Auntie Helen buys a velomobile

The headline says it all – I seem to have bought a velomobile!

And it wasn’t for sale just around the corner, I had to embark upon a mini expedition – to Rotterdam in the Netherlands no less!

The fact that I have succumbed to a velomobile will not be a surprise to many readers of my blog as I was clearly rather impressed by the different Velomobiles I saw during the week of the London-Edinburgh-London Audax in July 2013. I wrote about it in my posts Breakfast with Velomobiles, Volunteering at LEL2013 and Dinner with Velomobiles. The opportunity to go out recumbent riding in the rain and cold whilst staying dry and warm seemed too good to pass up, especially with the very hard winter we had 2012-13 – I wasn’t keen on facing that again in my open trike. I get chilblains on my thighs in bad weather!

The problem with the velomobiles that I saw during LEL was that it seemed very unlikely I would be able to get in and out of them. As some of you will know, I had a malignant bone tumour in my left elbow twenty years ago and had a large titanium prosthesis replacement for my humerus and elbow. It works well but can’t bear more than about 5kg weight. You need a lot more strength than that to lift yourself out of a velomobile.

However, I decided to do a bit more searching and to get some advice from other cyclists/velomobile riders. It seemed that there were some that would probably be OK for me, including the popular Leitra which the Germans seem to love. I wasn’t very keen on its looks, but I did spot something that looked like it might work for me – the Flevobike Versatile.

Here’s what the Versatile looks like (please note this is not the one I bought, these are just good photographs I found on the internet):

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And, as you can see, the whole top hinges up for easy access:

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And it’s also extremely solidly built – you are able to put your feet on the floor as you get in.

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The Versatile also has a roof to keep the rain off.

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Versatile Dach

And it’s relatively short in length with a decent turning circle.

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Here is a view from above:

View from above

It has built-in mirrors for rearward visibility:

View including mirrors

The Versatile has some disadvantages – it’s heavier than lots of other velomobiles at about 40kg unladen, it’s shorter so not as aerodynamic, but it looked like a really good option for me.

And then, lo and behold, a Versatile, number 006, was listed for sale on the German velomobile forum. The chap selling it was a Dutchman in Rotterdam, so I contacted him saying I was really interested but I couldn’t actually buy one of these until April 2014 (this was in October 2013). After a bit of conversation via email he said he would reserve Versatile 006 for me, free of charge, until I had a chance to have a look at it.

There followed several months when I had no opportunity to take a quick trip to Rotterdam and during which time several Versatiles that were up for sale were sold. Fortunately Alex continued to keep 006 reserved for me and then finally I was able to set a date to come and visit, the second Saturday in January.

The plan was to take the overnight ferry on Friday night which arrives in the Hook of Holland on Saturday morning. From there I would take a very leisurely cycle ride to Rotterdam as Alex (the chap selling the Versatile) is an artisan baker and they do their baking Saturday mornings. He said they would be finished by midday so I was to meet him then.

I came down with a cold on Thursday evening but decided I was well enough Friday afternoon to book my ferry tickets for five hours later. Because of my cold I got James to drive me to Harwich and we reassembled Alfie at the ferry check in. I rolled onto the ferry, parking Alfie right at the very back. It’s a big ship!

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I had a cup of tea and chocolate muffin and then went to bed.

In the morning we disembarked the ferry at 8am and I had four hours to cycle 21 miles. No problem, but it was surprisingly dark, cold and windy.

This is the view back at the Stena Hollandica – it’s huge!

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I had pre-programmed a route onto my Garmin to Rotterdam, which worked really well.

To Rotterdam

I had planned to stop in Maassluis for breakfast as it was just under halfway. It was light by the time I arrived and I cycled around the centre looking for a café. I was rather pleased to discover the excellent poffertjes shop that I had eaten in five years ago on my way back from the Main Cycle Route with PippaG, but I felt it was a bit early for poffertjes. I asked the chap when they stayed open till and he said eleven so I thought I could maybe have some poffertjes on my way back to the ferry later that day.

I found a café called Monsieur Paul and had an egg roll and a cuppa. As usual for the Netherlands it seemed quite pricey at 6,75€ for this but it was warming and gave me some energy.

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It was very cold outside but I eventually decided it was time to continue on so I headed out again, following my Garmin’s route towards Rotterdam.

There were lots of nice scenes on the way.
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As I reached central Rotterdam, a short distance from Alex’s flat, I noticed these weird buildings.

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A close-up of the strange tower block and the leaning buildings.

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Apparently you can go into one of these to have a look around – they seemed really weird the way they leaned out.

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I had reached Rotterdam at 11:15 so had nearly an hour before it was time to meet Alex. Time for another cuppa and a brownie at a café round the corner from his flat!

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My cycling friend Vince who lives in The Hague (and who cycled with me back from The Hague to Hoek van Holland at the end of my Konstanz to Koblenz trip) had said he’d come with me to see the Versatile. He texted me to say he was running a bit late but he’d meet me at Alex’s in due course, so when midday arrived I headed to Alex’s address and he came down to meet me.

He took me to see the Versatile and I had a good look at it in its parking place in the underground garage. The main thing was to see whether I could get in and out – yes I could, was the answer. Not particularly elegantly, but my technique would probably improve, but it wasn’t a problem. Hurrah!

We had a cup of tea whilst we waited for Vince and when he arrived it was time for a test ride of the Versatile. Alex was very trusting as he let Vince and I go off with his expensive velomobile and suggested a route around a local lake.

As you can see from the photograph below, Alex’s Versatile is a wonderful purple/pink colour.

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But before I headed off on it, I had to get out of the underground garage. Alex’s building management have made him agree not to cycle it in the car park so we wheeled it to the bottom of the ramp up out of the car park. I asked Alex to put it into lowest gear and he fiddled with the gear grip-shift, then indicated that I should get in.

He once again reminded me that Versatiles are heavy and hard to ride. In fact, he had said in an email prior to my visit:

When I first started riding the V I cursed every kilometer, I thought it was the worst decision I ever made. It’s because of the extra weight and the streamline: I really had to learn how to work that: speed up slowly, then at 25 km/ get the pressure off the pedals and start spinning, increasing one gear step at a time. Slowly slowly. But the feeling when you have maximum advantage of the streamline is incomparable… Good thing about the V is that it has a very narrow turning circle, so it’s good in the city too. But the starting and stopping is tiring, so it (and I) like long stretches best.

So I was forewarned that it would be hard work, much harder than Alfie the trike who weighs maybe 18kg instead of the Versatile’s 40+ kg (and Alex had a very heavy lock in there as well which was probably several kgs).

So I pushed on the pedal to try to turn it. Nothing. It wouldn’t budge. This couldn’t be right, surely I should be able to start it on the flat! “Has it got a parking brake?” I asked Alex. “Oh yes,” he said, and told me where it was (between my knees). I pulled at the lever and the velomobile felt like it slightly moved. Good!

I started to pedal but it seemed incredibly difficult and I had to get up a fairly steep slope. “Can you push me to get me going?” I asked Alex, so he started to push. My legs went round VERY VERY slowly.

Aha! I thought. This can’t be bottom gear… I twisted the grip-shift for the Rohloff hub gear and lo and behold it got easier. I had been trying to start off in 14th gear. When I got it down to 1st gear I was able to easily cycle up the slope. There was Vince on his bike, we waved goodbye to Alex and off we went!

Vince and I cycled, as Alex suggested, to the Kralingse Plas lake.

Versatile test ride

This involved cycling on the cycle paths in the centre of Rotterdam but they were fine. The Versatile’s turning circle is good, it seems very similar to Alfie’s, if not slightly tighter, and I certainly got a lot of attention.

The Versatile has ‘Panzerlenkung’ steering (tank steering!) which is slightly different to Alfie the trike’s steering. With the Versatile to turn left you pull your left hand towards you and the right hand automatically moves away. The steering is connected but a bit different. It’s also fairly sensitive so it took me a little while to get used to it, including one exciting swerve on a narrow cycle path.

Despite it being just 2pm the sun was getting very low already which made photography a bit difficult. I decided to stop fairly soon to have a good look at the velomobile in daylight outside – but of course first of all I had to let Vince have a go!

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As you can see, it’s easy to get in and out as there’s a huge opening.

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There’s also a surprising amount of storage space. There’s a dog-sized cubby behind the rider’s head (where my fluorescent orange bag is), plus plenty of room both sides of the seat (where the green bag is) and also room behind the seat (you can see my blue coat just peeking out near the top). I had to take the coat off as it’s very warm inside a velomobile – no wind chill and you’re creating warmth with the riding. Vince was feeling pretty chilly with his many layers and I was warm as toast inside the Versatile!

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This is Vince having a good look at the V. He checked it over thoroughly for me (he’s more of an engineer) and noticed that the front right wheel bearing was perhaps a bit worn but that was the only thing that we noticed of a mechanical nature.

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In this picture you can see the ingenious rear wheel/suspension system. The way the Versatile works is that the Rohloff hub gear isn’t in the rear wheel but is actually under the rider’s seat, or a bit behind that – you can see it as a circular silver bit with some black cables coming out on the picture below. The chain runs entirely enclosed from the Rohloff to the rear wheel (which has a suspension strut and, on this one, also a trailer hitch), and a second chain runs from the Rohloff to the front bottom bracket inside the velomobile, also entirely covered. As the chain isn’t in the open air at all it doesn’t get mucky/worn and they can last much longer than on normal bikes.
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You can also see in the background here Vince’s rather lovely new Genesis Croix de Fer bike which was on its first long outing. It was a beautifully quiet bike, almost silent when he was freewheeling.

Some velomobiles can be very noisy but the Versatile is not too loud at all – I found its noise level perfectly acceptable.

Here am I about to get in:

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Proof I can do it – I am in the velomobile!
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Roof down, ready to go!
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My face is the only bit of me in the cold air when riding. A hat is probably advisable when it’s under five degrees outside; there’s also a windshield that Alex had taken off but I can easily re-fit.

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A dog’s eye view.

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And this is how you reverse the velomobile – Barney Rubble style!

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Some more pics:

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It was time to put the Versatile through its paces a bit, which was slightly tricky on a cycle path that had lots of walkers and runners. However we decided to give it a bit of a go and I’d try to pick up a bit of speed, see what happened. Fortunately Vince started filming on his phone – it’s noisy from the wind noise but gives you an idea of how the Velomobile rides. Oh, and the silly high-pitched parp parp noise at 38 seconds is the rather wimpish hooter – I may have to invest in a more audible one!

After ten minutes of brilliant fun riding it was time for some lunch so we stopped at a bistro place overlooking the lake with Rotterdam behind.

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This is the view from the cockpit. I have two mirrors either side which give pretty decent rearward visibility and Alex had also fitted an additional mirror on the left hand side. You can see out very well when riding.

Alex had explained a good way of locking the Versatile which also prevents people lifting up the top, so we did this and it felt very secure.

Lunch for Vince was some fried eggs.

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And I had some soup.

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Once the Versatile was unlocked it was time to ride back to Alex’s. I’d already decided to buy the velomobile, it was such fun!

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On the way back we were more into wind and at one point I got ahead of Vince and he couldn’t catch up. That’s never happened before, he’s a much faster cyclist than me, so it just shows the benefit of the fairing in winds. As well as the benefit in terms of warmth for the rider.

We met Alex outside his apartment and took the Versatile back into the garage, locking it up. We then went to Alex’s flat to discuss the velomobile purchase and all was very swiftly settled. Alex is going to keep storing it for me until I get to Germany at the beginning of April, at which point I will collect it.

Alex also presented me with an olive batard loaf he and his wife had made that morning – it was very tasty!

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It was time to head back to my ferry which was leaving at 9:30pm. Vince had agreed to cycle with me to Hoek van Holland so we said goodbye to Alex, I faffed around trying to gather all my stuff (I’d left my coat under the seat in the Versatile!) and then we headed back the way I had come this morning to Hoek van Holland but with a few small route improvements courtesy of Vince.

To Hoek

I fancied poffertjes in Maassluis but when we arrived at the pofferjes café he was just shutting up shop. He recognised me from this morning. I commented that he said he was open until eleven in the evening but apparently what he meant is that he didn’t serve poffertjes until 11 in the morning. Rather different! Anyway, he said there was an Italian round the corner so we headed off there and had a pizza each.

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It was pretty cold by the time we came out and it’s always windy cycling along the Maas river. We weren’t going particularly fast (my fault, I’ve not done that much riding for the last couple of months) so we were pootling along and it was soon dark. Vince’s new bike didn’t have the correct front light yet so I lent him my backup light, a fairly decent torch, as I wouldn’t need it from the ferry to home the next morning. He fitted it to his handlebars with a toestrap, not requiring the offered gaffer tape that I had in my toolkit. He needed the light for his ride home from Hoek van Holland to Den Haag.

We arrived at the ferry with only 10 minutes until check-in closed so I said a quick goodbye to Vince and headed onto the ferry. It was even quieter than the night before – I sat in one of the lounges and felt like I was the only person there!

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After a very decent overnight crossing I disembarked at Harwich at 6:30am and rode home along the NCN51 route which is a bit flatter (but less scenic) than the Wrabness/Manningtree route. It was very cold and I got quite chilled legs – I am really looking forward to having the velomobile to ride in this sort of weather, but it’ll be two and a half months until I collect it.

I put lots of photographs on Facebook and asked for suggestions for a name for the Versatile. The popular choice, and one that I think I shall go for, is Penelope the Purple Peril or Penelope for short. Watch this space!

Here is another blog post with more technical information about the Versatile

17 Comments

Filed under Penelope the Velomobile, Trikes & Velomobiles

17 Responses to Auntie Helen buys a velomobile

  1. Looks so much fun! But how is it getting to you?

  2. That looks fantastic!! Irresistible. 😉

  3. Gayle

    So excited for you, Helen! If you recall, I puchased my Trident trike late last summer and Canadian winters don’t allow for much cycling (especially THIS winter) so I’m impatiently awaiting the arrival of Springtime. I even traded in my car for a van so I can ferry my trike (Trixie’s her name :)) to other places to ride. THAT’s how much I love it. Congrats on Penelope! Have fun and stay healthy!

    • Thanks! I’m hoping to enjoy the winters a bit more with this vehicle although I expect it’ll be too warm in the summer. Glad you get on so well with Trixie – maybe you should consider a VM as an addition to help with the winters (although in very snowy conditions they scoop up snow inside which doesn’t help!)

  4. Vince

    Good write up Helen.
    The Cube Buildings are probably worth an article on their own. They are completely bonkers.

  5. Hi Helen,
    Hi Helen,
    I enjoyed reading about your visit to our country and was pleased to see you decided to buy Versatile 006. I am a great fan of the Versatile and have owned one since 2006. I am working on a plan to get you to Kempen, I just have to figure out a few things and will let you know shortly.

  6. Stephen Lewis

    Hi Helen
    Nice article, well done. All the best with your new steed.
    I’m looking forward to reading any comparisons you make between the Alfine and Rohloff hubs.
    As I’m writing from Singapore, I insist you have some cake to celebrate Chinese New Year!
    Regards Stephen

  7. Pingback: Auntie Helen flees to the continent… | Auntie Helen

  8. Jenny Hancox

    Hi Auntie Helen, the Versatile looks very exciting! I like the colour. How fast can you go in it? If we see you, we may have to race you on our bikes! Can Poppy fit in there with you??
    I have to agree that the building is very weird.each pair of windows look like a pair of glasses.
    The food looks very nice, especially the chocolate brownie. I did a bit of baking myself. I made a very rich chocolate cake while mummy was at work.
    School is going alright, we have been doing keyboard in music. I now know how to play chords and play simple tunes, like jingle bells. I have just finished composing a “blues” song with my partner.
    Has it snowed where you are? It hasn’t snowed here, it’s just been very cold. Hope to hear from you soon!!
    Bethany
    I read this on grandma’s iPad while we were visiting her. Everyone sends their love!!! Xxx

  9. Barry

    Auntie Helen, your new trike sounds wonderful I am envious. I have been in Berlin 4 years and my Hase Lepus has been excellent with its excellent steering. I left my ICE back in England, as the steering is not as good as the Lepus. With both the weather, or rather poor weather , makes cycling often cold and very wet. You clearly have now managed to overcome the disadvantages. Soon I will be returning to England, and have to think about a better weatherproof trike. I got ri d of my car.Where did you find trikes advertised?
    It is always interesting to read about your wanderings, and one does see so much more of a country cycling. Thank you Barry Loviusx

  10. Stumbled upon your blog, Auntie Helen, whilst researching Alfine 11. Love your writing and your spirit. But most of all i like the food info & pics – cyclists fuel! Now have confidence to tackle Alfine oil change. Happy cycling x

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