Road Test: Lightning P-38 recumbent

John Schubert
Bicycle Guide
March 1986

On the sleek Ontario Motor Speedway 6½ years ago, a fully faired recumbent tandem named White Lightning screamed through the speed traps, only to be pulled over by a California Highway Patrol car. You were speeding, boys, the trooper told riders Jan Russell and Butch Stinton. Clocked at 55.85 mph, White Lightning won the $3,000 prize posted by Dr. Allan Abbott for being the first human powered vehicle ever to top our national speed limit.

White Lightning co-designers Don Guichard and Tim Brummer have since produced the X-2, a single bike which has been extremely competitive in more recent HPV competitions. The X-2 yields an aerodynamic advantage to the White Lightning, but its better handling and driver visibility have allowed it to smash records the White Lightning wasn’t suitable for.

Perhaps the X-2’s most famous accomplishment is Pete Penseyres’ 192-mile, 25.6 mph haul from Seattle to Portland last year. Obeying all traffic signals (and the roadside summoning of a rubber-necking policeman), Penseyres powered the fully-faired X-2 home in 7 hours, 31 minutes, 42 seconds — an impressive half-hour faster than the previous record set by a racing tandem.

You can own a piece of this high-speed wizardry for a mere $950 [1986]. The street version of the X-2, the Lightning P-38, comes to you without the fairing but with a similar frame and several concessions to everyday use. Building and selling the recumbents is a sideline business for Brummer, who is an aerospace engineer in real life.

The aerodynamic benefits of the recumbent configuration are readily apparent. Hop on the P-38 and you’ll find yourself hammering the top cog on roads where you normally reach for the 17t. You’ll easily drop your friends on flats and descents because you’re inherently faster, and you leave less of a slipstream behind for drafting.

They may well reel you in on the climbs, however. When you stand to climb on an upright bike, you’re utilizing your back and arm muscles — albeit inefficiently — and that helps you climb faster.

On a recumbent, you can’t stand, and you can’t propel the bike with your arms. Out of habit, though, you’ll try, pathetically pulling on the handlebars until you get the idea. From that point on, you’ll ride with your upper body muscles completely relaxed at all times. Only your legs will be working.

All recumbent makers feel untold frustration that this benefit of upper body relaxation hasn’t brought them more sales. Who wouldn’t want to avoid the backache and stiff neck that so many people endure from upright bikes? Yet recumbent sales remain but a blip on the sales graph.

Everything I’ve said about the P-38 so far is true of any reasonably well-designed recumbent. But the differences among recumbents are at least as great as their similarities, and here the P-38 gets interesting.

Recumbent makers have yet to agree on standardized designs, and their wares vary from one another much more than upright bikes. Wheelbases may range from 36 to 66 inches; weight distribution, steering quickness, handling over bumps, and other such properties vary by a similarly wide margin. The handlebars can be in your lap or underneath your seat (allowing a very relaxed arm position). Your feet can be lower than your rump, level with your rump, or higher than your rump. And there are good and bad sides to any of these design options.

The choice with the greatest implications is where to put the wheels.

The most common recumbents, such as Gardner Martin’s Tour Easy, and Ace Tools Infinity, have wheelbases in excess of five feet. The rear wheel is behind your back and the front wheel is ahead of your feet. The advantage of this is that you have no interference between front wheel and feet; the disadvantage is that you have an ungainly long wheelbase. Steering is slow, maneuverability is not as good as a standard bicycle, the lightly loaded front wheel hops lots over bumpy roads, and the bike takes lots of storage space.

Other recumbents, notably the Hypercycle, shorten the wheelbase to three feet by tucking the front wheel under your knees. The bike becomes slightly easier to store ( it’s still long, because the boom which holds the crank spindle still sticks out front) and much more maneuverable — perhaps too much so, depending on your taste. The front wheel is now too heavily loaded. Tiny adjustments in seat placement (which affect the center of gravity) make the handling vary between unacceptable and merely tricky. High-speed rough-road performance is again bad, because when the front wheel lands after a short hop, it’s likely to land off to one side and test your balance reflexes.

Why not split the difference? You have a new problem with the front wheel/pedal interference, but you’ll finally have good weight distribution.

That’s exactly the P-38 solution. The 44-inch wheelbase yields 45/55 front/rear weight distribution, just like an ordinary racing bike. And the benefits are considerable. Rough-road performance is great for a recumbent, considering all that unsprung and unspringable weight. A loose, fluid bike handler will still handle the washboards better on an upright bike, but most people would find the recumbent just about as good.

Braking is fantastic, and as nearly idiot-proof as it can be on a bike. On a long wheelbase recumbent, the lightly-loaded front wheel can wash out; on a short wheelbase recumbent or upright bike, you need to be vigilant so you don’t initiate pitchover; on the P-38 you just grab the levers. Your low center of gravity makes pitchover quite unlikely, and the bike will easily stop shorter than you’re used to on your upright bike. All this on a bike that smokes an upright bike (The Lightning brochure says it’s about 10% faster; for me, flatland cruising speed was at least 20% faster.) Oh, and as a side benefit the P-38 weighs 25 pounds — lighter than any long wheelbase recumbent.

Perhaps you’re still worried about the pedal/wheel interference. Here’s where the Lightning demands some new skills. On your first parking lot U-turn, you’ll rub your heels on the tire tread, scare yourself silly, and come away swearing. As your experience with the bike grows, you’ll get more adept at avoiding the problem; Brummer has learned to pedal through a U-turn in an eight-foot-wide space, and his mother rides the bike without incident. It might be compared with your first drive in a stick-shift car. I won’t say I enjoyed getting used to it, but the benefits in braking and handling make the challenge worthwhile.

Brummer supplied our test bike with aluminum heel slings, used by recumbent builders in place of toe clips, because on a recumbent you need something to hold your heels up. Not all the bugs are worked out of the slings; they can strike the front wheel too, and unlike your foot, they don’t reflexively jump out of the way. Brummer is pondering new designs that won’t interfere as much.

One real surprise on the P-38 was the quick steering. The 69-degree head tube angle and 16-inch front wheel yield very little trail, and the bike will match any specialty criterium bike for steering quickness. I found it possible to ride smoothly and carve a straight path, but I always had to be on guard for the quick behavior. Says Brummer, I know it’s quick. One of these days I’ll get around to playing with that a little more.

P-38s have good-quality SunTour and Shimano components, and the frames are expertly brazed from high-quality chrome-moly frame tubing. Unlike most recumbent builders, who build there bikes with removable seats, Brummer brazes the seat frame onto the main frame [1986]. This makes the bike quieter, more solid, and $150 cheaper.

One detail that might raise a purist’s eyebrow is that the taut side of the drive chain runs around an idler pulley. Brummer says that drops the efficiency of the system about two percent, which I figure is more than made up by the lower frontal area. He rejected the idea of a jackshaft as too heavy and less efficient than the idler pulley.

Any new design suffers from at least one drawback: traditional accessories won’t fit. Brummer has gone a long way towards overcoming this objection. If you’d like racks, panniers, water bottles, handlebar bags, generator or battery lights, or a mirror (especially helpful on a recumbent, because it’s damn hard to turn your head to look behind you), they’re all possible, and the design details have been worked out for you. Take the P-38 camping? Sure!

The recumbent revolution, long awaited by many futurists and now only dreamed of by the few builders in the recumbent business, is unlikely to be a mass event next week. You can still be the first on your block in a P-38, and have a well-thought-out general-purpose bike that happens to be one of the fastest street bikes in the world. Why not?

(This article originally appeared in the March 1986 Bicycle Guide. Thanks to John Schubert for permission to reproduce it.)