M5 Carbon High Racer review

The pinnacle of performance… with some constraints

When I heard that Laid Back Bikes were stocking the M5 Carbon High Racer I had mixed feelings. Partly excitement, but partly trepidation too. With the possible exception of the Cruzbike Vendetta, it seems like there are no production bikes that challenge the M5 CHR for sheer performance on open roads (especially with the demise of rivals like Zockra, Velokraft, Troytec) so one way or another, I was about to discover how good things were going to get for the foreseeable future!

The CHR was introduced at Cycle Vision 2006, so it’s all the more testament to the design that nearly a decade later, largely unchanged, it still sits at the top of the pile. M5 have produced a few one-off bikes for the hour record, and of course there are bespoke options (like John Morciglio) and the barely-useable out-of-production VK Nocom… but that’s about it.

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The winning formula seems to be dual 700C wheels paired with what is conventionally a lowracer frame design – keeping seat height down to just 48cm (a bit over 19″ – without pad) and shielding the upper half of each wheel (where effective airspeed is highest) in the dirty air around the rider’s body. The M5 Carbon High Racer is actually lower than many midracers, and much lower than US-style stick bikes. Combine that with a massive all-carbon construction for ultimate stiffness, and away you go.

Aesthetically the M5 CHR is not great, in the eyes of this beholder – side-on is definitely the “best side” of this design – in the flesh it looks boxy and ungainly. The free flowing shapes of a Zockra or VK frame are much more pleasing, but you can at least admire the fact that the CHR was modelled and built for a specific purpose – to go fast, rather than merely to look fast!

In a strange way, it has something of the awkward kit-car feel that I got from the Milan velomobile I reviewed a few years back. There are options such as paint or a more traditional carbon finish, but then you’re talking about a nine month wait and significant upcharge from the factory.

If you want a really nice factory finish, the Schlitter Encore is far and away at the top of the pile (full review coming soon).

Weight

M5 make some bold claims for the all-up weight of the M5 CHR. I’ve now handled three separate examples but didn’t disassemble them to weigh the components separately – the one pictured tipped the scales at just over 10kg (22lbs) including seat pad and pedals, and there are some obvious weight savings that could be made if money was no object.

However, Aussie randonneur Andrew Heard has disassembled and weighed his CHR and the parts are heavier than you might think: 2600g for the frame, 500g for the boom, 670g for the seat, 440g for the fork, 200g for the bars.

Taking only the frame and boom into consideration, that means my High Baron is only 500g heavier than the CHR, while the fabulous Schlitter Encore (at 1900g) saves 1.2kg over the CHR (and the Schlitter is also cheaper… bonus!)

Weight isn’t everything – especially when the bike is very aerodynamic and the extra weight is providing a super stiff platform for power application. The front of the High Baron is noticeably soft compared with the CHR, especially in the small ring. However, a whole kilo saved on the Encore does contribute to measurably faster climbing: ~0.14mph extra on a 10mph hill with power and all else equal. Does the aerodynamic edge of the CHR (if any) outweigh this?

Performance

The CHR is very stiff compared with anything else I’ve ridden – and no wonder when you consider the enormous cross section of the frame:

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When it comes to speed, I did put the M5 head-to-head with my High Baron and the Schlitter Encore in this article. The take-home message is that without optimising the Laid-Back demo CHR for my purposes, there was nothing much in it at the low power levels I can sustain for multi-hour rides.

The M5 CHR could certainly be significantly sped up with a flatter seat, and I have set a couple of downhill Strava segment PRs on it, so there is definitely potential beyond the High Baron, which is slammed as far as it can go. Note also that the flat course deliberately isolated the aerodynamic component, further flattering the High Baron (which is heavier and more flexible than the CHR and Encore).

The best independent figures I’ve seen for the CHR are from this old post by Sean Costin where he gets 25.6mph for 200W in a velodrome with an aero wheelset – that’s a 3mph step up from my own speed at the same power and compares well with Larry Oslund’s recent 100 mile ride (25mph for 194W on an open road loop) on an optimised Cruzbike Vendetta.

As ever, be careful about ranking bikes based on the performance of their riders. CdA and Crr are objective measurements, and you don’t have to check many race reports to see what a massive difference the rider’s condition makes – see Maria Parker’s Hoodoo 500

Adjustment, Comfort and Handling

First and most important, the long wheelbase and slack head angle of the M5 CHR make it quite a limiting bike in terms of rider height.

At 5’10” with pretty average legs for my height (X-seam 42-43″) I can ride comfortably providing the cranks are cut down to 155mm. Regular cranks at 165mm would not be possible unless I went for a pedal with a higher stack height (i.e. effectively have slightly longer legs):

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You can of course drop down to a smaller wheel, like a 650 or 26″, but beware! For mortal cyclists who are not putting in massive wattage, rolling resistance is a huge component of performance and it scales roughly in reverse proportion to the size of your wheels. In this great topic on BROL, we see a more aerodynamic Velokraft VK2 lowracer is not actually faster than a Zockra highracer until somewhere around 300W, way beyond the sustainable power for most riders. This is because 50% more rolling resistance is more than offsetting the aero benefit.

Leg length aside, there is a deep drop from the bottom bracket to the seat on the M5 CHR, which may or may not suit you as a rider (some find it gives them hot feet, for instance) but the low seat height above the ground can hardly be overstated as a handling advantage. It’s just so easy to get your feet down on the CHR and this promotes confidence in traffic, hill starts, and the rest. In that respect, this is far and away the most rideable performance recumbent I’ve had the pleasure of pedalling.

At speed the long wheelbase makes the bike feel incredibly relaxed, and it’s almost possible to ride no hands.

m5_carbon_high_racer_1

However, take a look at the amount of overlap between the chain and front wheel. Without running an extra idler, the M5 CHR can be an extreme handful to negotiate tight bends – if you venture onto bike trails, beware! It also adds an extra degree of difficulty to steep hill climbing, where you may be zig-zagging the bars. Pulling away from T-junctions on small country roads can also be quite a big challenge (I try to pre-position myself on the minor road, so I’ve got the first half of the turn done without crossing the give way line).

I run my High Baron with a dropped chain so am no stranger to this way of riding, which deliberately adds handling difficulty as a trade-off for drivetrain efficiency. The M5 CHR is an all-round harder bike to ride (chain dropped or otherwise) in exchange for the performance boost it gives you.

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The carbon seat is narrow but very comfortable – the curve at the bottom should not bother the back of your legs unless you go for a wildly laid back seat angle. Note the cut-out at the front of the seat to allow it to be mounted far forward – without this it would be impossible to fit riders less than 6′ or so to the bike at all!

This bike was fitted with the obligatory Ventisit pad. Nothing much to mention there!

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The seat angle is essentially fixed from the factory, to one of three different carbon “pillars” that hold the seat off the frame. (I believe it may be possible to get a new frame shipped bare with the pillars loose, if you want to experiment). The stock seating angles are not outrageous, at 18, 20, or 23 degrees. You can obviously pack under the seat to lift it, but vice-versa is not so straightforward.

Seat, Bars & Controls

Another distinguishing feature of the M5 cockpit is the short stem and tiny handlebars:

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I have to be honest and admit that these are too narrow for me. There’s not enough room to rest your whole hand on the bar, which is fine if you’re riding hard and paying attention, but not great for longer rides at all. An implementation with different shifters could clear enough space to rest the whole hand, but not this one.

However, I did really like the fancy aerodynamic brake levers mounted under the stem – very comfortable (even if the implementation does slightly fail to live up to its promise). I gather these are out of production unfortunately – you can just about see on my dual-700c lowracer project page that I ran conventional brake levers staggered on my Rapto’s stem for a while…

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The narrow width does promote a very tight and aerodynamic shape on the bike, which is its main advantage. Try holding the handlebar assembly of an open cockpit like Bacchetta’s out of the window of a car doing only 30mph and you will feel a surprising amount of resistance from all that tubing. The M5 solution keeps your computer and mirror close to your face and everything is tight for maximum efficiency.

In the interests of fairness, I will point out that a lot of US riders don’t seem to get on with this kind of bar at all, and ride open cockpit despite the disadvantages (or to be precise – for those riders the tiller bar has more disadvantages, so they made a smart choice). YMMV!

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Lighting

A nice touch is the front mount for lights – this saves attaching a heavy and potentially unreliable adaptor to your boom or derailleur post to carry illumination on longer events. (Ironically, this particular bike is fitted with an adaptor to mount a battery light, but standard European lights bolt directly to the boom).

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The back of the CHR is singularly badly suited to fitting lights. You can get by using the headrest at a push, or whatever your luggage solution is, hang a light off it!

Drivetrain

You can run your choice of drivetrain on the M5 CHR. This particular bike had a tighter cassette than I’m used to (for smaller jumps between gears) but a triple ring up front to allow climbs of 20% or more, as demonstrated by David Gardiner on the Tour o’ the Borders.

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The same hill completely defeated me on the Schlitter Encore and I was barely able to manage it on the High Baron, but of course you can choose your own gears, so YMMV! The bottom bracket is a standard threaded fitment. No press-fit here…

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Perhaps because of the boxy carbon frame, I found the M5 Carbon High Racer to have a fairly loud drivetrain. The short length of chaintube was OK (although my own bike I would remove this and have a dirty leg) but the power idler really rattled. It wasn’t any better or worse than my High Baron, but I would pay a lot of money for a totally silent recumbent drivetrain :(

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This bike had a return idler fitted to the headtube which helped make the bike more steerable in tight sections and also reduces the chance of slipping the chain from the front end. Again, you’re trading a straight and efficient drivetrain for handling convenience.

Brakes

I gave the brakes their own section merely to emphasise how much better they are than the brakes on my High Baron. These are the exotic M5 super-light Brams brakes, tipping the scales at 80g. (Not quite enough to offset the 1.2kg weight penalty over the Encore frameset, but pretty nice all the same).

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The brakes are plenty powerful even with the thumb lever on the handlebars, allowing you to ride with confidence. The rear caliper is mounted under the frame, protecting it from road spray and improving the cable run:

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Tyres and clearance

The M5 Carbon High Racer has disappointingly small tyre clearance – 25mm tyres are the widest I could fit, and even then it required a tight and true wheel. My favoured 28mm Schwalbe One was a complete no-go!

The pictures here are showing a 25mm tyre, with basically no clearance at the front or rear:

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This is one of the few areas where the bike shows its age. Now that the peleton is moving even to 25mm tyres (wider for the Spring classics) it’s a bit awkward to have a recumbent that won’t run to 28mm. We don’t need the massive clearance of a Metabike frame here, but unless you ride perfect blacktop asphalt, it does put the CHR at an unnecessary disadvantage.

Don’t get me wrong – the CHR is a fantastic descender with the super stable long wheelbase and slack head angle. However, on quiet Scottish roads, it’s certainly losing out without the ability to run a more forgiving, faster-rolling tyre.

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Mudguards and luggage

A front mudguard is not so easy, but a rear one can be fitted too much trouble. And as for luggage… you can fit a rack and do some touring if you can only get over the limited tyre size. In fact, as one visitor to Edinburgh demonstrated, you can go crazy on your touring luggage!

m5_chr_luggage

Conclusion

In the end the M5 Carbon High Racer is a bit of a mixed bag.

When I first rode the High Baron, I was instantly hooked. It handled perfectly, it was super smooth and easy to live with (except the terrible brakes!) and put out a mean turn of speed for a very reasonable price. I expected to get on the M5 CHR and feel like I had “gone to 11″ but in the end it was a much more incremental experience. Perhaps the hype is so great that I was inevitably going to be slightly let down.

If you aren’t tall enough, handling could be badly compromised, or you might have to compromise the spec of the bike itself to get on it. Once you’re on, if you can put up with the sometimes challenging low-speed handling, the minimal tyre clearance, the tiny handlebars, and the fact that it’s surprisingly heavy for a fully carbon bike… you’ll be on a super stiff and aerodynamic speed machine!

While there are certainly lowracers with a more aerodynamic profile, only the most powerful riders can hope to put in enough watts to overcome the higher rolling resistance of those designs. The average guy (and anyone doing brevets!) will experience better performance on a big-wheeled bike, and pretty much the best performance of all on the M5 CHR.

Don’t get me wrong – the M5 Carbon High Racer *is* the fastest bike I’ve ever ridden over mixed conditions on real world roads. It’s really quite tempting as a prospect to replace my High Baron for a big year of riding in 2016, if not the step-change in performance that I hoped it would be (and at considerable expense!)

For casual riders, I’m not convinced the M5 Carbon High Racer is such a good choice, especially if it would be your only bike. It’s a bit of a hassle, and it punishes mistakes in a way that would simply never happen on a Nazca or Optima design. As a first recumbent this would be a very courageous choice indeed.

In my opinion the Schlitter Encore (and perhaps the carbon Metabike or Performer HR) is a massive challenger for our money if you are looking for a better *all round* experience. See Rob Williams’ (aka Darkersider) short review of this same M5 CHR for perhaps a more positive outlook.

Available to demo now via Laid Back Bikes, and I honestly wouldn’t recommend this bike without trying it out first… you have been warned! :)

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17 Comments

  1. Zoltán NAGY

    Lying in the bed, I wondered whether I should opt for a M5 CHR or Schlitter Encore (formerly known as CarbonRecumbent), and voilà I found this brand new post about the former.

    Thanks for it.

  2. Dave

    And I’m just putting the finishing touches on the Encore review too… give me a couple of days! :)

  3. Zoltan, the Encore is quite a bit more than a simple rebranding of the original CarbonRecumbent. The frame is still made by the same wonderful Hungarian factory, but there have been major changes to its carbon fiber placement and geometry, in addition to the different seat and handlebar setups of course.

  4. Zoltán Nagy

    I had known Julian, it is one of the reasons why I opt for it.

    Here in Hungary I found a bike shop whose profile is ebikes and recumbents, but alas I could not test any CarbonRecumbent, nor any Encore there.

    I know from bentrideronline that you work for Schlitter. Maybe I should ask it not on this website, but is it possible somehow to test an Encore in Hungary? I live very close to Budapest, But I am ready to drive to Fuzfogyartelep and visit Szatuna, if it helps.

  5. Zoltán, please get in touch with Ádám Novák, in Hungarian, German or English, at pleezwrite@gmail.com

  6. Nagy Zoltán

    Done. Thanks, Julian.

  7. Thanks for a most detailed review, Dave. I’m looking forward more than ever to you getting your hands on an M5 M-racer. I had the chance to ride both the CHR and M-racer at CycleVision, and found the latter the more comfortable and better handling of the two. Not being that much of a speed freak, the choice seems easy for me. Still, I’d love to see your thoughts on how these two compare…

  8. Matěj Novotný

    Great review, Dave.

  9. Nice review, Dave. Thanks for clarifying some of my suspicions about this in some ways excellent bike. I look forward to reading a comprehensive review of a Challenge Chamsin or similar (lightweight, dual 700c) as I am leaning toward something more practical for my next bike, but didn’t want a stick bike or something as high up as the Gaucho.

  10. Certainly a very detailed look at a bike that seems to have gradually gathered a following outwith NL. Being someone that has sold both the M5 and Schlitter I shouldn’t really say more than try both if you are in Edinburgh. Or find your nearest dealer.
    I’ve now got a new M5 CHR up and running. Not got an M-Racer to compare but know that one of my customers is customising his CHR with a smaller front wheel. Personally I like running 700s and would only recommend a change to a 26″ front for less tall riders. Initially it is hard on slow speed turns with a drop chain but this is not an ‘in town’ bike. Well not if you need to weave around traffic and bollards – unless you hook up extra return idler.
    That said I did a run to post office today at 14.7mph average in Edinburgh. That included several stops at lights and small hills, sharp turns etc. I rate that as as quite fast versus anything else I’ve ridden.
    (Nazca Gaucho is not that high btw. Chamsin I’ve yet to try.)

  11. Scott Baxter

    The M5 CHR was my first recumbent, and I built it from a frameset. I have a permanent reminder of the blood I spilt learning to ride it on my right forearm. I don’t name bikes, but this one will either be named bluebarge, scarmaker, or wtfwasithinking.

    Everything in the review is true. It is not as light as people think. That’s a lot of carbon fibre and resin in the frame – it’s a beast. Tiller steering with the hands placed so close together really is sensitive, particularly if the tiller is longer and flatter (counterintuitive, but I bought all the tiller angles when I bought my frameset and tried all the combinations). The dropped chain is ludicrous in real world urban riding, but there’s a diehard crew of true believers out there who say you’re a tosser if you can’t handle it. Raise the return chain and be done with it.

    On flat, smooth roads it’s a dream. I use a Power2max crank powermeter on the bike and 25 mph at a little over 200 watts is easy, even with a lifted return chain that is supposed to totally gut efficiency. If you use the tallest seat pillar your bum will kill you after the first 100 km, too much weight on a hard platform ventisit or not. The shortest seat pillar distributes weight far better but renders the M5 headrest all but useless. Buy the Adem product and be done with it.

    The chainline is a bear. I run a compact double with a tandem idler, and the chainline is tough to manage. Ideally the crank needs to be 5-8 mm outboard (I use MegaEXO BB) but that can’t be achieved short of a square taper BB. You get more chain noise than would otherwise be the case. If I had to do it all over again I don’t know if I’d choose the M5, first recumbent or not. I wanted fast and I got it, but its compromises in urban environments are not trivial. The learning curve was very high, to the point that I was freezing up trying to start the bike in stark panic of falling over clipped in before I made 180 degrees of crank rotation.

    I almost sold the bike, but persevered and fear it no longer, but I don’t think it will ever be a bike I could love like my old Aluminum Specialized E5 S-works. I bought the M5 because my Catrike 700 felt like a pig, but the pig could poke up a long, steep pitch at 3-4 MPH whereas the M5 has to be keeping 6 MPH minimum or else you start weaving, and you’ll soon be on the ground once that starts. Anyone who consistently rides in a congested urban environment really needs to think twice about this bike, but if you want to find a long straight road and hit warp 23 then this is the steed for you, just don’t try to make a hard right onto a bike path and slip between the bollards at speed, particularly while pedaling. I have another scar on my left achilles tendon to remind me of that folly.

  12. Dave

    Thanks for the great comment, Scott!

  13. James Dibble

    Nice review!
    I have been riding an M5 CHR for a couple of years now. I personally love the bike. I liked how it felt when I got on it and I like how it rides.
    I can understand how it may be a bad choice for a beginner with the tiller. I rode one with the open bars and it was a different beast…very easy to ride. I will throw in a few caveats that change my riding experience. I am tall. 6’2″ with long legs.
    And, this wasn’t my first recumbent. I do run with a dropped chain and this does take getting used to. I don’t think about it now. I run with 25mm ties that are tubeless. So, I can run at about 90psi and have a great ride. I will tell you that this is a long bike so the ride was smoother than my other aluminum bike by a mile with similar tires. All in all the bike will be in my garage for a long time. Again, nice review and keep up the good articles!

  14. Emiliano Dominguez

    Hello, very nice review and comments also. Glad to read things about my bike, good and not so good ones. I especially appreciate the tricks and solutions tried to solve the issues as I need all the useful infos to apply them on my bike.
    I´m not too tall, 178cm, just in the limit to ride the CHR I suppose. I made the notch in the front part of the seat and drilled new holes aprox 5 cm further back, moving. Installed short cranks to test they (140mm) and also get more space. My knees are far better now.
    Current issues are the installation of an extra return idler and a transmission revamp to 10 speed (lots of money…)
    I have the same wheels on my bike (H Plus Son Archetype), feeling solid and confident. Like to lean in the curves.
    I would appreciate your comments and info about BB and Chainsets as I want to replace mines in the future.
    I will comment results after tweaks learned here.
    Best regards from Valencia, Spain.
    Emiliano Dominguez

  15. john scarlett

    Great review!
    As the new owner of the very bike used in the review,I would like to add a few comments.
    My first impressions were that this was a bike for communists only ,as turning to the right seemed impossible!
    However I have installed a terracycle over under idler and a 9 inch section of floating chain tube(suspended on a short length of bike chain from the front idler socket- allowing the chain tube to rise and fall with different chain rings and move in or out). This lifts the return chain about half an inch above the front wheel allowing easy right turns with no appreciable friction added..However getting this to work required quite a lot of filing of the front derailleur cage to avoid the chain catching the lower lip of the cage when on the smallest front ring.
    Everything just works by about a one millimeter margin on this bike!
    Heel strike is still a problem – I don’t see how a very steep incline with tight hairpins and oncoming traffic (Applecross for example )could be tackled without a smaller front wheel.
    I have the seat as upright as I can ,but I don’t feel it climbs a 15-20% or so gradient as well as my P38 or even my 18kg Streetmachine. Maybe I am used to a bottom bracket a bit lower or at the same level as the seat in these situations which allows one to lift the butt off the seat for some extra power.Also the more upright seat on these bikes does seem to help transmit more power on a climb.
    But on a lesser gradient ,the M5 is brilliant and on flats and downhills ,I am a flying old age pensioner .Very stable at high speeds and no wobble when re -engaging the pedals again after a down hill freewheel when speed starts to drop below about 35 mph.
    Not being a fan of twist grip shifters ,I replaced these with thumbies and mounted these on a slightly wider handlebar – don’t think an extra couple of inches overall affect the aerodynamic profile significantly.This also allows a decent bar end mirror to be fitted.
    I was pleasantly surprised by how well it behaved in city traffic.Being just over 6ft 2 ,I find it easy to straddle the seat and walk hobby horse like if necessary across busy junctions without having to dismount and to push off with this technique with a bit of momentum if caught in an inappropiate gear.
    I love the feeling of being “in” this bike rather than on it and that it looks as if it is made of recycled black bin bags rather than the high tech carbon it is actually made of.
    A combination of a terracycle “sling seat” bladder bag and Radical rear tail bag is ample for day rides and I don’t see why banana bags wouldn’t work for longer trips .
    The M5 certainly satisfies the need for speed in my old age,but I don’t think it would be ideal for novices, short riders or as a one bike does all option.

  16. Big Al

    Another great review. Please consider reviewing the Performer high racer. I would be interested to know how you think that bike compares to this and your High Baron.

  17. Wolfgang Richter

    Thank you for this review. It confirms my experiences with this bike. I bought it last year and of course it is a very fast bike. But to come along with it took me about 1000 km. Now I can ride it quite easily. There are still some things which are difficult but anyway it’s ok now.
    And then I tried a Baccetta Aero, and immediately I fell in love to it, so I will sell the M5 even with a little bit of sadness. But I don’t have enough space to store 5 bikes. (there are still 4 uprights)

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