Versatile commuter, medium tourer, rough road warrior
Over Easter I had the pleasure of three days touring a Challenge Furai on loan from Laid-Back-Bikes in Edinburgh.
(Thoroughly drenched on the banks of Loch Sunart)
This was a short ride of a little under 200 miles, evenly split between each day.
We took the ferry from Oban to Craignure, rode round the periphery of Mull, got the ferry from Tobermory to Ardnamurchan, rode to the westernmost point of mainland Britain and thence to Glenfinnan via the wild road along the banks of Loch Shiel. On the third day we returned to Oban via the Corran ferry and sections of the Oban – Fort William cycle path.
(The laden Furai caused a bit of a stir among the pack of riders sheltering at this hotel.
Note my camera bag clipped to the Radical side pannier for easy one-hand access.)
The weather was extraordinarily wet, and I was very glad of the benefits of being laid back – dry feet, freewheeling into the wind as everyone else pedalled away behind, need I say more!
The Furai impressed on a number of scores – it was very smooth and felt light and responsive despite being well laden. It rolled quickly on tarmac, ate potholes and broken surface easily, and even handled the 16 mile logging track by Loch Shiel with a minimum of fuss.
(Sharp bends and a slippery surface made this section of north shore
near Glenfinnan an excellent challenge)
The Furai is no match for a racing bike, in this configuration at least – but compared with an upright tourer or utility bike, it is quite a rapid piece of kit. Even pulling into the wind with my companions taking a draft, I often had to ease up, while I had no difficulties on the climbs.
The gearing allowed a respectable top end combined with a winch-like ability to take on sustained gradients up to 20% (1:5), aided by the slightly smaller wheels. Both at low speed and high the handling was predictable, lazy even – I can’t ride any recumbent no-handed but this is as close as I’ve come.
(Only aquatic Furai range much further west than this…)
Through tightening corners the bike showed no tendency to understeer and wash out as I’ve experienced, with various degrees of pain, on past adventures.
Ride height / comparison
Height-wise the Furai comes in at a happy medium of 46cm (18″), noticeably above low bikes like the Rapto (+19cm/7.5″) and noticeably closer to the ground than the Gaucho (-14cm/5.5″).
The main advantage of being higher is that you can hang bags without worrying about ground strikes while cornering, although if you’re inclined to believe a few inches of seat height is significant in terms of safety you’ll get that too.
Roll over for a comparison with the Gaucho 28
Roll over for a comparison with the Raptobike
Like the Gaucho (in fact, like many European bikes and almost all Challenge ones) the Furai features rear suspension:
This makes a massive contribution to ride comfort when you hit unpaved surfaces (or potholes on the so-called “paved” ones!). It also makes life much less punishing for the frame, seat, and rear wheel which should all see a significantly longer service life.
The suspension is a simple coil rather than the tunable air shock provided by Nazca on my PBP Gaucho 28, but there is some kind of preload mechanism and it’s probably possible to use different springs (in fact, it’s probably possible to fit an air shock if you like, although Challenge would need to confirm).
In case you’ve also read my Gaucho 28 review – whereas I’d take that bike rigid, the Furai is a recumbent whose purpose and construction is ideal for suspension and I highly recommend it on that basis.
Attention to detail in the cockpit is as high as you would expect. The stem is adjustable for easy entry/exit and cables are routed internally:
This maintains very clean lines indeed (although it would be lovely if the front brake also ran straight through the frame, perhaps there is a structural reason this is to be avoided).
In terms of the bars themselves, these are of the ‘preying mantis’ type and were extremely comfortable and precise – even covering rough unpaved roads in the middle of nowhere, these (combined with the thick tyres) really made light work of it.
Having your arms tucked in is considerably more aerodynamic and there’s plenty of real estate for computers and the like. Perhaps the only issue is that to fit into the aperture for internal cable routing, some quite severe curves are required, and indeed the rear disc brake of this bike functioned very poorly.
I didn’t try to fiddle with this as I could have made it worse, but I could actuate the disc caliper manually with good power (i.e. using my hand to press the pads together) so friction was causing the problem somewhere. That said, Challenge sell a lot of bikes with this cable routing, so it’s probably quite fixable and just the result of teething in the setup.
The finishing kit was good – solid SRAM branded parts, works every time. The shifts were crisp and rapid and the front brake at least was powerful and effortless easy to modulate (vital when riding a slick tyre at speed on a muddy gravel logging track!)
At the front, the boom is very clean, with just a small projection of cable outer to help turn the bend (other than this, it’s fully internal which is really nice):
The Furai is equipped with 24″ (ISO 507) wheels, which are just a little smaller than 26″ MTB wheels. The book circumference of a 24″ Kojak is 1844mm vs 1976mm for the 26″ version, a difference of 6.7%.
This makes the Furai noticeably more surefooted at the front than a 20″ bike and allows the bike to tackle unpaved terrain with ease. (By “unpaved”, I mean forestry roads as opposed to mountain biking. This would not be good on rough ground). This, in fact:
Loch Shiel track – off limits to motorists, a 16 mile, wild ‘short cut’ with no tarmac in sight…
The Kojaks are, of course, full slicks with volume and this really lets the bike fly on hard surfaces – loaded or unloaded – while it’s also fine on dry hardpack and dirt. If you make a habit of riding dirt however, something with tread will be worthwhile for muddy days!
We spanned 16 miles of track (from Glenfinnan down Loch Shiel in the Scottish Highlands) and some sections had an inch or two of surface mud from forestry plant that mandated careful attention to detail with the steering column!
There’s a solid range of tyres available in 24″ from Schwalbe amongst others – both wide and narrow.
In the interests of being comprehensive – the 507 rim size is generally paired with wide tyres while narrow ones go with 520 rims. The extra 13mm of the bigger rim compensates to make the final diameter roughly 24″ in either case – hence both are “24 inch wheels”.
(I’m not sure whether Challenge can spec the Furai with 520 wheels from stock. Obviously it makes no other difference to the bike setup, since the discs don’t care)
The mudguard stays are carefully (and finely!) bent to work around the disc caliper.
As we unfortunately experienced three long days (dusk to dawn) of riding in the rain, I had plenty of time to put these to the test and they did a fine job as you’d expect.
The Furai comes with Challenge’s aluminium hardshell seat, and you should be careful to get the right size, since this one was a bit too small for me and I had to fiddle around to make it tolerable.
This makes trying a bike essential (for instance, at a popular dealership such as Edinburgh’s LaidBackBikes).
The seat is extensively drilled and ribbed for lightness and ventilation – yet it’s strong enough to support a max rated weight of 125kg, so you shouldn’t worry about hanging heavy luggage.
The bike comes equipped with the industry standard Ventisit pad. Unfortunately I left the pad in a different car on our way to the start of the trip!
This logistics error then enforced the purchase of a camping mat which I hacked into shape. However, I’m happy to recommend the Ventisit on the basis of many thousands of happy kilometres
The Furai comes equipped with a ‘day rack’, pictured below:
This will support a seat bag nicely, or a pair of panniers – the maximum rated capacity is only 12kg however.
Since the total load limit for the Furai is 125kg (enough for a serious amount of luggage) you will need to look further for a complete solution.
Challenge also make “voyager” racks – which usually take four panniers, two behind and two below the seat, but I don’t think you can fit these to the Furai (the Challenge website isn’t completely clear) so if you wanted to go bigger than 12kg on the luggage front, side-panniers, rather than conventional bags, would need to be taken.
Indeed, I was pleased to be able to demo a pair of Radical Banana Bags, which sling across the saddle and are voluminous indeed (55L for the medium version as tested). I’ve posted a separate review of the Banana Bags here.
You can see below a shot of the fully loaded Furai with bulging Banana Bags and a conventional pannier (to help out another member of the team):
(Yes, that carry mat again!)
The Radical Bags, in the interests of fairness and diplomacy, are a bit tricky to set up correctly, although they have a dozen or so different straps in an attempt to make them one-size-fits-all.
I had some rubbing between the bags and the frame (a bit like cable outer rub) which would need to be addressed with some kind of frame protector stickers if you wanted a setup like this long term.
Drivetrain / Idlers
Unlike the idlers on, say, the Raptobike, Challenge fits ‘floating’ idlers which can move from side to side to accommodate different chain angles without as much side-loading and friction.
Like most SWB recumbents, a return idler holds the chain above the front wheel, giving the ability to turn the bars as far as 90 degrees without fouling (naturally, there’s no possibility of achieving this whilst riding!)
This bike was fitted with two tubes, one power and one return side. To be honest, I didn’t really notice much friction from the drivetrain and they did prevent an overload of oil on my touring clothes.
My one criticism in this area is that the return idler has no guard. As a result of the idler position, which is just inside the knee, it’s possible to ‘run over’ baggy clothes which then derail the idler – this happened twice over the three day trip, although both times the chain ran inside the idler and the bike remained rideable, rather than spilling off the other way.
Nit-picks and Conclusion
Sadly, the Furai didn’t come with a kickstand – although this is certainly something Challenge can provide, so perhaps not a true criticism (buy one!). It will save your paint and make accessing things when there’s no handy fence posts or walls to prop up the bike much easier!
Other than that, and a little trouble with the return idler, I couldn’t really find anything significant on which to mark down the bike. (If I was desperate, I’d point out that the handlebar grip on the left became a bit slippy after three days rain – it’s only a half grip because of the shifters). Really, that’s about it!
Challenge bikes aren’t built to be the cheapest, but for your money you have a well considered, sprightly yet not overly fragile bike that’s about as well mannered and as versatile as a recumbent can be.
With the seat laid back and racing tyres it would be quite a different beast to the loaded tourer with all the trimmings, and in either configuration you can happily mix it with rush hour traffic, secure in the knowledge that you are much larger than painted road markings.
I would say there are two types of people who shouldn’t look at the Furai – those who want to buy a recumbent just to go faster (Challenge, and others, make vastly faster models) and those who want to go expedition touring (get something heavier and less refined).
For the vast majority of riders however, this is a pretty strong offering.
- My main Laid-Back reviews page – all recumbents on one page