Taking a velomobile
for a test ride (drive?)

September 16, 2008

The Quest

Winds are the friendliest friends and worst enemies of cycling. With a moderate tailwind, one can go twice as fast. But the same wind in the opposite direction blows into the ears and yells “you’re too slow and I don’t like you!”

Part of the appeal to velomobiles is the ability to ignore the invisible foe. Designed to be aerodynamic and comfortable, the cyclist sits on a chair rather than a saddle, similar to a recumbent bicycle. A velomobile takes one step further by covering the entire vehicle with a hard shell, protecting the cyclist from sun, rain, snow, and of course, winds.

As winter approaches, I became more interested with velomobiles. I contacted Ray from bluevelo after finding him online about a test drive to figure out what it’s really like driving one. He was kind enough to let me try.

The First Impression

We arrived at our meeting spot about fifteen minutes early, beginning to wonder how we would recognize each other without having met before. I didn’t have a doubt that it was Ray when he showed up; he zipped by me in his personal velomobile.

Behind the Quest. Tail light and signals lights (an LED, dark dot next to the tail light) visible

The velomobile he was driving was a TEAM, based on the German Cab-Bike. bluevelo kept the platform and added a lighter top, making TEAM one of the more affordable velomobiles around. The Cab-Bike platform was designed for everyday commuting, providing ample storage space for the occasional trip to the grocery store. The use of 3-speed internal hub and drum brakes makes it a low-maintenance vehicle.

We followed him into the storage facility where his other velomobile, the Quest, was kept.

Like the TEAM, the Quest employs drum brakes but uses racing derailleurs and gears for higher performance. Indeed, Velomobiel.nl claims that the Quest was wind-tunnel tested, making it one of the fastest velomobiles available. To save on weight, the Quest does not have a clam-shell top that opens up for easy access, and it does not have nearly as much storage space as the TEAM. The Quest encloses the front wheels for better aerodynamics, making the turning circle wider.

All velomobiles have two front wheels in front that steers the vehicle and one rear wheel that provides the drive. Unlike a standard bicycle, there is no handlebar to hold onto. One steers a velomobile by twisting a joypad-like contraption that also houses the grip shifts, a brake lever, a lock that keeps the brakes on for parking and a horn.

Getting into a velomobile can be a little tricky. The TEAM makes it easy by opening up and letting the cyclist step in. The Quest, on the other hand, requires one to first step onto the structural portion of the body, which is between the two front wheels, a bit ahead of the seat. With both hands supporting the weight of the body on the lips of the seat, the other leg comes in.

Storage space behind the Quest

Ray said it’s very much like getting into a kayak. I prefer to think that it’s very much like getting into an F1 race car. It’s much cooler.

You can get a velomobile with many features found in a basic car – headlights, turning signals, braking lights, side mirrors – and features not found in any car, such as turning a normal commute into a healthy exercise.

With the seat adjusted, I got into the Quest and hit the road with Ray.

The Test Drive

Having never ridden a recumbent, the format took a little of getting used to. I found it impossible to clip into the pedals until I applied force onto the pedals while cycling. Clipless shoes made the ride more relaxing, for I would otherwise need to continue to apply force onto the pedals at a stop to keep my legs up.

As we exited the storage facility, Ray turned his signal light on. I turned mine on. Unlike a car, the signal lights do not turn off after a turn. I accidentally kept mine on. I must have left a trail of confused drivers behind me.

We entered a park and dismounted for a little break. Cyclists, rollerbladers, joggers started surrounding us. “What is it powered on? Electric?” “No, it’s all me, I’m pedalling. Although you can add an electric motor assist on this model.” “Why the shell? Isn’t it heavier?” “Yeah, but you can make up for it with better aerodynamics.” “How fast can you go?” “About 60kph on the flat.” “What’s the fastest speed you have gone?” “About 90kph+, until I chickened out.”

Side mirrors keep you informed about what's going on behind you

Ray explained the ride in the park to me. “There are going to be a lot of speed bumps. I’d like to keep it down to 30kph when we go over them…” Indeed, going under 30kph has not been easy to do. Where I usually cruise around 28kph on my commuter bike, I was consistently cycling at 35kph with the same effort in the Quest.

While acceleration suffered due to heavier body, it made up with greater inertia and better aerodynamics. The headwind was still noisy, but it wasn’t much of a problem when it comes to air resistance.

Much of driving, especially cycling, involves dodging obstacles that could harm your wheels – potholes, grates, and yes, rocks. On a bicycle, we can go either slightly left or right of them. On a car, going right over them is usually the safest. On a velomobile, the rear wheel lines up between the two front wheels. Avoiding an obstacle usually means going way off the line to avoid it.

The TEAM, with the Quest behind it

The park’s roads were not smooth, but the velomobile’s full suspension took them just fine. There was little vibration coming out of the Quest. We ran over a pool of water at a high speed. Even though there are holes on the floor for the legs to go through to perform a reverse, I stayed completely dry. I was beginning to enjoy all the pampering.

On our way back, I switched velomobiles with Ray to try out the TEAM. It is slower and noisier, but it is a more practical for city driving with the tighter turning circle.

Just as I was admiring the view of the Quest in front of me, a Lycra-clad, racing bike-riding cyclist passed me. He was off to challenge the velomobiles’ speed superiority. Ray spotted him and started pushing hard. The cyclist was able to keep up for a while, before having to slow down. The velomobile was simply more efficient for the long haul.

We returned to the storage facility. I thanked him and left with a smile.

Compared to a standard bike

The velomobiles delivered what they promised: a comfortable ride with suspensions, protection from wind and road spray, higher speed, and convenient storage.

The velomobile’s car-like structure makes it easy to mount video cameras. Like onboard F1 cameras, the view is spectacular when a wide-angle lens is mounted behind and above the cyclist’s head, or right up front looking back.

I did have one concern regarding visibility. Velomobiles are highly visible to other users of the road, but when seated so close to the ground, it is difficult to see far when driving in the city. The cyclist’s eye level is on a car’s license plate, whereas a cyclist on a standard bike can see ahead of the car in front either by looking through the rear window or over the roof. Alas, I did not have time to drive in the city. It should not be a problem in low traffic areas like Guelph.

Behind the TEAM

The Quest weighs 34kg. My commute to work involves going up a hill with maximum slope of around 15-20%. I could pedal at 18kph on my standard bike, which weighs a measly 12 kg. Going up the same hill on the Quest, a jogger will pass me easily.

The size also makes it less convenient than a standard bike. I bring my commuter bike into my apartment every day, going through four doors and one elevator. The velomobile would have to be parked outside (which is not safe) or stored in a garage.

On a standard bike one can let go one or both hands and still maintain a straight line. I couldn’t let go any of the hands in the velomobile, requiring constant attention on the steering. Part of the reason could be my lack of experience driving one.

Velomobiles go from $7,450 for the TEAM up to the BMW-like $14,950 Versatile (now called Orca. One can buy a used car for the same price, but with maintenance, rising gas prices and waiving of gym membership fees, the velomobiles pay for themselves after a few years. With the right connections, you can fund the velomobile mortgage with proper advertising on these highly visible vehicles.

The Verdict

The test drive was enjoyable. I can see myself driving a velomobile every day to work and to run errands, even in the winter. It also makes for a great touring trike as it is comfortable and allows one to carry a lot of camping gear without panniers or trailers.

It remains to be seen if I am bothered by the low-riding position in city driving. I would also hate to receive lots of attention, but I can get used to that. The deal breaker though was the lack of a garage. I would have to move to a house or arrange a secure storage nearby before considering a velomobile seriously.

Further Reading

Part of the Cycling Trips series →

Aww, stuck again.

The evening commute

Video: cycling in the winter

Lazy Summer Ride