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:

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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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Schlitter Encore preview

Early thoughts on the excellent Schlitter Encore – a custom sized, aggressively priced carbon highracer

Aggressively priced custom-sized carbon highracer

Last weekend I got out on the Schlitter Encore for my first long ride – a hilly 55 miles around the Tour o’ the Borders short route with David Gardiner of Laid Back Bikes (who took these pictures).

The company kindly sent me a frameset to build up and review, so I’m now using it to put in the miles before coming to a final verdict. However, here are some early impressions…

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First, the Encore is scandalously light. Even with spare parts from my garage collection the complete bike (including pedals and seat pad) weighs in at ~10kg, so it could easily be lighter if you invest in the finishing kit. As it is, I don’t think you will find a lighter frameset off the peg at anything like this price. A frameset will set you back a little over 1900EUR.

It’s also impressively stiff – possibly the stiffest recumbent I’ve ridden since my RaptoBike lowracer. That said, the super long handlebar setup does bend a lot when you haul on it, which is giving me some caution trying to rank the bike absolutely (I’m not sure how I would rank it against the M5 CHR for stiffness, for instance).

The frame does not have a sliding boom – instead the factory glue the BB ‘cap’ onto the end of the frame once cut to length. There is a little adjustment in the seat clamp to allow a range of riders to fit comfortably, so it’s not going to be impossible to sell on, but someone with the original owner’s dimensions is always going to be in the sweet spot.

And what a sweet spot it is!

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It’s hard to overstate how well the Encore handles in a general sense. It’s night and day compared to the poor experience I had on the Bacchetta Corsa, quite apart from the issue of getting your feet down (see below). The bike is perfectly balanced which means you can take full advantage of the short wheelbase without it feeling too unstable or twitchy.

Although there are other reasons to choose one over the other, I would rank the Encore above the Metabike (carbon and aluminium versions) in the handling stakes too. You can see from the photos that these are challenging roads, but I was able to descend almost as fast on the Encore as I did on my High Baron next time out. The MetaBike never quite made it for me on limited review mileage. That’s extremely impressive when you consider how much experience I have on my own bike!

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Although the seat is still high compared to the High Baron (or especially the M5 CHR) it’s fine for me to touch down when stationary without having to move on the seat. Since I have a relatively short x-seam, this makes the bike even more attractive compared to the traditional stick bike models.

One of the most visible innovations on the bike are the handlebars – “J-bars” which try to combine the open cockpit riding position with the forward visibility of a tiller setup. I’ve never got on with open cockpits in general, but I will say that the bars on the Encore are surprisingly comfortable once you get them adjusted right. The forward visibility really is excellent and for that reason alone I think they’re a no brainer.

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Unfortunately I’ve already had two incidents where the bar hit my thigh. One forced me to abandon the steep (> 20%) climb up Talla because I just couldn’t keep my legs inside the bars while putting out full power to keep the bike moving. The second was a high speed sweeping turn onto a shared path where I had to basically slam my inside foot into the ground and grind on my cleat to stay upright after entering the corner a bit too fast and sharply. I should add that in normal riding (including a few rush hour commutes) the Encore has given me no trouble at all. I’m probably just too used to the ease of the tiller setup.

I don’t feel the Encore is quite as aerodynamic as the High Baron for any given seat angle, and indeed my power meter testing shows a small advantage to the Optima (to the tune of ~0.5mph at 200W) on the flat. I used the same wheelset for this comparison and think it is broadly valid, although more research is needed!

Anyway, enough rambling for now. It’s time to go for a ride!

Hit the comments section if you have any questions or feedback…

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dhb Flashlight Windproof Gilet review

A casual cut, mid weight windproof gilet, well vented and with bright (if slightly oddly placed) reflectives.

Taking the edge off on chilly commutes, without making you look too much like the bin man

The dbh Flashlight Windproof Gilet (currently £34.99 here – also see the women’s version) is squarely targeted at the commuter market, but especially in this charcoal version, rates well in the style stakes.

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Materials and construction

The Flashlight gilet is built to a surprisingly high standard for the price. I was always impressed by the dhb Ultralight gilet for the money, but this definitely takes things a step further – the panels are well thought out and the stitching and materials are solid and holding up well to daily use so far.

The sturdy YKK zip is a particular highlight – it has an excellent motion and locks in place wherever you leave it. Although it’s still not ideal for gloves (I use the little Alpkit zipper tags on most of my gear to make this easy) you can work the zip one-handed without too much trouble, and there is an ample zip park to guard against chafing when it’s fully done up.

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Off the shelf the coating on the Flashlight gilet is top notch – it beads up nicely in even quite heavy rain (although since you are wearing a gilet, you’re already on to a loser if the plan was to stay bone dry). This is also lasting better than expected after half a dozen cycles in the washing machine.

The arm holes are elasticated but not massively – but this isn’t as much of an issue as the (non) snugness of the collar, given the relative orientation to the wind.

There are no pockets, which is fine by me as it really cuts down on bulk (frankly I’ve never really understood why people would want jersey pockets and jacket pockets on top). The relaxed cut makes it very easy to access your jersey pockets even when the gilet is done up – job done.

The fabric is indeed windproof and has kept me comfortable right down to freezing point (with the right gloves and jersey – remember the gilet is just letting the layer(s) below do their work – it’s not supposed to provide significant insulation). Although the collar isn’t the snuggest there is a good storm flap behind the zip, something conspicuously lacking from the Ultralight option. YMMV- as always, warmth is quite an individual thing.

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The back is mostly made of a fine mesh for optimum ventilation. I really haven’t found myself working up a sweat in this gilet at all, which makes it perfect for shoulder season riding where you can be riding over frozen puddles in the morning and climbing home under a solid evening sun.

Don’t count on it keeping your back dry if you wear a rucksack though (although this should be obvious, considering your back will still get sweaty with a rucksack even if you don’t wear a shell layer at all).

Retroreflectives

The reflectives on the Flashlight Gilet are bona-fide Scotchlite and throw back light with the best of them. Slightly unfortunately the reflective detailing seems to have been chosen to fit in with other items in the range (like the jacket) despite the latter relying on a rear zip pocket cover for back-centre reflectivity – something which is largely lacking in the gilet.

To be completely fair, when you’re riding along minding your own business, quite a lot of the side panel is lit up by an approaching car (based on a short experiment following someone who I made wear the gilet to see what would happen). And of course, both dhb and ‘flash light’ logos on the rear are picked up nicely by headlights, it’s just an odd design decision for a gilet whose very name evokes night time adventures…

Pictures probably speak louder than words here:

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Cut, sizing

Take a careful look at the size guide. I’m just under a 32″ waist (small to x-small) but with almost a 44″ chest (x-large), so I took a punt on medium, and this has worked out well – the chest isn’t tight and the elastic in the waist is taking up up any slack.

The cut is distinctly on the casual side so it’s not too critical so long as it’s not too tight! In particular, I found the collar a little too loose which compromised warmth on the coldest days, but it is lined with a nice soft hand, pleasant against the skin. There is an ample drop tail – just about long enough to sit on, which goes some way to compensate for the collar.

In contrast as I have moaned before, the dbh Ultralight gilet which is my go-to item has a ludicrously short tail (often sitting up at my kidneys if I have anything in my jersey pockets).

Conclusion

The Flashlight Windproof gilet crunches down to about the size of a clenched fist, easy to stow even if you are carrying all the essentials in your jersey pockets already. While it isn’t the lightest at 123g (versus the dhb Ultralight gilet at 72g) this is still only the weight of two gels, or a big mouthful of water – nothing much to write home about.

With solid construction, a good fit (if you want a relaxed cut) with an ample drop tail and surprisingly good water-repellent coating, only the slightly awkwardly-placed reflectives put a damper on this item. Overall, hard to beat for the asking price (and if you can catch this on sale it will certainly be a steal).

Note that there is a woman’s version available. There are also winter-weight ‘thermal’ models in both men’s and women’s flavours – curiously with pockets and adjusted reflectives that imply someone has been listening to the various reviews of this item which consistently picked up on both points…

GP4000s II vs Pro 4 Service Course

Continental GP4000s or Michelin Pro 4 Service Course? Which of these top-flight road bike tyres is best for you, and where’s cheapest to buy them?

Michelin and Continental: who makes the best road tyre?

My review of the Continental GP4000s II is one of the most popular on the site, and I notice this week that they’re now up to a cracking 41% discount on Wiggle.

However, this year I’ve also been dabbling with the dark side and fitted a pair of Michelin Pro 4 Service Course slicks to my main road bike. These are also going for a song at 40% off. Clearly this is the time of year to grab a bargain on some new road tyres…

These two tyres are very much targeted at the same audience. I’m basically a long-term GP4000s rider whose tyre geekery means I can’t resist picking up different tyres when I catch a good deal. After the popularity of my Ultremo comparison, I decided to put together another overview to help you decide which tyre is right for you.

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Comfort / handling: Michelin Pro 4 Service Course

The Michelin Pro 4 reminds me distinctly of the Ultremo ZX when it comes to comfort and handling – it’s definitely my preferred tyre over the GP4000s in this respect.

The GP4000s has fantastic rolling resistance but it can sometimes feel workmanlike on the bike, with the Pro 4 providing a little more plushness, whatever the lab tests might suggest.

In fairness, both of these tyres are leaps and bounds ahead of the cheap rubber that is supplied as OEM kit on many new bikes, so if you’re looking for a first upgrade you can’t really lose.

If you already run one of the top-flight tyres there’s less advantage to be gained. The GP4000s, to me, loses out just a little and this is probably because the tyre has a higher level of durability designed in, so you just need to take your pick.

Durability: Continental GP4000s II

Continental struck gold with the design of the GP4000s, hitting almost the perfect balance of grip and durability with their Black Chilli rubber.

While the Pro 4 Service Course is a big step forward over the Pro 3 in terms of tread cuts, and while I’m still running through my first set, I can’t see them matching the impressive total mileage I’m used to expecting from the GP4000s.

While the feel of the Michelins suggests to me that they just won’t see out the Contis, I could be wrong. I’ll update this with a final mileage estimate when the time comes.

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Weight: Michelin Pro 4 Service Course

My actual Pro 4 tyres weighed in at just over 200g each (a little heavier than claimed), making them pretty much a wash against the 205g GP4000s. Let’s be completely honest here- 10 or 20g won’t make an appreciable difference to you anyway, regardless of the fact that it is rotating weight.

It’s just not a significant component of your power-to-weight ratio given that the mass of rider plus bike for the average reader of this site is probably going on for 100,000g (100kg).

In the interests of fairness, I’ve given Michelin the nod here as their label weight is slightly lower.

Puncture Protection: Continental GP4000s II

When the Pro 4 Service Course was released, much was made of the revised tread and carcass which promised much greater cut resistance than its predecessor. While I’m sure that’s true, the GP4000s remains the reference model for me when it comes to puncture protection on a racing tyre.

The GP4000s features a Vectran fibre breaker layer which does an excellent job defending the tyre from unwanted penetration. I’d still choose the Pro 4 over something like Vittoria’s Open Corsa, but I don’t find the tread quite as reassuring on the Continental tyre. We’ll see if I change my mind after running this set into the ground, as my experience of the GP4000s is that it tends to be fine until a spate of punctures near its end of life – my Pro 4s are still a way off needing replaced, even at the rear.

Sidewall protection: Continental GP4000s II

I haven’t had any sidewall issues with the Pro 4, so it might seem unfair to put the GP4000s in front in this category. It’s just my feeling based on running each tyre through my fingers that the construction of the Pro 4 Service Course is a little more supple (and thus a little more slender) when it comes to the sidewalls.

While I’ve even ridden on unsealed surfaces on the GP4000s I would be extremely hesitant about doing so with the Pro 4!

As with Schwalbe’s Ultremo ZX, Michelin have consciously chosen to emphasise a supple tyre – if you want a fast tyre which is a bit more rugged, take a look at the Pro4 Endurance (the new Krylion) which Wiggle have at a nice 41% saving. That tyre incorporates extra protection at the expense of some rolling resistance – just a decision you need to make.

Continental GP4000s in the mud

Rolling resistance: Continental GP4000s II

The Michelin Pro 4 Service Course is a lovely supple tyre that really eats up the road. Over this Easter I put in almost 250km looping around the Border hills on single track roads, and even when the top dressing had started to weather I still felt it was seriously rapid.

However, there’s no question that Continental hit the ball out of the park with the GP4000s and Black Chilli – a recipe that has remained unchanged for years but still performs at the highest level on rolling tests.

My gut instinct based on riding these tyres is that the Pro 4 slightly edges it, based on road feel. However, road feel is a poor substitute for CRR tests, and the figures I’ve seen online aren’t suggesting Continental’s engineers will be losing much sleep over the Pro 4.

At the end of the day the difference is paper thin, so I think you’d be better off deciding between these tyres based on other factors.

Styling: Michelin Pro 4 Service Course

Neither of these tyres really looks that great, in my opinion. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that, but the GP4000s is too plain and the Pro 4 isn’t much better. If you want a great-looking road tyre, the Ultremo ZX is where it’s at.

Not that cycling has ever been about looks, right?

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Conclusion: GP4000s II

While the Pro 4 is a little more economically priced than the GP4000s, the hassle of changing tyres (or avoiding it!) is worth much more to me than that. Both tyres perform closely enough that overall I’d prefer Continental’s track record of resilience with the GP4000s for putting in the serious miles.

On the other hand, as with the Ultremo, the Pro 4 Service Course is a winner in terms of ride quality and for a Sunday bike or special days out, why not? I’m certainly in no rush to take mine off for another set of the GP4000s, even if they don’t roll quite as quickly in a lab.

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Looking for a good discount?

At the time of writing, both Chain Reaction and Wiggle have hefty discounts on the GP4000s II and Pro 4 Service Course tyres. Take a look:

  • Continental GP4000s II: Wiggle have a 41% discount while Chain Reaction are doing 33% off.
  • Michelin Pro 4 Service Course: Chain Reaction have a 40% discount while Wiggle are doing 44% off.

Garmin Edge GPS: complete range comparison

A head-to-head guide to every model of Garmin Edge GPS bike computer…

Buy the right Garmin GPS without wasting a ton of cash

(hint: don’t buy them all!)

Garmin’s Edge range of GPS bike computers has seven models of ever-increasing cost and complexity.

You probably just want one, but luckily for you (and unluckily for my wallet) I’ve ended up owning five GPS devices and can do this gratuitous handlebar shot. I have the Edge Touring, not the Touring Plus, and an Edge 810 over the older 800:

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Admittedly this is an unhealthy and expensive obsession…

Lots of sites will give you a huge table of features to compare, but like me your eyes probably glaze over after the fifteenth column. 😉

So, in ascending order of eye-watering price, here’s a concise guide to which Edge GPS is right for you (and why you might want to spend more):

The Garmin Edge range in one sentence each

  • the Edge 200 is a steal if you just want a bike computer that records GPS traces to look at later.
  • the Edge 500 does almost everything the Edge 510 does, but cheaper. If you want Ant+ sensors on a budget, you won’t regret it.
  • the Edge 510 improves on the Edge 500 if you’d like to easily choose between different data screens (i.e. one bike with PowerTap, one without), has better altitude and trace visualisation and bluetooth PC / phone integration.
  • the Edge Touring gives you mapping and navigation at a great price, so long as you don’t care about Ant+ sensors or altitude.
  • the Edge Touring Plus is very close to the Edge 800 in price, but does a lot less (but is much simpler).
  • the Edge 800 does almost everything the Edge 810 does for much less money.
  • the Edge 810 improves on the Edge 800 if you’d like to easily choose between different data screens (i.e. one bike with PowerTap, one without) or want bluetooth PC / phone integration.

Garmin Edge 200

If all you want while riding your bike is conventional stuff like speed, distance, and time, then the Edge 200 is all you need. You can just ignore the fact that it uses GPS while out riding, and you can’t significantly improve the GPS track it saves even with a device costing four times as much. It will be more accurate than the traces everyone else is uploading to Strava or MapMyRide from their phone, anyway 🙂

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The Edge 200 has much better battery life than a mobile, it’s smaller and less obtrusive on the handlebars, and it’s more reliable too (I’ve still to find a decent Android bike app).

Don’t dismiss this simple little gem just because it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles! Wiggle have these for under £90 (20% off) at the time of writing, while Chain Reaction are doing a similar deal.

There are two main reasons you might want to spend more:

  • [jump] you want to record external sensor data (such as heart rate or cadence)
  • [jump] you want to see colour mapping, and have your GPS actually navigate for you (like a car satnav).

Garmin Edge 500

The 500 has the same compact size as the Edge 200 but integrates fully with Ant+ sensors for heart rate, cadence, and power.

Being one of the older models, your wallet may thank you for picking up an Edge 500 – there are often good deals on refurb models from Wiggle, while Chain Reaction are doing a straight 10% off at the time of writing.

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If you want a lot of data while you ride, the Edge 500 offers all you can imagine… instead of displaying one page of ordinary cycle computer data fields, you can have up to five pages each with up to eight configurable data fields.

I have one page for “right now” fields like current speed, cadence, and heart rate, another page for lap averages, while a third does trip totals, time of day, temperature and so on.

Additionally, the Edge 500 is equipped with a barometric altimeter allowing it to record quite accurate elevation data (something which is lacking in the Edge 200). However, it should be noted that many sites will overwrite the elevation data recorded on your ride using survey data, so this isn’t as big a deal as you might imagine.

The Edge 500 doesn’t “navigate” you, but it does have the ability to display a breadcrumb trail of a route you downloaded in advance (DIY or someone else’s). Like a road map with only one road (and no background detail) this will still display turn cues and warn you if you go off route.

There are two main reasons you might want to spend more:

  • [jump] you want to regularly use your GPS with multiple bikes or prefer a touch-screen interface
  • [jump] you want to see colour mapping, and have your GPS actually navigate for you (like a car satnav).

Garmin Edge 510

The Edge 510 is the big brother of the Edge 500, offering a similar number of data fields, integration with Ant+ sensors (speed, cadence, heart rate, power) and the ability to follow a pre-loaded route with turn cues – but no mapping or navigation.

You aren’t likely to find the 510 as a refurb deal, and it’s almost 50% more expensive than the 500: Wiggle currently have it for 12% off, while Chain Reaction are also doing 12% off.

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The main advantages of the Edge 510 over the Edge 500 are the touch-screen interface (an improvement over the sometimes frustrating process of remembering what the four buttons on the 500 do in every different situation!) and slightly better screen, but principally the ability to have a different screen setup for different bikes.

This is really useful once you start adding external sensors because, say, the fields you want to see on race day on a PowerTap-equipped time trial bike or a cross bike with heart rate strap are probably quite different to the fields you want to see riding to work on your shopper (with no sensors at all).

On the Edge 500 you’re stuck with one set of fields (although you can turn individual pages on and off without too much pain) but the Edge 510 allows you to set up the whole interface differently for each of your bikes.

The Edge 510 offers a full time altitude profile (missing from the Edge 500, but of limited interest while riding) and the navigation (follow trace) screen is a bit better too.

Finally, the Edge 510 will interface with a phone to allow real-time tracking online (if you have signal, and while your phone battery lasts). A niche feature? I’ll let you decide…

There’s only one reason you might want to spend more:

  • [jump] you want to see colour mapping, and have your GPS actually navigate for you (like a car satnav).

Garmin Edge Touring / Plus

The Edge Touring is a stripped-down version of the Edge 800, aimed at those who want navigation but *not* training / performance features.

The basic Edge Touring is only a little more expensive than the Edge 500: Wiggle are doing it for well under £200 (10% off), while Chain Reaction have 10% off.

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With identical hardware but a streamlined firmware package, you lose the ability to interface with Ant+ sensors altogether (although you can pay £50 more for the Edge Touring Plus, this still only allows a HRM strap – no cadence or power).

Instead of sensors, Garmin are pushing the Edge Touring on navigation features – A to B (or circular) routes calculated using OpenStreetMap data, displayed on the excellent full-colour display. If you buy the Edge Plus you get a microSD card with maps pre-loaded, otherwise you have to get these as a free download.

The data fields that can be displayed on the Edge Touring are reduced, but still likely to satisfy a less data-obsessed rider – while the trace recorded for later analysis is top notch. The Touring Plus has the barometric altimeter enabled and displays a rolling profile of your ride along with current altitude and ascent.

Battery life on the Edge Touring models is good enough for a couple of average days in the saddle (or one really long one) at around 17 hours. While many people have been scratching their heads over a touring GPS which doesn’t take AA batteries, this is the downside of Garmin recycling their Edge 800 hardware – you’ll need to use an external AA battery pack instead (I’ve managed a 1200km continuous trace this way), though sadly the waterproofing of the Edge is compromised while under external power.

There’s only one reason you might want to spend more:

  • [jump] you want Ant+ integration and performance/training features alongside satnav

Garmin Edge 800

Despite the arrival of the 810, the Edge 800 is still readily available for a relatively small premium over the Edge Touring – Wiggle are doing it for 25% off just now, while Chain Reaction have 25% off too.

This will add all of the performance features you’d find in the Edge 500 combined with the screen, mapping and navigation abilities offered by the Edge Touring. As you’d expect, the firmware isn’t as simple as the Edge Touring and you’ll have to put a bit more time in to get the most out of the Edge 800.

In many ways the Edge 800 looks like the real sweet spot of the range just now:

– compared to the Edge Touring, you’re adding Ant+ sensors and a slew of performance data and training features for very little extra money
– compared to the Edge 510, you’re adding a bigger screen, full colour mapping and navigation for very little extra money.

Why would you spend more?

  • [jump] you want a few bells and whistles like smartphone integration

Garmin Edge 810

The 810 is more of an evolution than a real advance on the Edge 800, but comes at a hefty price premium unless you can find it on sale – worth keeping an eye on both Wiggle and Chain Reaction for this one.

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The main feature of note is the ability to customise the interface for each of your bikes (as with the Edge 510) – something that’s missing on the Edge 800, which is stuck with shared data screens for all bikes (though the 800 allows you to turn particular pages on and off).

However, apart from that, a streamlining of the menu interface and smartphone integration for live tracking online, that’s about all you get for a significant extra chunk of cash. Bluetooth is nice for uploading rides without reaching for the USB cable, but it strips an hour from the battery life of the Edge 810, so it’s not a clear-cut decision…

I have an Edge 810, but I’m pretty sure I’d have been happy sticking with the old 800.

Conclusion

My better half loves the Edge 200 and turns her nose up at anything more complicated – even the Edge Touring. She just wants to know the basics while riding, and to upload to Strava and look back on later.

The Edge Touring is a nice upgrade along the same lines, adding mapping (for a fistful of dollars). To be honest I didn’t think I saw the point of the Touring models until I actually started using mine – the simple interface is a massive improvement.

If I had to choose just one GPS, more often than not I reach for the Edge 500 – compact, reliable, and feature full. I ride with power, so the 200 and Edge Touring aren’t going to cut it.

For unknown rides where I want a map, the Edge 800 is ideal (I’ve got an 810, but I regret it). Many will be quite happy with one of the cheaper GPS models and falling back on their phone for the odd bit of mapping.

Whatever you choose, riding with GPS is major step up from conventional bike computers. The fact that you can look back and see where you rode any time in the past (and how long it took you to get anywhere) is a massive bonus.

Schwalbe Marathon Mondial review

The last word in durability, with predictable off-road handling without completely sacrificing speed on tarmac…

Indestructible rubber for when the going gets tough…

The Marathon Mondial is Schwalbe’s flagship expedition touring tyre – the last word in durability, with predictable off-road handling without completely sacrificing speed on tarmac.

If you aren’t going to be riding on unpaved roads, the Marathon Mondial is probably not for you. While Schwalbe have done a great job mitigating the effects of the tread and tough build of the Mondial on rolling resistance, it’s very noticeably slower than a slick road tyre – no surprises there!

At the time of writing, Chain Reaction are doing a healthy 28% discount on the 700C and 26″ sizes. Wiggle might be worth a look too for both 700C and 26″ (currently 10% off).

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The Marathon Mondial makes short work of a river crossing, Cuba’s Sierra Maestra mountains…

Rolling resistance

The Marathon Mondial rolls much better than you might expect from a photograph – the chunky tread is carefully designed so that an almost smooth centre ridge is presented to the tarmac under normal riding conditions.

On a mixture of sealed and unsealed surfaces, the Mondial might just be the perfect compromise. However, if you expect tarmac rolling performance along the lines of the Marathon Supreme you will be disappointed – there are no miracles!

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Comfort

The width of the Mondial makes it very agreeable from the rider’s point of view. Potholes, debris and rocks and boulders on dirt trails are eaten up without drama.

Altering the tyre pressure sensitively to conditions is very important. At 85psi the tyre is as rigid as possible to minimise rolling losses, and jarring if you ride down steps or similar. Off-road I go for 50psi to improve comfort and handling – still plenty of air in a 2″ tyre to protect the rims from sharp impacts.

A wide tyre is probably the best investment you can make in protecting your bike. There’s so much adoration of steel that it sometimes seems that everyone in a shack in the third world is supposedly ready to leap into action and weld up your frame before the next big mountain descent… hedge your bets with a bit of extra air in the first place 🙂

Reflective bands

The Mondial is fitted with reflective sidewall bands. Although arguably the least important type of safety feature, if you’re likely to get caught out at dawn or dusk with no lights, this sort of thing certainly won’t hurt:

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Grip

The Marathon Mondial is designed for off-road use and has a wide hybrid tread.

The centre studs are very large and closely interlock to keep the tyre stable on tarmac and minimise rolling losses. Beside this, two rows of side studs are provided to dig in when the going gets rough.

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The Mondial is extremely stable in descent on mud and dirt – I proved this to myself with a shakedown on local mud before hitting Cuba, and the Mondial continued to prove its worth on a big day’s crossing of the Sierra Maestra.

The rubber formula, Schwalbe’s Endurance compound, is shared with the old Marathon XR, and designed for ultimate durability. Intuitively, the tyre must be less grippy if the rubber is longer lasting (not as sticky), but I found them very reassuring in all sorts of conditions, from high speed wet descents on tarmac to river crossings and sloppy muddy climbs, all fully loaded.

Flat resistance

The Schwalbe Marathon Mondial loads it up on puncture resistance with Double Defence (SnakeSkin sidewall protection and a high-tech fibre breaker strip) combined with the extra hard Endurance compound.

Mine are looking very good so far, but I’ll update this if and when I encounter problems (I commute a substantial distance on a disused railway path covered in glass, putting any tyre through its paces).

Durability

Others who have put much more time onto the Mondials than I will be able to speak of their ultimate lifespan, but after plenty of hard use with a 30kg / 65lb load mine still look pretty new.

This is where Schwalbe really focused their efforts, delivering a tyre that can be expected to give many thousands of miles on the road, and it shows. The tread and sidewall construction are absolutely first rate.

So far I have a thousand miles or so and the mould lines are still visible. I’ll be editing this section with mileage updates in future, to see how we go…

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Weight

At 650g for the 700x42c folding version, the Marathon Mondial is not the lightest tyre ever made – the same size Marathon Supreme comes in at 495g. But then, how heavy is “heavy” for an expedition tyre anyway?

You probably don’t want to risk an expedition with no spare tyre, but confidence in the Mondial might allow you to conscience a trip with only one spare, and that could end up being a pretty big weight saving.

Conclusion

I bought into the Marathon Mondial because I wanted a tyre that would perform predictably and reliably on muddy trails, yet not be ridiculously slow on tarmac. With a 30kg load-out I wanted something fat enough to protect the bike, and to give me the confidence to risk one (relatively fragile) spare.

The Mondial is a tremendous expedition tyre and absolutely didn’t disappoint. I was able to plough through deep muddy tracks and ford rivers with aplomb, while I didn’t feel it was too hard to keep up on tarmac sections either.

I haven’t done enough mileage on mine yet to be definitive about durability, but I think it’s encouraging that they still have their mould line after 1000+ miles.

Just be warned – because they are big and designed to go everywhere they just aren’t going to be as fast as a road touring tyre!

At the time of writing, Chain Reaction are doing a healthy 28% discount on the 700C and 26″ sizes. Wiggle might be worth a look too for both 700C and 26″ (currently 10% off).

schwalbe-mondial1
The Mondial dwarfs the 40mm Marathon Plus (and there’s not much weight between them!

Vital Statistics

Folding version:

ETRTO (mm) Imperial (“) Pressure (bar) Pressure (psi) Weight (g)
50-559 26×2 2.5-4.5 35-70 720
37-622 700x37c 3.5-5.5 55-85 580
42-622 700x42c 3.5-5.5 50-85 650

Wire version:

ETRTO (mm) Imperial (“) Pressure (bar) Pressure (psi) Weight (g)
50-559 26 x 2 2.5-4.5 35-70 740
55-559 26 x 2.15 2.5-4.5 35-70 865
37-622 700x37c 3.5-5.5 55-85 570
42-622 700x42c 3.5-5.5 50-85 650
47-622 700x47c 3-5.5 45-80 760
50-622 700x50c 2.5-4.5 35-70 825

 

 

Challenge Furai 26″ review

John Mills talks in depth about his Challenge Furai 26″ midracer…

John’s Nazca Fuego is a popular “Readers’ Bikes” entry, and I’m pleased to be able to add this article by John to the site, this time featuring his Challenge Furai — Dave.

Introduction:

Over the last few years I have owned and ridden a good few bents, from stick bikes to low racers. My first bike was a Nazca Fuego and I eventually went back to this model as it is, for me, a near perfect all-rounder.

The Furai also caught my eye and I did have a brief ride on a 24” all-rounder version. Later, I read Dave’s review of the Furai based on a very wet short tour in the Highlands. It came across as a bike with many similar qualities to the Fuego but with a bit less weight and a slightly higher seat. Intriguing.

Then last year David at Laidback told me about a 26” version he had taken as a trade in. I travelled up to view it, tried it and bought it.

johnmills_furai1

The Bike:

My bike started life, I believe, as a 24” model. Challenge supplied a replacement fork.

The bike is fitted with an Rock Shox air suspension and carbon boom. It is built using Avid Elixir hydraulic disc brakes, SRAM X9 rear mech, and twist grip controls. The supplied SL seat was too short for me so I approached Challenge directly about getting a Large carbon seat and the associated fittings. The process went smoothly enough and the seat arrived. There were no instructions so I set about it using my own judgement. The outcome is a seat sitting a little further forward than the SL seat. This seems to have benefited the handling (I’ll explain this later)

I made one or two changes. I substituted a pair of wheels comprising Shimano XT hubs and Mavic XC717 rims (a personal favourite), a SRAM PG990 9 speed cassette and fitted 28mm Schwalbe Durano tires. I lowered the gearing by fitting a Shimano XT 26/36/48 ATB chainset. I am using a Bacchetta Big Bag as a seat pack for stuff and a bottle cage is mounted on the stem. All the changes went smoothly and the finished bike, ready for the road with mudguards, bottle cages, computer, Ventisit and pedals came to approximately 14kg. All that remained was to wait for the blessed rain to stop!!

Handling:

When I first rode the bike I felt what appeared to be a slight hint of wheel flop at low speeds. It disappeared at anything above walking pace. After I fitted the carbon seat this characteristic had vanished. Either I had dialled this out of my consciousness or the slight shift in weight distribution eliminated it.

Directional stability is excellent, yet it responds quickly to steering inputs. Changes of line feel secure with no feeling of under or over steer. Across cratered surfaces it holds its line well and the narrow tyres seem to cut through some of the muddy surfaces left from the winter storms.

Brakes, as you might expect, are superb with power and good modulation.

I have had no issues with the idlers. I wonder whether chain tubes (which are installed) prevent the chain leaping off? Perhaps chain length and therefore tension plays a part?

Some time ago I remember reading a number of posts on BROL forums concerned about the potential for heel strike on a Furai 24. It was some weeks after I got the bike that I remembered and looked up this thread. Up to that point I had not thought about or experienced heel strike. It certainly can occur (though there is no hard interference between cranks and wheel) but in practice it is a non-issue.

In Dave’s report of the 24” version he mentioned the issue of pannier bags rubbing on the swing arm. I haven’t ridden the bike with panniers (Radical Bags) however when I offered them up they looked as though they clear the swing arm. The only difference is that Dave was running the SL narrow seat and the standard seat is at least 2 cm wider. There might be an issue with sway but that is easily dealt with by tying the bag to a convenient point on the rack.

johnmills_furai2

Comfort:

I realise that hard shell seats suit me well and comfort levels are excellent. The rear shock does its stuff. There is no sensation of pogo-ing. The bottom bracket is, for me, just the right height above seat level. Performance riders may wish it to be a little higher. Combined with the moderate seat recline the BB height gives me a good view of the road surface immediately in front.

The unsuspended front does transmit some road shock but the longish wheelbase helps mitigate the effect on the bike.

Seat height is 55/56cms. You sit between the wheels and because of the shape of the seat reaching the ground is easy. I’m 6ft with an X seam of 42.5” and inside leg 32” i.e. short legs / long torso. At junctions I can sit comfortably with one foot clipped in and the other flat on the ground. Ergonomically this is a very friendly machine. Compared to big wheel stick bikes I have owned the Furai delivers better comfort, seat height, weight distribution and bottom bracket height all without any significant weight penalty.

The narrow handlebars – slightly V shaped – are excellent for fast riding. They give you a real feeling of being tucked in to a cockpit. The folding stem looks fabulous but isn’t. The clamp that sets the handlebar height is woefully inadequate and the ‘bar height continually slips out of adjustment. A solution is easy though. Take one slightly bent target archery arrow, cut a portion of the shaft equivalent to the width of the clamp, squeeze gently in a vice until it will slide into the space underneath the clamp and presto you have limited the distance the clamp can move! Shouldn’t be necessary though.

Performance:

The first time I rode the bike I took it over my short hilly circuit and immediately felt it climbed faster than the Fuego. I seemed to be one gear up all the time. Downhill was good but not as good as a low racer of course. And into the wind it is marginally slower as well. Where a big wheeled bike shines is on less than perfect surfaces. It just seems to roll better over them. And coarse surfaces abound round here. Over a number of rides I would say that my average speed was consistently 1-1.5 kph faster than the Fuego. I put that down to lower weight and less rolling resistance. It is winter and these figures are the result of moderate (not performance) riding efforts.

On steep grunty climbs the bike feels very stable and seems to be able to drop to near walking pace and still hold a reasonable line.

Conclusions:

Overall I would describe this as a swift, smooth bike with good ergonomics. It is not a racer but feels as though it will make an excellent Audax / long day ride bike.

It is very versatile. With the standard Challenge aluminium seat fitted it can take a rack and panniers and feels robust enough to carry a load.

One of the tests I use about any bike is to observe how I use it after the initial novelty has worn off. The Furai gets picked as often as any of the others. It must be good! I look forward to warm days with no mudguards and some longer rides. A great bike – and like so many Challenge products it looks great.

ICE VTX Review

The new VTX is the top of the line racing trike from ICE. Just how good is it?

Hold on tight: the best just got (much) better

At first sight of the marketing blurb which accompanies the VTX I was sceptical. “It looks much the same as the Vortex to me,” I thought. “Beyond a few cosmetic tweaks to make it seem worth the upgrade, will there really be much difference?”

ice_vtx1

I must admit that I wasn’t completely convinced by the ICE Vortex – a trike so uncompromising that I had bruises over my vertebrae after just a few hours hard riding. Sure, it was fast (for a trike), but given the type of roads I have to ride on, I couldn’t really imagine owning one.

I’m happy to say that my suspicions were completely wrong. While evolutionary, ICE have made a very significant upgrade in the VTX – no less of a speed demon but one which is significantly easier to live with.

I’ve also been able to take some power-based performance measurements for the first time; scroll down for details.

ice_vtx5

All change at the back

The headline upgrade comes in the form of the new rear frame section, which employs hydroforming in an attempt to create a more compliant ride, without sacrificing drivetrain efficiency or cornering performance. The seat bracket has also been relocated to further reduce the transfer of road impacts.

I deliberately took the VTX for a session on a local tarmac road which has started to fall apart, and I could hardly believe the difference – despite rattling at full speed over inch-deep cratered moonscape, I still felt pretty comfortable in the seat and the trike was easy to control.

On my maiden ride with the old Vortex I had to stop every five minutes to tighten something… was this my first hint that the VTX was actually a step-change? No – I was convinced of that immediately.

ice_vtx4

Handling

The ride quality of the VTX is head and shoulders above anything else I’ve tested. The whole trike feels beautifully poised, and can be flung around the road with one-handed abandon.

Conducting virtual elevation tests one frosty morning (where braking is an absolute no-no) I found the tail drifting out on the sharpest corner and it was no worse than entertaining. I settled for imagining I was Steve McQueen, started pedalling hard and everything eventually straightened out!

Speaking of brakes – as with all ICE trikes, brake steer is non-existent on the VTX (we live on a steep street, and I took the demo to skidding point with one hand without the slightest inclination to pull to one side).

The whole trike feels incredibly refined and leaves you in no doubt that you are riding a top quality machine.

ice_vtx3

Power tests

I decided to take a different approach with the VTX and perform some virtual elevation testing to measure its performance. See here for an informative PDF by Robert Chung.

The general idea is that if you know CdA (aero resistance) and Crr (rolling resistance), along with weight, air density and so on, physics will tell you *exactly* how fast you will be going for a given power input.

If you compare this theoretical speed with actual speed and it turns out you’re going slower, the only answer is that you are going up hill (and vice-versa). A virtual elevation profile can thus be drawn up by charting these deviations in speed as changes in height. You have to do some guesswork with the CdA and rolling resistance until the virtual profile matches the real altitude profile, but then you’re done.

Unfortunately, having the trike for weeks which turned out to be some of the wettest and wildest on record made it difficult to gather a compelling set of data due to wind interference (wind slows you down, which looks like you’re going uphill).

However, with that caveat, I came up with the following approximate values: CdA: 0.350, Crr: 0.01

(Note that the trike and my body / clothing are indivisible, and the rider makes up a good chunk of the above figure!)

I performed a series of laps in a built-up area where only one leg was exposed to a (very light, almost un-noticeable) headwind. I was able to create the expected virtual elevation with the above values:

VirtualElevationVTX

Obviously, the altitude increases with each lap, but the thing giving me confidence is that the profile is exactly correct on the three sides which were sheltered from the wind. The one wind-impacted street (which connects the descent with the start of the next lap) slopes down in reality, but doesn’t slope down enough on the VE chart, due to the headwind making it slower, thus “flatter”.

It’s pretty interesting stuff. I rode the laps at differing speeds, and it looks like you can see the trike scrubbing in the hardest corners (as it slows me down, it makes the elevation a little steeper than the road really is, giving some variation in the exact profiles).

I was almost out of good weather, but had one opportunity to validate these numbers by climbing a local hill between two spot heights measured by Ordinance Survey. As you’d hope, the virtual height I climb to in the plot below (blue line) ends up at *exactly* the expected height (denoted by the vertical green bar at the finish, which is neither too high or too short to meet the blue line):

VirtualElevationVTX2

If I’d been thinking ahead, I would have climbed the hill several times at different power to further validate the figures, but it was just a snap decision when I happened to be there.

Just to point out – the blue line above is completely synthetic based on Watts at the rear wheel and estimated Cda/Crr numbers. My power varied plenty on the climb, and yet the plot captures the ramp up then steady gradient which exists in real life. Neat.

Knowing the ballpark CdA and Crr allows a direct comparison between the VTX and other bikes/trikes without arguing over routes and weather conditions. For a great example, refer to this post by techathy on BROL, plotting the Vortex against the Challenge Fujin and a regular time trial bike.

(I believe his Vortex has a aerodynamic tail of some sort, so as expected it’s a little more streamlined than the VTX was for me.)

As you can see, unfortunately the VTX isn’t as rapid as a time trial bike, let alone a lowracer. But on the other hand, you can’t spend much time riding in the TT tuck (certainly not an entire leisure ride) and if you do, you can’t see much of what is going on. The VTX is extremely comfortable and you can look around 🙂

Note the significant difference in speed at 200W and above – 4mph slower than the Fujin or DF time trial bikes (but “only” 2mph slower than the more common DF ‘hoods’ position).

lbflickr2
Contrast the profiles of the VTX and the Sprint 26X (with extra laid-back seat!) – from the Laid Back Flickr stream

I was asked specifically to compare the VTX to the Nazca Fuego, a low(ish) and not insanely reclined two-wheeler. My gut feel is that over mixed terrain the Fuego is faster, but the VTX is close, unlike the Sprint or Adventure – the VTX is a similar weight and the drivetrains are not dissimilar in perceived efficiency. When I’ve been able to perform virtual elevation testing with the Fuego I’ll produce a specific article on this, but for now, I’d say anyone swapping from a non-racing two wheeler to the VTX won’t be overly disappointed…

Construction in detail

Much of what I wrote in the Vortex review applies equally to the VTX, so that may also be worth your time.

To allow for a lower and more reclined seating position, the VTX continues the set-back seat position of the Vortex, and this can make it slightly more challenging to get into. For the vast majority of prospective owners this is just something you’ll get used to in a few minutes, but I was reminded of it repeatedly whenever someone wanted to sit on the trike and see what it felt like!

It’s hardly made of paper, but a heavy enough collapse onto the seat (especially if you took the carbon option) might not be the best idea.

ice_vtx6

The VTX is fitted as stock with a triple chainset (compact double on the VTX+ for the mountain goats), and although I hardly used the smallest ring, you should be aware that the 700C driving wheel is so much bigger than the 20″ drive wheel on other trikes that it makes each chainring the equivalent of the next size up.

ice_vtx9

In other words, the small ring on the VTX is like the middle ring on a Sprint 20, and the middle ring on the VTX like the big ring on a Sprint 20 – so with the VTX big ring, the sky’s the limit!

(Unfortunately you still have to pedal 😉 )

Below is a close-up shot of the new rear frame member. It’s fully rigid and the tubes are highly profiled and bowed to improve comfort and handling. Note the upper seat mount is just visible right up next to the power idler – nowhere near your shoulders, and the difference is really dramatic.

Note the fine detailing around the dropouts, which have been extensively relieved and look fantastic.

ice_vtx12

Here’s another view. You can see that this model came fitted with a rear mudguard. The month I had it prior to publication was the wettest December since records began and I doubt I would have ridden at all without it!

By way of contrast, the lack of front mudguards will only get you wet if there’s a cross wind at just the wrong angle to steer the spray into your path… a compromise that seems worth making to avoid increasing the VTX’s frontal area any further.

Note the new headrest. Even that is a significant step up on the Vortex (i.e. I actually used it from time to time!)

ice_vtx11

The new seat pad is excellent – my back didn’t feel at all sweaty even on the hardest ride (note, it is winter at the time of writing so not the sweatiest time of year!)

Most importantly, the seat holds you securely when corning hard and it stays comfortable even when you’re being pounded by a broken road. A great improvement.

ice_vtx10

Front of house, the VTX comes equipped with the ubiquitous BB7, made razor-sharp by the tiny length of the cable run. Braking one-fingered is natural… quite a revelation compared to my grimy collection of well-used winter bikes!

The VTX+ has an upgrade to hydraulics for minimal maintenance and even greater bite (though you have to wonder who would find the brakes on the base model inadequate…)

ice_vtx8

The handlebars and stem come in one piece – this makes them light and stiff, but I suppose may not suit every rider. Personally, I kept rubbing the mirror t-bar extension off the tyre when cornering in tight spaces… user error?

The shifters are SRAM and work crisply and flawlessly – shifting on the VTX is instant as you’d expect from anything which costs as much as this. Just be aware that as with the original Vortex, adjusting the boom will throw off your front mech completely, because the gear cable runs to the boom without an outer housing.

The rear mech had an amazing feature where you could push in a pin to lock out the spring and work on the drivetrain (or remove the wheel). This blew my mind and all my SRAM rear mechs are now destined for upgrade-land…

ice_vtx7

The VTX (reviewed here) doesn’t have quite the same quality of finishing kit as the VTX+, but I’d be amazed if anyone took it out for a spin and felt dissatisfied: every detail has been attended to and as a complete package this is one of the sharpest rides in town.

Conclusion

Speed-wise the VTX is streets ahead of any other trike I’ve ridden, and should not disgrace itself in the company of two-wheelers if you normally ride strongly. That said, the inherent penalties of multi-track mean that it won’t leave any two-wheeler in the dust, either. In return you get an insanely fun machine to ride, given twice as much space by passing motorists, and everything else that’s unique about trike riding!

As always, I haven’t talked about price. While it’s a fact that the VTX is significantly more expensive than some other trikes, there’s no question you are buying a quality machine.

The handling is perfect, the seat very comfortable even after many hours, the complete package is light and has excellent finishing kit… it really is quite easy to recommend. ICE have little to fear when it comes to losing their crown.

There’s a demo currently available at Edinburgh’s Laid-Back-Bikes, but I suspect it won’t hang around for long!

ice_vtx2

Dual 700c recumbent roundup

MetaBike, High Baron, Raptobike, Nazca Gaucho and Bacchetta Corsa go head-to-head in this 700c recumbent roundup…

Five high rollers go head to head

Low bikes may still be the most popular, but the days when “recumbent” had to mean “small, odd-sized wheels” are long gone.

While there are plenty of reasons to go for a small wheeled bike, almost everyone now makes a recumbent running “full size” 700c hoops. These bikes are increasingly making an favourable impression, especially on the long distance circuit.

On this page, five bikes from the Edinburgh-based showroom of Laid-Back-Bikes compete: from Nazca, MetaBike, Optima, RaptoBike and US manufacturer Bacchetta. (There are other 700c bikes. When I’ve ridden them, maybe I’ll do another article…)

Let’s take a look… roll over the labels below the image with your mouse to flip the photo (for some reason you sometimes need to refresh the page if using Chrome):

none

  • RaptoBike Midracer
  • High Baron
  • MetaBike
  • Gaucho 28″
  • Corsa 700c

 

Where once you had a stark choice between small wheels or the extreme height of a US-style stick bike, there are now options to suit a much wider range of riders.

David Gardiner at Laid-Back-Bikes specialises in all of these models (each one is a Laid Back demo which I have reviewed in depth), and I recommend interested parties get in touch with him to discuss your individual circumstances.

Let the comparison commence!

Overview

Raptobike Midracer

Combining big wheels with a low seat height and trademark versatility, including the ability to take discs and big tyres, pannier racks, or carbon aero wheels and a highly reclined seat, there’s something for everyone here.

Front wheel drive on 700c!

Click for in-depth review

Nazca Gaucho


Built to the same robust standard as other Nazca bikes, and with the same comfort factor thanks to the rear shock, the Gaucho 28 gets you up high (but not too high!) and rolling easily over rough roads.

Thin slicks and caliper brakes only.

Click for in-depth review

Metabike

MetaBikes caused a flurry of excitement with their short-wheelbase, braced aluminium frame (there’s now also a carbon option).

Stiff for great efficiency, light enough to be popular with the climbers, yet versatile enough to take MTB tyres and disc brakes and ride off road…

[in depth review to follow shortly]

Optima High Baron


The classic Baron lowracer got a 700c front wheel in this update, merging the best features of stretched low bikes with the advantages of full-size wheels.

Rides like a dream but not the most adaptable…

Click for in-depth review

Bacchetta Corsa


The archetypal stick bike – light, stiff, very high and relatively hard to handle. Not easy on the eye, but may be friendly to a tight budget.

It could hardly be a 700c bike comparison without one stick bike, after all 🙂

Click for in-depth review

Versatility

When it comes to options, two of these bikes stand head and shoulders above the rest: the RaptoBike Midracer and the MetaBike.

The MetaBike can be equipped with disc wheels and 26″ or 29er MTB tyres (there’s clearance for my 2.1″ knobblies in the carbon disc fork), or with caliper brakes for 26″, 650-, and 700C road wheels.

The RaptoBike Midracer can only accommodate a 700x25mm tyre to the rear, but can go much larger at the front (and if you drop down to 26″ or 650- size, both ends can be very chunky). As well as caliper and disc brakes, both ends will accommodate cantilever / v-brakes.

Both the MetaBike and RaptoBike Midracer will take a standard pannier rack in addition to seat-based bag solutions.

In contrast, the Corsa, High Baron and Gaucho only support caliper brakes and take relatively narrow 700c wheels only (although if you *never* want full size wheels, you can buy a 650C Corsa or a Gaucho for 26″ or 24″).

The High Baron and Gaucho won’t take a pannier rack easily (update: you can order a Gaucho with rack mount braze-ons as an option). You can at least fit the Corsa with specialist pannier racks that hang between the wheels.

Efficiency

The Gaucho’s rear suspension makes it an outlier in terms of overall efficiency. I don’t want to pretend that I have any meaningful measurement of this, but it is noticeable to me when I ride a suspended bike over a rigid one. (I still completed Paris-Brest-Paris comfortably on the Gaucho, overtaking countless riders up and down hill).

The Raptobike, meanwhile, is very stiff but the chain is directed through such a large angle that I can’t help but assume that a small proportion of power is being skimmed off the top. (But is it a significant amount? This is an assumption that I’m desperate to examine with a second power meter, if anyone wants to lend me one!)

Simple factors can be more complex than you might think – for instance, even the supended Gaucho’s drivechain is straighter than the Bacchetta Corsa. Despite received wisdom it seems that Euro frames may (at least sometimes) have a straighter drivetrain after all.

The Corsa is noticeably at home on the open road, rolling easily – partly redeeming a bike that I found so bad in traffic that it’s the only one I wouldn’t consider commuting on (and I commuted for years on a lowracer). Subjectively, I can’t help but feel the giant-size open cockpit is compromising performance a little.

Both the High Baron and MetaBike deliver in spades on the efficiency front. The Baron is lower and more stretched out, has triangulated rear stays and a huge internal gusset welded into the bend of the frame. The MetaBike has fat tubes and the distinctive triangulation at the head tube gives it legendary stiffness, while the drivetrain has one fewer idler on the return side of the chain (three VS four on the Baron, including the idlers in the rear mech).

I’m not sure how significant return idlers can possibly be, but at gunpoint I’d probably give the edge to the MetaBike overall, although I think the aero difference between two riders could easily swamp the difference between the two bikes.

You can get a good idea of the height and length differences between the two bikes from the following photo:

HB-meta

Handling

Every recumbent handles differently, and not always in a good way.

Even between these five superficially similar 700C bikes there are major contrasts, and while I believe you can learn to master any bike, that doesn’t make things equal. Plenty of people have shoes that don’t properly fit them too.

That said, I’d be the first to admit that some aspects of bike handling are subjective, so I want to be clear that I’m obviously drawing on my personal preferences here.

The weakest bike by a country mile is the Bacchetta Corsa. The open cockpit interferes with tight manouvering – the excitement of stabbing your thigh into your handlebars while carving round a bollard is… considerable. The huge height of the bike really made it awkward in stop-go traffic and had me scrabbling at the ground with the tip of my shoe on multiple occasions: I’ve written specifically about stick bike seat height issues as a result.

giantstick

On the open road, the only time I would worry about the Corsa is slow speed climbing, for fear of kicking the bars, while slow speed hill starts might well be impossible. You can get a mini-Corsa on smaller wheels that would presumably help, but then it wouldn’t be eligible for a big-wheel roundup, catch 22…

Both the Gaucho and Raptobike have a much more civilised demeanour and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend either. The Gaucho’s suspended rear end gives it a very ‘planted’ feel and you shouldn’t underestimate how nice that is when you’re pouring on the miles. I finished Paris-Brest-Paris on the Gaucho with no injuries or discomfort whatsoever (although I did fall asleep while descending the Roc, and found myself bouncing along the verge, still upright!)

The Raptobike does present the danger of mangling your clothes and/or inner thigh on the power idler, and that might be significant for some (I found it contributed to knee issues over great distances). It’s a very direct-feeling bike, otherwise.

The MetaBike is possibly the biggest disappointment I’ve had in recumbent handling.

Having read so much about these bikes taking the BentRider forum by storm, I had pretty much convinced myself I was going to buy the Laid-Back demo the moment it arrived (I’d spent the best part of a year doing trials and hadn’t found anything to replace my RaptoBike lowracer).

Unfortunately I found the MetaBike sharp to a fault – even sharper than my upright DF racer. It just wasn’t a reassuring bike to ride, for me, and this killed the enjoyment that riding such a stiff frame should bring (and believe me, I really wanted to like it!).

With the collapse of Challenge killing off the hugely-anticipated Chamsin SL, I was considering buying a MetaBike regardless and just adjusting my expectations, but at the last minute the High Baron came into the picture. (Challenge are theoretically still in business, but no sign of a Chamsin SL.)

For me, the Baron has almost flawless handling. It corners so assuredly at high speed that it frankly embarrasses most other bikes, while the rock solid cockpit gives you the confidence to pour on the power. Despite being low and stretched out, it still manoeuvres well around tight obstacles, and of course it’s effortless to dab.

Unfortunately there’s a real issue with the Baron’s brakes, especially at the rear. It’s very difficult to get them set up to work satisfactorily, and indeed I still put up with poor braking in exchange for the bike’ great performance otherwise.

Another Scottish randonneur demonstrates that some people will make the opposite judgement (indeed, DarkerSider went on to complete London-Edinburgh-London rather nicely on his MetaBike!)

Weight

Unless your own bodyweight is extremely low (say < 160lbs / 70kg), weight shouldn't determine your choice between any of these five bikes. It simply won't be a defining factor in their performance. Since I know you are interested despite my good advice, the Corsa and Metabike lead the pack in terms of how light you can go with unlimited cash. The High Baron trails a little behind, followed by the RaptoBike Midracer and finally the Gaucho. If you need further reassurance, I wrote up a comparison between the High Baron and CA2.0 in weight terms and suggest that, while the difference is real, it’s no big shakes:

Say I was to climb solidly with my long-lost twin for an hour – the version of me on the CA2.0 would nose ahead by around 0.13 miles, or 208 meters. To combat this, the version of me riding the High Baron would need to average 254W instead of 250W (unfortunately this is not much above the 1% quoted accuracy of most power meters, so let’s not take the test to extremes).

Of course, there are reasons besides performance to enjoy a light bike… just don’t overplay it to the point that you buy a bike which is compromised for your needs under the impression that a pound or two will make any real difference to your performance on it.

Conclusion

I made my choice and am now the proud owner of a red Baron… however, that’s not to say that I would recommend the Baron to absolutely everyone.

Perhaps this is a bit of a cop-out, but I really think that a range of riders would make different (valid) choices if they tried these bikes out back to back. Your intended use and personal preferences mean a lot, they’re just hard to score with a single number (unlike the ubiquitous but insignificant weight reading!)

The best thing you can do is get in touch with an experienced dealer who can talk you through your options, and potentially arrange demos.

In this case all five bikes came through Edinburgh’s Laid-Back-Bikes. Get in touch with David Gardiner and he’ll be pleased to help with any enquiries.

Readers may note that, as ever, I haven’t included cost as a basis for comparison. That’s not to say that all these bikes cost the same, but I prefer to avoid misleading specifics, especially to an international audience…