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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
With the holiday season already here, why not do some shopping for that special cyclist in your life (or simply treat yourself). Here are a few of my all-time favorite bike accessories. Some are more recumbent specific, while others are appropriate for just about any bike.
If you ride in traffic, ringing bells and using your voice just doesn’t cut it. I absolutely love this thing. It uses micro-USB charging and a universal go-pro mount (so you can mount it just about anywhere you have the space). They offer button extension cords, which are really handy for long recumbent bikes. And most importantly, this thing is LOUD (125 db) and sounds JUST like a car horn. I kid you not. Nothing is more satisfying than beeping an inattentive driver with this. At $169, the Loud Mini is certainly not cheap, but it’s the best horn out there as far as I’m concerned and worth every cent the instant you have to use it.
Dinnotte Lighting is a well regarded company run by Rob Skaff up in Hampton NH. Rob’s been manufacturing high performance LED lights for over a decade with the idea that bike lights need to be as bright as car lights to be effective. I like the unique, compact design of their Quad line of lights, and their latest models provide convenient USB-C charging. Their amber lights are more visible to motorists than typical white lights during the day time. Get the Quad Amber headlight + Quad Red taillight package for $349. These are lights meant to last a lifetime, and Dinnotte offers reasonable battery replacement or trade-in services.
This mirror is made in Germany and can be hard to find here at times. It often goes by different names (usually the Ortlieb Ultralight Mirror or the D+D Oberlauda UltraLight Mirror). It’s designed for touring and commuting or just about any situation in which there’s a need for greater visibility. Hands down it is the best mirror out there. It’s extremely light (2 oz), provides a really wide field of view, and it’s easy to adjust on the fly. The way it mounts is quite versatile which makes it a great mirror for recumbent bikes where you sometimes have to get creative with your mirror placement. I’ve gone through many mirrors over the years and consistently come back to this one. It is reasonably priced, and currently $24 at ModernBike.
For the recumbent rider, sometimes you need a compact bag to hang over the back of your hard shell seat just to carry some essentials. I use this bag to hold my phone, keys, wallet, and a few other small things on my commuting recumbent. It’s a very simple bag with a convenient Velcro attachment system, and its slim profile allows it to fit over the back of even the most reclined hard shell seats. T-cycle has these for $90.
If you’re an iPhone user, do yourself a favor and pick up an Apple AirTag or two. To mount one to your bike, I recommend a mount by Marshall of Project4AGZE on Etsy. There are tons of mounts out there, but his are good quality, handmade in USA, and durability tested by Marshall himself over thousands of miles and races. These mounts fit behind the water bottle cage, and are so slim that they’d likely go unnoticed by a bike thief. You can pick one up for $8.99.
In case you’re not drawing enough attention riding your whacky recumbent bicycle, add one of these helmet visors by DaBrim. If it’s not apparent in the picture, they are huge and look absolutely ridiculous. That being said, yes I have a bright yellow one. I don’t wear it often, except on those long sunny summer rides. These things do an amazing job keeping the sun out of your face, especially on a recumbent where you’re not hunched over looking down at the road. Available for $34-$45. Strangely there are no pictures of me wearing one that I could share…
While the condition of the NJ towpath made for very easy riding with well packed fine gravel, the PA side was in dire need of maintenance on the northern end. Once we reached New Hope on our way back down to Washington Crossing, the PA towpath did improve dramatically.