Learning to ride a Cruzbike.

Peter and I (Robert) running into each other unexpectedly at the Croton Reservoir.

Note about this entry:

From time to time, I’ve updated this entry as my experience with Cruzbikes has evolved.  Meanwhile, I’ve also posted new entries at later dates.  To see all entries on this subject, simply click the “Cruzbike” label.January 2012

I feel like I’m learning to ride a recumbent bike again.

The other Wednesday, I took out the new arrival — a moving bottom bracket Cruzbike “Sofrider” — to get a feel for it and test the build.  This was my first time on a moving bottom bracket front-wheel-drive recumbent.  I’ll say this, although I got “going” on it immediately, it’s an odd sensation to coordinate turning the wheel with changing the leg angle.  I admit that I had a great deal of trouble controlling the front wheel for the first five minutes.  Or maybe it was 25 minutes.  No doubt, to others on the bike path, I looked like I was learning to ride a bike for the first time.

Also, it was strange to feel so much movement in my hands while riding a recumbent bike.  I spent about 45 minutes practicing various exercises, as if I was teaching a customer to ride a bent for the first time.  Honestly, it was frustrating.  Ultimately though, I became comfortable and, after a couple of breakthroughs, I found the frustration was self-caused. The bike was fine.  It was me who was acting uncoordinated.

After 45 minutes, I mastered the basic elements of handling the bike and was able to do jerky figure-8’s and double circles within the width of an 8-foot bike lane.  (So far, pretty impressive; try achieving a turning radius like that on an ordinary SWB recumbent.)  I still needed to figure out the coordination between my arms and feet while pedaling, and develop better control in tight turns, but I was progressing steadily in that direction.

The next time we had good weather, this being January and all, I took it out again.  After an hour of practice, I was sufficiently comfortable with the handling that I felt ready to ride it to Prospect Park, 3/4ths a mile away on city streets.

As of now, here’s the tally for how long it took me to learn to ride a Cruzbike moving bottom bracket recumbent bike for the first time (your own results may vary):
Day 1:__0:45 (hr:min) (mastered the basics)
Day 2:__1:00 (hr:min) (ready to ride on road)
Day 3:__2:00 (hr:min) (Improving technique. Working on: figure-8s, tight and open loops, S-turns, increasing speed, climbing, handling uneven surfaces and dirt.)
Day 4:__1:00 (I was away from the bike for about a month, busy with work and riding for practical reasons.)
[Update, a few months later (Aug. 2012), see last paragraph.  In summary, great bike.]

I anticipate feeling ready to ride intermediate MTB trails after another 4 hours of practice.  I look forward to this test of the off-road handling.  Although, if the snow hangs around, that may need to wait till spring.

Originally, after that first day of 45 minutes, I thought it would take me about 8 hours to begin to feel comfortable on MTB trails.  However, during my Day 2 ride I experienced two breakthroughs that helped me understand the bike.  The first breakthrough was to handle the Cruzbike more like a diamond frame while standing on the pedals.  Namely, as I pressed with my feet for each “stroke,” the key was to apply an equally strong pull in a countering direction with my hand.

I could have learned this faster.  The Cruzbike website has a nice and very short set of instructions at the “How to Ride” link.  At first, I thought the instructions were too simplistic.  Not so.  They were accurate once I understood the bike: keep your hands soft and ride with open palms.  I found that by maintaining soft hands and counterpressing (or counterpulling, if one prefers), one offsets the turning force of the legs.  (Note, much later: I’ve come to prefer “counterpulling” since this is what I’m used to on a standard frame and on my Concept II rowing ergometer.)

The second breakthrough was to maintain “soft” legs during turns, or remove the feet from the pedals entirely: turn with the hands only, don’t use the legs.  In other words, I needed to relax my legs as I turned the wheel, and let my legs be guided by the pedals.

The mistakes I made during my Day 1 ride, which made the bike difficult to ride, included…I tried both to counterpress and counterpull with my hands (didn’t work); I tried to relax my hands too much, as if I were riding an ordinary fixed bottom bracket recumbent (didn’t work); and I rode with firm, straight legs (come on, dude…).  Given the hand coordination issues, I anticipate some experienced recumbent riders may have more trouble learning to ride a Cruzbike than some diamond frame riders.  Not what I would normally expect at all!

There are people who will be very well-served by this design, but who may find it hard to ride, especially in a demo ride context.  I have to say, I hope they will persist for it will be well worth the effort.  It’s a neat bike and a very good value.  My good initial impressions remain.  I love the responsiveness of the drivetrain, the overall lightweight of the bent, and the feeling of the front wheel drive.  I look forward to riding it at speed, on hills and on trails.

To learn more about riding a Cruzbike, be sure to watch the nice videos on the Cruzbike website and take their instructions at face value.  It’s as simple as they say, as long as you do what they say.

Day 3 Update
For first three minutes that I got back on the bike I wobbled like I had forgotten how to ride it.  I quickly worked that out and then rode through city traffic (I’m in Brooklyn, NY) to and from the park. In Prospect Park, I practiced my technique including figure-8s, double loops, S-turns, increasing my speed, taking it on dirt and rough surfaces. I’ve concluded this is more than learning to ride a ‘bent.  It’s learning to ride a whole new type of bike which has a unique body-mind input and a unique performance output.  Compared to a normal ‘bent or to a standard frame bike, different muscles and coordination are called for, steering is different, weighting is different, pedaling technique is different, heck, even shifting is different (I seem to prefer riding the Cruzbike in a higher gear and with a slower cadence than I do on a “normal” bent, so I’m shifting up and down among high gears more frequently).

After about 45 min. of practicing technique, I felt the big breakthrough: the bike began to feel natural.  I began to anticipate the motion of the bike and began controlling it without much thought.  Also, I began to like the way it felt as opposed to struggling with it.  Huh!  After an hour and 15 minutes I felt ready to begin playing with increased speed of 15-25 mph.  After an hour and 50 min., I felt ready to ride through rush hour city traffic for 3/4ths of a mile, back home.

It really does climb better.
On the park loop, Prospect Park has one primary hill to climb.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover — wait a second, I’m lying here — I reluctantly discovered beyond any shred of a doubt — that it’s true: the Cruzbike climbs better than my other bents.  I was climbing in a higher gear and with less effort and at a higher average speed.  As a huge fan of HP Velotechniks and that relaxed style of riding, I have to admit that I hoped this wouldn’t be the case, but it is.  This design really climbs nicely, and very possibly as well as a standard frame bike.  I can’t believe I’m saying that.  I didn’t think it was possible.  (Note, later: I guess I wanted to believe that a relaxing ride would also be the fastest.  But no, a bike that engages all the muscles and applies that energy to the wheels is the fastest.  Seems so obvious, now.)

Here’s what I think is going on.  First of all, the chainstays are short like a standard frame, so we don’t lose energy in the long frame as it twists under the application of large forces, as when climbing.  Secondly, the chainstays are stiff, so they transmit energy well to the wheel.  Thirdly, in the muscles, it’s not that I somehow use my arms to add power to the pedals, as if this were a row-bike.  It’s that I can apply more pressure with my feet because I can counter-pull against the handlebars, engaging my core and arm muscles.  This is instead of pressing my back into the seat as I mash the pedals.  Normally, with a bent, I press against the seat back as I hammer.  But this is an unstable position.  I can feel my back squirreling around against the seat as I ride, so I can’t press as hard as I might.  Further, if the seat is soft (as in, comfy), energy is lost.  With a Cruzbike, the countering force comes from my core and arms, creating a stronger platform for applying muscle to the pedals.

Honestly, as I said earlier, I’m reluctantly impressed by the performance improvement.  Given how odd the handling feels, I was hoping this wouldn’t be the case, but rather that the luxurious feel of an HP Velotechnik would, somehow, be better on a hill.  However, I can’t refute it.  Even the entry-level Sofrider is faster on the uphill.

The Cruzbike is clearly for those who have the patience to “learn new tricks” and who place a premium on overall speed.  Face it: when we’re talking about speed, we all know that better is better and faster is faster and we’ll learn to ride whatever we must to get the best results.

Prospective Cruzbike riders are going to have to make some hard choices.  For those who want a high-performance bent, this odd bird is a fast one.  However, you must invest time learning to handle it.  If you don’t have the patience, don’t have the time, or you’re really attached to the idea of the “comfort bent” where your hands don’t do any work, stick to a bent that’s easier to ride at the beginning, like an HP Velotechnik.

What I foresee doing here is sticking to the HP Velotechnik Street Machine Gte for touring, but going to the Cruzbike for racing.  (By the way, we can install SON hub dynamos and all the usual stuff for brevets and all-night racing.  Don’t worry about that.)

Day 4 Update

Day 4:__1:00 (I was away from the bike for about a month, busy with work and riding for practical reasons.)

I got back on it and rode off without problems.  I’ve got the hang of it now after 4:45 hours:minutes.  Long and short, I like it.  I’m riding this Sofrider with rather “basic quality” components, and I’m keeping up with Prospect Park riders who normally drop me on the hills.  Long and short, it’s a heck of a machine.  It’s not about the bike, it’s about the design in this case, and the Cruzbike is a winner.  I’m very tempted to add on some racks and fenders, etc. to the Sofrider so I can begin riding it as my daily ride, maybe even take it out for some weekends.  I tell you: it’s growing on me.  Riders who itch to go fast will like it too.

Update, a few months later (Aug. 9, 2012):
I’ve been using the CB Sofrider as my city “beater” for the past three weeks, handling all the city throws at me (not literally, I shall hope).  Keep in mind, like 7,500,000 other New Yorkers, I don’t own a car, so this is my vehicle for commuting, grocery shopping, hardware store runs, whatever.  It’s taken me a bit of time, but I’ve figured out those vital elements of city riding: how to add large bags and panniers so I can load it with groceries, how to lock it, where to carry the lock on the bike, how to start on a hill without wobbling when the light changes and there’s traffic all around me.  And so, it’s become more and more useful as my daily ride.  The other weekend, just for fun, I put on clipless pedals (for daily errands I always ride with platforms) and took it out to Prospect Park to ride with the dogs (small, big, medium, whatever).  I was maintaining avg. speeds I normally never touch over 30 miles of repeating the main (hilly) loop and no one was passing me, even on the main climb, which I was taking at just over 15mph.  I’ve become thoroughly convinced of the effectiveness of the design, as odd as it was to ride the first time.

Another update, August 13, 2012.
This morning I took the Cruzbike Quest 26″ out for a training ride, doing loops around Prospect Park.  I averaged 20.2 mph over 34 miles with a maximum speed of 33.2 mph.  To put this in some context, the last time I did a triathlon, about 8 years ago, the bike portion was 24.8 miles (40k) on a flat course, and I remember averaging 19.5 mph.  I think that was my fastest ride for any substantial distance.  Given that I was riding at race pace in that previous instance, I’m rather pleased — to say the least — with my training pace this morning.  I wish I could say it’s all about me, and not about the bike, however I strongly suspect it’s mostly about the bike in this case.

Update, January 2013.
I’m still riding the Sofrider as my city beater.  Like it a lot.  Glad to have the shocks.  I put on some fat tires.  I put on those ugly-when-they’re-old-but-oh-so-useful Wald metal pannier-like side baskets.  I use the Radical Design seatback bag on it every day to carry my basic stuff.  People have asked me whether the front tire slips.  I don’t have a problem with that but I know what they’re talking about.  Learning to control the front wheel and minimizing slippage became one of those riding skills I simply had to develop.  One thing I like about the format is that it requires a full-body effort.  I think it adds to my overall fitness.

In addition, I continue to enjoy taking the Silvio for training rides in the park.  Without my intending it, it may have become “my” bike by dint of the continual fine-tunings I’ve had to do to learn how to fit it to the rider (me, the test rider).  But that’s the reality of high-end road bikes.  You must dial it in for the individual rider for it to work as well as it is supposed to.  And as you dial it in, it really stops fitting anyone other than the primary rider.  In this case, that seems to be me.
Improve your Cruzbike technique: work out with a jump rope.
A hint for those who want to develop better Cruzbike technique: skip rope.  Specifically, do one-legged skipping and a variety of tempos.  This helps develop excellent coordination between the hands and legs, which is what you need for really good Cruzbike riding.  It also helps strengthen the recumbent muscles.  I’m using a Buddy Lee speed rope, but you could use a weighted rope as well.

Robert Matson
New York City Recumbent Supply
The Innovation Works, Inc.
copyright 2012 Robert Matson

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