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.

8 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Catrike Speed for touring

  1. Clayton

    While you were gone, there was an excellent thread on either the Catrike or the Bent Rider Online message board about using fat tires as suspension. The short version is that you could run Big Apple 2.15′s at about 40 pounds, and get about the same performance as with max, and get a lot of “suspension” on your trike. Really evens out the chipseal and the sidewalk seams…

  2. TrikerTom

    Just curious… why did you end up picking the Speed? ICE makes some really nice trikes as well as Greenspeed that are probably a little more suited for touring. Greenspeed has the CrMo frame and ICE has the rear suspension. ICE even has the hardshell seat option which I’m personally quite fond of. It has often been noted in the forums that all Catrikes have a trapazoidal structure where most have a triangle. It is quite the opposite of a stiff frame under lateral load.

    Don’t get me wrong, we are a prowd owner of an ’06 Road and also a very loved Actionbent 26/20-20. If I was going to go on tour, I’d be very happy to load down the Actionbent.

    I can only hope that someday I can embark on an extended tour. Journeys like yours just add fuel to that burning desire. Thanks!

  3. PaulM

    I have a 2008 Speed with the less severe 33 degree seat recline. On the stock machine, there is understeer (you have to work hard to maintain the line in a tight bend at speed) and limited ground clearance, speed bumps risk knocking the idler. My tip is Brompton tyres for the front; they improve comfort, puncture resistance and improve ground clearance compared to Stelvios/Duranos. I have fitted the Utah trikes rear wheel conversion and now run a 700 rear, this has improved ground clearance (I can use the ICE throwover bags OK) and has improved comfort. However there is now slight oversteer.

    At one time I also had a rear rack. The longer wheelbase helped the handling with loads but I can confirm that the rear end is not very rigid. Overall, it works very well though I would rather have 406 front wheels whilst keeping the narrow track.

  4. adamrice Post author

    I picked the Speed because, of all the various trikes that I tried, it was the one I bonded with. I did have a brief chance to ride an acquaintance’s ICE (QNT? Not sure which model). Did not have a chance to try any Greenspeeds. Price would have been an issue if I had gravitated toward either of them. And I didn’t really take into account how differently the trike would handle a load.

  5. Bing

    Adam,
    Great job on the tour. I could not imagine that long of a tour on my rough riding 08 Speed.

    I have an 08 speed with/stock 451 wheel and have added 56 chainring. The ride is very rough at speeds above 16mph on all but the very smoothest of roads/paved trails. I have tested the 10 Exp with it’s stock fatter tires looking for a better ride …but not much difference…loved the gearing however. I have previously tested Greenspeeds, terra trikes, and others but like you, the Speed just felt best to me.

    I will be looking at the suspended trikes for next year but my guess is that Catrike just does not feel the complications of suspension and additional pounds are worth it. Catrike seems pretty savvy so I’m sure they will figure it out eventually.

    By the way aluminum cannondales road bikes which i rode for years, are/were well known for rough ride but much improved each year. My 90 Cdale rode much rougher than my 03 C-dale yet both aluminum frames. Now they do carbon as well as aluminum frames.
    Thanks
    Bing (Denny)

  6. Glen Niller

    I own a 2011 Catrike Speed,currently it is stock,but my one upgrade is a Sram DuelDrive,I plan on doing a tour on it and your story is very good,I too was attracted to the Speed and I really enjoy it. Yes it is not the best touring choice but it dose a lot of things good. I will be towing a trailer and I do have the Catrike frame bags!

  7. leah

    “I realized that there’s something subtly counter-intuitive about riding the transam west to east. In the USA, west is the direction of progress, of new discoveries. Riding eastbound, where the west is what’s known, what’s behind you, reverses this deeply ingrained instinct.”

    woww, that was really some great insight!

    seems like you had a really amazing adventure! i found your blog from google searching the southern tier, and it has become a great resource for me as I plan on riding it in march. hope you’re doing well, and still cycling strong! and thank you for some great tips and organized, complete information, it really has been the most helpful resource for me!!

    -leah

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