The Lightning Phantom — A Review In Three Perspectives
Three people. One bike. We put the Lightning Phantom through three reviewers to get a little something for everyone.
Text and photos by Travis Prebble
July 6, 2010
Intro to the Phantom
The Lightning Cycle Dynamics Phantom has come and gone and come again over the years. It originally appeared as the Lightning Stealth, then became the Phantom, dropped off the radar, and reappeared as the Phantom once again.
The modern Phantom is available in two frame sizes: a small frame in blue paint color and a large frame in yellow. This makes the frame size instantly distinguishable, but doesn't help shorter riders who might prefer the visibility of the yellow frame.
New for 2010 are a series of refinements. Immediately noticeable are the lockdown tilt steering and the new chain tensioner.
The lockdown tilt steering has been a Lightning option for years and offers some advantages over the typical flip-it style of pivot stem. The lockdown allows the rider to adjust the tilt steering with a greater degree of precision and then secure it in place. This means no inadvertent pushes forward for new riders who are then disoriented when their grips end up moving away from them. It is also easy to adjust the cockpit during initial tuning rides since no tools are required. The potential downside of the lockdown system is the added weight if such things concern you. The locking mechanism is beefy and brings some heft with it.
The new chain tensioner allows for small adjustments in the boom without requiring resizing the chain. Two of our reviewers were able to use the tensioner alone to resolve their difference in x-seam, but a difference of more than a couple inches will still require adding/removing chain.
Other improvements to the Phantom include a slight ergonomic change to the seat and a change to the seat mounting system. The seat mount is now rigid on the frame, which means the seat cannot slide fore/aft for X-seam adjustment. But the new seat and mounting system use thumbscrew releases all around in order to easily remove the seat for transport.
About the Review
For this review, we at Recumbent Journal decided to make things really difficult for ourselves. We decided that getting the widest range of perspectives on the Lightning Phantom required having multiple people review the thing. There's a good reason people don't do this more often: it takes forever. Astute readers might notice that all of the photos feature snow in the background and that this review is being published in July.
Our first reviewer is Travis Prebble, owner and editor of Recumbent Journal. His perspective is purely that of the casual rider. Travis does not typically concern himself with componentry, numbers, terminology, and the like. He is a "by the butt" reviewer — if it feels good, it is good — and tends to focus on ride quality and aesthetics.
Our second reviewer is Tom Hovan, no stranger to reviews at the Journal. He has a mind for the technical aspects of most bikes and a body of experience from which to draw comparisons. Tom loves numbers, though you might find in this review that numbers have taken a back seat to fit issues.
Our third reviewer is Dan Blumenfeld, a Pittsburgh randonneur brought in to provide his perspective on the Phantom as it compares to his current ride of choice — the Lightning P-38. We know how many people out there ask which of the two they should go for, so we thought it best to grab a P-38 convert and have them evaluate the arguably lesser model.
During the review process, none of the reviewers spoke in any detail regarding their impressions. We wanted to see where the reviewers naturally agreed and disagreed on the Phantom. Here, then, are their individual reviews.
Travis says …
The Phantom arrived unceremoniously in a large, white box emblazoned with the Lightning logo and "Made in Taiwan. R.O.C." printed underneath. Inside was a bike waiting to be assembled. Assembly time for me was approximately one hour and included attaching the stem, mounting the wheels, mounting/tuning the rear derailleur, and attaching the seat. An experienced mechanic could probably have the entire process finished within 30 minutes. I am not an experienced mechanic.
While adjusting the boom, I noticed that a marked line of tape extended the length of the boom with a matching line on the frame to show proper alignment. My first thought was that this was a great touch for non-indexed booms and should be adopted by others, but it also proved to be my first aesthetic issue. The tape rests on top of the paint and, as such, is scraped off when the boom is inserted into the frame. Adjust the boom a few times and your index marker scrunches to uselessness. Once I had the boom adjusted for my length, I simply cut off the excess, but it would be better if it were part of the paint job and under a clear coat. And wouldn't you know it, all that boom adjusting caused issue number two. The top layer of paint was being scratched away by the frame every time I moved the boom. Other manufacturers address this with boom sleeves, but the Phantom just scrapes away a layer.
Once out on the road, little cosmetic issues fell away to an enjoyable ride. This was my first time sitting astride a Lightning cycle, so the seating position was a little foreign to me. It is far more upright than I am used to, causing me to go through about five miles of claustrophobia before I decided to start adjusting the locking stem pivot. Within a few minutes of adjustment, ride, adjustment, I found a perfect cockpit position and was able to continue my ride comfortably. My initial guess on the position was too closed and contributed to a feeling of instability, but that gave way to confident stability once the right position was achieved.
Now my hands and arms were in the right place, but my posterior was having problems. While the seat foam of the Phantom seat is designed with a front plateau to help keep one planted back into the mesh, I found that my butt kept inching forward during the ride, causing me to push back into the seat to get myself fully upright again. Perhaps the seat was too upright for my gelatinous body mass. I hopped off the bike to see about adjusting the seat angle and noted that the bolts governing seat angle adjustment were bent as though they were overtightened and had come that way from Lightning (I had not touched them during the build). Fearing the possibility of a bolt breaking miles from my start, I let the seat angle go and resigned myself to periodic body position adjustments. My thought is that reclining the seat a bit more might help gravity work in my favor and keep my butt back in the seat, but I was unable to test this theory.
Performance on both flats and hills was refreshing to me as I normally ride heavier bikes. I instantly noted the uphill climbing ability, especially in that hills I've ridden dozens of times on my Street Machine Gte went flying by without too much notice. This was likely a combination of the upright seat position (leverage) and the lesser weight of the Phantom (gravity). The overall ride required less effort of me, which was saying something since the temperature was in the high 30s.
The handling of the Phantom was quick and sure. The best word is probably "spry." I was most reminded of the handling of the ICE B1, another lively recumbent in a short wheelbase form factor. On smooth road, there was nothing I or the Phantom did to cause trepidation. It was on uneven road that I encountered moments of fear.
On this particular test route is a long downhill run surfaced with chip seal, much of which has broken up and given way to potholes. On a suspended bike like the Street Machine, road roughness is absorbed and I enjoy a mildly bumpy ride at 40+ MPH. Not so on the stiffer and lighter Phantom. There were several occasions on that downhill that I felt as though I were being bounced out of my seat or that the bike wasn't always in contact with the ground. Without pointing a camera at the wheels, there's no way I can tell which was the case, but it did cause me to apply the brakes and take that downhill with a little less gusto. Front and rear suspension is available for the Phantom and might have made a difference, but our test model did not come so equipped.
I also used the Phantom as a commuter for a single day. During that trip around local neighborhoods, along main thoroughfares, and into my workplace, I experienced a genuinely pleasurable ride. My impression was that the Phantom would serve a better daily commuter than my Street Machine, though the Phantom is not particularly suited for loads requiring standard panniers as there seems to be no way to mount a rear rack without making the seat immovable. Seatback bags are the way to go, then, for the commuter. I used the Lightning provided bag and was able to fit everything I needed for the day.
Overall, I'd say that the Phantom presented a pleasant, capable ride. It was the first time that I've ever really understood the benefits of being a weight weenie and paying attention to how heavy a bike is. The Phantom eased my hatred of uphill climbs while keeping me quick through the flats. With a little more adjustment, I could see the Phantom accompanying me on long rides … assuming predictable road conditions.
One last note about the Phantom is that it breaks down somewhat for transport. The seat can be quickly removed (if you don't mount the included rear reflector which attaches around the upper seat stay mount using a screwdriver and has to be removed to take off the seat) and the stem/fork can be rotated 180 degrees and laid flat to reduce vertical height.
Tom says …
The first thing I noticed when test riding the Lightning Phantom was the upright, compact position that Lightning bikes are so famous for and was developed to mimic the crouch of riding on an upright road racing bike in the drops. It really does feel like riding my old road bikes in that sense. It's a position of power, and I loved this aspect of it, as it seems to help quite a bit climbing hills. However, my lower back did not appreciate it one little bit. A lower back ache was a certainty for me on this bike after about 30 minutes, which I primarily attribute to the upright seat angle and overall riding position rather than to the seat itself.
Getting back to how the bike climbs, I found the Phantom to take on hills at least as well, if not a little better, than my Bacchetta Giro 26. This is partly due to the Phantom's lower weight in addition to the riding position. And I did not experience excessive frame or seat flex that other riders might, as I only weigh 150 lbs. I took the Phantom up some of the more challenging climbs I regularly ride (two of them approaching 20% grade), and the Phantom did very well, except for an extreme amount of squeaks and creaks emanating from the seat. The noise does not seem indicative of any structural problem, per se, but of the flexible nature of the seat mounts (which are simply plastic clamps).
As recumbents go, the Phantom does not put the rider in an especially aerodynamic position, or so it appears. I found the bike's speed potential on flat ground to be much better than I expected. The bike seemed slower than my high racer, but not by a lot. Again, I think the riding position is so good for producing power to the pedals that the mediocre aerodynamic properties of this machine are largely overcome.
How about the handling? Well, the steering pretty much feels like a hungry shark with a frickin' laser beam attached to its head. Seriously, this bike handles quite awesomely. It's precise, quick, and stable. Low speed maneuvers were no problem; the lack of tiller helps here. On the flip side, I had the bike up to over 40 mph and it was a rock. I felt confident taking corners as fast as available traction would let me.
I hated the handlebar and upper body ergonomics. Please give me back my open cockpit handlebars and straight arms, please. This was the most surprising aspect of the bike to me. Just as with the bike's upright, closed seating position, the high hand / bent arm position (one I will call the "semi-hampster" position) was perfectly comfortable over the short term, but after riding a while, my arms and shoulders seemed to tire, and my elbows actually started to hurt. I have to concede that I could possibly become more comfortable with the position over time, however I only had the opportunity to test ride the bike for about 60 miles before delivering it to Dan. I played with the height and angle of the bars and stem quite a bit but never really found a happy place.
I found the overall quality of the frame and componentry to be all quite good. Everything just works, with two exceptions: The first was the aforementioned creaky seat mounts. The second also relates to the seat in that I found the clamps that set the seat stay length were pretty well stuck. In fact the outer stay tube was actually pinched down so tightly on the inner tube that some special efforts (probably involving paint damage) were going to be necessary to free them. Since I was only a temporary keeper of the bike and didn't want to do any damage, I decided to let my curiosity about how much more comfortable I might be able to make myself by reclining the seat go unsatisfied.
Dan says …
"Is the Phantom a poor mans P-38 that rides almost as well? Or is it a poor imitation that just doesn't compare well at all?"
Thus did Recumbent Journal request my input with regards to Lightning Cycle Dynamics' Phantom recumbent bicycle; as a moderately P-38-obsessed rider, a question like that proved impossible to resist.
I've been riding my P-38 for well over two years now, and still regard the bike as one of the strongest contenders for best all-rounder recumbent bicycle. The Phantom was very interesting to me, as it is nearly identical with regards to geometry, but is based on a monotube frame rather than the P-38's triangulated space frame. This difference in frame construction, along with a more budget-oriented component spec, allows the Phantom to come in at a significantly lower price point than its' big brother. So, of course, the question becomes how much do you sacrifice for that savings? Pour yourself a cuppa and stay with me, dear reader, for all shall be revealed …
I was immediately impressed with the portability of the bike. The tilt steering allowed the tiller to fold flat; the seat could be removed in seconds by loosening four thumbscrews; pop off the wheels, and the whole thing slides neatly into the back of a vehicle. I was a bit concerned by the play in the tilt steering; while not horrible, there was a noticeable wiggle in the bars, so I found myself being overly cautious and avoiding too much weight on the steering. (Probably not a bad thing, come to think of it …)
Once reassembled, I hopped on and took it for a quick spin around the block. Although the gearing was a bit lower than my fingers and legs were attuned to, it felt remarkably like the P-38, at least at flat neighborhood cruise velocity. Fit and finish were fine; I did notice that the alignment mark on top of the sliding boom (+1 for including an alignment mark to keep it level) peeled very easily when adjusting the boom's extension (-1 for using a decal for an alignment mark). Overall component level was not high, but everything was well adjusted and seemed to play nicely together.
Getting to know you
I was pleased with the overall handling, as it really felt nearly identical to that of the P-38. Low-speed maneuvers (rounding tight corners on bridges and switchback ramps, for example) were reliable and confidence-inspiring; higher speeds were very stable. I did not mount a computer for purposes of the review, so do not know exactly how fast I took the Phantom; I did come down a hill on which I normally hit 35-40 mph on the P-38, and the Phantom felt just fine at a similar speed.
As part of my review, I used the Phantom as my daily commuter for a week, so the poor thing was exposed to all the best that Pittsburgh roads had to offer. Aside from a bit of filth, the Phantom handled it all with aplomb. (Note to self … put fenders on next time. Sorry, Travis!) Aside from the usual difficulty getting it to fit in a bike rack, the biggest challenge I found with the monotube frame was fewer frame members through which I could run a U-lock or a cable, when parking in the city.
On the down side, there was more than a bit of creaking under my rear. Squeaking seats drive me mad, as they follow me EVERYWHERE. They're EVERYWHERE, I tell you. EVERYWHERE! AAAAAHHHHAHAHAHAHAH!!!
*Ahem* Anyway, I suspect the no-tools seat fasteners were the primary culprit, as I was able to minimize the creaking through repeated adjustment of the mounts' position and tension. Sadly, whenever I took the seat off for transport, or after a bout of more energetic climbing, the creaking would regain its prior level of annoyance. I was never able to fully resolve this, but suspect I would have replaced the plastic thumbscrew fasteners with something highly elegant such as hose clamps, if I had had to put up with the squeaking under load much longer.
As a side note, I have to say that I much prefer the Phantom's seat mesh to that of the P-38; in fact, I've swapped my P-38's mesh for a Phantom mesh, as they fit the seat frames more-or-less equivalently. In my experience, the Phantom mesh is more durable, maintains tension better, and absorbs less power when one is pushing into the pedals with all one's might. The Phantom mesh is more prone to damage if you dump the bike, as it wraps around the outside of the seat frame; dumping the P-38 will, at worst, damage the cord or zip ties holding the mesh to the frame. Given the high cost of these seat meshes, that's not an unreasonable thing to keep in mind when choosing a mesh.
Also as part of this review, I loaned the Phantom to one of my coworkers, a novice who had never ridden anything other than a rental Sun EZ-1, and that for only a couple of miles. As a testament to the newbie-friendly nature of the Phantom, she was comfortable riding it after a very brief period of acclimatization, and was pleased enough that she was interested in purchasing her own immediately.
So, how did it climb?
Always a critical question, when it comes to these pedal-powered contraptions. Right off the bat, I must say that I'm spoiled by the P-38, and that I am perhaps oversensitive to the differences imposed by the Phantom's frame differences. That said, I found that there was far more flex when applying power in general, and performance on any hills greater than 4-5% was noticeably worse. I attribute this to a combination of factors: the seat stays are a bolt-on style, rather than an integral part of the frame; the seat itself fastens via quick-releases, rather than beefy M5 bolts; and the monotube frame is simply less rigid. I took the Phantom up quite a few of the "regular" hills around Pittsburgh, including a few in the 8-12% range; hill climbing performance was acceptable, but I was feeling a bit nervous about damaging the seat mounts, so didn't attempt anything more severe. (If I had owned the review bike, I would have been more inclined to tackle a few of the Dirty Dozen hills, but I suspect I would have done damage to the bike or to myself in the process.) It's not a P-38, but we already knew that. I found it to be slightly less efficient than my Rocket, but perfectly acceptable for run-of-the-mill grades.
I would not hesitate to recommend the Phantom as a solid mid-range recumbent. In my neck of the woods (southwestern Pennsylvania), I'd say that the Phantom would be better suited to urban and trail rides than road riding, due to the frequency and severity of *ahem* exciting grades found on the rural roads; however, areas of the world less prone to extreme lumpishness would lend themselves well to Phantom riders cruising the highways and byways in comfort.
Based on the aggregate, the Phantom is a great bike for the rider who is not looking to take it to extremes. Casual riders, new riders, and urban riders can all benefit from the ease with which the Phantom can be ridden, but those looking for high performance or touring capability might be better served looking elsewhere.
The creaky seat was mentioned strongly in two of the three reviews (and, to be honest, Travis noticed it too but was apparently more forgiving of it than Tom and Dan). Lightning would do well to isolate the reason for the noise and try to eliminate it in future iterations.
Also mentioned in two out of three was the ease with which the Phantom can be transported. The wide range of stem angles and the easy seat removal mean that the Phantom can break down quickly for storage in a trunk or back seat.
Not mentioned anywhere was advice to avoid the Lightning Phantom. None of the three reviewers found any issue so glaring that they would not recommend it for purchase. Each certainly found their own small issues, and maybe those are issues to which you can relate, but the Lightning Phantom is clearly a suitable bike for a more casual ridership.
Performance riders will still want to look to the P-38 if considering a Lightning recumbent.
- Sizes: Small, Large
- Height Range: 5'-5'9" (small), 5'7"-6'6" (large)
- Weight Limit: 200 lbs (small), 250 lbs (large)
- Colors: Azure Blue (small), Yellow (large)
- Weight: 27 lbs (small), 29 lbs (large)
- Wheelbase: 41 to 45 inches
- Overall Length: 62 to 73 inches
- Bottom Bracket Height: 24 to 26 inches
- Seat Height: 19 to 21 inches
- Seat Back Angle: 50 to 65 degrees
- Frame: TIG welded multigauge Chromoly, 7005 Aluminum BB extension
- Rigid Fork: LCD Tapergage Chromoly
- Seat: Lightning Ergofit
- Stem: Lockdown Tilt Steering
- Handlebars: Aluminum, LCD custom drop
- Gear Range: 23 to 120 inches
- Brakes: Tektro LH pull V-brakes
- Brake Levers: Tektro 903 AL
- Bottom Bracket: Shimano Deore Cartridge
- Crankset: FSA forged alloy, 30x42x52, 170mm (large)
- Chain: KMC Z9200
- Chain Tensioner: LCD Custom spring loaded with sealed bearings, Delrin idlers
- Cassette: Shimano Deore 11-34 9sp
- Front Derailleur: Shimano Sora
- Rear Derailleur: Shimano Deore
- Headset: Cane Creek Aheadset
- Hubs: Fomura Alloy sealed bearings and QR lever
- Pedals: Platform
- Shifter: Shimano Dura Ace Bar End
- Rims: ARDC Aero, 24 spoke front, 28 spoke rear
- Front Tire: Primo Comet, 35-406, 100 psi (large)
- Rear Tire: Primo Racer, 32-559, 100 psi
- Good general use recumbent
- Easy breakdown for transport
- Adjustable stem for tuning ergonomics
- Chain tensioner to fit range of riders
- Responsive handling
- Decent on the uphills
- Noisy seat
- Bouncy on uneven terrain
- Drop handlebars might be uncomfortable for some
- Minor cosmetic issues
- Not for performance riders
- MSRP: $1,595 ($1,780 as tested)
- Link: Lightning Phantom product page
- Disclosure: The Lightning Phantom used in this review was received as payment for advertising at Recumbent Journal. No terms were present in the transaction to require that a review be performed or that its outcome be influenced by the purchase of advertising.
Source: Recumbent Journal