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.
A few random comments on how things are going on my tour.
Since I’ve never done anything quite like this tour before, I don’t have a basis of comparison for how well my recumbent trike works compared to anything else. I had picked the trike because I thought it would carry a load better, and because I expected it would leave me less beat up at the end of a long day.
Before beginning the tour, I rode repeatedly on an out-and-back route out to Bastrop that includes about 10 miles of really bad washboardy chipseal—so 20 miles out-and back. On my racing bike, I can only stand about 10 miles of that road before I feel really beat up. On my trike, I could ride all of that 20 miles (plus the remaining 40) without feeling very beat up at all, so that seemed like a win. Still, I’ve found that riding 100 miles in a day, all on rough roads, leaves me feeling pretty damned beat up. That may be exacerbated by the fact that I’m carrying 26 pounds directly over the rear axle.
Carrying the load directly over the rear axle points to another problem with the trike: torsional stiffness. Most recumbent trikes are built around a large-diameter tube that runs the entire length and serves as the main structural element, and a crossmember running supporting the front wheels. On very uneven surfaces, the rear can be twisting one way while the front is twisting the opposite, and I think this is exacerbated by how the load is carried.
Another negative handling feature that suffers for the same reason is on high-speed descents. Having that load cantilevered out over the rear wheel results in oversteer, which gets scary when descending a mountain pass at 45 mph. Still, I get the impression that I enjoy more stability, and can descend faster, than riders on similarly loaded conventional bikes. These problems could be solved by getting the load forward of the rear axle—as far as I know, no recumbent trike made today really permits this.
I had the trike tuned up right before dismantling it, boxing it, and flying with it to San Diego. By the time I reassembled it there, the brakes were somewhat out of adjustment. Each front wheel is controlled separately, and uneven braking can get a little hairy on twisty descents. I’ve learned to brake only with my inside wheel, which is entirely adequate, but I could imagine a separately controlled rear brake being useful for steep descents.
The seatback on my trike is a heavy mesh that is held in place by webbing straps and buckles, which allow the whole thing to be pulled taut. I think the mesh has permanently deformed, because no matter how tight I pull the straps, I have one vertebra that is hitting one of the buckles; this vertebra (or the soft tissue over it) is tender and visibly swollen. Have inserted some foam between the mesh and buckle.
On many recumbents (including Catrikes), leg length is accommodated by extending or shortening a telescopic boom that carries the crankset. Catrike has keyed the boom to keep the two parts axially aligned, but there’s still a little play. And Catrike’s booms tend to creep down, surprisingly, so I need to readjust the length every few days, and the axial adjustment has a chance to get off each time I do this. I’m pretty sure this resulted in a weird muscle tightness between my calf and ankle on my left leg.
Flats have been something of a problem: I’ve had a total of 8 so far. Having three tracks on the ground inevitably increases the odds of rolling over pointy debris. The fact that my trike uses two different wheels sizes, both rare, makes finding replacement tubes and tires impossible except in a city big enough to support a recumbent dealer. And of course, I shredded my rear tire, which I am choosing to view as a freak occurrence. If one is going to tour on a trike, it would be better to ride one that has 406-mm wheels all around, as they are a pretty common size (BMX bikes use them) and a wider range of tires are available in that size—the 451-mm wheel on the back of my trike limits my tire options severely, mostly to tires not really ideal for touring. I could swap in a 406, but I’m going to stick with what I’ve got. I knew about the wheel-size issue when I bought the trike, so I can’t fault anyone else for it. If I had been as happy with a different trike, I would have chosen a different trike
Despite these complaints, I’m pretty well satisfied with the trike. The trike is an excellent mountain-climber. I would probably have some physical complaints no matter what I rode, and I suspect I have fewer than I would otherwise. In addition to what I mentioned above, I had a calf cramp that lasted a few days and fairly frequent hotfoot, but that’s it. One frequent question I get is whether I’m worried about being invisible so low to the ground—I don’t use a flag. So far it hasn’t really been an issue, but I have to admit it could become one.
I’ve been running my life through my iPhone on tour. I take all my pictures and upload them to flickr with it. I track my daily route with it. I blog with it. I stay in touch via e-mail, twitter, and facebook with it.
Obviously it’s not really built for extended typing, but I’ve been managing to write fairly long blog posts with it, and it hasn’t been too painful. I have more typos, and inserting HTML tags is not worth the trouble (I should probably install a markdown plugin or something), but for my purposes on this tour, it hasn’t been bad. Unfortunately, the WordPress blogging app I use was updated in the middle of my tour, and that introduced some new bugs for me to work around, but it’s working.
For photography, I’ve been using Camera+, which is the best all-in one photo shooting/editing/uploading app I know of, but which has unfortunately has been pulled from the Apple store because they sneakily enabled the use of the volume-up button as a shutter release (a great feature), in violation of Apple’s guidelines. I have my flickr uploads automatically post to my blog as entries through an RSS aggregator plugin. I would prefer something better suited to the job, but haven’t found anything that quite works. I even tried hacking a plugin together myself, but quickly got bogged down.
I log all my rides with Cyclemeter. It’s designed more for fitness riding than touring, but I haven’t found any apps for bike touring that I really like, and I do like Cyclemeter in general. It makes it pretty easy for me to get my tracks into my blog, which is rendered using the XML Google Maps plugin. Anyone who has been reading this blog has noticed some crazy data in those tracks. This isn’t really Cyclemeter’s fault—it relies on the Location Services API from the iPhone for the raw data. I can imagine some workarounds.
I’m using the official Twitter iPhone app, and pulling in my tweets to my blog; I’ve used both an RSS aggregator plugin and the Twitter Tools plugin. The latter formats the posts better, but has had authentication issues with Twitter.
The rest of my gear has worked fine. The Ortlieb Sport Packer panniers are well-constructed and mount securely. The one ding against them is that each pannier is just one big bag, so it’s not easy to get at more than one thing in each pannier. Additional pockets would increase cost and be difficult to rainproof, and so would be a tradeoff. The solar panel I’ve been using to recharge batteries has worked fine. I bought a pair of REI climbing shorts and a pair of REI convertible pants to bring as street clothes; the shorts are fine, but the convertible pants are great—I should have bought two pair of those. Super-light, well-constructed, and about a dozen pockets. My Nike cycling cleats are starting to disintegrate: the velcro is only glued onto the top straps; one piece of velcro has come off entirely (I reglued it while in Phoenix) and the others have loose edges.
I’ve brought two pair of cycling shorts—some Castelli Endurance bib shorts, and some Louis Garneau bib shorts (not sure of the model). The Castellis are pretty fancy. They’re made of very light fabric, which is nice because when I rinse them out and wring them out at the end of each day (protip: to wring out lycra, roll it up in a towel and wring out the towel—it extracts more water), they’re always dry by the next morning, but it also means they’re visibly disintegrating. The Louis Garneaus are heavier material that is always a little damp in the morning but will probably wear better. I’ve also brought two jerseys—an ancient Assos jersey and an old Pearl Izumi. Apart from the fact that both have tar stuck to the back that will never come off, they’re fine. I’ve been carrying my phone, ID, and money in an Amphipod waist pouch that works fine. I had contemplated getting a bike mount for the phone, but I now think the constant road vibrations would have either shaken the phone loose or damaged it if I used one.
I haven’t used my camping gear much, but it’s fine, as far as it goes. I have a problem getting a good night’s sleep when the small of my back is unsupported, and my sleeping pad just isn’t fat enough to offer that support. It’s a funny thing: if I knew that I could get a meal and a place to sleep every day, I could be doing this tour with about one-quarter the amount of gear. That insurance policy is heavy.
The weather has been changing during the tour, and for the remainder, I’ll be bringing a cool-weather jersey and tights. Other than that, I’ve felt adequately equipped.
I’ve already mentioned some minor biomechanical issues that relate to my equipment. Other than that, I’ve had few complaints. I’ve mostly managed to avoid sunburn except for my lips: I carry SPF 30 chapstick, but even with frequent applications, my lips have gotten pretty torn up. I developed a mysterious rash on my left shoulderblade that lasted a couple of days and seems to be gone now. I got some bug bites (fleas? bedbugs?) early in the tour.
I’ve been hydrating adequately, but I haven’t been eating enough. I lost at least 10 lb (I’ve been eating like a horse while home). It’s hard to get enough calories in a day, especially from decent-quality food.
On most days, my distance is limited not by my abilities but by the amount of daylight and the locations of town: one of my rules is to avoid riding in the dark, another is to end each day in a town. I’ve been pacing myself pretty well. My legs usually have some life left in them, even after 100 miles, although I’m slow rolling out in the morning.
Bikers seem to be uniformly friendly, and I’ve had several nice chats with Harley riders pulled over on the shoulder. Semi drivers are pretty friendly too. New Mexico drivers almost always wave.
Riding in a car after 20 days of cycling is weird. The comfort, the quiet, and the speed—covering in one hour a distance that would be a respectable day’s riding is kind of mind-boggling.
Got the trike checked. The box was larger than Southwest’s size limit—then again, almost all bike boxes are. The ticket agent spent a while reading over the baggage policies and frowning, but let it pass. The TSA had no trouble with it, but they did force me to throw out a can of sunblock. Apparently Southwest will let me bring both my panniers on as carry-on bags. We’ll see if the gate agent agrees with the ticket agent on that.
Bought my ticket to San Diego. Will be arriving there the morning of Saturday, September 18. Now I just need to pack the trike, buy the few odds and ends I still need, and get these butterflies out of my stomach.
After carefully studying the route and looking at the tour diaries of others who have ridden it, the idea of doing it credit-card style is off the table. The likelihood that I’d get stranded in the middle of the desert is too great. I’ll just need to make it work.
I completed an overnight tour from Austin to Somerville in east Texas and back yesterday. The tour was a success in terms of its nominal goals—making sure that I had all the equipment I need, and that it would stay secure on the bike. But it was a sobering eye-opener in terms of my own ability.
I’ve done a little bit of bike touring before, although not in a very long time. And I’ve ridden extremely long distances, although again, not in a long time. Still, I feel fit, I feel like I know what I’m capable of and what I’m not. My goals for riding the Southern Tier were ambitious but realistic, I felt: I wanted to be able to average around 100 miles per day. If I could maintain a rolling average of 15 mph, that would be about 7 hours in the saddle per day. I know that I can maintain an average of 15 mph over 4 hours unladen and still feel pretty fresh at the end. I’ll admit it is less clear that I could extend that to 7 hours, but what is now crystal-clear is that I cannot extend it to 7 hours with a full cargo load. I had some GPS hiccups—you can see some unrealistic elevations and track wandering early in the ride, and disappears entirely for about 5 miles later. In any case, in each direction the ride was about 85 miles, and took me about 8:50 door-to-door, including stopped time; actual rolling time was perhaps 6:20. It was hard. I felt wiped out after the first day, slept poorly, and still felt wiped out when I started the second day, with a lot of aches, pains, and stiff muscles. Even at a distance 15 miles short of my daily goal, I would not be able to sustain that level of output for long: I would injure myself, and even if I didn’t, I would not enjoy myself. I’m ready to challenge myself. Not ready to go on a death march.
Right now, I see a few possible options:
- Start with relatively low daily mileage and build up my mileage as I get acclimated. I know that many bike tourists get stronger during the course of a tour, so this isn’t completely unrealistic.
- Start with relatively low daily mileage and never really get beyond that. There’s no guarantee that I’d get much stronger. This would cause the venture to telescope out to as much as two months, which is unacceptable. I would need to abort when I hit Austin, roughly the halfway mark.
- Go credit-card style. I know a number of bike tourists have crossed the Southern Tier completely credit-card style—carrying no food or shelter, just a change of clothes. I am confident that if I did this, I could hold close to my original goals, but there’s always the chance that I could find myself stranded at the end of the day with no place to stay.
Random observations from the ride
Gwen drove out to meet me at the state park that was my destination for the ride; she also brought dinner and spent the night out there. This made it a vastly more pleasant experience for me, though with the benefit of hindsight she might have preferred to stay home. I am sure that some part of Lake Somerville State Park is a nice place to be at some time of the year. However, the part that we saw was not pleasant during the time we were there. It was filled with mosquitoes, no-see-ums, and centipedes. It was hot and dank—the inside of our tent was almost intolerable (though less intolerable than being eaten alive outside of it).
I didn’t have a lot of trouble being chased by dogs. There were two places where dogs did chase me; in one of those places, the dogs were dachshunds and not much of a threat; in the other, the dogs were more of a potential threat, but backed off when I hollered BACK at them. One funny moment came when a couple of big dogs saw me coming well in advance, and sat down right in the middle of my path; there was oncoming traffic in the other lane, so even if I had the moxie to outsprint them (I did not), it would have been impractical. Instead, I stopped completely and called out to them in my “good doggie” voice. It immediately became obvious that they really wanted someone to play with. I didn’t feel like getting off the bike to play. Instead, I rode along slowly, with them trotting at my side, until they lost interest.
On my ride out, I was feeling really strong up until roughly mile 18—I was maintaining a solid average above 15 mph (ignoring the GPS wackiness—it took me less than an hour to get to a point I know is 15 miles away). Then I suddenly felt an unaccustomed cramp on my shin, and had to work that out. I had to take several breaks during the rest of the day to work out cramps and hotfoot, and ended the ride with a tender spot on the bottom of my left foot. I’m hoping that adjusting my cleats will fix that, because it made riding pretty unpleasant. My average speed gradually declined during the day
On the return ride, my average speed started low and held steady. I didn’t suffer any acute cramps or pains, but had a lot of low-level pain and stiffness in my legs. I stopped for gatorade right around the midpoint, and after I started back up, was puzzled to see a sign for a church that I was certain I had seen a few miles before. I thought that perhaps there were two signs pointing to the church down two separate roads. Then I got to a construction site where a new water crossing was being built adjacent to an old one. I had passed one of those before, too—the first time, the new crossing was on the left, and this time it was on the right. Now I had to pull over and stop, because I was really worried I had somehow gotten turned around and ridden ten miles in the wrong direction after that gatorade stop. I checked my bearings, checked them again, found that I really was heading the right way, and continued.
Somewhat belatedly, I’ll be taking a two-day shakedown tour tomorrow, out to Somerville State Park. My route will cover about 85 miles each way. Assuming nothing catastrophic happens, my next step is to take the trike in to Easy Street for a once over, pack it up, buy my ticket to San Diego, and go.