Azub Twin recumbent tandem

Some brief thoughts on the Azub Twin recumbent tandem

Travelling together

I took a break from the demands of parenting for an extended spin on the Azub Twin recumbent tandem with David Gardiner from Laid Back Bikes

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The Azub Twin is a folding aluminium bike which is designed for everything up to heavy duty touring – with the possibility for four panniers behind the stoker (two on this model) plus another two under the pilot’s seat (as seen here). It’s no lightweight and you can easily imagine running it in the wild country without being concerned that anything will break and leave you stranded.

First, a quick whirl around the bike with my observations:

Up front the Azub Twin runs on a 20″ wheel with ample tyre and mudguard clearance. As you can see, it’s suspended which definitely takes the sting out of what would otherwise be a bit of a bumpy ride (or it allows you to run a harder, more efficient tyre pressure at a given comfort level):

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Braking is provided by Avid BB discs (but a wide range of finishing kit is available). You can see the mudguard stays and brake caliper are nicely positioned and routed, in keeping with a high level of finish quality around the bike:

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Same applies at the rear. The bike can come with Alfine Di2, ordinary cassette and a few options in between:

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In use the mechanical discs were just fine for stopping power. This included a good run down a 10% grade, but nothing alpine (with any recumbent, I think you need to consider brake heat carefully if you want to ride in the Alps!)

On this model, the rest of the drivetrain comprised a single ring up front mounted on the left hand side, with a triple on the stoker’s cranks:

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This range of gears was plenty to allow winching up stiff gradients (frankly, as slow as I could possibly manage to balance the bike!) and also to motor along on the flat. There’s a good top gear because of the 26″ drive wheel but the bottom gear isn’t incredibly low for the same reason.

Suspension at the rear is provided by a pair of air shocks. We struggled I think to get the air pressure right so I don’t want to knock off marks for a firm ride (but it was firm!). Experimentation is definitely needed, because with two rear shocks you can’t rely on the guide pressure at all, and I’m not sure it’s linear (two half pressure shocks seem a lot firmer than one at recommended pressure? If anyone has an insight on this, please leave a comment!)

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The chain is controlled with an over/under idler and on this model, plenty of chain tube to protect both the captain’s and the stoker’s legs.

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While we’re under the seat, take a look at the mounting hardware – quick release with a graduated scale (if the riders want to trade places often, this would be a significant advantage). A track is moulded onto the frame to guide the lower seat support. This adjustment is provided in addition to the telescopic boom (you can read about the Ideal Position System on the Azub website):

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The frame also telescopes to accommodate stokers of different heights.

The seat height for the captain especially is quite a lot higher than you might initially expect, considering the small front wheel. I assume this is ultimately needed to keep clearance for the underslung pannier rack:

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I found the bike a little bit of a handful but my legs are relatively short for my height (which is not quite 5’10”). The cockpit setup is uncontroversial – folding tiller and trigger shifters on this model, but the specifics would vary depending on how the bike was built.

One thing to note is that the captain’s seat height is lower than the first time I wrote about the Azub Twin a few years ago (showing that the company are sensitive to feedback) so if you’ve read that write up, it’s an important caveat to bear in mind when considering a new model.

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I didn’t see the bike fold, but here’s a shot of the plate joining the two halves together. Not much risk of this coming undone by accident!

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Ride observations

I’ll divide this into two parts:

If you’ve never ridden a recumbent before at all, you should factor in significant learning effort. The stoker doesn’t really have much to contribute other than pedalling (or not!). They do need some awareness of foot positioning at stops and restarts lest you fail to apply power when you need to and come unstuck. But fundamentally, it’s really just the captain who needs to figure out how to balance and steer the bike and then agree on some method of communicating stops, starts and gear changes.

For those of you who can ride a solo recumbent already, I would say that the Azub Twin is on the harder end of bikes to get comfortable with, based on my experience. I rode the first couple of miles as stoker and then swapped once we got into the open country, and it took me probably an hour before I was comfortable with stops/starts/junctions. There’s something very sharp and direct about the steering on the Twin that didn’t give me huge confidence at very slow speed. At least with the tiller, you can move the bars as much as you wish without any risk of hitting your thighs.

It’s been too long since I rode the Nazca Quetzal to make a direct comparison but while I remember the Quetzal as imperious and ultra stable, the Azub Twin felt more flighty and less reassuring. Of course, depending on your preference you might find the Quetzal slow to turn and less nimble, the Twin might be just to your tastes.

All I can really add to this is that after trying the Quetzal I definitely felt inspired to take it on a family tour (though I never did). I wasn’t left with a burning desire to persuade the family onto the Azub Twin. It would probably be a good idea to try both bikes if at all possible because a lot of this is in the eye of the beholder.

Also check out my review of the Quetzal from five or so years back. It’s worth noting that, as well as a higher maximum luggage capacity you can get the Azub Twin with underseat steering – not an option on the Quetzal.

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Mystery free corner parking at cyclists’ expense

Edinburgh Council gives three lucky motorists unrestricted free city centre parking, right on a corner where the national cycle route comes on and off…

Double yellows burned off for three lucky drivers, screw national cycle route

My commute to work got marginally more interesting recently when Edinburgh Council burned off double yellows on a corner next to the national cycle route access on Russell Road.

This corner was already bad for oncoming traffic cutting the corner, but it’s become joke-like since the three lucky motorists got free unrestricted parking just a stone’s throw from the city centre. At least one report of a collision has popped up on the CityCyclingEdinburgh forum.

Only in Edinburgh, the model cycling city 🙂

2016 Tour o’ the Borders – video

1st place finish at this year’s Touro, shortly after the birth of our twins… a gruelling effort!

So the big day finally arrived, three weeks after the birth of twins which made the McCraw household less of a place for bikes and event preparation…

After hardly any sleep for weeks, lots went wrong on the day but I can’t be too critical because I pulled off the upset, placing 1st with a time of 3:31 on a very windy and respectably hilly course. Again, proper write-up to follow in due course!

Who would have imagined that I would be the first rider to summit the 20% climb at Talla… on a recumbent?

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I can only say that the agony of having newborn twins makes any amount of bike riding, however hard, seem like no problem – so I can’t take much of the credit for this performance… In the meantime, below is the whole of the event sped up to 800%.

At 3:00 into the video you can see me put in a break on the peleton (such as it was). I held this for almost the whole of the next 69 miles, and was first to summit four of the five climbs on the event – all except Paddy Slacks near the finish, where I had finally been reeled in by another break. I then set the KOM on Paddy Slacks descent towards the Tweed by quite some margin to go on and sneak the overall result by just five seconds.

More highlights from the video:

The climb up Talla begins at 10:00 and the descent down the other side at 11:00

The descent from Megget to the extremely fast St Mary’s Loch section is from 12:00 (picked up a KOM here!)

The descent from Berrybush into Ettrick valley at 15:50

Finishing the Swire climb and screaming descent from 19:35

The final climb up Paddy Slacks starts at 22:00 and you’ll see one solo rider then two pairs manage to pass me. I immediately overtake the second pair on the descent (from 23:30) where I picked up another KOM.

Pain now to Peebles. After 26:00 you can see some nice descending from Kailzie and the run in to the finish. Boom!

To be continued with a full write up in due course…

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2016 Etape Caledonia – video

Headcam footage of the first half of the 2016 Etape Caledonia (I finished in 21st place).

This year I rode the Etape Caledonia as a warm-up to get me training early in the year (if you like, a B event ahead of August’s Tour o’ the Borders).

I finished in 21st place, five minutes off the pace, which wasn’t awful for the first ride of the year. The High Baron was great as usual, mainly held up by traffic in the first two thirds of the ride, as can be seen on the video.

I’ll write a longer report separately, but I did get a headcam rigged up to the front of the bike which recorded roughly the first half of the ride before the batteries died:

After the video ends, there’s one climb up Schiehallion (not as long as you’d expect, nor as steep – it took me just over eight minutes at 270W), a bit of descent then a pretty dull main road finish, barring a slightly lumpy section immediately before the line.

I was pleased to ride the Etape just to see what it was like, and it did prove valuable incentive ahead of the Touro in August, but I have to say that the quality of the riding isn’t great with so many others on the course. I did a recon ride a few weeks before and was only passed by a handful of cars, but otherwise had it all to myself!

27mph road rash…

Bit of a crash on the way home…

The bike’s NOT FINE

Bit of a drama yesterday on the way home from work. I hooked around Leith-Winchburgh-Kirkliston way and had a full front tyre blowout on Long Dalmahoy road.

It turns out 27mph is a fast speed to go down, and it’s a mixed bag being on a recumbent!

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On the one hand there’s not much chance of breaking anything and you can’t hit your head, so by and large I’ve had a very successful time crashing recumbents as opposed to the agony of decking out from a normal bike.

On the other hand, if you’re going really fast, landing on the side of your derriere and sliding home concentrates your road rash pretty badly. That one is seeping through the dressing I put on already 🙁

Bike needs serious TLC and so does my kit! Just three weeks before Etape Caledonia too. I might need to take a look at those fancy hydrocolloid dressings!

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The Dirty Reiver Was Not “Too Hard”

3,500m of ascent, 200km of gravel, and cake. It can only be the Dirty Reiver…

“A true challenge is one where a finish isn’t a certainty”

Last Saturday I rode the fantastic Dirty Reiver “gravel grinder” through Kielder forest.

I hadn’t spent more than ninety minutes on a bike since the summer before, so it was tough – a 200km course with almost 3500m of ascent, an endless procession of winching climbs and screaming descents with your tyres rattling over hard packed forestry roads.

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The course was super neat, with only a couple of short links on tarmac and three slightly rugged rocky sections (think easy mountain biking more than “driving my 7.5 tonner through the forest”) to join up massive sections of forest road. There was even a ford, which finally put paid to my hopes of keeping my feet dry!

My commuter largely held together except for an unfortunate flat on the (tubeless) rear early on. It would have been nice if someone had told me I’d left my hub dynamo switched on before the first feed stop though… doh!

The feed stations were excellent and all the marshals were unrealistically happy and enthusiastic about standing around the middle of nowhere as four seasons of weather blew over.

After a bruising 175km we hit the shores of Kielder reservoir for a fantastic hour of zooming and tricky cornering on manicured dirt – it felt like velodrome boards in comparison to what had come before!

I got back to the finish line at Kielder castle with nothing much left in the tank, to find free beer and warming soup on tap. It’s hard to believe the first major UK gravel event went so smoothly, massive congratulations to the team who put it all together.

And yeah, it was very tough but not too hard as some may suggest. I’d say just about right, it was a genuine challenge that left me feeling battered and satisfied with my memorial cloth badge. The strap line on the event T-shirt (see subtitle above) sums it up nicely for me…

May there be many more events like this!

Recumbent power training

Observations on sweaty self-abuse in the garage, as I have one last mid-life crisis fling with bike fitness!

Observations on sweaty self-abuse in the garage

This spring I’ve had a turbo set up in the garage with the High Baron on it, and I’ve been doing 2×20 minute intervals.

I haven’t ridden a recumbent seriously since August, and I wasn’t in the best shape then either. However, I’ve kept up my hundred miles a week commuting on a DF through the winter, and a fair bit of running.

I’ve never done structured training before for any sport. I’m aiming to do better at a couple of sportives (Etape Caledonia in May, Tour o’ the Borders in August) than I have previously from just commuting mileage. Call it an early midlife crisis…

Potential FTP / diamond frame performance

I’ve assumed my recumbent FTP could get as high as ~300W since I climbed Alp D’Huez last summer, on a normal bike, at an average of 291W – which took me just over 58 mins.

I was halfway through a week of big climbs and riding solo, so maybe that’s even an underestimate (I’m sure I could have gone harder with someone to chase!)

Either way, it’s some kind of line in the sand – if the physiology of recumbent riding was the same as diamond frame, I should be able to hit an hour at 290W in short order.

Rude intervention of reality

My opening session on the High Baron was three five-minute intervals, just to avoid destroying myself after six months of upright riding.

Optimistically I started at 304W, which dropped to 285W for set 2, then just 263W for set 3. I couldn’t push it any higher. Depressing stuff!

One Month

After a month, I could scrape out 2×20 minutes at 265W in exchange for much sweat and pain.

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The interesting thing is that I’m challenging my cardio more than I expected. 20 minute intervals at 265W on the High Baron got my max HR up to 165bpm on the first interval, 170bpm on the second. In contrast, climbing Alp D’Huez for an hour at 291W on the DF only got my heart up to 159bpm (one factor that makes me think my FTP was actually quite a bit higher).

From “real life” riding I always feel “leg limited” on the HB versus “lung limited” on diamond frames (and I can hit 185bpm running, so I have the ability to deliver a fair bit more O2 than I’m using on either bike). In contrast, the turbo is definitely exposing a central cardiovascular limitation.

This leaves me with a bit of a puzzle over what sort of training I should actually be doing, not to mention a worry that riding the High Baron on a turbo might be structurally different from riding it on the road somehow.

The plan was to keep churning out my hundred miles a week of diamond-frame commuting at a low wattage, then add in two high intensity workouts each week on the recumbent. However, I figure that since my wattage can be so much higher on a different platform, maybe 20 minute intervals on the recumbent are not ideal, as they won’t really be working on the intended energy pathway?

At the same time I think this is an unrealistic way of reasoning. If the hardest I can go on the recumbent for an hour is 265W, then that’s my threshold power and I should be using that for threshold intervals on the recumbent (and go up to 290W for threshold intervals on my DF, if that was relevant).

Let’s not even consider whether 2×20 is the appropriate type of workout! 😐

Two Months

Towards the end of the second month I started to get pretty tired (I think adding these workouts, simultaneously increasing my commutes as the weather improves, plus running, was having a cumulative impact).

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I took a “rest” week (actually a hiking holiday) then did an FTP test loosely following the Coggan protocol – a short hard interval to drain your legs a bit (8 minutes at 301W) then a 20 minute all-out effort.

I did want to die, but I managed 288.5W (first ten minutes at 285W, second ten minutes at 292W) which gives an FTP of ~275W based on 95% of the longer interval.

This is still at least 15W shy of my diamond frame FTP, although I should probably validate that by riding the same test protocol on the turbo on my racer – but it’s definitely progress.

I’m not sure how much of this is improvement to my general fitness, to recumbent-specific muscles (hip flexors etc) that were lagging behind, or maybe just to my pain tolerance… but I’ll take it.

I now have five weeks until the Etape Caledonia, so armed with this FTP estimate, it’s time to think about what sort of training to do – probably don’t want to turn up at an 80 mile ride having only done 20 minute turbo intervals, for starters!

Etape Caledonia -4 weeks

Four weeks to go before the Etape Caledonia, which is my “B” event (I mainly entered it so I would get my recumbent out of the garage before June!)

As I haven’t ridden the High Baron for more than an hour since last summer, I decided it would be a good idea to [URL=”https://www.strava.com/activities/540340314/”]ride the route[/URL]. Partly to check for any corners that I can’t take at full speed, partly for the long ride training aspect.

It’s 80 miles / 130km but only 1,200m / 4,000ft of ascent. It took me 4:10 moving time (19.5mph average) with just under 25 minutes of stops (half of that was getting breakfast, the other half was watering the verge… FFS!)

I felt my power was pretty poor on this ride, but I think my expectations were unrealistic considering I had no taper and didn’t eat any carbs before heading out / only had a light energy drink on the bike.

Interestingly it felt like my efforts at short rises were noticeably stronger (even though this is above-threshold wattage) whereas I wasn’t able to ride anywhere near my threshold otherwise – the sustained central portion of the ride I was just putting out 200W, and the long flat finish I was right down at a 160W average.

There are a few niggles with the High Baron to sort out, then I think I’ll repeat the dry run in two weeks’ time. That will give an ample taper into the event, and we’ll see what happens!

Tour o’ the Borders is the goal, but the Etape Caledonia route is also quite a bonny one. It will be fun to ride this event in its own right 🙂

Schlitter Encore review

Custom-sized carbon stick bike ticks all the boxes for smart design, light weight and great handling…

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.

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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)

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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:

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Weight

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.

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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).

Performance

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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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Alf Chamings has a good section on the J-bars contrasted with his other bikes in his writeup here.

Lighting

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.

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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.

Drivetrain

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.

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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:

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Brakes

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.

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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.

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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).

Conclusion

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:

schlitter_encore_20

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)

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M5 Carbon High Racer review

Is this the fastest production recumbent money can buy? It just might be, although not without some significant pitfalls!

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.

m5_carbon_high_racer_1

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:

m5_carbon_high_racer_18

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):

m5_carbon_high_racer_4

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.

m5_carbon_high_racer_6

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!

m5_carbon_high_racer_7

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:

m5_carbon_high_racer_17

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…

m5_carbon_high_racer_9

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!

m5_carbon_high_racer_10

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).

m5_carbon_high_racer_19

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.

m5_carbon_high_racer_11

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…

m5_carbon_high_racer_5

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 🙁

m5_carbon_high_racer_2

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).

m5_carbon_high_racer_13

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:

m5_carbon_high_racer_12

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:

m5_carbon_high_racer_14

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.

m5_carbon_high_racer_15

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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Fast 700c recumbents – power test

A side-by-side comparison of the speed of the Schlitter Encore, Optima High Baron and M5 Carbon Highracer

Side by side M5 CHR, Schlitter Encore, Optima High Baron

I’ve been riding a review copy of the Schlitter Encore recently, along with the Optima High Baron which carried me to a 7th place finish at this year’s Tour o’ the Borders.

To complete a nice side-by-side performance test I borrowed the demo M5 Carbon Highracer from Laid Back Bikes in Edinburgh – brief side by side comparison here.

The test protocol was simple – go to the promenade and ride up and down beside the sea (nice and flat) holding a given power for the whole of a lap without touching the brakes, then see how fast I went on each bike.

I varied as little as possible between the bikes, including using the same wheels (where possible) and power meter etc. I also tried for the calmest conditions in terms of wind, although naturally in Edinburgh it was impossible to find a calm day.

Just a note – it would be much better to perform virtual elevation calculations for each bike. I think there is a good bit of error in the testing described below, but I just can’t find a convenient route that doesn’t require use of the brakes (compounded by living in the world’s windiest place… it’s a hassle!).

Until someone produces a proper calculation, we make do with cruising beside the sea in the sunshine… I suggest that these results are taken as indicative only, though for what it’s worth I do feel that the ordering matches my gut feel of how each bike rides.

Headline results

It turned out to be a little tricky to get exactly the target wattage for each run, so first of all here is a graph of speed per watt for each bike (all laps of both directions averaged) to give a comparable ranking of “bang for your buck”.

overall-speed

To add extra context, I’ve plotted previous data from a head-to-head comparison between my DF racer and the Raptobike Midracer which was not captured at the prom (and obviously on a different day, three years ago!)

As you would expect, while you go faster at 250W than 200W, higher power gives diminishing returns due to the exponential increase in wind resistance, so the high power runs (plotted in red) show less speed per watt than the lower power runs (plotted in blue).

The ordering hopefully won’t come as much of a surprise, with my DF racer languishing at the bottom of the pile. The M5 Carbon Highracer was fastest, followed closely by the Optima High Baron, with the Schlitter Encore coming in just behind. Probably the most interesting thing about this for me was how little separated each bike:

rawdata

The next chart breaks down the laps by direction. You can see variation between the bikes that is only really attributable to varying wind speed as the test went on (the Encore does better downwind and worse upwind than you might expect, presumably because the wind speed / direction wasn’t steady). That said, if the Encore was less aerodynamic you would expect to see it hurting more on the upwind laps than the downwind ones (the big open cockpit riding in the airstream etc?):

wind direction

Assorted caveats

TL;DR – the CHR is a shop demo and not optimised for naked speed, the Encore is a new-to-me review bike and I haven’t spent a lot of time tweaking it, while the High Baron has been mine for three years and I’m very comfortable on it!

Here are a few confounding factors to consider in detail:

– I’m not tall enough to ride the CHR with my power chainset (170mm) so I was using a PowerTap wheel and plain 155mm cranks instead. The PowerTap reads 1-2W higher based on testing conducted with both meters fitted on a turbo trainer (so this slightly disadvantages the CHR, by about half of one percent – down in the noise of wind gusts unfortunately).
– I used the same 32 spoke 3-cross Archetype wheelset with 28mm Schwalbe Ultremo tyres on the Encore and High Baron, but the M5 CHR doesn’t have enough clearance, so I had to use the provided Shimano R500 front with Schwalbe Durano Plus tyres (faster wheels but slower tyres on the CHR).
– The Archetype wheelset has a Shutter Precision hub dynamo on the front, the R500 does not. (The lights were off, but there is still a small amount of extra friction, amounting to the equivalent of a couple of feet per mile extra gradient).
– I used a Radical Aero seatbag on all three bikes, but on the CHR I used the stock bag from Laid-Back-Bikes which still has the fabric bottle holder on the side – I cut this off on my own Aero seatbag.
– I didn’t have a mirror fitted on the Baron or Encore but had a small mirror fitted on the CHR, although I turned it parallel to the wind for the test.
– Both the M5 CHR and High Baron are running dropped chains, but the CHR has a bit of chain tube to make it more useful as a shop demo, which will add some (an unknown amount of) friction to further disadvantage the CHR.

Seat Angle

Refer to the posts linked in the first two paragraphs for photos of all three bikes (I’m afraid I’m still working on formal reviews of the M5 CHR and Encore, so don’t have comparable shots of them to stick in a rollover).

My High Baron is as reclined as the frame will allow, but the M5 CHR can go flatter with a bit of modification to fit a lower seat pillar, as can the Encore (to a lesser extent – the seat back was closer to the max recline without doing something drastic).

If you’re willing to ride with a really low angle seat you can certainly get more speed out of these two bikes than I’ve demonstrated, whereas the High Baron is probably about as good as anyone is going to get it. (M5 have the world hour record on a similar design where the rider lies flat on his back!). Of course, you may not want to ride around flat on your back with special measures to avoid looking under your bars to see the road ahead. There’s a reason that almost all bikes are sold with a seat at these angles or above…

You could also put a tiller on an Encore very easily, and get your arms tucked up out of the way (while the J-bars are one of the big selling points of this design, you are sticking a couple of feet of pipe into the airstream above your knees, and also your arms are spread wider). But maybe you’ll decide that a nice handling bike which is pretty fast is fast enough! There’s more to life than speed at any cost…

Weight

Finally, I didn’t attempt to equalise the weight of the bikes, since I’m not interested in purely their aerodynamics, rather the “complete package”, and on the flat the difference should be minimal anyway. However, note that the M5 CHR and Schlitter Encore both weighed in at a little over 10kg (22lbs ish) whereas my High Baron weighs more like 11.5 – 12kg in current form.

All could be lightened but the High Baron will always be heavier. This, plus frame and cockpit stiffness, would show up in a bigger way on an actual cycle ride with hills, dropping the High Baron down the ranking.

I believe (subject to a full dismantling and the weighing of individual parts) that the Encore can be made lighter than the M5 CHR.

Anyway… hopefully this is of interest, and as ever, feel free to drop a comment below…