My favorite loop is called Smith Grade. It covers only twenty-seven miles but includes two thousand feet of elevation gain; five miles of climbing on a dirt road with sand, gravel, mud, roots and rocks; several stomach-tickling corkscrew descents; a five-minute 50-mph plunge to the coast; and a ten-mile finishing stretch, almost always blessed by gale-like tailwinds.
I’ve ridden many test bikes on this circuit. But never a recumbent. I worried that the off-road section, which is quite steep and slippery in spots, would force walking due to traction or balance problems. And that I might crash and trash the bike. Fact is, the route is tricky enough that most of my ride partners have trouble making it on their upright road rigs without walking. And everyone complains about how filthy their bikes get (wimps).
When I received this ’99 Lightning R-84, however, it only took a few warm-up rides to convince me to tackle Smith on it. For one thing, this $4,500 dream ’bent is incredibly light, the most feathery lowrider I’ve tried. The key is the carbon monocoque frame, which only weighs three pounds (without the seat). That’s barely heavier than the lightest wedgie frame. Construction comes straight from aerospace technology. Prepreg (carbon material saturated with epoxy) sheet is cut into about sixty pieces, which are placed a specific way in a two-piece mold. By varying the amount, shape and direction of prepreg pieces in each section of the frame, Lightning dials in the ride characteristics while ensuring optimum strength. Once the two halves of the frame mold have the right pieces in place, a bladder is installed and the mold is closed. There are actually two molds, one for the front and one for the rear half of the frame. (This allows building just about any size frame and makes it possible to remove the bladder following construction.)
After the frame is placed in the mold, the bladder is inflated putting outward pressure on the carbon in the mold. This pressure causes the individual prepreg pieces to bond with one another and removes as many voids as possible from the material. When the mold is opened, out come monocoque frame sections. To finish assembly, the bladder is removed and the two frame halves are glued together. The result is one of the most stunning frames ever, a Ferrari of the bike world if you will. It’s a gorgeous thing, gloss black with the carbon weave showing through the clearcoat; the elegantly curving aluminum seat frame and simple handlebar arrangement (also aluminum) adding to its clean lines.
The 84’s stealth appearance garners compliments on rides but it’s the gossamer weight that you’ll probably notice most. Riding a 22-pounder is like shedding 10 pounds of body weight. Suddenly you feel much stronger, you accelerate faster and hills get considerably easier. But then, all Lightnings ascend nicely thanks to rigid frames that transfer power efficiently to the rear wheel and a rider position that feels ergonomically ideal. Even if you try to ride casually, if you’re like me, you’ll soon find yourself jamming along. Something about the Lightning does that to you. But it’s a great feeling, perhaps a little like driving that Italian sports car I mentioned. You try to take it easy but all that get up and go is way too tempting.
The other feature crying out for a test on Smith was the dual suspension. What better way to eliminate the jolts of a rocky trail? The rear end sports small aluminum swingarms that rest on elastomer springs inside the chainstays. As you roll over obstacles, the swingarms pivot stifling shocks. Up front, there’s a chrome-moly steel suspension fork. But it’s not the traditional dual-telescopic-legs design. Instead Lightning uses a spring built into the steerer tube a la Moulton.
Sling-like comfort is how I’d describe the feel. It’s a suspension equally suited to small bumps and medium hits. More importantly, the rear suspension does not interfere with pedaling output as is often the case on lesser designs. There’s no loss of traction nor any negative pedal feedback due to suspension movement.
You’re also protected by an outstandingly comfortable mesh seat. The shape is perfect for back support and fit my average six-foot-tall, 175-pound body to a T — ample room for my shoulders and hips. The seat is designed so that most of your weight is supported by the bottom brace and the backrest struts. A cantilevered seat section flexes slightly adding to the bike’s already amazing comfort. Lightning ships the R-84 with a sewn-in foam pad on the sitting portion of the seat. But I prefer having breathable mesh beneath my legs, so I removed it.
Interestingly, the seat does not move forward and back to accommodate different leg lengths. Rather, the aluminum tube that contains the bottom bracket telescopes for sizing. A constricting clamp held by two pinch bolts holds the tube in place. Unfortunately, there’s no locator that keeps the tube aligned with the frame as you make adjustments. So it’s necessary to judge alignment by sighting the front derailleur tube and making sure it’s lined up with the handlebar upright; not a difficult job but one that could be unnecessary.
The location of the crank, just above and in front of the front wheel, creates heel-overlap on tight turns. This requires some practice to master. It’s only trouble when you’re crawling along and you must pedal and turn tightly simultaneously just to keep going, such as is the case on one bike path I frequent. At first, I had to stop and restart, because my foot kept hitting the wheel. Now, I’ve learned to swivel my foot slightly to miss the wheel so I can keep pedaling. I shouldn’t make too big a point of this, however, as it’s something you may rarely encounter. And it’s the same thing riders on uprights deal with when a bike has toe overlap. In 90 percent of your riding, you don’t turn the wheel far enough to interfere.
Another quirk is a loud drivetrain. Here again, it’s most noticeable at slow speeds. Once you’re sailing along, you’ll barely hear it because wind noise overrides it. The noise comes from the plastic tubes the chain runs through as it passes through and under the frame. They’re needed so the links can’t strike or wear the bike. There are also two idlers supporting the links and preventing chain slap. I don’t notice the noise much anymore and I appreciate how rarely the chain strikes my leg, sometimes a problem on other designs I’ve ridden.
Shifting and braking are controlled by mostly Campagnolo components. The brakes are Athena dual-pivot sidepulls paired with Ritchey levers bent to fit the handlebars. And the derailleurs are Racing Triple 9 speed with bar-end shift levers. Shifting is as crisp and positive as possible and the 30-tooth chainring/28-tooth cog low gear is adequate for most climbs if you’re pretty fit. If you’re not fit or ride steep hills all the time, you’ll want to opt for lower gears. The braking is excellent and it’s nice having mountain bike style levers, which allow cable adjustments on the fly — a nice feature on a new bike as the cables stretch and settle in. My test bike sports Sun triangular-section (aero) rims front and rear. But the hubs are Campy in front and White Industries in back. The Campy hub is laced with 18 spokes; the White with 36. Spokes are DT stainless steel in back and Wheelsmith stainless in front. Try as I might on Smith’s rough dirt stretches, I couldn’t knock the wheels out of true.
Two accessories add appreciably to performance: there’s a bag that slips over the back of the seat and is large enough for pretty much anything you’d want to carry on day trips. Not only is it simple to install and remove, its has two compartments and a reflective strip on the back for safety. And there’s a Mirrycle mirror, which offers a splendid rear view. The best thing about having a good mirror is that you know when it’s safe to ride down the middle of the road, which oddly enough, is most of the time! Finally, there’s a water bottle cage mount on the left side of the frame just beneath the seat. But you could carry more water by attaching a hydration system behind the seat and running the hose over a shoulder if you wanted.
I’m an experienced recumbent rider and one who enjoys racing upright road and mountain bikes. I like high-performance thoroughbred machines. The Lightning fills the bill nicely. And as I expected, it handles Smith Grade like child’s play. Climbing the gnarly dirt road, I’m saved abuse by the suspension, which gobbles every rock, stick and hole. Traction is superb because my weight slightly favors the rear wheel. It takes practice learning how to shift body weight to control skids when I hit muddy spots but the feeling isn’t much different than sliding on a road or dirt bike.
On pavement, the R-84 really shines. Here the suspension eliminates everything but the most abrupt bumps. You almost float down the road. Climbing is impressive: you settle into a good cadence and work the hill pushing the pace as much or as little as you want. I enjoy working hard on climbs and it’s especially nice riding a superlight ’bent made to flatten hills with ease. Lightning Cycle Dynamics owner Tim Brummer shared a great tip for climbing, recommending that I use my hands to push on my legs while climbing (alternating hands so I could keep steering with my other one). He promised a significant improvement and I have to say that though I was skeptical at first, it’s actually a very effective trick. You climb faster with less effort.
Handling on the R-84 is extremely quick. Try to spin at 100 rpm or push a gear hard and it takes concentration to keep heading in a straight line. At highway speeds, such as descending Smith Grade’s winding descents or the screamer leading to the coast, the slightest twitch moves you sideways before you know it. This is disconcerting at first and then you realize that it takes almost zero input to control this ’bent. The more you simply sit there enjoying the ride, completely relaxing, the easier it is to ride the R-84. And you certainly wouldn’t expect anything but quick reflexes in a bike named Lightning, would you?
Overall, this is one of the most capable and impressive bikes I’ve ridden. I hope to try it with the F40 full-fairing attachment sometime soon (a $1,600 option) because I think that could be the thrill of a lifetime.
Lightning Cycle Dynamics
312 Ninth Street
Lompoc, CA 93436
|Type||SWB above-seat steer (ASS T-bar)|
|Seat height||17.75 inches|
|Bottom bracket height||24.75 inches (ground to center of spindle)|
|Frame|| carbon monocoque with aluminum|
bottom bracket tube and swingarms
|Suspension (type/shock)||swingarm with elastomer|
|Fork||CroMo Unicrown suspended|
|Seat|| aluminum frame; adjustable mesh cover|
with seat pad
|Crankset||Campagnolo Racing T 30/42/52|
|Bottom bracket||Campagnolo Athena cartridge sealed|
|Derailleurs||Campagnolo Racing T|
|Shifters||Campagnolo bar end|
|Cassette||Campagnolo 11-28 9-speed|
|Tires|| Continental Supersport 700 x 23C (rear)|
Continental Grand Prix 20 x 1 1/8´´ (front)
|Hubs|| Campagnolo Athena (front)|
White Industries (rear)
|Warranty||frame: 3 years; components: 1 year|
|Fits riders||5´ to 6´ 6´´|
|Price||$4,500 ($3,100 frame and seat)|