Lightning Phantom: ’Return of the Phantom’

By Bryan J. Ball
Managing Editor, ’BentRider Online
February 18, 2006

Lightning’s Phantom short wheelbase recumbent has had a very odd history. When it was first introduced several years ago, it was called the Stealth. This monotube was an excellent lower-priced alternative to the much more expensive P-38 and also compared well with the RANS V-Rex which was also quite popular at the time. A couple of years later, Lightning made a few changes to the bike’s geometry and renamed it the Phantom. Last year, Lightning temporarily trimmed their line down and decided to only produce the P-38. The Phantom/Stealth was quietly and unceremoniously dropped.

And now, Tim Brummer and Lightning have resumed production of the Phantom with just as little fanfair. This is very good news for Lightning lovers everywhere. The new Phantoms will be produced in North Carolina (the old version was made by Steve Delaire of Rotator) and are nearly identical to the older bike.

There also haven’t been too many major changes made to the component spec. The drop handlebars and tip shifters that used to only be available on the upgraded Phantom II are now standard. Our test Phantom (which was a pre-production sample from the new builder) used a Shimano Deore rear derailleur, a pair of Odyssey A-Brakes and set of Lightning-branded (and nicely finished) Taiwanese cranks with 52-42-32 rings. The wheels were Deore hubs laced to Sun CR-18 rims. Lightning specs a 26″ Primo Comet tire on the rear and a 406 Schwalbe City Jet on the front. The Small size Phantom uses a 16×1⅜ front wheel with a Primo Comet.

The Phantom’s frame is a virtual twin of the Rotator-produced bike. It still uses a chromoly main frame with an aluminum book. The welds on our test bike were a bit rougher than I remember Delaire’s being but this was a pre-production sample and perhaps that will get better over time. The new Phantom also retains Lightning’s locking adjustable stem. The stem definitely works well and many riders like the fact that it locks into place but I’ve always thought that it looked a bit clunky and it definitely weighs more than a RANS Flip-It.

Lightning uses a two-idler chain management system. The idler wheels are made of harder plastic than those that RANS or Bacchetta use. It was a couple of decibels louder than those systems but definitely didn’t feel like it had more drag than those bikes. In fact, it seems to have less drag than the RANS V-Rex that I had here at the same time.

The complete Phantom package weighed in at 30.25 pounds on a hanging digital scale that I have access to. That’s pretty much in line with other SWB’s in this price range.

The overall look of our Phantom was definitely a bit more old school than some comparatively priced SWBs. Lightning’s graphics have never been especially flashy and some of the details (steering riser, seat mount, etc …) don’t look nearly as slick as the competition. The Phantom definitely looks more low volume than its competition.

The Phantom’s riding position is typical Lightning. It’s very closed with a highish bottom bracket and an upright seating position. Some claim that this is the reason for Lightning’s well-deserved reputation for producing fast-climbing recumbents. I tend to agree with that analysis but it can have its downsides. The P-38 is so closed that a small number of riders may have a hard time breathing on really long rides. I think that the slightly more adjustable Phantom lays back just enough to eliminate that concern but you still should look elsewhere if you prefer a relaxed seat angle.

Even if it is a bit more upright than some may be used to, it’s hard to find much fault with the Lightning seat’s comfort level. It may look like a RANS-style seat with a molded base and a seat pad but it’s actually a full sling mesh design more similar to a Rotator or a Longbikes. There is a pocket on the base that holds a thin foam cushion. You can run the seat with this cushion or with a Thermarest pad (the Trail Seat model fits perfectly). Either way, I’ve always found the seat to be extremely comfortable and among my favorites. It’s also nice and wide for those that are more generously proportioned and is available in an XL size if needed.

When setting the Phantom up for the first time, make sure that you don’t just set the boom length and take off. The seat is also adjustable for and aft. By adjusting both of these, you can make sure that your weight is properly centered between the wheels. Tim Brummer feels that this is very important to the bike’s handling characteristics. It’s part of the reason that all of his bikes come in at least three sizes.

A few years ago, we may have called the Phantom’s high bottom bracket extreme. With the introduction of so many high bottom bracket highracers and lowracers, this is no longer the case. Your feet will certainly be up higher than they are on a V-Rex or a Burley SWB but it’s nowhere near highracer territory.

The new standard handlebars and tip shifters are ergonomic bliss for me but they can get in the way a bit when you’re doing u-turns in the street. I would put the annoyance level on par with the interference that some people have with Bacchetta’s Tweener bars. The adjustable steering mast should help riders dial in the hand position just as they like it.

Lightning’s have very distinctive handling characteristics. Like its brethren, the Phantom is very quick at low speed but never really felt twitchy to me. Once you get used to the bike’s quick reaction to steering inputs, it becomes quite easy to maneuver even at a walking pace. This is a real blessing when you’re cranking up a hill at four mph on a narrow shoulder.

High speed handling on the Phantom is also in line with that of other Lightnings. As I said in a previous Phantom review … 40 mile per hour descents weren’t particularly scary on the Phantom and high-speed corners were a blast. In this respect, the Phantom is just like any other Tim Brummer bike. Just keep in mind that this isn’t a Cadillac smooth long wheelbase. Brummer always aims for a sports car handling feel and he’s certainly achieved that with the Phantom. It’s plenty stable but don’t take any catnaps.

Lightning’s mid-priced SWB also rides like a sports car. This is not a good thing on rough roads. I’ve definitely ridden stiffer and more punishing recumbents but the Phantom definitely transmits a fair amount of the road’s imperfections directly to your posterior.

The stiff frame is definitely welcome when climbing and sprinting though. In a place with steep hills, the Phantom is a great performer. Its closed riding position and precise low speed handling are both very welcome on 10% and up grades. A local dealer in my rather mountainous county always did very well with the Stealth and Phantom because of their climbing ability. Lightning used to refer to him as Phantom Pete because he ordered so many more of these bikes than other dealers did.

On the flats, the Phantom’s rather upright seating position is not be as big of an asset. I’ve put a lot of miles on Lightning bikes and usually don’t feel hampered by the upright seat unless the wind is really kicking up. A Phantom is a quick bike in its class but it would not be my first choice for riding into a 20 mph headwind.

The Phantom has a fairly wide range of accessories available. Lightning makes a very nice seat bag for their bikes (that actually fits a wider range of seats than any other bag I’ve tried) and there are also aerodynamic Lightning panniers available that work very well with the Phantom. Most recumbent fenders will also fit this bike and it has enough tire clearance to accept most 26″ and 406mm tires.

If any potential Phantom owner looks up Lightning Recumbents on Google, they are bound to come across some complaints of poor customer service. In my experience, most of these problems can be avoided by going though a good dealer. Unfortunately, there aren’t as many Lightning dealers around as there used to be. Taking the time to find an experienced one would definitely be worth your while.

Phantoms should be widely available again early this Spring. At this time, I’m not sure if there will be an upgraded Phantom II as there has been in past years. Personally, I’m very happy to see the bike back on the market. It was always a fairly underrated bike and can make a very nice sporty all-around SWB for many riders.

Lightning Phantom

Highs — Great climber, comfortable seat
Lows — Not as refined as competition, Not as widely available as it once was
MSRP — $1,500 estimated

Reprinted by permission