Penelope goes to Schwalmtal

I’ve now had Penelope the Versatile Velomobile with me for a week and have done a reasonable amount of riding in her to slowly get the hang of riding a velomobile rather than my recumbent trike. She and I had done 73 fairly easy miles and apart from a slight bit of pain in my knees (which isn’t uncommon but meant that I didn’t do much riding over the weekend to give them a rest) I was enjoying my new mode of transport.

One thing I did need to get for her was a decent lock – the curly Abus lock I have for Alfie is a bit inconvenient for a velomobile. Alex, who sold me Penelope, had an excellent chain system which worked really well so I decided to buy a lock like that myself. It was an extra bargain when I discovered that German ebay sells pink chains!

Penelope's lock

The way that this is used (that Alex showed me) works really well – the lock is fixed around the structural metal T-piece that attaches the seat to the velomobile.



And then you shut the lid, pull the chain through and attach it to a handy lamp post or railing.


This is very secure and has the additional bonus that people can’t open the lid of the velomobile and get in.

Anyway, today was to be a longer ride. Friends Gabriele and Rolf, who I’d met in England last year on LEL, agreed for us all to meet at Rolf’s house in Schwalmtal. I would cycle over from Kempen, Gabriele had a rather longer ride from Bonn (but she’s a very fast audaxer). The plan was to meet at 3:30 and as it was 20 miles there I thought it best to give myself two hours as it would be my first long ride with the velomobile.

Rolf had plotted me a recommended route (well, he had supplied two, so I decide to use both, one each way) and this is my outward journey:

Outward route

I stopped off at the Griesson de Beukelaer factory in Kempen to buy some easter choccies for Rolf and Gabriele.

I then made the mistake of trying to take the cycle route ring that goes around Kempen slightly outside the main centre. It’s a great route on a normal bike or on Alfie but it had rather too many gates to stop cars which were very tricky in Penelope. In the end I gave up and used the main roads.

On the way out of Kempen I found myself waiting for ages at a traffic light, only to realise that this one did require you to press the button (the ones in Kempen itself tend to have a lights phase for bikes anyway). This can be tricky in a velomobile but fortunately I have long arms!


Whilst I was waiting for the lights I had a message from Lara, who lives downstairs, to say that Poppy was helping her with the lawn mowing.


I thought I might be out for rather a long time so asked Lara if she would take Poppy out to the garden late in the afternoon – Poppy was clearly getting a much more interesting expedition. Lara also took her for a walk later which was great, and then Gudula (the landlady) took her out for another walk!

My ride went through Oedt and then on very quiet roads to Hagenbroich. So far the ride was fine and I was extremely glad I had the velomobile because of the weather. Today was a super-windy day with forecasted gusts of up to 40mph/60kmh. It was certainly a very strong wind which also brought with it occasional rain showers but the velomobile is just the right sort of vehicle for this –  you stay warm and mostly dry and the wind doesn’t have that much of an effect.

I had debated whether to put the roof on the Versatile for this trip but thought that as the wind was so strong it might be best not to (Peter told me his roof had once blown off). Besides, the sun was shining most of the time. During the sharp showers that rained on me a couple of times I just zipped up the cover around my neck, put a hat on and I stayed comfy and dry and warm. Much, much better than on exposed Alfie!

After Hagenbroich I started to climb – and climb, and climb. I thought Niederrhein was flat! But no, there was a quite significant hill, and I found that the Versatile’s lowest gear wasn’t as low as I’d like. I wished for one or two lower gears but had to make do with what I had, winching myself up slowly.

You can see the elevation profile for the entire ride (there and back) here:

Elevation profile

The green lines are my speed and the red lines my heart rate. But you can clearly see that first significant hill!

I felt pretty knackered after climbing that but then had the delight of the accompanying downhill which was tempered by the gusty wind which blew Penelope around a bit. It was a slightly white-knuckled descent but I managed it. I notice my maximum speed today was 24.1mph so that’s not actually that fast – on a straight, smooth road on a non windy day I would have done much better!

The last bit of the journey through the Schwalmtal area had rather bumpier roads which were mostly quiet tracks (I was following Rolf’s route) and the blowing dust off the fields made it quite hard work. I realised I wouldn’t be there at 3:30pm but ended up only being ten minutes late. Gabriele was already there and drinking tea with Rolf – when I arrived the cakes made an appearance:


Very yummy! Rolf had also made a cheese and bacon quiche for us!

I selected this chocolate cream cake slice to have with my Tetley Tea.


We had a really good chat, organised our plan to go to Spezi (the German weird bike exhibition) in a fortnight’s time, discussed the things I have been unable to find here (decent potato peeler, non-expensive towelling bathrobe, cutlery drainer) and where I might find these elusive items.

After our chat we had worked up an appetite again so it was time for Cake Slice 2. This time we went for half slices and I went for the healthy fruit option – some apple cake. Yum! (There was a pear in my previous chocolate/cream cake so that was pretty healthy too, really).


It was approaching 6:30 so time for us to get back – Gabriele had a four hour ride back to Bonn (100km away) and I had my 30km ride that would take me two hours (or so I thought!)

Gabriele first showed me that she had learned to get in and out of her Quest XS velomobile without using her hands. Rolf and I agreed that neither of us were gymnastic enough to do this!


Gabriele has Busch & Müller IQ lights in the front of her Quest – this is a tempting upgrade as the lights on Penelope are a bit of a disappointment compared to Alfie’s B&M IQ light.


Here’s Rolf peering at Penelope as Gabriele is about to set off.


We left together but Gabriele turned right where I turned left after just 100 metres so I was on my own, hoping to get back before dark (8:30pm).

This was my route back, slightly different and including the old railway line from Nettetal-Lobberich to Grefrath.

Return route

So I headed off, hoping that the return route would be less hilly. And it was – the railway route smooths it all out nicely!

But I am getting ahead of myself – here I am at the top of a short gradient (which seemed extremely hard work) to get onto a bridge over the motorway, the A51, looking at what should be a nice speedy downhill.


Except it wasn’t. Bump Bump Bump went my left tyre – a familiar sound. Oh dear.


A puncture. I’d probably had it for a while but had been riding so slowly that it didn’t really notice but it did explain why the incline had felt so hard!

So I did my first puncture repair on Penelope. Peter had made me this fantastic little wooden chock thingie to lift the wheel off the ground and it worked excellently. I popped the disc cover off the wheel (it’s just fabric stretched over a hoop) and took the tyre off. The tyre was a Schwalbe Tryker and didn’t look in that good condition really – there were threads showing at the edges. I found a massive flint that had pierced the tyre and also cleaned out a few other minor stones. Trykers have RaceGuard rather than GreenGuard puncture protection and it was easy to see that it is less robust than the GreenGuard on the normal Marathons.

Still, it only took me ten minutes and the rain held off until I’d finished and was back in the warm Velomobile.

Here is a rainbow over the hill I was about to climb.


…except that this version of Rolf’s route took a very long, winding approach to the hill so that it wasn’t really that noticeable. I was soon on the disused railway bike path and with the wind now nearer my tail I whizzed along briefly, enjoying (for a two mile stretch) an average of 14mph, much faster than my normal 10.5-11.5mph speed.

Until I had to stop for this.


This was actually quite a significant problem. With Alfie I could lift him over, Penelope is too heavy. I had a go at dragging the branch but it wasn’t going to work – it was still largely attached to the tree.

In the end I had to drag Penelope backwards past the top end of the branches (the right hand side of this photo) but it was all a bit nasty and there were some unpleasant graunching sounds against her paintwork (which appeared, fortunately, to be unmarked).

Still, I had overcome that obstacle and I rode on through Grefrath, heading out then on a main road (not the rest of the railway route this time) to the western side of Kempen.

The going seemed to be pretty tough again, especially as the wind was at my eight o’clock so should be helping. I stopped to check the front left tyre again.


Another one.

So I changed the tube again, pumped it up, then faffed about a bit with my phone (which was running out of battery and getting its knickers in a twist). I texted my landlady to say I was delayed and I hoped Poppy was OK – she said Poppy was sitting on her lap watching TV so was clearly OK! She said she could come and rescue me if I wanted but I replied that I was fine – punctures aren’t that big a deal. I plugged my phone into my battery charger, then before I got in I checked the tyre again – it had partially deflated! Oh no!

I couldn’t face changing it AGAIN, without having moved an inch, so I pumped it up again and headed off. After about 400 metres I had to stop to put some more air in. I carried on again, this time I had to put more air in at 300 metres and the valve had gone rather wonky. I managed to ride to the pedestrian bit of Kempen (another 200 metres) before I had to stop. At least now there were shops with lights on (as it was now dusk) so I wheeled Penelope to a particularly bright shop (which was closed but had lights on) and put her up on Peter’s excellent chock and changed the tube again to my third and final one.

I found the puncture – it was in an entirely different place to the first one and the second one. Weird!

I had four miles to go and wasn’t at all sure if I’d get there with an inflated tyre – experience suggested not. The Tryker tyre had not appreciated being run flat and I’d need to change it when I got home (I had two replacement Marathons in the garage so that wouldn’t be a problem).

So I put the tube in more in hope than expectation, pumped it up and zoomed off as quickly as possible, on the most direct route, often in the road rather than on the cycle path. I had all my lights on now as it was dark.

When I stopped at some traffic lights there were a few  youths on bikes beside me. I asked one of them if he could see if I had a puncture (you can’t see the wheels from inside Penelope) and he said no. Phew!

I pedalled on, lifting the lid so I could lean out to check the tyre at the next traffic lights (still up!) I rode on, getting nearer and nearer home.

When I turned into Escheln for the final mile I was very relieved – it looked like I would be OK on my third and final replacement tube. And indeed I was, I made it to the garage with three inflated tyres. I was feeling pretty knackered by now, as you can imagine.

Here are the various readings every two miles for this trip – including heart rate and calories burned. You can see that 33-34 miles I burned loads of calories – I think that was partly through riding on a flat tyre and then having to pump it up a lot!

Here it is in imperial:

HR data etc in Imperial

And here’s the metric version for you continental types!

HR data etc in MetricI put Penelope in the garage, leaving all the holey tubes stuffed behind her seat. That’s the great thing about a velomobile – there’s loads of space for stuff!

Although I’d had a rather hard work journey home, I’m not sure I would have attempted the journey at all on Alfie with the weather forecast. The wind would have been really evil in an open recumbent and the rain wouldn’t have been much fun either. Gabriele commented to me that with a velomobile you don’t have to worry about what you’re wearing as you’re always warm enough and you don’t get wet. I tend to get quite smelly when I ride Alfie in the winter because of the waterproof jacket which is rather boil-in-the-bag, even though it’s a good quality breathable one. I did all my riding today in just a cycling t-shirt and light cycling trousers and was always warm enough. However I do need to carry a waterproof jacket in case I get a puncture in the rain!

When I got back Poppy was still in with Gudula. She seemed pleased to see me and came up to my apartment with me and promptly fell asleep. She’s totally shattered and hasn’t moved for two hours, she has just been cuddled up to the imaginitively-named Bear.


It was great to see Rolf and Gabriele and do a bit of a longer journey in Penelope. My knees held up OK too, although they might complain a bit tomorrow. Total distance travelled: 37.72 miles in 3 hours 44 minutes. The Garmin switched off for about half a mile so those figures are a slight under-read but that’s OK. Average speed 10.1 mph, lots of which is me riding on a flat tyre. And the best news of all – 2,490 calories burned. That’s more calories than were in the cakes I consumed!

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