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A review of the Leitra velomobile
By Alan Weiss
For more photos of Alan's Leitra, click HERE.
I recently went to Denmark to collect my new Leitra velomobile. I wrote this essay to recount my experience, especially to help other people who might be interested in purchasing a Leitra to realize what it is like.
To begin, let me tell you a bit about myself. I am a 46 year old New Jersey resident (USA, East coast near New York City). I have been a bicycle commuter for most of my life, if you count riding to school as a kid, too. For the past 20 years I have worked at the same job, and mainly lived in two places, both about 7 miles from work. I live near a commuter train line that is less than 1/2 mile from my house, and work is about 1 mile from the closest station. For the past two years I have ridden an Easy Racers Gold Rush, a long wheelbase recumbent bike. Before that I rode a Dahon folder, and before that a Giant road bike. I had to give up the road bike 5 years ago when a neurological ailment caused me to lose some of the use of my right hand--for a while I could not use handlebars, then I progressed to the point where I could hold on, but not use hand brakes or gear shifters, and got the Dahon at that point, and finally I was able to use some hand brakes and twist shifters. That is my current situation, the condition seems to have basically stabilized.
I rode to work whenever the weather was nice, and the days long enough that I could get home before it got too dark; basically, I was a 3-season fair-weather commuter. I would take the train or hitch a ride with some friends or drive myself as a last resort all winter or during bad weather. I finally got sick of taking rides in cars, and the train schedule was bad enough, that I wanted an all-weather human powered vehicle.
Fortune smiled on me, and a Cyclodyne velomobile appeared for sale on eBay one day. Cyclodynes were made about 20 years ago; they were only produced for a very few years. I didn't know too much about it, but I saw it was a fully-enclosed trike, perfect for commuting. I bid $2000, much higher than anyone else. But at the last minute another fellow edged me out. Too bad. But now I had learned that velomobiles existed. I was excited about them. I found out about Leitras. The more I looked into them, the more I realized that it was good fortune that I didn't get the Cyclodyne. Here was a practical vehicle for commuting, had been in production for a long time, and was the only readily-available velomobile currently being manufactured. With my wife's urging, I placed an order. And this is where the story really begins. I have had the Leitra now for 6 months. Here are my impressions. Be warned, I didn't use the Leitra much during the summer, so I only have experience of a few hundred miles of riding it.
Ordering a Leitra
If you look at the Leitra web site at http://www.leitra.dk/ you'll see that a Leitra is a tadpole tricycle (2 wheels in front, one in back) with a removable fiberglass body. Leitras have many options. A "vanilla" (standard) Leitra has drum brakes on the front wheels, rim brake on the rear, a 6-volt lighting system, Sachs 3x8 rear wheel (8-speed derailleur on a 3-speed internal hub), and full fairing with a fabric-covered gap where a hand can be poked out for signalling turns. Here are the options I ordered, and how well they have worked out.
1. Rohloff 14-speed internally geared rear hub with Schlumpf 2-speed "Speed-Drive" crank. This was an expensive and, frankly, unnecessary set of options. I wanted a very wide gearing range. Rohloff gives a factor of slightly over 5 in gear range, and the Schlumpf crank adds another
factor of 1.65, for a total range of about 14 to 125 gear inches. I should say that I am delighted with the performance of the Rohloff, it's just that for budget-minded people, this is not the most practical system. I got it because the additional cost was not a huge fraction of the cost of the Leitra, and I knew I would never be getting another Leitra, so I decided that I'd get every option that I might ever want.
The Schlumpf drive is not as good as I'd hoped. It adds noticeable drag and vibration when used in its 1.65x mode. At 1-1 it adds no drag. It turns out that it adds four gears to the top end of the range--most of the gear combinations at 1.65x can be achieved at 1x, the overlapping ranges align precisely--so I use it only for downhill runs, where I don't need to apply much power anyway. If you're interested in internal gearing, the combination will prove satisfactory, and being able to shift at a standstill is very useful, and the Rohloff hub works extremely well, with just one quirky shift between gears 7 and 8 that is a well-known idiosyncrasy. But I tried out some Sachs-equipped Leitras, and they work well, so if you want to save some money, here is one place to do so.
2. Rear suspension. The Leitra always has suspension on the front two wheels. The rear wheel can be suspended as well. I think that this is essential. It's only $175 extra, and provides for a much improved ride, especially over potholes or debris.
3. Hope hydraulic disk brakes. These provide extremely good, well-modulated, reliable stopping power. They replace the front drum brakes. They are actuated by one brake lever. I don't think that they are strictly necessary, but they provide me with immense stopping power, and I value that. They also caused a small problem...more on that later.
4. Rear luggage box. The rear fairing can be made as a top-opening box. It is a very practical thing to have. I find that two full bags of groceries fit in it quite well, making the Leitra just that much more
practical. I have recently begun to do all grocery shopping with the Leitra rather than a car, using the luggage box for almost all the groceries (I occasionally need to put something long into the bottom cargo holders). I think it is a very worthwhile addition.
5. Aerodynamic fairings and turn signals. Because of this, the usual soft fairing pieces were replaced by polycarbonate, so that the trike is a bit more streamlined, but hand signalling is not possible when those pieces re in place. These have been problematic for me, but I think I am unusually unlucky with them, for I have not heard of anyone else having any problems with them.
6. 12-volt lighting system. It's required if you want turn signals. But I'd recommend it anyway. The front and rear light are much brighter with the 12-volt system. I experimented with leaving the front and rear lights on one day, and got about 8 hours of steady light. The recharger that is supplied works on 230 volts. I bought a step-up transformer for under $10 that takes American 120 volts to 240 volts, and the system works just fine.
7. Speedometer. I brought my own speedometer to be fit into the dashboard, because I wanted one that read in miles, not kilometers, per hour. I'm happy with it. You probably know what you like in a speedometer, so again, I'd recommend that you do what I did. I brought a Cateye altimeter model with a back light. The altimeter is just for fun, but a back light is essential if you want to be able to see the speedometer at night.
Obtaining a Leitra
I went to Denmark to get my Leitra. I would urge you to do the same. C.G. Rasmussen, the builder, is one of the friendliest, most hospitable people I have met. He has a guest room in the Leitra factory where I stayed rent-free. He squired me around the country, leading me on several tours. We adjusted my Leitra so that it worked better for me. For example, he moved the Rohloff gear shifter from the right hand to the left, because my right hand is still too numb and weak to use the rather stiff Rohloff twist shifter. We installed the speedometer. I watched him build portions of other Leitras. I tried other Leitras, so I can report, for example, that an electric assist motor works extremely well on a Leitra, and that a well-used Schlumpf Mountain Drive had much less vibration and friction than my Schlumpf Speed Drive (so I still hope that my transmission will improve).
The thing I was most worried about when I went to Denmark was how I would get the Leitra back to the US. It turned out not to be a problem. We spent a few hours in the factory wrapping the fairing in bubble wrap, and stripping the tricycle of anything fragile. C.G. arranged for a truck to transport us to the airport, where we simply checked it in as baggage. I had to pay only $100 for my suitcase; that is the standard charge for a third piece of baggage. When I got to Newark, there was my Leitra. I declared it at US customs, where they charged me 5.5% import duty. Be warned: if all the wheels on a bicycle are under a certain diameter, they are entitled to charge 11% duty, but fortunately the customs clerk agreed that this was absurd. I was told before I went to Denmark to declare it as an electric bike, which has an even lower duty, but I don't like to lie.
Living with a Leitra
I had a miserable experience soon after I brought the Leitra home, one that still causes me grief as I write or think about it, My first day riding the Leitra to work, two things happened. One was that one of the aerodynamic fenders somehow got wrenched off the trike. As I reconstructed the mishap later, I believe that one of the two wing nuts securing the fender to the trike fell off (the fender is secured with two wing nuts and a plastic cap on the hub of the wheel). Loose, the fender got caught on the tire, and got ripped off. The fender was slightly damaged, cracked fiberglass, but no harm done to the turn signal. I was quite unhappy with this, but continued on my way to work. There I proudly let a few friends try out the trike. Here is where the second, more serious mishap occurred. One of my friends decided to pedal the Leitra hard, and then he braked hard as well. The hydraulic brakes stopped the front wheels, but the Leitra almost flipped over, scraping the fairing on the ground, and putting such force on the frame that two retaining flanges were bent out of shape. The lower carbon-epoxy leaf springs were no longer secured to the frame, and so the Leitra had no directional stability. It couldn't be ridden. I needed to have a welder fix the trike. All this, on the very first day! I felt like a jerk for allowing it to happen. That, more than anything, kept me from being enthusiastic about the Leitra for a few months.
Once the Leitra was fixed I took to riding it again. Here are my opinions of the quality of the ride, in no particular order.
1. The Leitra has a rougher ride than the Gold Rush. This is probably due to its relatively short wheelbase. And this is despite having 3-wheel suspension, while the Gold Rush has none, and has thinner tires, too! But the ride is quite acceptable, I don't want to give the wrong impression.
2. The side-stick steering is extremely comfortable. It is also very well modulated--relatively insensitive when going straight, so that high speed maneuvering is safe, but with an increasingly sharp response to angle when turning, so that the ultimate turning radius is remarkably small. This last feature is partly due to its short wheelbase. But it is mostly due to very good design.
3. The Leitra is more aerodynamic than the Gold Rush, even though the Gold Rush has a front fairing and is narrower. The Leitra is remarkable in this respect. With a strong side wind, the Leitra is propelled forward, like a sailboat! Headwinds are not very noticeable. Once, C.G. and I were riding along a bike path in Sweden against a stiff headwind. We passed so many Swedes who were working extremely hard that I couldn't keep track. We didn't feel the wind much at all.
4. It took me a while to get comfortable going above 20 m.p.h. on the Leitra. Now I am comfortable going 30 m.p.h. down hills, but 35 m.p.h. or higher still scares me. The handling is different than that of a Gold Rush, where I feel perfectly fine at 45 m.p.h.. Road imperfections seem to have more of an effect on the Leitra than on the Gold Rush. I should say that I haven't had any problem as yet with the Leitra at relatively high speed.
5. It is noisy in there! A full hard fairing does reverberate.
6. The Hope hydraulic brakes are temperature-sensitive. When the temperature goes down, the fluid seems to contract, so an adjustment to an easy-to-find dial is necessary to keep the braking performance the unchanged.
7. A Leitra is built for a particular individual. Mine fits me. If your legs are the same length as mine, it would fit you, too, but not otherwise. A somewhat taller person can ride it, but shorter ones cannot.
8. My commute involves a net climb of about 400 feet every day over a distance of 7 miles or so. Coming home is very easy, but in getting to work I always work up a sweat. The commute average speed is about 11-12 m.p.h. in the Leitra, and 14-15 m.p.h. on the Gold Rush. The difference is mainly that I climb at 3-4 m.p.h. in the Leitra on a hill that is good for 5-6 m.p.h. on the Gold Rush, and climb at 7 m.p.h. vs 11 m.p.h. on another hill. Perhaps, with conditioning, this will change. The Leitra is about 30-35 lbs heavier than the Gold Rush, and I'm much more used to the Gold Rush.
9. The seat on the Leitra is comfortable, but very hard--it is molded carbon fiber and epoxy. The Gold Rush has a very plush seat. This may account for some of the difference in the smoothness of the rides. I'll probably get a lambskin pad eventually.
Now here are my thoughts on other aspects of riding a Leitra, again in no particular order.
1. The front windscreen is extremely well designed. It is a glass plate, which is scratch-resistant. Polycarbonate windscreens, used in other velomobiles, will scratch, causing glare when car headlights hit them.
2. The defroster is very well designed, and is essential. There is an air scoop at the front of a Leitra that carries air to all the windscreens, front and side. When moving faster than 5-8 m.p.h., this clears away any condensation. When trudging up a long hill, things can start to get obscured, but a quick wipe with a hand takes care of front vision at least. I may try to treat the inside with no-fog, for those misty, uphill climbs.
3. The bell that comes with the Leitra is good for signalling cyclists on bike paths, but not cars in traffic. I mounted an Air Zound in the fairing. It can be heard in traffic very easily, though it hurts my ears to use it. Then again, the Air Zound I have mounted on my Gold Rush hurts my ears, too, but I'd rather have that than a car not notice me.
4. Visibility is extremely good. There are essentially no blind spots; the windscreen wraps far behind my head, and the rear convex mirror covers the rest of the 360 degree view.
5. You get noticed on a Leitra! Cars pass me with room to spare all the time. I haven't felt the need to honk at anyone yet, except one person backing out of their driveway, who actually saw me just before I honked. I feel much more secure simply because of the way traffic behaves for me.
6. The Leitra seems very mature. The frame and suspension are strong, the fairing is beautifully worked, everything just works.
7. It is warm in there with all the body panels on! Some of the side windscreens body panels remove for more ventilation. [Actually, everything is removable quite easily; it takes about 15 minutes to strip a Leitra down to the bare trike, and it only takes that long because you need to put the pieces somewhere safe.] You won't need a jacket until the temperature dips below 50 F, and you won't need much of one then.
8. The Leitra is extremely weatherproof. Even with the front mudguards off, there is no splash that gets into the cockpit, even in heavy rains and winds. The only times I have gotten wet in the Leitra are when I left off some of the windshield pieces (and I didn't get very wet from that), or from my own sweat.
9. I park the Leitra in a detached garage (I have a suburban single-family home). I know some people keep Leitras outside all year. I haven't been vandalized. People sure are curious when I do my errands. I don't usually lock the trike, I just set the brakes.
10. The rear brake has a lever that locks it, making it very useful as a parking brake. I don't think it's needed other than that.
This is the first thing most people ask about when they see my Leitra. I paid $6900 for the Leitra, and 5.5% extra for import duty. The "vanilla" model cost $5200 at the time, so you can see that the hydraulic brakes, internal gearing, and other extras, added up to a fair bit of change. But I regard the price as a bargain. The color was exactly what I wanted. The entire thing was made custom for me, with exactly the options I wanted. It takes C.G. about 2-4 weeks of steady work to make a Leitra. He designed, and constantly refines them. How much is that worth? My Gold Rush cost $3000 before fairing and other customization. Yes, indeed, I could have gotten a Stratus for less, but I love the handling of the Gold Rush, and I don't think I was overcharged for such a beautiful, refined bike. But compared to the design work and labor that goes into a Leitra, the Gold Rush should be under $1000 to be comparable.
Am I satisfied with my Leitra? If you've read this essay, you know I am. I have yet to work out a few kinks, and I haven't ridden through snow or ice yet, so there may be some surprises in store for me. But for practical commuting, shopping, and general transportation, it's hard to imagine a better human powered vehicle. Many have tried, but I think C.G.'s design has stood the test of time very well. And C.G. himself is such as wonderful human being, that it makes it even more of a pleasure
to do business with him. I feel privileged to know him.
I thank Jack Gannett, Ian F. in Sweden, Adam Karp, Uwe Adam, Tim Taylor, and perhaps others who I have forgotten, for encouragement and information about Leitras, which made the experience of purchasing one much less stressful. I thank Johannes Groessbrink for helping to repair my Leitra, and John Tetz for more repairs. I also thank Halfdan Grimstad for his help and friendship in Denmark. And I once again thank C.G. Rasmussen for the experience of a lifetime in Denmark, and for making such a fine product.
copyright 2001 Alan Weiss
You are free to post this wherever you like, as long as you identify me as the author (that is to say, don't steal what I wrote, but use it if you like).