“New Stuff” by — surprise — Mike Librik, the low-tech guy himself

You do see the sledge hammerIt has been a while since I had a chance to talk over some new products in the shop. This may be old news to some. Sorry if some of this is “long attention span theater.” Just read until you are bored.

TerraTrike EVO-Bosch:  Last year, TerraTrike introduced their first version of the Rambler EVO, a trike with a factory-installed electric conversion kit. Despite a few rapid price hikes during its first months of availability, it remained a good deal on an electric trike. I had some disappointments with the design. Though TT created an elegant mounting system for the battery, we still didn’t have a frame that was really built from the ground up, ready to mount a battery like you see on more finished upright e-bikes. No biggie. I was concerned about the Falco motor they spec’d since, as a former Falco dealer, I’d had a few problems with these systems. TerraTrike used simplified, pre-programmed control software intended to avoid all the fussy fidgeting with motor parameters that ate up a lot of my time. OK, we’ll see. Once we started getting EVO’s out on the street, we had some complaints from big people with steep hills that the motor didn’t have the torque to get them up their worst climbs. Hmmph.

Lately, my greatest fears were realized and TT got reports of motor systems doing some unpredictable things. This was my experience from my days selling Falco kits. TT asked us to stop selling the EVO, leaving both them and us with expensive, but unsellable inventory sitting on hand.

But, good news… the revised EVO has arrived with a Bosch motor system. Like the Shimano STEPS system we’re seeing on ICE and AZUB trikes, this system replaces the crankset, not the rear wheel. This means you lose your front derailer, but with an electric assist your low gears are much less important. It gives greater low-speed torque, so for the critical business of getting you up the worst hills, it is better suited. Since it doesn’t affect your rear wheel, you have a greater number of choices in transmission. The new EVO-Bosch comes with a plain old 8-speed derailer, but we’re working on them to pair the Bosch motor with a NuVinci continuously-variable transmission which has proven to be such an effective combination with the STEPS systems we’ve sold on AZUB trikes.

Once again the price went up, since the Bosch system costs more than Falco, but you get what you pay for. We’re expecting a retrofit kit for the lower-priced Falco system so we can clear out our remaining inventory of that model, and I expect we will focus on the Bosch-equipped EVO’s. More about that as we start playing with the new systems. I wish TT had used STEPS since we know it better, but here comes another learning experience for us.

Bionx crumbles: I tried to stay optimistic about a revival of Bionx, our Canadian e-motor supplier, but I’ve lost heart. We’ve liquidated our remaining inventory, mainly to existing Bionx customers to get them reserve parts. Much like when BikeE went under 18 years ago, I’m reluctant to create new dependent customers, even at a discount. I want to support what I sell.

The big question is “what next?” We need a reliable e-motor conversion system.

  • I don’t see myself picking up Falco again. See my article on the EVO above. Hub motors offer great versatility, but I’m not looking to go down that path again.
  • With “mid-drive” motors like STEPS and Bosch delivering better climbing torque, and with bike component design catching up with this new innovation, I’m ready to embrace mid-drive motors. I was strongly resistant to earlier systems for recumbents that actually had the motor at “mid drive,” halfway back on the frame. I didn’t like seeing the motor, with all its torque and force, bolted haphazardly onto the frame of the trike in some place that the frame maker never intended for torque to be placed. Mounting the motor at the crankset makes sense. STEPS would be my choice, but like Bosch, it requires the frame to be built specially for the purpose of holding the motor. “No problem,” I think, since on most trikes nowadays that just means a re-designed boom, not a whole new frame. Unfortunately, the trike makers aren’t helping. AZUB will sell us STEPS booms, so no problem. ICE only wants to sell STEPS booms with new trikes and won’t let us do a retrofit. TerraTrike has thrown in their lot with Bosch. Hopefully I’ll be able to get Bosch TT booms for retrofits on newer TT models (no dice for Rover or older Tour models). Catrike has been keeping a low profile. They doubtless have something planned, but so far, they are no help.
  • There is a whole zoo of retrofit mid-drive kits, which is the most likely replacement. Bafang is the one most people are familiar with. These replace the crankset on any trike without needing special frame fittings. Currently, no company selling these is set up like Bionx was – which was to specifically support dealers like me. I can do like many online dealers do and track down someone in China and have them ship me a pallet-load of them, but that isn’t what I’m looking for. We’ve talked with some Bafang retailers about giving us a small discount and selling the kit for a competitive price, charging for installation (we never needed to do this with Bionx which sold at a more respectable margin). There are many other companies making similar things, but they are all sold direct to the consumer online. Several customers are waiting for me to decide on something, but I remain the same plodder I’ve been since 1996.

When I finally make up my mind, I’ll let you all know. But if I am going to sell a product, then I’m damn well going to support it. I’ve been fiddling with and using e-assist for nearly 20 years now, and I know about the range of quality and the problems which can arise. I’m not going to put my stamp on something without demonstrated quality and manufacturer support. More on this as it develops.

TerraTrike Gran Tourismo: TerraTrike’s new flagship trike is establishing itself as a popular model, as it should. It isn’t their most expensive offering, which suits me fine. TT has always been, in my mind, the trike for the masses and it is good of them to put their focus at a lower price point in their range. And best of all, the way the GT comes shipped makes it easy for us to offer a range of colors and spec level without having to special order. We can get you the GT you want quickly.

I’ve not much else to add about that. It is a good trike at a good price. You have to ride it to see if it is really for you, but offering that service is why we’re here.

Lightning Phantom: One of my favorite 2-wheelers has received an upgrade. The Phantom now comes with hydraulic disk brakes standard, as well as better tires. Yes, the price went up, but that’s how it always goes. On the flip side, I’ve still got some older model Phantoms and I can cut a deal. Talk with me directly if you are interested.

Adventure HD with STEPS: We’ve sold a few STEPS systems, but finally got a demonstrator model on the floor. This means we also have the scaled-up Adventure “HD” model permanently in the showroom as well. As an ICE demonstrator, we’ll be able to rent this out for people considering a purchase who want to see if it will carry them up that godawful hill in their neighborhood. I haven’t gone through and priced that yet, but as usual rentals would be 5% of retail for a 24-hour overnight rental, or 2.5% for an afternoon “get it back today” rental. ICE has gone insanely cushy on the Adventure seat. This company does nothing by half-measures.

More Electronic Gizmos: Mike Librik (me, that is) is this low-tech guy who just wants to see your bicycle run forever. He is not into sophisticated electronic gizmos, even though many of his customers are. So I hire people like Ron and Micah who are more gee-whiz than I am.

So it is with a sort of reserved professional enthusiasm that I tell you that new Cateye Sync lights can be synchronized and controlled through a smart phone app, or through each other. You can also monitor battery levels in the lights through the app. I’ll have to go get one of those smart phones some day. I’m still getting over buying the laptop computer. Never mind that SkyNet, or the Cylons, or the HAL 9000, can now turn off your bike lights from some satellite somewhere when you are trying to cross a busy intersection in the rain at 2AM during the lush rush. I’d better just let you call Micah and ask him about this.

Speaking of gee-whiz electronic gizmos, the Cycliq cameras (“cyclic?” “cycle IQ?”) have either a headlight (the Fly12) or taillight model (the Fly6), and they store the last few minutes of riding footage. Why do this? While we’d like to assure you that motorists and cyclists always co-exist in mature harmony, this isn’t always the case. If you are harassed on the road, you will wish you had some evidence, and now you do. Indeed, if you are hit by an irresponsible driver who then flees the scene, you really need evidence. Cycliq cameras also have a security alarm that will complain if the bike is moved with the alarm active, and it will “bluetooth” connect to your phone to alert you, if you are in range.

Well … I surprised myself.  Didn’t know I had that much to say about the newest gizmos, but there ya go.

What little I know about off road triking

Now that I’ve had a chance to do some off road riding on trikes, I can share a few observations. Those with more experience than I can chime in. I will posit some contrary views here.  This may get a little technical in parts.

What makes for a good off road trike?

Rear wheel traction – Strangely I don’t see much focus on this, but the #1 problem I have triking on rough ground is loss of rear wheel traction. We’ve all known about this problem, it is why trikes usually don’t have a rear brake except for a parking brake. Anything you can do to move weight to the rear wheel helps off road. If you have a sliding seat and boom, like many TerraTrike or AZUB models do, move it all back as far as you can. ICE trikes have a fixed seat mount but ICE makes an accessory that will move the seat back for taller riders, which may be beneficial. Recline the seat as ice fullfat loadedmuch as you can stand to. Rear hub electric motors and rear mounted batteries help, as does cargo loaded to the rear.

My feeling is the frames designed for 20” rear wheels have an advantage here since the rear hub will be tucked closer to the rider’s mass. Trikes like the Rambler and Rover we’re actually designed for 24” rear wheels but come standard with 20”, so they don’t get the full advantage. Big rear wheels are good for speed, but have less traction.

A caveat here is that having the seat adjusted far back on the frame works against stability because the rider’s mass is closer to the edges of the weight triangle. If that isn’t clear, imagine a triangle drawn between the ground contact points of the trike’s three wheels. Once you move weight outside that triangle, usually on a sideways sloped surface, you begin to unweight one of the wheels and move toward tipping. Still, this instability is manageable, and rear wheel traction problems are so common riding off road that you should address them, either through adjusting what you have or selecting the right trike.

Knobby tires are an obvious way to get more traction, as are wide tires, even if they aren’t knobby. Reducing your tire pressure is another big factor, and of course wide tires can roll at lower pressures better than narrow ones.  I’ve never had a chance to directly compare knobby vs. street tires since I’ve only taken stock trikes out. Even our shop demo Full Fat has street tires on it since it is mainly test ridden in the paved parking lot. I know from riding the Full Fat that inflation pressure makes a big difference, and the biggest advantage of fat tires is your ability to ride them at 15 PSI. Whatever tires you have, lower the pressure as far as you can.

Ground clearance — This is what you usually see touted as defining an off road trike.  Some trikes have higher ground clearance by design, such as the Rover, the Rambler, or the Adventure. They don’t need oversized wheels, they just have a straight frame tube, handlebars above the frame, and no chain idlers hanging down. Catrikes have idlers assemblies hanging terratrike rambler all-road below the frame, and AZUB trikes have handlebars under the frame, working against ground clearance. Trikes like the ICE Sprint and the AZUB Ti-Fly have curved frames that aid stability but reduce ground clearance. But these were designed to be faster trikes, and if you are going fast on-road and carving into turns you want that stability, and higher trikes suffer from tippiness.

If you look closely at this frame and at the picture of the White Ice in Antarctica, above, you can see that the frames are not the same. The original White Ice had a bent frame tube visible beneath the near front wheel hub.

Jacking up the wheel size, like when you turn a Rambler into an All-Terrain, or an Adventure into a Full Fat, does increase ground clearance, but this further increases tippiness. My problem is that Ramblers and Adventures already had a pretty high seat before increasing wheel size. I was impressed with the prototype 3×26” Ti-Fly, because the big wheels were paired with a dropped frame and (what started with) a low seat. Remember I said the Ti-Fly wasn’t an ideal off road trike, but when you put on big wheels then it does work well because the rider’s weight is lower relative to the hub axles. While the Full Fat is based off an Adventure frame, the original White Ice trike that Maria Liejerstam rode to the south pole was built on a Sprint frame. Remember what I said about the weight triangle and stability. Just getting some of the rider’s weight beneath the level of the hubs will bring benefits in stability. The instability of putting big wheels on trikes is a problem, but it is compounded by the manufacturers’ choice of what trikes (Ramblers and Adventures) they put the big wheels on.

An anecdote is the one time I took a group of inexperienced riders out on a forest trail, the one casualty we had was the fellow riding the Rambler All-Road. He was stopped on a sideways sloping trail and he looked back over his downhill shoulder at the rider behind him. That move alone tipped the trike downhill. Crazy-high ground clearance is not necessarily your friend.

experimental Ti-Fly

This prototype 3×26″ Ti-Fly was commissioned through ESR and has landed in Austin.

Big Diameter Wheels – I treat these separate from ground clearance though they are used mainly to increase ground clearance. Big front wheels do confer benefits that should be noted. In particular, since they come closer to the rider, it is easier for the rider to “wheelchair” the trike, laying hands on the front tires and pushing them directly, giving all-wheel drive when facing a challenging rise on loose ground. You will see my repeated concern with drive traction here. Also, “wheelchairing” gives you the ability to back up. In dense foliage it is easy to get into a situation requiring a very tight turn which the trike can’t make. If you aren’t on a trail at all then you may find yourself unable to move forward and needing to backtrack. This ability to “wheelchair” is the one true benefit I can see to big front wheels. One can argue that big wheels roll over obstacles better, but given enough traction a smaller wheel will do it too. The practice of wheelchairing argues against front fenders on an off road trike. A rear fender will keep water off you, but I’ll point out that going through water off road increases erosion and siltation. You shouldn’t be blasting through streams anyway.

I don’t see any benefit to a bigger rear wheel. It reduces traction. A wide tire is handy for not bogging down in sand and mud, but a larger diameter doesn’t help as much considering its drawbacks. This begins to paint a picture of a Full Fat with a smaller rear wheel. I will grant that this wouldn’t look as impressive as a 3×26” Full Fat, but I’m the sort who is more interested in what works than what looks good.

Suspension – Suspension is worth it, but not essential. Pay more, get more. You will cover rough ground more quickly and with less jostling to your load, less vibration on the bolts holding the trike together.

Steering type – Direct steering, like on newer TerraTrikes, turns much tighter. Its simpler construction means you can modify it for better ground clearance more easily. For example, the single steering rod on a Rambler should be mounted using longer bolts and spacers to move it as high as possible to improve the trike’s ground clearance.

Internally Geared Hubs – This is a great way to make a trike even more expensive, but worth it in this application. I’m never too concerned about rear derailers hitting the ground on-road, but on soft sand you could bury your chain in grit. I’m especially impressed with the NuVinci CVP hubs, which never lose torque during a shift. They don’t “clunk,” and even other IG hubs with discreet gears will have a moment of slip and clunk when shifting under load. And if you are downshifting then you are probably under load.

Summing up — What would I consider an ideal off road trike? Nothing yet.

I like the ICE Adventure 20”, though the quick release linkages in the handlebar aren’t rock solid and the indirect steering isn’t as tight as direct steering. I like how the rear wheel is close to the rider. If the seat had just a little adjustment on the frame then you could use an IG hub without a sprung chain tensioner for an elevated chainline that would be easy to keep covered (that is, use boom adjustment to tension the chain and adjust the seat for fit).  Granted, seat recline could be used to adjust leg length.

I was impressed with the stock TerraTrike Rambler, though the frame design keeps the rear wheel pushed back too much. It has high enough clearance with its 20” wheels, and the direct steering will get you through very tight turns in a switchback trail. It could use an IG hub without a chain tensioner by tensioning at the boom

I was impressed with the 3×26” Ti-Fly, though I’d like to see it done with a 20” rear wheel. Again, the indirect steering is a limitation. I don’t like how the handlebars are set under the frame, and some of its chain management drops too low as well. But its adjustable seat and boom give great flexibility in set up, and also the ability to use an IG hub without a tensioner.

How knobby a tire do you need?  If your trike will only be used off road then I see no reason to go completely knobby, but if you will be on some pavement these will limit your efficiency.  One compromise is to only put a knobby on the rear wheel.  While there are semi-knobby tires with a smooth center and knobby edges these are aimed at two-wheelers who need the extra traction cornering.  Front wheels are highly loaded by the rider’s weight and don’t have much problem with traction.

A big thanks goes to Martin Kreig and bikeroute.com for preserving this image of the L.A. Pipeliner

I’ll take a moment to tip the hat to a nearly forgotten design from S&B, the scruffy custom recumbent house from the Los Angeles ghetto town of Compton. S&B built a trike called the L.A. Pipeliner which was designed to be folded and dropped down through an 18” manhole into a sewer pipe, where it allowed inspectors to pedal their way through the L.A. sewer system. Note the extremely tight wheelbase and track. It had a very simple chainline and the USS steering was above the frame. S&B trikes had their cheap aspects, to be sure, but I’d be interested in putting a NuVinci N380 on that puppy and taking it down the trail.

I do have a few extra TerraTrike All-Road wheelsets around, and the All-Road is going out of production, succeeded by the All-Terrain, whose semi-fixed seat is more solid than its predecessor but lacking in useful adjustability. And the new Gran Turismo models are coming in. Direct steering, dropped frame. The semi-fixed seat is the same as the All-Terrain, but once can adjust leg length through seat recline. Hmm. Change out the crankset on the 2×10 model for an MTB compact crank. Hmm.

Catrike alloy front fenders

FYI, we just received shipment of Catrike’s new alloy front fenders, which are $150 for the set.  I still have some of the older plastic ones in stock that I’d like to get rid of, so I’ve marked them down from $125 to $100 for the set.  FYI.