot more experience in trike/bike building than I, but have you looked at the ICE trikes some of which fold, especially the variation from Velowerk ( Thomas Loesch of Velowerk uses the Swalbe Big Apple ballon tyres as suspension system. The trike folds up small enough to fit in a Dahon “el bolso” bag. Thomas’s web site is in German, but he writes and speaks English.

  2. Julian Edgar said,

    on February 26th, 2008 at 6:40 pm

    I have looked at every suspension trike I have been able to find pictures of. I have only seen two suspension trikes that look even half reasonable, and both had major deficiencies.

    Using just the tyres to provide suspension is, IMHO, as absurd as using tyres to provide the total suspension on a car.

    Most trikes with “suspension” suspend only one of the thee wheels(!), and none that I have seen have a suspension system with adequate travel / static deflection / damping to provide a decent ride.

    So yes, some trikes can be folded, but no, they don’t have decent suspension.