The Psyclists’ first spring ride

The Princeton Psychology/Neuroscience cycling group dusted off their bikes and reconvened after a long winter.

Today’s route took us along the scenic D&R Canal towpath from Princeton to Rocky Hill. From there we crossed to the other side of the canal and looped back with a stop at PJ’s Pancake House in Kingston for some coffee and snacks.

Interesting sightings included a few dozen sunbathing turtle, some hissing geese, and a great blue heron flyby.

In total, we rode 13 miles– most of which were flat except for the steep hill along Rt 27 into Kingston.

Here’s our Garmin route for anyone interested in the ride.

Bike review: Azub MINI

A happy new bent rider picking up his bike at Jersey Bents in Hamilton NJ (the shop has since moved to Berlin NJ).

The MINI was my first recumbent, and I’ve ridden it regularly for the past four years. Now I’m riding a similar bike, the Azub Origami, that I’ll review in a future post. Be forewarned, given the significant time I’ve spent in the saddle with the MINI, this will be a detailed review.

By 2018 my back problems convinced me it was time to stop riding a regular bike and seriously consider a recumbent. After a few months of internet research (mainly on the popular BentRiderOnline forums), I decided on a bent for leisure riding and commuting: one that had full suspension to smooth out the ride, and small 20” wheels to reduce my falling distance. I (incorrectly) figured falling was inevitable having never ridden a recumbent.

Basic specs

The MINI is a short wheel base (SWB), compact dual 20″ aluminum frame recumbent with rear and optional front suspension. It’s about as long as a standard bike (165 cm) with a wheel base of 109 cm, so it can be stored in relatively small spaces. The MINI is known to be easy to ride and master, quite maneuverable, and have good acceleration due to the small wheels. These characteristics make it best suited an urban/commuting environment, but it can also handle itself off-road.

The MINI as it originally arrived with above seat steering.

I configured the bike with a few upgraded options: disc brakes (Avid BB7), air suspension (MEKS SASO front and SR SunTour rear), SRAM dual-drive drivetrain, carbon fiber seat, and above seat steering. Unfortunately, right around the time I received the bike, I was affected by ulnar nerve issues originating at my elbows and making it difficult to use the above seat steering. Thankfully the steering on Azub bikes can be easily switched, so I contacted Azub and had them send me an under seat steering (USS) system to swap in.

Comfort

The bottom bracket is positioned just slightly above the level of the seat bottom, making this a comfortable touring bike while still allowing good power transmission from the legs. The full suspension was very plush. The frame and fork allowed for wide tires, such as the 2” Big Apples to further improve comfort. I don’t know if the upgraded rear air shock absorber feels any different from the standard spring shock, but I had no complaints about it. The shock absorber even had a lock you could reach around and engage while riding up a steep incline to cut out any loss of energy from the minor bouncing “pogo” effect as you pedaled.

The hard-shell seat fit like a glove and could be reclined to around 35 degrees. When first starting, I had the seat positioned closer to 45 deg. and slowly reclined it as I became more confident. The seat’s incline and fore/aft position can be changed on the fly with convenient quick-release skewers. The Azub headrest does a decent job but is difficult to adjust without a small wrench on hand.

I should mention that the Azub SIX and Azub MAX are almost identical to the MINI. Their main difference is the wheel sizes. The MINI is 20×20, the SIX is 26×20, and the MAX is 26×26. I test rode them all, and while I was not tall enough for the MAX (I felt uneasy having just my toes reach the ground at a stop), I did consider the SIX until I realized that the larger rear wheel on the SIX prevented the seat from reclining as much as on the MINI. If you’re considering similar bikes, the SIX and MAX are worthwhile options, especially since the larger rear wheels allow those bikes to have both higher gearing and less rolling resistance over large obstacles.

Drivetrain

The SRAM DualDrive (DD) system consisted of a 9-speed cassette/derailleur along with a 3-speed rear internal gear hub (IGH). The system provided an ample 540% gear range and kept the front of the bike clear of multiple chainrings and a front derailleur. The drivetrain is controlled with one hand using a combined twist (for the 9 gears) and trigger shifter (for the 3 IGH gears) on the right side. A rider can fine-tune the gear range by swapping out the single front chainring.

As a first-time bent rider, it was easy to see why Azub offered this drivetrain option. Starting from a dead stop on a recumbent can be tricky, especially uphill. Incorporating an IGH allows the rider to shift to a lower gear while at a complete stop. So you can get out of a bind when you find yourself at a standstill and in the wrong gear.

The DD system worked reliably, but unfortunately, SRAM decided to discontinue them in 2017. Probably the biggest concern I had with this system was the fragile plastic click box that connected to the IGH via an equally fragile pull rod. Instead of the DD system, Azub now offers a nearly identical drivetrain by Sturmey Archer.

Brakes

The Avid BB7’s are popular brakes that work well without much fuss. They don’t provide much range when you want to feather the brakes, but they have plenty of stopping power.

Top-down view of the under seat steering setup where you can see both the brake and shifter cables protruding out and looping back in.

Azub mounts the brake levers on the USS handlebars in the “correct” orientation. By that, I mean when you grip the levers your pinky finger is closest to the end of the lever (as it would be on a regular bike). This provides the rider with a more natural feel when squeezing the levers, but it also means you end up with unsightly brake cables protruding out the ends of the handlebars and looping back in. In contrast, HPV orients the levers on their USS bikes the opposite way so that the brake cables follow along the handlebars as they exit the lever (yeah yeah I know I’m being picky here). As much as I like the lever orientation that Azub uses, I’d rather have less cable clutter and I did in fact change the lever orientation later for a cleaner look.

Ride stability and steering

The MINI is stable at both low and high speeds, thanks to the long wheelbase. I’m able to keep a fairly straight line even while climbing steep hills. The bike also handles itself at high speeds. My comfort level maxed out around 32 mph during some fast descents. I found its stability made it easy to learn how to ride and I never fell over. Also, being able to modify the steering ratio of the USS handlebars is a lot of fun allowing you to dial in the steering exactly how you like it.

Carrying capacity

Despite its small appearance, the MINI is rated at 275 lbs. The way the rear luggage carrier integrates into the main frame of the bike is clever. You can mount a trunk bag and a pair of pannier bags on the carrier. If you don’t need the carrier, you can slide it out of the frame and insert a plastic plug on the end of the frame. For more capacity on long tours, Azub offers additional side and bottom carriers as well.

Weight and custom upgrades

My biggest complaint about the bike was the hefty weight. Sure it wasn’t designed to be fast, but the bike weighed in at an impressive 45 lbs. I wanted to lighten up the bike, not just to help me get up those hills, but also so that I could lift the thing onto my car. So over the years I replaced many of its components with lighter counterparts.

I ended up replacing the stock wheelset with Velocity A23 wheels, the disc brakes for v-brakes (Paul Components), and the DD drivetrain with 11-speed road components (SRAM RED 11-32 cassette, rear derailleur, and bar end shifter).

For the front of the drivetrain, I was planning on a standard 34/50 double but soon realized my upper gear range would be severely limited by the small rear wheel (maxing out at 84 gear inches). Instead, I opted for a popular 2-speed front IGH, known as a Schlumpf Drive. This gave me the equivalent of 30/75 in the front (727% range; 18-125 GI).

I also replaced the front fork with a carbon fiber (CF) Bacchetta Johnson fork, and the aluminum front boom with a CF version from HPV. Since most of my riding was on the road, the loss of front suspension wasn’t too detrimental to the ride quality and the switch to CF provided significant weight savings.

Sizing up the competition

Besides the MINI, there is one other bike available stateside that is fully suspended with dual 20” wheels: the HPV Grasshopper FX. Fortunately, the only recumbent shop in NJ was a few minutes away from me at that time, and I had the opportunity to test ride both bikes and agonize for weeks trying to decide between them. They are similar bikes and either one would have been fine. One major difference is that the Grasshopper can fold up. In the end, I appreciated the design elements of the MINI and found its seat a bit more comfortable. I also liked that the Czech company has a reputation for making their bikes rugged and overbuilt for heavy world touring.

Final remarks

The same MINI after a few years of upgrades and a new paint job.

When all was said and done, my MINI ended up weighing a more manageable 30lbs and being an even more pleasurable bike to ride. Since switching to the Origami a few months ago, I’ve swapped most of the above upgrades over and returned the MINI to nearly stock form.

The MINI is currently on loan with a recumbent-curious friend. I’ve been considering selling it, but after writing this review I’m having second thoughts. Maybe I can make some space to keep it. After all, suspension recumbents with USS are a rare breed nowadays.

Thanks to the good folks at Azub and Jersey Bents for answering my non-stop questions about their bikes.

Recumbent types: Steering

Under Seat Steering (USS)

The handlebars on a recumbent may be mounted below the rider so that their arms hang in a relaxed position. Known as under seat steering (USS), this is arguably the most comfortable and least tiring steering position since you’re not reaching up to grip the handlebars. That said, it can be a bit trickier mounting/dismounting a bike with USS without practice, and you’ll be less aerodynamic when riding since you’ll have a wider profile against the wind. It’s also worth noting that USS is more mechanically complex and expensive, often requiring non-standard bike parts including a tie-rod to link the bars to the fork (known as indirect steering). There are a few USS bikes out there with direct USS steering where the handlebars connect directly to the steerer with a stem (just like a regular bike but inverted), but the handling can be a bit too twitchy with direct USS steering. In contrast, indirect steering often allows the rider to fine tune the feel of their steering by changing the placement of the tie-rod to adjust the steering ratio.

Personally I’ve found USS to be the ultimate design in recumbent comfort. My first recumbent came with above seat steering (ASS- see next section below), and I immediately had to switch it to USS because my elbows were giving me problems. Despite the comfort, USS did get annoying when I needed a good place to mount accessories like my GPS. Having USS also made it harder to walk my bike since I had to bend over it a bit to steer it, and I needed a wider space for parking or storing the bike. My elbow pain improved a few years later after a couple surgeries (cubital tunnel release and ulnar nerve transposition), and I did switch back to ASS without much of a problem mainly for the sake of convenience.

If you’re interested in USS bikes, you have a few options in the US including Azub, HP Velotechnik, Linear Recumbents, and Long Bikes. In Europe you’ll have a few more options with Challenge Bikes (Netherlands), Slyway (Italy), and Flux, Toxy, and Traix (all in Germany). Just note that the HPV Streetmachine and Toxy bikes use direct steering, and may be a bit more tricky to ride.

Above Seat Steering (ASS)

When the handlebars are mounted over the rider’s lap and they have to reach up to them, the bike is known as having above seat or over seat steering (ASS or OSS). Compared to USS, ASS is more aerodynamic and generally easier to learn. You’ll have some choices regarding the shape of the handlebars: “praying hamster bars” that keep your arms in a tight position close to your chest versus “superman bars” where you are gripping onto wide bars in what is called an “open cockpit”. The superman bars are more ergonomic since they keep your hands/wrists in a neutral position where you don’t have to rotate your wrists to hold onto the handlebars. ASS does require your arms and shoulders to be more engaged compared to USS, so your arms will tire after a while. Unlike USS, you’ll have plenty of room on the handlebars to mount accessories such as mirrors, bells, and lights, but you may also have worse visibility with the handlebars blocking your line of sight (especially if you are in an extreme horizontal position).

Pivot Steering

There is a less common type of steering out there known as pivot or center steering. On these bikes, there’s a pivot at the center of the bike, allowing you to steer the front wheel by leaning. These bikes may come with side bars to help you lean into a turn, and may have no handlebars at all! I’d love to try such a bike one day, but the only center steering bikes I’m aware of are old Flevobikes from the Netherlands.

Recumbent types: low-, mid-, and high-racers

Last November I covered the various types of recumbents based on length. To review, the long wheel base (LWB) ‘bents are super comfy machines made for putting in long touring miles in a fairly upright seating position, whereas the short wheel base (SWB) ‘bents tend to be more versatile bikes used for racing, commuting, or just about anything else.

The SWB versatility is largely due to the variety of designs out there. Today I’ll cover some designs as they relate to the rider’s seated height from the ground.


Low-racers

You’ll often hear SWB ‘bents categorized as low-, mid-, or high-racers. Low-racers seat you very close to the ground— so low that you can balance yourself by placing your palms down. They’re aerodynamic and fast bikes that are good for flat tracks, but have fallen out of fashion in the recumbent community. A low-racer is difficult to ride given the seat’s nearly horizontal position, and isn’t too visible to traffic on the road. Builders are forced to get creative with the drivetrains and complex chain lines given the limited amount of space between the rider and the ground. They often have a small 20” or 16” front wheel paired with a larger 700c rear wheel. Performer Cycles and M5 still have some low-racer options.

A Performer Cycles low-racer model. Note the highly reclined and low position of the seat, as well as the complex chain line that requires 3 idlers and protective chain tubes.

High-racers

High-racers are also fast bikes, and offer much better visibility in dense traffic. They tend to be light-weight and have simple, straight chain lines. They have dual 700c wheels, and their frames are usually American-style “stick frames” exemplified by Bacchetta or European-style “s-frames” such as the Pelso Brevet and Schlitter Freestyle. The largest disadvantage with high-racers (especially stick frames) is they don’t easily accommodate short riders. If you are under 5’9” or so, you’ll likely have trouble getting your feet down at a stop on a high-racer. The problem is as you slide the seat position forward along the frame’s tube to be able to reach the pedals (which are positioned at an elevated level), you are also sliding the seat higher from the ground. The S-frame design helps alleviate the problem a bit by sloping the frame tube down. Most recently, Metabike introduced a novel multi-tube high-racer design (the Mystique) with a seat height that allows riders as short as 5’6” to get their feet down (being 5’8”, this particular bike is appealing to me as I’ve always wanted a high racer but I’m not tall enough to feel safe on one).

Given the high seating position and bottom bracket (i.e., where the pedals are), high-racers aren’t made for off-road terrain where you may need to quickly get your feet down to avoid falling over (that being said, there is one crazy exception out there).

The Bacchetta Corsa (left) and Pelso Brevet (right) are two examples of modern high-racers with dual 700c wheels. Note the respective stick and s-shaped frame designs, as well as the simpler chain lines requiring only one idler under the seats.


Mid-racers

As you may expect, mid-racers fall between the two extremes. They’re the most popular choice of SWB ‘bent since they offer much of the visibility and aerodynamics of a high racer without limiting rider height. You’ll find options for racers, commuters, and tourers in this category, along with a variety of options in wheel size, suspension, seat type, drivetrain, and steering to accomodate all sorts of riding and terrain. Take a look at Azub, HPV, Lightning Cycles, and Performer Cycles for good mid-racer options. Most of my recumbent bike experiences have been on mid-racers, and my current everyday bike is a commuter-type mid-racer design (I’ll talk about it in a future post).

Why ride a ‘bent?

The most frequent questions I get about my recumbent bike from passersby are “is it hard to ride?” and “is it comfortable?” As is often the case, the answer to both is “it depends”. Recumbent bikes vary wildly in design and that of course has an effect on learning difficulty. Generally speaking, I think how well you ride a regular diamond frame (DF) bike will predict how quickly you learn to ride a recumbent. I don’t think my daily bike (pictured in my introductory post) was particularly difficult to learn, but I’ll discuss different recumbent bike styles and their ease of use in a future post.

Similarly, if the recumbent bike you choose fits you well and is suited for the type of bike riding you do, you’ll find it very comfortable. But not unlike a DF bike, if you don’t pick the right bike you’ll probably end up dissatisfied.

In today’s post, I’ll delve a bit deeper into the comfort of a recumbent bike and other reasons why someone may want to ride one.


Comfort

If you happen to be middle-aged like yours truly, you may be intimately familiar with terms like herniated discs, spinal instability, back pain, neuropathy, etc. For me, my back pain is made worse by bending over or sitting upright for prolonged periods of time. Now picture a typical DF bike and you can see how the rider’s position could aggravate a bad back.

Most recumbents have an adjustable seat that can be set to varying degrees of uprightness. These seats are large and allow you to sit in them instead of perching on top of a standard bike saddle. Generally speaking, recreational and touring recumbents will have you positioned a bit more upright allowing you to see traffic and your surroundings a bit better, while the racing ‘bents will let you get very horizontal to give you a more aerodynamic profile. I personally find being 35 degrees or less reduces pressure on my spine enough to allow me to ride completely pain free.

Beyond the back, your shoulders and neck are more relaxed, and your wrists and hands no longer have to bear your upper body weight as they would if you’re hunched over the handlebars of a DF bike. But just how relaxed your upper extremities are depends a lot on the type of steering and handlebars on the bike because not all recumbents steer alike (note to self: future blog post topic).

The Rans Stratus (left) and the Schlitter Encore (right) are obviously two very different bikes. The Status is a touring recumbent with an upright seating position and a low bottom bracket, while the Encore is a “high-racer” bike with a very reclined position and high bottom bracket for increased power output.

Speed

There’s a whole other group of cyclists that gravitate toward recumbent bikes because they want to go as fast as possible. While a recumbent bike may be faster on flats and downhill compared to a DF bike, it all depends on many factors like what kinds of bikes you’re comparing and what “motor” you have powering them.

Recumbent riders interested in speed will often enhance their aerodynamic profile by adding a windscreen (or fairing) to the front and/or a tail sock to the back. For example, just take a look at the classic Lightning F40 recumbent with a full body fairing in this video. It may look absolutely ridiculous, but this thing really flies.

For those really interested in speed, they’ll go for a recumbent bike (or trike) incased in a rigid streamlined shell. These are known as velomobiles, and they are the kinds of bikes that set human powered vehicle (HPV) land speed records (currently at 89.58 mph). The amazing thing about velomobiles is you don’t need to be very strong or exert much effort to reach some fast cruising speeds. That makes them quite suitable for people who have long commutes on relatively flat terrain.

I should note that in my experience recumbents tend to be slower when going uphill compared to DF bikes. Unlike a DF bike, on a recumbent bike you can’t stand up out of your seat, mash your pedals down with the help of your weight, and rock your bike back and forth to get up a steep incline. All you can do is sit back and keep spinning those legs. I am overgeneralizing a bit though, and experts will tell you about recumbent bikes that are just as fast or faster uphill than DF bikes (the Cruzbike Vendetta V20 is a well known example).


Safety

Would you rather be careening down a street avoiding potholes and car doors while on a regular DF bike or on a recumbent? Turns out you’ll be safer on a recumbent. Research has shown more severe injuries occur on a DF bike compared to a recumbent bike. On a recumbent, your center of gravity is much lower and you’re traveling feet first. You’re certainly better off crashing with your feet than your head! Plus you can brake much harder without the prospect of flipping over your handlebars and suffering a severe head injury.

Also while you’re on a recumbent, your head is more upright allowing you to spot road hazards and make eye contact with drivers more easily. Not to mention the fact that you’re riding something weird, so drivers will notice you much more readily.

When talking about safety, I have to at least mention the recumbent trike. You can’t fall over on a trike (unless you really push it to its limits on a high speed turn and flip it). So for riders of a certain age, or those with balance problems, or those who exceed the weight limits of a two-wheeled bike, the trike is a very safe option. Many young recumbent bike riders of the 80s and 90s have since graduated to trikes in the past 15 yrs for this reason, leading to tremendous growth in the trike market (and a parallel shrinking of the recumbent bike market).


Style

This is just my opinion of course, but I do think there’s something inherently cool about recumbent bikes. It’s really interesting to see the variety of styles and solutions builders have come up with. In comparison, now most regular DF bikes just look plain boring to me!

Looks cool, right?