Josef Janning is a European and International Affairs specialist, and the initiator and captain of the first coast-to-coast velomobile tour across the United States, which will bring together about 50 riders from Europe and North America this summer. See www.rolloveramerica.eu
Have you ever wished to be commuting faster than on a road bike, to be riding protected from rain, wind and cold? How about lounge chair comfort, a trunk for our luggage, fully protected drive train or slip-protection? All of this in one bike? If so, try out a velomobile.
Over the past years, my commute to work has been 26 km (16.2 miles) round trip, which I modified to take me along nicer roads with little traffic, and over more bike-friendly streets in town, expanding the commute to 30-50 km (18.6-31 miles) round trip.
Working in a formal business environment I needed to bring a suit and tie, shirt and shoes, papers, files and other material to the office every day. Two large panniers would take it all. From doing the trip on my road bike in nice weather I went to riding to the office always, year round, and under all weather conditions.
At first I had rediscovered my old road bike for the job. Fairly fast but also rather nervous, this bike had no rack so I had to haul clothes and stuff in a rucksack. Then I used a semi-deep, semi-racer recumbent bicycle. Faster than the road bike, much more comfortable, fully suspended and equipped with rack, fenders, lights. Great for spring and summer, not so nice over slippery surfaces throughout fall and winter. For that part of the year I added a tadpole tricycle. Very comfortable and stable even on ice and snow, really low center of gravity, no need to balance, great loading capacity, the perfect touring machine, although slower than the tourer-racer recumbent. My trike became the workhorse between October and late March.
The velomobile exceeded these bikes and trikes in all dimensions. It allowed me to ride faster than on any of my other bikes, in more comfort, with better weather protection through all seasons, better luggage capacity, and on top of all this, with the most sensational feeling I have ever experienced on wheels.
I ride a Quest a tadpole trike velomobile built in The Netherlands as a fast commuter bike for daily use. Its two enclosed front wheels make it faster but also make for a large turning radius; navigating the Quest is something to be learned.
Unlike some other velomobiles, the Quest is a head-out model; the rider remains in touch with the world around like on a regular bike. All wheels are mounted to allow for tire change without needing to remove the wheel. Two drum brakes at the front wheels provide ample stopping power in traffic. Stopping from higher speeds will be safer and shorter than with any regular bike. Break lights are a useful feature.
High quality bikes are best not kept chained to a lamppost. The Quest is no exception. At 35 kg (77.1 lbs) and a length of 2.80 m (9.2 ft) it’s not stored easily. Most riders park it in secured places at work, like a guarded parking lot or special bike stand. Around town, the risk of someone grabbing your velomobile and riding off quickly is rather low. Vandalism may be more of an issue when leaving it unattended over longer times.
The Quest takes a lot of luggage. Regular bags fit to the side of the rear wheel or left and right of the seat. No need for special bike panniers. A commuter’s load poses no challenge, with a bit of practice I’ve stored everything I needed for extended self supported camping tours inside the Quest.
The Quest truly is a bad weather machine. All three wheels are separated from the cockpit. No spray or sleet will reach rider and gear. The cockpit opening can be closed with a flexible cover stored under the hood. It’s best to close the velomobile when parked. An additional roof provides more protection in heavy rain. When not in use it stores behind the seat easily.
Velomobile riders dress light; shorts and T’s will do in temperatures above freezing point. Personally, I like to ride with the cockpit open even in the winter, so I will add some light running pants and a light fleece sweater, and close the cockpit when temperatures drop below -7 or so degrees Celsius (19.4â„‰).
Riding the Quest is something else. Experienced and trained riders who have the power to accelerate the velomobile’s heavier weight (compared to a regular touring bike) can take most best advantage of the velomobile’s lower wind resistance at higher speeds.
Experienced riders know well how it feels to bring their bike up to 30 km per hour (18.6 mph) on their regular roads, they know exactly how it feels to increase and to sustain their speed beyond 35, 38, 40, 45 or 50 kph (21.7, 23.6, 24.9, 28, or 31 mph)–if they ever reach these speeds on their commute. I knew that too. Riding the Quest defied that experience. It will let you accelerate at an ease that seems almost unreal, You will cruise at speeds on your commute that will exceed your pace on a road bike. Combined with the stability of a tricycle, the ride is very different from a two wheeler. You will never ride such speeds more relaxed, controlling the rig with three fingers. Your legs would keep up the pace forever, if it wasnâ€™t for the next stoplight.
Most of my commuting was over flat ground with very few hills, and over rather good roads and well-maintained bikeways. I have done extensive touring with the Quest over long distances and with significant climbing over all kinds of roads. Climbing long and steep hills fully loaded does require effort and patience. I am slow, grinding uphill on my 30/34 low gear, somewhere between 9 and 11 kph (5.6 and 6.8 mph) in my comfort cadence. I could go down to 4 to 5 kph (2.5 to 3.1 mph), mashing rather than spinning. Unpaved trails are slower but rideable. Unlike the racing velomobiles, my Quest has sufficient ground clearance and full suspension. For long day rides, I canâ€™t think of a better bike than my velomobile. Many riders go long distances with their velomobiles. I have often done days beyond 200 or 250 km (124 or 155 miles), even in the mountains.
Velomobiles are best suited for riding over flat or moderately hilly terrain, windy conditions are welcome. Commutes are more fun beyond 16 km (10 miles) one way and with some miles of open road. Electric assist can be added, although most riders donâ€™t feel the need to add extra weight that is mostly useless.
Visibility in urban traffic can be an issue as with other very low bikes or trikes. A velomobile is about as low as a Ferrari or Lotus sports car. On open roads velomobiles are eye-catchers and usually receive much respect, often more than standard bikes.
In Europe, velomobiles are considered bicycles and have to follow respective rules and regulations. Where the law requires the use of bike ways, velomobiles are exempt or their non-compliance is tolerated as is the case for road bikes.
For 2010, I have documented my riding in English here.