Thoughts on the Catrike Speed for touring

When I decided to move forward with my long-dormant plan to ride the Southern Tier, I knew I couldn’t do it on my racing bike. And in fact I was pretty sure that any diamond-frame bike would leave my shoulders, wrists, and neck too beat up if I maintained the daily mileage that I planned. I’ve always been interested in ‘bent trikes, and from everything I read, it seemed like one would be a good option. I test-rode a number of trikes, and wound up bonding with the Catrike Speed, despite knowing that in some respects, it’s not ideal for touring. Having spent a lot of quality time with it now, I’ve got some thoughts on how it works as a touring platform. I’ve touched on some of these points already in my Mid-tour Report, but I’ll reiterate a few here for the sake of completeness.

The Catrike Speed, all Catrikes, and all recumbent trikes in general have certain pros and cons for touring as compared to conventional touring bikes.

The Speed

The Speed in particular has some disadvantages that mostly relate to wheel size: it has two different wheels sizes, 349 and 451. Even good bike stores typically will not stock tires or tubes in either of these sizes. The 451 in particular has only a limited range of tires made at all, and none are suited to touring. Two different wheel sizes means you need to pack that many more tubes, and the fact that they’re nonstandard means you’ll have extremely limited resupply options en route. I knew about this when I chose the Speed, so I can’t blame anyone but myself.

By way of comparison, the Catrike Road (which I test-rode, but have never owned) uses all 406 wheels. Likewise for many other recumbent trikes. That’s the standard BMX wheel size—in a pinch, you could buy new tubes and tires at a Walmart, although I think Catrike uses rims drilled only for Presta valves, so you’d need to have them re-drilled.

The 349s also make steering very twitchy. You can get used to this, but it gets to be an issue on high-speed descents. See my comment about oversteer below.

I like the low, laid-back position and narrow track of the Speed. It feels like you’re sitting in it, not on it. But in actual touring, there can be days at a time when you can’t use the neckrest at all because of bumpy roads, and that extreme angle of recline makes it more work to hold one’s head up. A trike with a more upright seat, such as the Road, may have an advantage in that respect. Still, the Speed can take steep descents fast, which is a blast, and the narrow track means you can roll it through at least some doorways.

Almost everybody who saw my trike asked if I was worried about being invisible to drivers. I did not use a flag or anything to create a taller profile on the road, and I was admittedly very low slung. In practice, it didn’t seem to be a problem (except in busy and aggressive El Paso traffic—the one place where I really did worry about being invisible). I spoke to some westbound riders who warned me about East Texas logging trucks that blasted past them with very little clearance; when I got to that part of the tour, I found those same drivers were cutting me a wide berth. The issue of visibility is a complicated one, and I don’t pretend to have all the right answers. I’ve been in serious bike vs car collisions twice before when motorists came down with a bout of bike blindness, so I’m not convinced I could be any less visible on my trike. I suspect that its unaccustomed profile on the road may get more attention from drivers, in fact. I think some were actually startled. In any case, I’m not aware of any close calls.

As to flags, part of the reason I don’t use one is because I don’t want the aerodynamic hit or the flapping noise, but there’s another reason: I worry that if a driver sees the flag before they see me, it will take the driver that much longer to run through a mental process that would go something like this: “1. Oh look, there’s a flag; 2. I wonder if I should be concerned about what it’s connected to; 3. Oh, wow, look at that weird bike-thing.” How long will it take them to get to step 3? How much distance will they cover during that time at 60 mph or more? I’d rather have them jump straight to step 3.

All Catrikes

Compared to a regular touring bike (which can carry pairs of panniers front and rear, handlebar bags, rack trunks, and seat bags), most ‘bent trikes don’t give you a lot of good places to carry gear, and Catrikes are even more limited than most. You’ve got your rear rack to mount panniers and a trunk bag, and that’s it. There are those Radical ICE Pods that sling over the seat and could add capacity, but on a Speed, they’d scrape the ground when full. There are recumbent-specific panniers (I believe Ortlieb, Arkel, and Radical all make them) that I believe have a lot of volume, and are designed to move the load forward a little (which is good), but I suspect the flared seatstays on Catrikes might interfere with them. Trikes with freestanding seatbacks can accommodate bags designed to hook over the backs, but those won’t work on a Catrike.

I didn’t need the extra cargo capacity—one of my goals was to keep my load light without making crazy sacrifices. But anyone who needs to carry more may need to get creative with stuffsacks and straps.

All Catrikes are aluminum, which is not reputed to result in very comfortable frames. I would love to test-ride a Catrike side-by-side with a steel-framed trike using identical tires on a coarse chipseal road to see how they compare. But despite the aluminum’s rigid reputation, I found the Speed lacked the rigidity to resist twisting and flexing with my panniers loaded—and they were pretty light: 26 lb for the pair. I don’t think Catrike uses lighter gauge or smaller diameter tubes on the Speed than they do on other models (I’d be happy to be contradicted on this point), so all models would be susceptible to this. I’m not sure how much of an issue it was in practice, but it was a little disconcerting to be able to grab my rack and wiggle the whole trike like a dog shaking off water.

One biomechanical issue surfaced partway through: the seat mesh had stretched so that my spine was resting directly on the buckles that pull it taut in back; no amount of re-tightening would prevent that. When I got to Austin, I inserted some foam in between. That helped some, but I should have done it sooner, and with thicker foam. One of my vertebrae is visibly swollen.

I carried a 3-liter Camelbak Unbottle lashed to the back of my seat, which is really easy to rig up on a Catrike, and is an easy way to get a lot of range between water stops. Which is a good thing, since Catrike gives us only one set of bottle bosses to work with, so any additional cages would need to be rigged up in unlikely spots, like on the backs of the seatstays.

Trikes in general

Small wheels are more sensitive to road imperfections, and all recumbent trikes necessarily have small front wheels. I scoffed at the idea of a suspended trike before the tour, but now I see the logic. Those West Texas roads really beat me up.

All trikes (AFAICT) cantilever your panniers out past the rear axle, creating an oversteer effect. I knew the Speed had twitchy steering, but I didn’t count on the oversteer when loaded. I think Greenspeed used to make a world-traveller trike that had an extended rear triangle to make room for 4 panniers, but I don’t think they make that anymore. Flying down In-Ko-Pah pass on I-8 at 40+ mph, with a rumble strip on one side, a sheer dropoff on the other, and a minefield of shredded tire carcasses to dodge in front of me was exciting enough even without the oversteer.

Trikes are excellent climbers—with a small drive wheel, you’ve got a really low low gear, like 20″ (lower if you need), and there’s no bail-out speed of course. I could ascend mountains that might well have left me walking most of the way up. And even with the oversteer, they’re great descenders. The descent into Three Way AZ is legendary, and if there were a ski-lift to take riders to the top, they could sell tickets. I’m pretty sure I topped 50 mph on that.

Recumbents do take some getting used to, and that includes recumbent trikes. I had 600 miles of riding logged on mine before I started the tour, and that probably wasn’t quite enough to debug my various biomechanical issues. But I managed fine on the tour.

Wrap-up

If I were to do it again, I’d probably still choose the Speed, but I’d immediately re-shoe the front wheels with 1.5″ Scorchers (I did that at the tour midpoint) and change the rear wheel to a 406, shod with a fat slick—there’s a Scorcher available for 406s, but I might look for something fatter, like 2″, since the air volume is the only suspension you’re getting. Because the eastern half of the Southern Tier is so flat, I might have swapped the cassette for something with tighter gear spacing when I hit Austin, as I often found myself hunting for a gear that wasn’t there. While my Ortlieb panniers were convenient and sturdy, I might have been better off with Radical’s recumbent-specific panniers. Hard to tell without trying them.

I’ve thought about what an improved lightweight Southern-Tier touring trike might look like. It would keep the pack weight central and low—perhaps simply by lengthening the rear triangle and repositioning the rack, better yet by designing the storage to suit the frame, and perhaps hooking it directly to the seatback. It would have a very rigid frame. It would be designed to carry a lot of water—I can imagine a pair of pouches under the seat for carrying two 3-liter bladders. It would run on 406s all around. It might have suspension—perhaps some kind of passive suspension in the form of a crossmember made out of carbon-fiber leaf springs, like the Leitra. It would disassemble for easier packing and shipping.