Lightning P-38 Midracer

by Bryan Ball
Managing Editor, ’BentRider Online
July 27, 2011

I try to play my cards pretty close to the vest around here. I try not to talk about my personal favorite bikes or trikes very often. However, there are a few machines that have struck me in such a way that it’s nearly impossible to hide my love for them. The venerable Lightning P-38 is one of them. I’ve owned three of them and almost surely have more miles on these Californian short wheelbase bikes than I do on any other single model. I think I’m pushing 20,000 the last time I checked.

There are many reasons that I love the P-38 so much. I’ve always found it to be light, stiff, comfortable, a good handler and as reliable as an old Timex. I love that it’s been around for decades and there are still very few recumbents out there that climb better.

It does have a few foibles of course. Its love-it-or-hate-it bolt upright riding position is absolute nirvana if it works for you but sheer hell on Earth if it doesn’t. It’s also not the most aerodynamic position you can put your body into when cruising along on the flats.

It all works fine for me so I’ve really never had any complaints about P-38. I have been rather smitten with the old girl for well over a decade now. So when Lightning decided to mess with it and give us a new “midracer” option for 2011, I was a bit taken aback. Mess with my favorite bike? Why?

The obvious answer is to address some of those aforementioned fit and aero issues. But did Lightning manage it without screwing up a legend? The short answer is yes… for the most part.

A P-38 Midracer is created by installing a carbon fiber hardshell seat, a different set of rear seat stays and a 650C rear wheel. This can be retrofitted to newer P-38’s (that came with the performance wheel option) or ordered as a $250 option with any P-38.

I converted our test bike from the Velocity 2×9 equipped P-38 that Larry reviewed a few months ago. The conversion was very simple and straightforward.

The transformation from “regular” SWB to “midracer” is pretty drastic visually. The bike appears to be much smaller and sleeker with that carbon fiber seat. Lightning’s have always had very nice frames but some of the smaller details like decals and what not have never been up to the same standards as Bacchetta or RANS. The addition of the carbon seat doesn’t really help that much. It’s made from hand laid carbon fiber and while the finish is good, it’s not as smooth as a seat from M5 or Bacchetta. It also comes with a blue seat cover which I would replace immediately. I’m not saying that the overall package bike looks bad exactly. It doesn’t. It’s still a visually pleasing machine but it does sort of call back to days gone by.

I definitely have no complaints about the components. Velocity Uriel wheels, Shimano XT and Ultegra components topped off with Lightning’s own ultra light and super stiff carbon crankset. The total package weighted in at just a tick over 24 pounds. That’s pretty astonishing for a bike with a chromoly frame and fork.

As I mentioned above, the primary purpose of the P-38’s Midracer makeover was to give customers more options when it comes to seat angle. I admit that I thought that this may be a bad idea but being more laid back on a P-38 works better than I thought it would. The bike still handles pretty much like a P-38 albeit with just a bit more sensitivity at low speed and maybe a touch more stability at higher speeds.

The seat seems to have a pretty good shape and the seat pad is thick and comfortable. The aforementioned blue seat cover doesn’t breath terribly well though. Also keep in mind that the P-38 was never known for its smooth ride and the hardshell makes it a bit rougher still. It’s tolerable but you will feel every bump you run over.

The Midracer’s hardshell seat also helps alleviate another one of the P-38’s shortcomings. If anyone under about 5′7″ or so wanted to ride a P-38 he or she had to opt for the version with the 16” front wheel. Wheels of that size have been virtually eliminated from the two wheel recumbent world and it never looked quite right with that big 700C out back. The Midracer’s seat is a couple of inches lower than on the standard bike and it’s much easier to get your feet down since it’s so narrow. This is a big deal for medium stature riders that are on the fence.

Of course this new seat option isn’t all about comfort. It’s also supposed to make the ole’ 38 more aerodynamic. I was able to compare both configurations side-by-side and I can attest that the Midracer does scoot along on flat roads at a noticeably faster pace. According to my GPS, the Midracer’s “maximum flatland cruising speed” was a little less than a mile an hour faster than the standard version.

But don’t be mistaken … This isn’t a bike you can lay back to 20 degrees or so like a lowracer or most highracers. The P-38’s bottom bracket just isn’t high enough for that and the tire will get in the way. 35 degrees is about as far back as it will go.

The P-38 has always been known as one of the ultimate climbing recumbents. Does the Midracer version live up to the legend? I rode up the same hill multiple times on multiple days with both versions and while the Midracer version was measurably slower, it was pretty close. The very steep one mile climb took (on average) six minutes and forty seconds on the Midracer and about six minutes and twenty seconds with the standard version.

The Midracer option also adds $250 to what is already a very expensive bike. Our test bike added up to a whopping $4,550. The P-38 is a very labor intensive bike to build for sure but there is a 20 pound gorilla standing in the room in the form of the $3,999 Bacchetta Carbon Aero 2.0. It’s very hard to compare the standard mesh seat P-38 to many other bikes but once you start trying to do what highracers do best, you are going to draw correlations.

Luckily, the Midracer does still retain the one thing that most P-38 lovers have a hard time living without. It does still feel like a P-38. It still has that lively frame feel that I still haven’t found in any other recumbent.

So if I were shopping for a new P-38 would I check the box next to the “Midracer” option? If I still lived in Florida or had any fit issues with the old bike, the answer would be yes for certain. But I do still live in hilly Upstate NY and the old bike fits me like a glove, so I probably wouldn’t.


Highs — More adjustable than the original, faster on the flats, better fit for smaller riders

Lows — Seat doesn’t help the looks much, Blue seat cover, Loses some speed on climbs

MSRP — $4,550

Reprinted with permission