Superbly detailed stick bike redefines all stick bikes forever
In all the years I’ve been writing this blog I’ve only put serious hours on one stick bike.
I didn’t like it.
Awkwardly high seat height, tricky open cockpit handlebars which stab your thighs in turns, obstruct your vision when going straight and spoil your aero profile all the time… stick bikes are a bit lighter and have a simpler drivetrain than euro-style 700c bikes, but that’s never enough to outweigh the downsides to the point that I could actually recommend one – until now.
The Schlitter Encore is a development of the established CarbonRecumbent design by a small team including the eponymous Schlitters, and it has basically thrown out some of my assumptions about the way this type of bike has to look and handle.
When you unbox the Encore frameset your first thought will be that, somehow, it looks even better in the flesh than you thought it could. The finish is not just better than the finish on other recumbents I’ve handled, it’s practically in a different league. (If your tastes run to naked carbon you’ll probably prefer the MetaBike, or perhaps an out-of-production Zockra or VeloKraft, but like many high end diamond frame manufacturers, this is a matt finish and it would fit right in with a high end diamond frame stable)
But it doesn’t just look good, and the relatively reasonable price is not the end of the story. The Encore is custom-sized and this gives it perfect weight distribution, addressing the biggest failing of the stick bike school of design, while the subtle crank in the frame (along with the clever seat mount) gives it a comparatively low seat height for the wheel size.
It’s also an extremely versatile bike (where it wins over a couple of lighter rivals), able to be configured as anything from a race bike to a brevet machine or light tourer or (for the very brave) even a gravel grinder. Even the all-carbon road fork has great clearance:
Technically my first thought was actually relief that the box wasn’t just full of packing chips. At just 1900g for a typical frame the Encore is fantastically light – a full kilo lighter than the equivalent parts of an M5 Carbon High Racer, which is itself around a kilo lighter than my Optima High Baron.
It’s not the lightest recumbent in the world, but then if you want a Carbent with the seat moulded into the frame it will cost you plenty extra. The closest rival to the Encore is probably the Bacchetta CA2, which seems to be around half a kilo lighter, but you lose the disc brakes, the tyre clearance and options for different wheel sizes, plus it brings you back to serious handling issues if you don’t sit comfortably in one of Bacchetta’s preset frame sizes.
(I’ll go out of my way here to point out that if you are a good fit on a Bacchetta stick, the weight distribution will be OK, and many people find it to be so).
Let’s get one thing right out of the way at the start – the Encore may be relatively low for a stick bike, but you’re still sitting up too high to offer much shielding to your wheels, and the double-J bars still add quite a significant area of tubing to the bike’s aero profile.
I found the Encore to be surprisingly fast on the flat, but just not quite as fast as Laid Back Bikes’ demo M5 CHR or my highly-optimised High Baron. (The similar Bacchetta CA2 has been benched at a CdA of ~0.20 by a few people online, whereas the M5 has been seen in the wild with a CdA as low as ~0.155).
When it comes to climbing, the Encore really performs well as long as you can keep your thighs inside the open cockpit bars – a couple of times I failed to stay on the bike ascending steep slabs that I’ve managed before and since quite happily on the heavier, flexier High Baron.
Aside from that issue, which only hit me on gradients above 20%, I really found the bike responded well to power and I set a couple of recumbent climbing PRs on local Strava segments while out on test. Part of this is the weight, but I think the surprising rigidity of the Encore’s frame plays a big part (I don’t subscribe to Jan Heine’s planing theory). Check the size of the rear stays, which are triangulated by the seat supports for great stiffness:
The M5 CHR may be stiffer, after all it has an extra kilo of material in the frame, but I’m not certain – there’s not enough in it for me to be confident that it’s more than observer bias either way.
In contrast I didn’t come close to any of my flatter Strava segment PRs, but in fairness they were mainly set on days when I had a beastly tailwind…
Build options, Adjustment, Comfort and Handling
The Encore is just littered with great features, like the ability to separately lift the front and back of the seat as well as sliding the whole seat forwards and backwards (even though the stick itself is custom sized) to absolutely nail your position.
The mount at the front of the seat even has a little rubber ‘tongue’ to prevent any rubbing on the frame if you have the seat cranked down/back, otherwise it just sits out of the way. Very neat.
A wide range of seat angles can be accommodated and you can even choose different seat designs optimised to support you at lower or higher angles. Rather than a large, sometimes-uncomfortable “cup”, the seat on this bike was profiled to keep the lower edges out of my way when laid back, and being narrow enough to let my shoulders move and breathe, the whole experience was extremely comfortable.
Even with narrow tyres I found the ride quality of the Encore to be top notch. The steerage is relatively more nervous than the High Baron or M5 CHR, and this can’t entirely be down to wheelbase, as the Encore actually has a 15mm longer wheelbase than the Baron (although it is 150mm shorter than the CHR). I guess it’s a combination of fork rake / trail / headtube angle.
The Encore is probably more assured than a Metabike, but I’ll leave this as an impression only, as it’s been a year or so since I rode a Meta and I don’t want to give a false impression there. It’s certainly a lot stiffer generally than I remember the Meta being.
The rear triangle of the Encore can be shimmed with enclosed spacers so that it fits 130mm or 135mm hubs perfectly (and the shims bolt on, so once they’re on you’ll never know they’re there). The wider size accommodates disc hubs, which is what allows the Encore to accommodate any size of wheel – you’ll need to choose an appropriate fork from the range available though, as a 700C rim-brake road fork isn’t going to accommodate a 650B 42mm rando tyre!
Plenty of bikes will fit either size, but few do it this nicely (no need to spring a 132.5mm drop out every time you want to remove the wheel!)
Bars & Controls
The “double J bars” do a great job of getting out of the way when looking ahead – they’re basically a kind of cranked variation on the standard u-bar setup, and can be adjusted in more or less any direction imaginable to get a good fit.
I did have a couple of issues getting the bars set up nicely – first, the diameter of the left and right bars where they’re gripped by the riser needs to be very similar, otherwise only one bar is really held firmly enough when you crank down the shared bolts. On my review bike they seemed to be just different enough that one bar would often move independently over the course of a ride, which was pretty annoying.
The bars were also about as short as I could manage (I had them adjusted as far towards the back of the bike as they would go, and it was fine – but if I’d been super short armed, it would be tricky). I did still have had trouble riding with the open cockpit on tight terrain, including on my first commute (where I almost binned the bike at speed after I tried to take a tight right bend and the bars hit my inside leg).
I also gave up on the idea of riding this year’s Tour o’ the Borders on the Encore after I failed to climb the signature hill despite two attempts (at over 20% with lots of pulling on the bars, it was just too hard to keep enough power on and the bars away from my legs) – in the end I rode my High Baron, at 2-3kg heavier still fast enough for a 7th place finish.
Outside of hard climbs and tight manouvers, I did find the cockpit a pretty relaxing place to be. In particular I thought descending on the double-J bar was better than expected – at speed the Encore rides pretty nicely, although then you are more concious of the size of the bars in the wind.
I ran bar tape over Dura-ace bar end shifters and standard brake levers:
Alf Chamings has a good section on the J-bars contrasted with his other bikes in his writeup here.
Finally! A screw fitting on the bottom bracket allows you to mount a light at the optimum point (with separate adapter) – just like on a Euro s-bend frame from anyone since about 1933.
No more lights on the bars which inevitably shine on your feet (which would drive me insane on a 24 hour ride) and no cludgy derailleur post adapters either. Plenty of people already enjoy riding stick bikes fast in the middle of the night, but they’ll enjoy it more with a light out in front of the boom. 😉
It’s not a massive selling point either way, but it’s much easier to mount a tail light on the Encore’s seat stays than on some other bikes, including my old Raptobike or High Baron.
The Encore has the familiar stick bike drive layout of a single over/under idler around the front seat mount.
Unlike a Euro s-frame bike with boom, you don’t need to adjust the length of your chain when you’re sizing up the Encore, as the distance between the bottom bracket and rear dropouts is constant once the bike has come off the assembly line.
Although I didn’t notice any blatant advantage when riding, the Encore has a very clean feeling drivetrain when you spin it by hand (compared to a typical s-frame drivetrain, especially one with chain tubing). It’s also not going to suffer from problems with the chain striking the wheel in tight turns or slapping the fork and frame when you’re powering over rough ground, as you get on a race-trimmed CHR.
I did find that the idler made a bit of noise when riding – no more than any other bike, but we’re still not quite at the point of having a silent recumbent under power!
The front end is a standard threaded BB mount, and worked perfectly with a spare pair of compact double cranks:
The frame is fitted with V-brake and disc mounts for the rear wheel, and I chose to build this example up with a Shimano V-brake so I could take advantage of my wide range of road wheels. Apart from a slight issue with the internal cable routing, which was a little tight to be ideal, I couldn’t have been happier. Powerful stoppers with no fuss – just like it should be, and a big contrast with the High Baron.
The front brake was a Bacchetta x-eye and this was perfectly capable (the massive advantage is that it actually fits, without fuss and without threatening to hit the frame, chain, or whatever..)
Tyres and clearance
The Encore supports any wheel size, and will take tyres up to a whopping 700x42c for ultimate flexibility. The carbon MetaBike is probably the only other frame which remotely competes on this front, and (based on admittedly quite a short test ride of the carbon Meta) I think the Encore has the edge in handling.
I only rode the bike with relatively narrow tyres – up to 700x28c which is my preferred balance between performance and tolerance of rough surfaces. At ~90psi on a 28mm tyre the bike was really comfortable and held to the road like glue on fast rough descents. Fitting bigger tyres would allow it to manage light gravel easily, although the height of the bike above the ground would make me nervous (I’ve only done gravel riding on a Challenge Furai with 24″ fat tyres).
Mudguards and luggage
You can fit proper mudguards to the Encore (“fenders” to our friends in the US) which is good news for people who like to ride in all weather. I don’t fancy four days non-stop riding in Paris-Brest-Paris with a steady trickle of water from the back wheel spraying my neck, thanks… 🙂
When it comes to luggage, you can just fit mainstream luggage to the bike for touring purposes (although you could also go with the usual type of seat bag by Radical et al, I found it difficult to mount anything on the seat due to the close proximity of the rear wheel – less extreme seating reclines are available though).
I did have the option to buy the Encore frameset (at market prices) but in the final analysis I decided that the bike wasn’t quite able to beat the High Baron: although undoubtedly lighter and arguably better looking, I just couldn’t quite get over the aero penalty I felt sitting higher up with the open cockpit bars, not to mention the occasional manouvering difficulty.
I was tempted to try the Encore with a tiller, but meh! It seemed like that would be a waste of the very nice double-J bars. Even with the Encore’s seat dropped to an unrealistically complimentary angle for review photos, this side-by-side photo shows how much sleeker the High Baron is:
In fact my decision not to keep the bike myself actually made it quite difficult to put the finishing touches on this review. Normally the bikes I take out on test (from the Laid-Back-Bikes showroom) are already spoken for, as shop demos or customer builds, so the question of whether I would actually buy one is never that relevant. It is a bit harder to give such a warm recommendation for a bike you could easily have kept, but didn’t…
Overall I think the Encore is a cracking package, mitigating some of the worst difficulties of the stick bike format in a very good looking and lightweight format. It handles excellently within the constraints of the cockpit type and the seat height (although much lower than some stick bikes, you can see it is substantially higher than my High Baron in the photo above).
The fact that the bike is custom-sized and has great weight distribution is, in my mind, the biggest factor behind the great handling properties it enjoys. I really can’t over-emphasise how nice I found riding the bike compared with previous experience of conventional aluminium sticks.
It felt like it would be much easier to live with than the M5 CHRs I’ve tried, although that’s not a great comparison since at 5’10” I’m right on the marginal size to ride that bike at all. YMMV!
In a climate where recumbent manufacturers seem to be going bust in droves, the other thought you may be having is about the long term prospects of the new Schlitter outfit, and things like their dealer support. While I’ve found it very easy to get answers to my emails, of course this is something of a special case, and I can’t speak to the general experience.
However, based on my time with the Encore I would be surprised if these guys aren’t churning out bikes for a long time to come, and I wouldn’t be too concerned, especially if you are able to sort something out through a local dealer instead of ordering the bike unseen (after a few experiences with i.e. Raptobike, you get grateful for this kind of safety net…)
Overall verdict: highly recommended! And I’ll sell a kidney if these guys ever make an s-bend frame as low as the M5 Carbon High Racer but just a little bit more compact!
See also this review by Andy Allsopp, and also this excellent article by Alf Chamings (both of whom are accomplished long distance riders, i.e. London-Edinburgh-London / Paris-Brest-Paris)