Lately I’ve been pondering how the fast-approaching fall of Western civilization relates to cycling. As our infrastructure crumbles, our roads will deteriorate to the point where skinny-tired road bikes are going to be museum pieces. It seems inevitable that eventually, road conditions will become so bad that anyone without a full-suspension mountain bike is going to be traveling on foot.
Some of this gloom and doom outlook arises out of my own recent experiences on the road. When I’m on my Trek 7.3 FX upright bicycle, it doesn’t take long before riding over bumps while seated is about as welcome as having someone pick at an open wound. It’s better on my Bacchetta Giro 26 high racer recumbent, but without the ability to stand on the pedals over bumps, there’s a limit to how rough and/or bumpy a road can be before it’s just not fun being out. Most of the time, I plan rides so that I climb roads that are in in poor condition rather than descend them, as the surface roughness often compels me to just coast down, or even resort to braking.
I still WANT a bike that’s more or less a road bike, though. I don’t really want a mountain bike. That’s why I got so excited after spotting a Longbikes Slipstream for sale on Craig’s List in December 2010. Well, and I'd just read “Bicycle Weight and Commuting Time,” which came to the conclusion that “[a] lighter bicycle did not lead to a detectable difference in commuting time.”
The Slipstream is a long wheelbase (LWB) recumbent with a reputation for being a comfortable, long-distance touring bike. Many years ago, the first recumbent I even rode was a LWB Linear, which was attractive because of its elegant length and comfortable under-seat steering (USS). The aluminum backbone of the Linear produced such a bouncy ride that it didn’t really click with me, so I went on to buy bicycle after bicycle, looking for just the right combination of comfort and features.
Still, there is something so compelling about the LWB Slipstream that I had to investigate.
Even with all my experience aboard recumbents, the test ride on the Slipstream was disconcerting. After trying to see around (or through!) the handlebar and riser on my high racer for more than a year, having a completely clear field of vision in the Slipstream was unnerving, even just sitting in the seat. Push the left pedal to get going, lurid swerve to the right, right foot up to the other pedal, lurid over-correction to the left, then bliss. I went maybe 40 yards out, then realized I had to make a U-turn. On my high racer, this is always a time for intense concentration if I'm not somewhere wider than a two-lane road. On the Slipstream there was absolutely no drama, despite its being what appears to be about twice the length of my high racer, and I didn't have to worry about interference between my feet and/or crank arms and the front wheel. I was sold. During the 40-yard ride back to my starting point, I began to appreciate the plushness of the ride, and the USS made the Slipstream seem like an old friend.
Let’s face it: The typical mesh seat on recumbents looks dorky. The lawnchair chic of the typical mesh seat is one of the reasons I had never bought a recumbent that has one. Then there’s the mesh seat on the Slipstream. It doesn’t seem visually that different at first, but between the height of the seat bottom, the length of the bike, and the overall design of the Slipstream, this mesh seat looks right.
Of course, you don’t buy a mesh seat for its looks, you’re looking for comfort. For me, the Slipsteam seat is extremely comfortable. First, the frame of the seat is wide enough that it lies outside of my upper arms. Unlike fiberglass and carbon seats I’ve tried, my shoulder blades aren’t in conflict with the edges of the seat. It’s a simple thing, but experiencing it is a revelation.
The tension of the mesh is adjustable by means of several straps that run cross-wise around the frame, and attach with Velcro. I was able quickly and easily to fine-tune the seat to have a bit more lumbar support.
There are four positions for setting the angle between the seat bottom and back, and adjustable seat stays in the rear allow you tilt the whole assembly to your liking. The seat stay ends are not just drilled for attachment via a bolt, as on other bikes. Instead, they look like aircraft control rods and have zero slop. Very nice.
The mesh itself is interesting, too. First, it allows you to move around until you are comfortable, but it isn’t exactly slippery. Second, while there is some give in the mesh, there is little to no elasticity, so the mesh isn’t trying to launch you out of the seat on rough pavement. Finally, because the mesh is open, you actually get cooling on your back while you ride. If you are only used to seat shells or even the thick foam used on Bacchettas, the air flow through the mesh on the seat back will come as a real revelation the first couple of rides.
Fore and aft adjustment of the seat is accomplished via another Longbikes touch: A custom ladder-and-clamp assembly that absolutely, positively locks the seat in place. The clamp itself is a work of art: It appears to be a custom casting that is then machined just for this purpose. What’s more, the “rungs” of the “ladder” base make it immediately obvious how much seat adjustment you are making, and if you were so inclined, you could use a tape measure to record your exact seat position, as might be needed if you were letting a friend test-ride your bike and wanted to be able to recreate your ideal set-up afterwards.
When I first got on the Slipstream for my test drive, I was astonished to find that the seat was too far back for me. I have a 50-inch X-seam measurement, which typically means that NO bike is too big. This frame is the extended-length frame from Longbikes, but it's still tough to get my brain around the fact that I have 6 inches of seat adjustment behind my current position (and 3.5 inches in front of the seat clamp, if needed). You could be in the NBA and this bike would still fit you. I wish I'd had it with me when I met Bill Walton at the 2010 Furnace Creek run.
On an upright bike, I squirm in the seat for the first couple hundred yards until I get situated, and then I’m good for maybe a mile before the agony sets in. On my Bacchetta, I settle in faster and then am good for up to 30 miles. So far on the Longbikes mesh seat, I don’t mind staying seated after a ride, catching my breath before I stand up. I’m looking forward to seeing just how far I can ride with this seat. Dare I dream of completing a century?
Something unexpected about the Longbikes mesh seat is how easy it is to ensure that you are in your intended position. With various curvy, reclining seats on my high-racer, you get everything set at what seem to be perfect positions so your leg extension is proper, and then a few miles down the road you realize you've shifted somehow, and then the challenge is to try to get back to where you're “supposed” to be sitting to regain that desired leg extension. Of course, this is more easily said than done, as usually you've moved out of that position for a reason, and the curvature of the seat makes precise indexing extremely difficult. With the Slipstream mesh seat, I move out of position less, and when I realize that it's happened, I can quickly and easily push myself back into position because the seat back positively locates the rider: No more guesswork on where my set-up position was.
The only problem I’ve had with the Longbikes mesh seat so far is that the seat stays have two holes at the top that give the impression that the seat can be further reclined, when in fact the inside stay hits the top of the outside stay tube to prevent the use of the top two holes. The top of the inner seat stay could probably be shortened to allow access to these top two holes, but with the bottom bracket being below the seat as it is, you won’t be going for the full recline as you would on a high, mid, or low racer.
The steering system on the Slipsteam has two main features. First, it functions splendidly, and second, it is a work of art.
On the functional side, there is no play in the steering. None. Every move of the handlebars is translated faithfully to the front fork, again using aircraft control rod ends. The handlebars are made of several pieces, and each piece is individually adjustable for fit. The main cross bar can be rotated forward or back, and there is more than one pivot point from which to choose, so you can match the pivot point to your seating position.
Coming off of the main cross bar are the handlebar uprights. These are clamp-adjustable in and out, and fore and aft. These uprights are where the brake levers and bar end shifters mount.
The main cross bar connects to the pivot bolt through another custom casting. It’s a shame this exotic-looking piece is all but hidden beneath the seat, as it is a wonder to behold. The longitudinal bar is also adjustable for length to match the options for pivot point, and there is a plastic dampening sleeve toward the front to prevent the longitudinal steering rod from contacting the frame on hard right turns. At the very front, Longbikes connects the longitudinal bar to the front fork with a simple but elegant custom aluminum casting.
There are two attachement points where the handlebar assembly attaches to the longitudinal bar. The outermost one offers slower steering input, which the innermost one makes the steering quicker. The steering speed seems fine to me, so I haven't tinkered with this yet.
The handlebar grips are the most amazing material. They feel like some kind of open-cell foam. They are not only comfortable but they provide a great tactile experience, dampening vibration and retaining their grip even should your hands become sweaty. The are quite simply the best handlebar grip material I have ever seen.
The triangulated steel frame of the Slipsteam draws heavily upon the design of the old Ryan Vanguard, with modifications and improvements. The main backbone of the frame runs from the nose, under the seat, and then kicks up at the rear. Attached to the main backbone is a separate rear triangle that features mounts for the interchangeable rear dropouts. Having separate rear dropouts gives Longbikes the ability to offer the Slipstream with a 26-inch rear tire (standard), or a 700c rear tire, or an integrated Rohloff hub. The dropout for the 700c version raises the mounting point for the rear axle to preserve the attitude of the bike, and the Rohloff dropouts incorporate the reaction channel so you don’t need to use a Speedbone. The way the rear triangle attaches, it appears that you could reduce the size of the Slipstream relatively easily for transport by removing the rear wheel, removing the top two bolts from the rear triangle, loosening the bottom two bolts for the rear triangle, and folding the rear triangle down and underneath the frame. I have yet to confirm that this would work, but if worst came to worst, you could remove the rear tire assembly and rear triangle completely to make the Slipstream more compact.
The triangulation of the Slipstream frame looks competent without being busy or awkward, but the real beauty of this frame is the way it rides. After my first real ride on the Slipstream, I finally understood why people say that steel frames are the best. The combination of this frame and the slightly wider tires gives the Slipstream an other-worldly ride. In the half dozen times I’ve been out, I’ve already gone back to taking routes I’d avoided on my high racer. What before seemed like roads almost too far gone for traversing with a road bike are now just roads that are not as smooth as they could be. Roads that before seemed rough enough to impede my progress are now no big deal. And, whether by virtual of the frame geometry, wider tires, or different center of gravity, riding through patches of sand on the road no longer seems suicidal, as on my high racer. Even with its 20-inch front tire, the Slipstream is so much more comfortable over rough roads than my upright or high racer that there is simply no comparison.
One quibble I have with the frame is that on the XL versions like mine, it would be nice to be able to run long crank arms without hitting the front tire. People who buy the XL version are going to be big people, and big people sometimes like grown-up crank arms. The Slipsteam comes with 170 mm crank arms, even in size XL, and depending on the build of the crank arms, there seems to be no way of fitting longer than 195 mm arms without going to a smaller front tire, which is going to effect ride, handling, and load-carrying capability. As it is, any crank arm much longer than 170 mm runs the risk of interfering with the front fender, if mounted. Another quibble is that there three (!) water-bottle braze-ons on top of the frame, in front of the seat. If you mount your computer there, there’s no room for a water bottle. If you mount a water bottle there, it’s tough to reach. The solution is to get a Platypus that attaches to the rear of the seat somehow, but a couple more braze-ons would be nice. If you buy your bike new from Longbikes, you can specify two additional bottle holders, one on each side of the rear triangle.
The Slipstream has 27 gears (3 front, 9 rear), handled by Shimano. The Deore XT shifts positively and much more quietly than the Sram PG950 on my Giro. The setup is similar to that on my Trek 7.3 FX, but where the Trek has trigger shifters, the Slipstream has bar end shifters. I thought at first that I would be lost without having some kind of visual indicator on the shifter as to which gear I was using at the rear derailleur, but it took all of about 5 minutes to figure it out by the angle of the shift lever.
There’s about a mile of chain, which you have to expect with a LWB recumbent, but it is kept under control by two Longbikes idlers, one on the power side and one on the return side. There’s a tiny amount of chain/idler/rear derailleur noise, but it’s actually kind of pleasant, keeping you company as you putt along.
Because the idlers are so far back, they make the Slipstream more sensitive to rear derailleur adjustment than some other rear-wheel drive recumbents, where the idler wheel is so far forward that chain angularity barely enters into the picture.
With the less-aerodynamic upright seating position, I'm in no danger of “spinning out” in top gear. If I had the money, the Slipstream would be perfect for a Rohloff 500/14 Speedhub in the back and a 46-tooth chainring in the front. This combination would provide great shifting, a wide range of gears, extended gears on the bottom end (which you can use on the Slipstream due to it's stability even at low speeds), and enough gear on top to match the likely top speed.
Wheels, tires, and brakes
My Slipstream has Alex Rims DA16s, although the new ones have the superior (and slightly wider) Velocity Aeroheats. Mounted on these rims are Kenda Kwests. Kwests are surprisingly competent, inexpensive, and capable of handling up to 100 psi, which is unusual in a 1.5-inch-wide tire. The tubes have Schrader valves as opposed to Presta valves, which was off-putting until I realized they would allow me to use Slime to reduce the chance of a ride-ending puncture, and I can also use my air compressor and “normal” tire chuck to air up before each ride. The brakes are Avid mechanical discs, which I grew to love on my Bacchetta Giro, if for no other reason than hitting the brakes doesn’t chew up your rims.
After drooling over the images of the Slipstream on the Longbikes website, I really, really wanted one of those striking chrome yellow ones, which seems to be the standard color. Mine is white, and it’s gorgeous. The lines of the bike are sublime. I couldn’t be happier with the way it looks.
As you may have guessed from my descriptions of the custom parts Longbikes uses, the build quality is exceptional good. This bike has the quality to underpin its good looks and flawless road manners.
Mine also came with the optional (?) kickstand. If you buy a Slipstream, you have to get the kickstand. Period. It’s a complex two-legged affair that lifts the rear tire off the ground, which is not only more stable than a “lean-over” kickstand, but it allows you to work the crank, move the chain, and rotate the rear tires and sprocket cluster without having to lift the bike.
The bike came with platform pedals, but I replaced these immediately with Crank Brothers Eggbeaters.
The Slipstream experience
It’s tempting to go on and on and on about how comfortable this bike is in every way, but I’ll at least attempt some restraint. As noted above, the forward view is unimpeded, which is liberating: Your body is upright, your head at a natural angle, and you have the whole world spread out before you as you ride. Certainly, this is bicycle riding as it was meant to be.
Part of the clean sight-line is due to the bottom bracket, which is about 5½ inches lower than the seat. You’re supposed to spin the pedals on a recumbent — as opposed to mashing them — but the lower bottom bracket and the more upright seating position do allow you to get some real leverage on the pedals if you want. I personally find the lower bottom bracket better on my knees. Your mileage may vary.
A huge part of the comfort for me is due to the geometry of the bike itself. If you’ve spent any time on an upright bike, you have a feel for how much lean steers the bike, how much steering input steers the bike, and how to lean and steer together to navigate. The feel of steering the Slipstream is very much like this, which is a good thing, plus you’re lower to the ground, your body position is much more relaxed, your butt and your hands/wrists/arms aren’t screaming at you to stop, and your neck isn’t craned to see the road. The Slipstream geometry is also such that you can actually ride “hands off,” a tribute to its stability. Also, I’ve yet to find a speed or riding condition where the front wheel wants to go into self-induced oscillation (what motorcycles call “tank slappers”). With this stability, it’s fun to see how slowly you can ride and still remain upright. I can already get below 3 mph with good control.
The are two nice side-effects of having a smoother, more stable bike. First, my helmet-mounted mirror is more useable because it's not bouncing around due to road vibration. Second, turning my head to aim the mirror at the road behind me doesn't cause me to swerve into the traffic lane. I've tried to counter this tendency on my high-racer, but I really have to think about it beforehand. On the Slipstream, I just turn and look, without the front end of the bike following along. This makes it much safer to check overtaking vehicles, especially when there are more than one.
Riding a bike is often billed as being this wonderful, but you have to either ignore or adapt to a long list of decidedly un-wonderful impositions to achieve wonderfulness. Not with the Slipstream. In a way, it feels like cheating; as though you’re getting away with something. It’s simply marvelous.
So what do you give up? Everything man-made involves a compromise, and the Slipstream is no different.
First, it’s heavier than a normal steel bike, in the same way that a Cadillac is heavier than a Kia. Maybe someone’s trying to tell me something, but the day before I spotted this bike on Craig’s List, a friend sent a link to a study that showed that a lighter bicycle did not lead to a detectable difference in commuting time: http://www.bmj.com/content/341/bmj.c6801.full. A fair number of Slipstream owners seem to be into unsupported long-distance rides. Given the Slipstream’s ability to carry a lot of weight, the few extra pounds in the frame are simply not an issue.
Second, in large part due to the upright seating position, it’s slower. I’m probably three to four mph slower on the Slipstream than on the Bacchetta Giro, but the trade-off is that I feel as though I could ride all day on the Slipstream, compared to about two hours on the Giro. My problem is that I’m supposed to be fast on the Giro but I’m not, so I’m beginning to think I was more cut out to be a Slipstream kind of guy in the first place and I’ve just been fighting my destiny until now.
Third, moving it is more problematic because of the length. It fits in the back of a short-bed pickup truck with the tailgate down, but if you have a sedan you’ll need a rack of some sort — assuming you don’t feel like breaking it down every time you want to transport it. As for wheeling it in and out of the garage, I lift the rear tire off the ground by the seat frame, and steer the front wheel. Once you get out in the open, the Slipstream tracks beautifully by leaning it and pushing, just like an upright.
Fourth, it takes more room to store. One guy I know parks his in his living room, but his is chrome yellow and his urge to display it is understandable.
Finally, it comes with no reflectors of any kind. This is not a huge deal, obviously, but on a bike with a list price of nearly $3,000, it seems odd not to have front, rear, and wheel reflectors. Fortunately, I don’t ride at night so this doesn’t affect me, and although the bike I bought was built in May 2003, it had maybe five miles on it when I bought it, so I got essentially a brand-new bike at a screaming deal, so I’ll supply my own reflectors when they’re needed.
If you’re into real-world cycling, which often means traveling on less-than-ideal roads, and carrying more than a bottle of water and a tire patch kit, the Slipstream is a top-of-the-line vehicle that will meet or exceed your expectations.
The Slipstream may cost more than some of the other recumbents, but it’s so comfortable and versatile that you won’t need to buy a bunch of other bikes to cover all your biking needs. I figure I’ve spent at least $6,000 on various bicycles, trying to get something that makes me happy. If I’d bought a Slipstream first, I’d be money ahead now even if I’d paid full price.