I have prepared an infographic (PDF) to illustrate some of the information about my Southern Tier tour.
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 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.
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.
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.
I’m lucky that I can honestly say “there’s no place like home.”
Started: Oct 26, 2010 7:30:26
Ride Time: 3:09:35
Stopped Time: 36:48
Distance: 46.52 miles
Average: 14.72 miles/h
Fastest Speed: 42.08 miles/h
Climb: 868 feet
I made it.
Once I reached Austin, there wasn’t much doubt in my mind that I could make it—the hard parts were all behind me. Still, there’s a difference between being sure that you can do a thing and actually doing it.
Today’s riding was short and uneventful, mostly on a country road that hugged the St. John River. Jenny Nazak had agreed to meet me in St. Augustine, and in fact she parked on one of the country roads I came in on, so we actually met about 5 miles before I reached the city. We then made our way down to the beach via our separate conveyances for the ocean-dip ritual, and then had some lunch. It was really good to have an old friend on hand for that moment.
The fact that I’m done hasn’t fully sunk in yet. What it all means isn’t entirely clear to me yet. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on the subject soon.
One thing I do know that I want to say now is this: as much as an endeavor like this seems to be in individual effort, I received a lot of help and support in it, for which I am very grateful. My Warm Showers hosts, and the people I met on the road who spontaneously offered me a place to stay. Manako at my starting point. Carlos in Phoenix. Jenny here at my end point. And most of all Gwen, who supported me materially and emotionally the whole way, when my absence made her own life that much more difficult.
I’m glad I did it, and I’m glad I’m done with it.
I made it. http://campl.us/k58
Started: Oct 25, 2010 7:54:46
Ride Time: 4:53:49
Stopped Time: 58:32
Distance: 69.09 miles
Average: 14.11 miles/h
Fastest Speed: 89.46 miles/h
Climb: 1505 feet
The distance above is understated by 2 or so miles because I paused tracking and forgot to turn it back on for no good reason.
Today was an easy day, and a day for reflection. I managed to sleep later than usual this morning, which is good—many mornings, I’ve found myself awake at a ridiculously early hour and unable to get back to sleep. Today I didn’t wake until after 7:00. Had breakfast with my Warm Showers host Ann and got going. The riding through the city of Gainesville wasn’t bad, and at the edge of town, the route put me on a bike path that runs with minimal interruptions for 16 miles to the neighboring town of Hawthorne. Very pretty riding with lots of tree cover. I saw very few other cyclists on the path, and none at all after mile 10 or so.
As I’ve mentioned before, my route is broken into detailed maps that each cover 30-40 miles. My map holder can show three of these maps at once. So every 80 miles or so, I refold them to show what’s coming next. Today on that bike path, I refolded my maps for the last time. I had to let that sink in for a minute when I thought about it.
The rest of the riding was unexciting. I wound up missing a turn, which added 3-4 miles to my distance today. Made it into the town of Palatka on the early side, so after I got cleaned up, I went wandering around. The entire downtown is shut on Mondays though, so not much to see.
I’m not done yet, but tomorrow already feels sort of like a victory lap. Victory over what, I can’t say. In fact, the experience and the near-completion of it bring up feelings that I can’t quite get a handle on myself, much less describe. It’s good to have done it, and it will be good to be done with it and get back to my everyday life.
Done for the day in Palatka. I dip my wheel in the Atlantic tomorrow morning. Hell yes.
Started: Oct 24, 2010 7:50:03
Ride Time: 6:39:42
Stopped Time: 2:00:46
Distance: 92.28 miles
Average: 13.85 miles/h
Fastest Speed: 140.53 miles/h
Climb: 14192 feet
I started my ride today a few miles off the ACA route, and when I looked at a map of the area realized that i could easily take a completely different route and get where I was going a little more directly. My original goal for today had been the town of High Springs, but by taking some of the bends out of the roads, I could easily make it to Gainesville, where I’d be able to find a Warm Showers host. So that’s what I did.
I started off at first light, and the morning was extremely foggy—visibility of maybe a quarter mile. I turned on my taillight. Not ideal riding conditions, but it was beautiful with the sun coming through the trees, filtered through the mist, and the temperature was just cool enough to justify my long-sleeved jersey without being cold enough to make me uncomfortable.
I rode through a lot of farm country before getting to High Springs, a cute touristy town, where I had lunch. At this point I was only about 20 miles from my host’s place, and would probably beat her home if I kept up the pace I had been going, so for the rest of the way I took it easy. I hadn’t been riding particularly hard up to that point—it’s more like the riding had mostly been very easy, so I could click off miles quickly.
I have to give Florida credit: the state may have ruined the 2000 presidential election, but almost every mile of road I have ridden so far here has been excellent. They generally have shoulders of adequate width, with smooth, clean pavement. I doubt Florida drivers are that much more fastidious than other drivers (and the amount of litter I see in the grass would corroborate this), so I must assume there are cleanup crews out there constantly. Road kill is also conspicuous by its relative absence, which is a welcome change from East Texas, where the frequency, variety, and pungency of dead animals made that smell a constant companion. This is one of the negative aspects of riding such a low-slung trike. I’m right there at eye and nose level.
Two days until I reach the Atlantic. Three days until I’m home. I am ready.
Done for the day in Gainesville.
I’ve seen fI’ve mint-condition Studebakers today.
Started: Oct 23, 2010 10:43:02
Ride Time: 4:52:34
Stopped Time: 1:41:37
Distance: 69.43 miles
Average: 14.24 miles/h
Fastest Speed: 64.10 miles/h
Climb: 20438 feet
An easy and really pleasant day of riding today. My Warm Showers host Kevin had promised me one of my best days of riding, and he was good for his word.
He and his wife Susan are long-time cyclotourists and know the local roads of course. So they recommended a route that would take me to the nearby town of Monticello, where I could reconnect with the official ACA route. This would take me down canopy roads, heavily shaded by trees.
I didn’t set out until fairly late in the morning, after Susan had fed me an almost comically large bowl of oatmeal—on par with the bowl of pasta she fed me last night. Both of which I consumed gratefully, eagerly, and completely. I also got Susan, Kevin, and their son to take a spin on my trike. Kevin was a little reluctant, and wasn’t entirely sold on the experience. I really enjoyed staying with them and hearing about their own cycling experiences, and about Susan’s work on particle physics.
Once I finally did get rolling, I took it easy. I didn’t have a lot of miles to cover (by my standards) and was pretty sure my destination town of Madison was nothing I was in a hurry to arrive at (I was right). Despite that, I made good time. Arrived at the town of Monticello, which seems like a really nice place. It has something resembling the courthouse squares we have in Texas and seems pretty lively. I stopped in a bakery that apparently was the starting point for a local farms tour that was going on, so it was extremely busy. Had a sandwich and a sticky bun.
Got going on US90—that road again—toward my destination of Madison. A few miles along I came across four westbound Southern Tier riders, all college guys who have taken the semester off. They actually began their ride in Virginia, rode down to Florida, and just got on the Southern Tier route a few days ago. They were all riding pretty nice racing bikes that have been kind of jury-rigged to carry racks and panniers. I admit I was looking at their rigs with a bit of concern: those skinny tires don’t provide much shock absorption, and those low spoke-count wheels seem to be asking for trouble. And I didn’t even get a good look at their gearing, but I have to wonder how they’ll manage the five miles of 7% grade they’ll encounter out of Three Way AZ. Then again, they’ve made it this far already and they’re full of youthful vigor. I did not voice my concerns. We had a good chat and I told them a little about what they had ahead. They congratulated me on almost finishing, which in hindsight gives me kind of a funny feeling.
While we were chatting, another guy rode up on a hybrid bike. He said he’s planning on doing the Southern Tier next year and is getting in shape for it. I also think I overheard him saying he’s been riding 100 miles at a stretch and averaging 18 mph. I wanted to tell him to get a better bike, but I held my tongue.
The rest of my ride in to Madison was uneventful, as is Madison itself. Tomorrow will be a ~90 miler to High Springs.