On 3 June 2014 Penelope crossed the 1000 mile / 1600km mark in my ownership.
So what have I learned about my new bike in that time?
Firstly, it’s brilliant fun riding a velomobile! Since I’ve had Penelope I’ve not used Alfie the ICE Sprint very much and, as is clear from the above screenshots of mileage, I certainly used him a lot in the past!
There have been lots of other little things that I’ve noticed during my riding which I’ll list below. Some of these may be specific to the Versatile, others might also be apparent with other types of Velomobile.
On hot days you need to wear gloves
This is something I should have remembered from riding my Trice Q which also has twist-grips. What this means is that to change gear you have to twist the bit of handlebar you are holding on the right hand side. This is normally no problem but if you have very wet hands (from rain on the Trice Q or from sweat in Penelope) it can be difficult to grip firmly enough. This is partly because you are gripping with the opposite side of your hand than you would on an upright bike; on an upright your grip is between the thumb and forefinger, very strong. Because the handlebars are vertical on a recumbent, you are actually gripping with your little finger side of the palm, not as strong and so it can occasionally be difficult. Cycling gloves will solve this as they always provide good grip.
Rohloff hub vs Alfine hub
The Rohloff is generally considered the top option for hub gears on bikes and deservedly so. They tend to be extremely reliable (and Rohloff the company are very good at dealing with any problems) and relatively maintenance-free, just an oil change every year or 5000km. The Alfine that I have on Alfie is slightly pickier as the cable length needs to be occasionally adjusted with a barrel adjuster to keep the cable length correct and the indexing smooth.
The Rohloff costs twice the price of the Alfine and I have to say I’m not entirely sure it’s worth the extra. It has been totally reliable so far for me but it is pretty noisy in the lower 7 gears. The Alfine seems quieter and somehow smoother. I guess time will tell! The Rohloff of course has three more gears than the Alfine which would make a difference in the Velomobile as it does need all 14.
Penelope is due her Rohloff oil change and I am currently investigating how to do this (I have bought the oil change kit as a starting point!) There will be a blog post when I finally get round to this task – I have some promised help from a couple of German cyclists as it involves completely disassembling the rear swing-arm on the Versatile.
Penelope is not entirely waterproof
You stay pretty much dry whilst riding in her (apart from sweat!) but I was out in a colossal deluge and discovered that some water flicks off the front onto your face and neck (not a problem). But what I also found the next day is that some water had splashed up through the drain holes and made my bag of tools, which is stuffed behind the seat, slightly wet. I now have the tools in a waterproof bag that I already had so that was no real problem. However the amount of water that gets on you is tiny compared to the amount you would be drenched by with a normal bike or unfaired recumbent.
The batteries for the electrics take a bit of looking after
Penelope has a 12v lighting system and she has two battery packs that I can switch between. This works well and in normal usage one battery pack lasts about a week (normal usage just being the daytime rear light, occasional hooter use and indicator use). If the front lights are used that makes quite a difference to the battery capacity, especially as the front lights are rather poor (see below).
Alex gave me four battery packs with Penelope. Two were the originals from when Wilfred installed the 12v system (i.e. about seven years old now) and two others were newer that he had bought about a year before. The old ones are definitely looking old and I haven’t used them; the two newer ones work well except for one of the two tends to discharge very suddenly when it reaches halfway used. I’ve got a sticker on it so I know which is which and make sure that I always have the other battery topped up fully when using this one, in case it suddenly drops. My husband has made me a new battery pack which I will try out when I collect it mid-June and if it lasts longer he’ll make me another one.
When I was out riding along a bumpy cycle path I hit a series of tree roots which jolted the velomobile so much that the left hand battery packed jumped out of its mounting box and fell onto the floor (pulling out the connectors in the process). Although it was easy to put it back and put the connectors back together, I have since found that the cabling can be a bit picky – I think there’s maybe a weak solder join underneath some insulating tape. I’ll get my tame electronic engineer to have a look at it in due course.
I have been completely spoilt with the front lighting on Alfie. He has a Schmidt SON Dynohub in his front right wheel which provides electricity for a Busch & Müller IQ Cyo front light, 60 Lux. What all that means is that basically I always have an excellently bright front light which is always enough to see by. It doesn’t need batteries, it just lights the way day and night.
Penelope has two headlights which are notably less bright than Alfie’s one. In fact, if I had to make a guess I’d say that they are combined less than 25 Lux. It makes for a bit of a scary ride in the dark on unfamiliar lanes, so much so that I have bought a Busch & Müller battery torch light (of 40 Lux) as an extra light. I can run Penelope pretty well on just this battery light (without her main lights) but if I have just the main lights and not the battery one it’s not enough to see by.
Clearly some replacement lights are in order (these are 7 years old and LED lighting technology has significantly improved in the intervening years). It’s a job beyond my engineering skills though so James my husband (who is an electronic engineer) will be drafted in to help me next time he visits! A nice pair of 40 Lux Cyos would be wonderful!
Position of parking brake
There’s a parking brake on Penelope roughly between my calves.
When I was at SPEZI I spoke to Andre Vrielink (who designed the Versatile/Orca) and we talked about some of the changes which they brought in for the newer version, the Orca. One of which is the position of the parking brake. Andre said that some people had found their flappy trousers got caught around the brake and put it on whilst going along – not great. I don’t tend to wear flappy trousers when cycling but have been sure, when occasionally wearing jeans, to roll them up when I am riding.
I have written about the ride I did early on to Schwalmtal where I ended up with three punctures on the way back. I think this was because I didn’t initially realise I had a puncture and ran on the flat tyre for a kilometre or so, thus ruining the Tryker. However I am happy with the Schwalbe Marathon tyres I subsequently put on Penelope and haven’t had any punctures from them yet.
The little wheel jack that Peter made for me is just brilliant too!
The Versatile has wheel covers (the Orca has five-spoke wheels instead). They are a consumable item, really, as it’s quite easy for them to get damaged. With the Sturmey Archer Drum Brakes the axle is wider than the rest of the wheel (unlike in my ICE trike where the axle is flush with the tyre). What this means is that if you misjudge the width of a gap then the wheel cover takes the hit.
When I bought Penelope the rear wheel covers and one of the front ones were looking a bit tired. I subsequently did more damage to the front one when dragging it across a fallen tree. Friend Oliver had to order some new wheel covers for his Mango so he’s got a pair of covers for me too and we’ll meet up somewhere (probably for cake!) for me to collect them from him. They’re pretty cheap, about 20€ a pair I believe, so it’s not a big deal.
People talk to you all the time
I’m used to this with Alfie, of course, but people REALLY talk to you a lot in the Velomobile. The questions tend to be restricted to the following:
• “Does it have an electric motor?”
• “Do you have to pedal?”
• “How much does it cost?”
With Alfie the questions were “How much does it cost?” and “How do you steer?” so a slightly different selection.
I quite enjoy chatting to people (if I’m in a hurry I say so and head off) but I guess for some people it could get a bit irritating. Alex, Penelope’s former owner, says he doesn’t miss that side of things now he rides a more normal bike.
I am faster in Penelope than on Alfie
It’s tricky to compare bike speeds as so often when I’m out riding I may go through a town centre pedestrian precinct (i.e. very slowly) or have a tailwind or something. However, at the beginning of June I did a 50km ride on Alfie which I then repeated the next day on Penelope. The routes weren’t 100% the same (I diverted to photograph a couple of churches on each ride, different churches of course!) but I estimate the diversion time and distance was pretty similar.
The route was one sent to me by recumbent rider Klaus and he rode it on Sunday 1 June.
Here’s the set of statistics, in metric measurements:
The ride on 2 June is on Alfie the ICE Sprint, the 3 June ride is Penelope.
The most noticeable thing for me, when doing these two rides, is that you feel the wind so much more on Alfie that I had the impression I was going faster overall (which I clearly wasn’t).
The second thing I noticed is that things are much quieter on Alfie (the Versatile makes more noise) but that I am lower down and can’t see as much.
Despite the fact that Alfie is notably lighter than Penelope, over a long journey Penelope’s fairing has more of a beneficial effect than her weight has a negative one, if that makes sense. If I were doing a short ride with lots of stops and starts then the trike would be a better choice (assuming the weather was nice) but for any sort of distance, the enhanced cruising speed on Penelope makes it easier and quicker.
The signwriting was worth it
I wanted the signwriting on the side so that people could find out about velomobiles (I had noticed lots of people photographing the blog address embroidery on Alfie, presumably they then look it up later). I’ve had some people contact me through this blog already having seen me cycle past – it’s fun and a good opportunity to get to know some other cyclists.
Penelope’s former owner had an issue with his knee that the weight of the velomobile exacerbated. When I started riding her I also had painful knees for a few days so was very careful with my riding. That all now seems to be past and she feels fine to ride, especially now I have got the seat how I like it. But a velomobile, like the trike, has the same warning that you can damage your knees by overpushing (in a way that you can’t on an upright bike) so I am always aware of this.
In very hot weather the trike can be more appealing
It’s 32 degrees today in Germany and my plan for my late afternoon ride (to a café) is to go on Alfie rather than in Penelope – it just feels a bit too hot for Penelope. With the trike you get the benefit of wind when cycling so feel a bit cooler.
You stay cleaner in a velomobile
Having ridden the trike on a couple of hot days I noticed that I tend to end up with dust and dirt on my arms when triking – and I remain clean in the velomobile. I think it’s probably that the front wheels on the trike pick up dust and flick it into the air and some lands on you, even if you have mudguards on the trike. I also noticed I had more insects in my face on the trike, probably a result of it being a little bit lower down and perhaps also because with Penelope the airflow pushes insects underneath the velomobile rather than into your face.
Apart from the above-mentioned Rohloff service which is due once per year or every 5,000 miles, Penelope hasn’t needed any maintenance apart from topping up her batteries once per week. I’ve wiped her down with a cloth a couple of times (she gets a bit dirty/sandy at times) but that’s about it. I’m not expecting to need to change the chains at all – reports of chain wear suggest they last upwards of 40,000km, so Penelope has 32,000ish to go!
I’m really glad I bought Penelope and have found her quicker to get used to that I expected.
Having now seen many other types of velomobiles it’s pretty clear I wouldn’t have been able to get in and out of them with my disability. I think the choice of the Versatile was definitely right for me (this was also confirmed to me by a cycling friend over here who had also seen lots of other velomobiles – he felt that this was the best option for me).
I wonder about how difficult she would be to ride back in the UK with our hills (she is ideally suited to the flat Niederrhein area), so if I return to England I’d have to weigh that up and decide whether to bring her back or to sell her here.
As summer is approaching I expect to use Alfie more, but the Versatile is a fantastic autumn, winter and spring machine, plus an ideal bike for when it rains, or it very windy. The only real time I expect to pick the trike over the velomobile is when riding in groups with others, taking the train or when it’s a very hot and windless, dry day.