Lightning P-38 Ultegra

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

The “mainstream” segment of the recumbent industry (if there is such a thing) is coming back strong. Highracers are still selling and lowracers continue to dominate the velodromes but bikes that were considered to be the hot ticket three or four years ago are now gaining more and more interest. One bike that is the recipient of this renewed attention is the venerable Lightning P-38. In a recent conversation with Tim Brummer of Lightning, I learned that sales of this old-school short wheelbase are way up from previous years. I thought that this was a good excuse to re-evaluate this classic recumbent and check out their top-of-the-line Ultegra model.

The P-38 Ultegra uses the same frame, seat and handlebars as the standard version. The fork is also common between the Ultegra and any other P-38 with the performance wheel option. The primary difference between the Ultegra and other P-38’s is in the component package. As the name would suggest, this version of the P-38 uses Shimano’s Ultegra roadie grouppo.

The P-38 comes in four frame sizes. The smallest two sizes use a 349mm front wheel to being the seat height a bit lower. If you have long legs, you will want to seriously consider the XL length boom. The stock boom length on the large frame is a bit short for some riders.

Our test bike was painted a lovely shade of nearly perfect ’BentRider Blue. (Why don’t companies call it that?) It’s impossible to mistake a P-38 for anything else. The space-frame design is very unique and vaguely Moulton-esque. As has been the case with most Lightning’s we’ve reviewed, the Ultegra’s welds were functional but not as clean as those on a RANS, Bacchetta or Easy Racers.

Lightning shipped my test bike with a set of Velocity Uriel wheels. I run these on one of my personal bikes and have had zero problems with them over the last two thousand miles. They look great on the P-38. All of the Shimano Ultegra drivetrain parts functioned great. In this price range, a 10-speed rear cluster is somewhat expected (A titanium Bacchetta Aero 3k has similar components to the Ultegra but costs $600 less) but I’ve never really had a big issue with 9-speed. Lightning uses bar-end shifters on the P-38. These have a friction option and friction works much better on 9-speed cassettes.

I chose Lightning’s $550 carbon fiber crank option just as I did on our last P-38 tester. This time I opted for 165mm crank arms versus the 175s that were on the last bike. Mainstream bicycle manufacturer Specialized has licensed the design of these 460 gram cranks for their high-end road bikes.

Assembling a P-38 from the smallish box that Lightning ships it in can be somewhat of a nightmare but for some reason this one went together pretty easily. Perhaps it’s just experience. If you assemble a P-38 yourself MAKE SURE to tighten the strings that hold the seat mesh in place. I’ve never found one yet that was tight enough out of the box and if you don’t cinch it down, your first test ride may produce a nice hole in your seat mesh and maybe even a little souvenir on your skin.

Once it’s properly adjusted, the Lightning seat is very comfortable. The look of this seat is deceiving. It is not a mesh back/seat pan combination like a RANS or Bacchetta Recurve. Lightning actually uses an all mesh design with an additional pad on the base. It’s wide and breaths very well. The adjustment range is very small (50-65 degrees) and some people feel that the pad on the seat base is inadequate for such an upright position. Thermarest makes a pad that fits very well in the P-38s pad pocket and many people have experienced positive results with that.

The P-38’s bottom bracket used to be considered high until the advent of highracers and lowracers. Not it’s just moderate. Combined with the Lightning’s upright seating position, it makes for a very closed posture. This is great for generating power but some people may find it a bit cramped. I used to be one of those people, but over time I’ve come to really like the position.

The P-38 used to also be considered a very fast bike until the advent of highracers and lowracers. These more aerodynamic designs may still trump the old Lightning over flatter routes but there are still very few recumbents in the world that can climb with a P-38. The bike’s light weight, closed position and stiff space frame really let you generate a lot of power and put it to the pavement efficiently and comfortably.

It also helps that the P-38 handles very well at slow climbing speeds. The steering is definitely quick, but in my opinion it’s more precise-quick than twitchy-quick. The feeling remains very crisp at higher speeds, but once you get used to the bike it can be extremely stable. It’s still one of the only recumbents I can pedal with my hands off the handlebars (not that I recommend that). It’s a very precise and sporty handling package that can be really addicting if it strikes you right.

This is really typical of the entire P-38 package. There just isn’t any other SWB out there that really feels quite like it. The bike leaps off the line better than most but still has that lively feel you’d expect from a good steel frame. Combine this with the aforementioned handling package and you get a bike that feels very tight and athletic.

Of course, this unique feel won’t be for everyone. I already touched on the cramped feeling that some people experience with the P-38’s riding position. The stiff frame that’s so great for climbing isn’t nearly as great on rough roads. Lightning’s seat will take the edge off a bit but there’s certainly no mistaking this bike’s ride for a Cadillac smooth long wheelbase.

The standard P-38 is a very versatile machine. It has strong V-Brakes, decent clearance for real world tires and fenders. Lightning also makes a set of aerodynamic panniers for touring and an excellent seat bag. The Ultegra version of the P-38 is not as multitalented. Its caliper brakes and limited tire clearance make it more of a road-specific machine but the user-friendly riding position still make it a good lower speed casual ride bike if you want to slow down and smell the roses.

If you want to go completely the other way, any P-38 can be transformed into an F-40 streamliner. All that’s required is a new boom. However, Lightning also recommends the addition of their suspension fork and would prefer that you order your P-38 with a rear disc brake tab if you ever think that you may do the F-40 conversion later.

Lightning earned a pretty bad rap for customer service over the last few years. A lot of this was transparent to end-users but several dealers have expressed their displeasure with Lightning. I’ve seen this improve dramatically over the last year or so but the damage may be done to some extent and Lightnings are notavailable in nearly as many dealers as they once were.

I said it a couple of years ago and I’ll say it again here… I honestly feel that the P-38 is a bike that stands up well even against much more modern designs. It’s a classic with a very distinct and potentially addictive personality. Modern highracers and more laid back SWB’s may be able to outrun the P-38 in many riding situations but if you’re route is more vertical than horizontal, you may still find the Lightning to be a worthy (and more comfortable) alternative.


Highs — Great handling, Good comfort, Unique feel
Lows — Stiff ride, Closed position not for everyone, Not cheap
MSRP — $3,600

Reprinted by permission