17 Mar 2010

Trike riding


My Longstaff trike conversion newly fitted onto my old Claud Butler, 21.5", Reynolds 531, butted frame and forks. Repainted over the years this frameset once had all the correct transfers. (decals) The eagle-eyed will notice that there are no gears or even a chain at this point. I was so excited to finally have a trike again that I just had to have a picture to admire until I had the machine completed the following day. I needed a wide ratio gear block to replace the fixed wheel sprocket which came with the conversion.
New racing and touring trikes have always been so expensive that there has always been a market for trike conversion sets. These allowed the more impoverished trike fan to convert a lightweight bike into a useful trike. There were weight and social status penalties but these conversions offered most of the advantages of a real trike at very much lower cost. For most cyclists it is vital to discover if triking really appeals without the huge expense of buying a whole new trike. Reckon on at least £3k+ for a sporty new trike with all new lightweight accessories in 2009. Add a couple of thousand pounds for an ultralight, race-ready model?  Used trikes are presently averaging from somewhere around £300 upwards on eBay(UK) for a cosmetically tired Higgins 'Ultralite' with older components. You can be asked to pay several £k for a newer Longstaff. The TA lists used trikes in their magazine so it's worth joining just to access that source if you are keen to get an "affordable" trike just to see if triking is really for you.

Even a new trike conversion at around £1k  is very much cheaper than wrecking a lightweight, hand-built trike. Or bending its fragile wheels during the initial attempts to learn to ride one. I may be exaggerating the dangers a bit here but I've just been back up the steep learning curve myself after a 35 year break from triking. I once rode thousands of miles on one. So I am speaking only from personal experience.

It looks so incredibly easy but few cyclists can manage more than a few yards on a trike before completely losing the plot. Collisions with kerbs and the scenery are often difficult to avoid for most newcomers to triking. Balancing a bicycle is nothing like riding a tricycle. The trike needs to stay flat on the road at all times. The bike doesn't care as long as you maintain adhesion. The trike likes to career down every bit of road camber towards the verge with a seemingly insane desire to kill you! It isn't really trying to run you off to the road. It is just that you expect a bicycle to correct itself by steering automatically into the lean. If you do so on a trike you will usually run straight into the kerb. You should steer gently away from the lean and move your own weight well away from the kerb even to follow a straight line parallel with the verge.

So you thought that the tipping point of a trike was at the widest point of a trike at the back tyre contact patch? That might be true of a four wheeled vehicle but this machine has three wheels! The centre of gravity of a human being sitting normally and leaning forwards on a typical racing bicycle is somewhere around a belt buckle at the front of the waist. So you may judge for yourself where above the wheel contact triangle your weight is roughly concentrated.

The black line is a vertical raised from the rear tyre contact patch. Despite appearances this is not the hinge point. Blue is the tilt angle of the trike on the road camber. I have drawn a short red line on the road surface between the front and rear tyre contact patches on the downhill side. Midway between the two points another red line is raised vertically. If your body's centre of gravity falls to the left of this red, vertical line you will fall over! Nothing will save you unless you shift your weight radically away from that vertical red line. Note how closely the vertical line passes to the crossbar? If you sat perfectly upright relative to the trike you would simply fall over with the hinge point somewhere on that red line on the road. So you must lean well away from that red line to remain stable and to keep all three tyres in contact with the road.

It doesn't matter whether the trike is moving in a straight line or standing perfectly still for this exercise. The geometry of the forces involved remains basically the same provided you aren't braking hard or cornering at high speed. If you are breaking hard this makes matters even worse by throwing your weight forwards to the narrowest part of the contact triangle! 

Thankfully  you'd be very unlucky indeed to manage a wheelie which tipped you right off the back. I've tried it while sitting upright on steep hills and all that happens is that the front wheel skips violently sideways with one wheel drive.(OWD) You might have more luck with 2WD though.

A view from the rear on another heavily cambered bit of a minor road. Note the effective road camber angle and typical damage to the tarmac from heavy traffic. If you could ride around this corner at just the right speed the centrifugal forces (inertia) of your body would exactly cancel out the tipping effect of the road camber. Much like a cycle racing track which is deliberately banked to match typical riding speeds during races. You could remain perfectly upright relative to your trike without leaning either inwards or outwards. The combination of all the forces would pass downwards through a line perpendicular to the cambered road surface. This isn't a physics lesson so don't get upset with the terminology or accuracy of these descriptions.

While out riding, you are always being forced by passing traffic towards the edge of the road where the camber is usually worst. To add to the misery the edge of the road is often crumbing, potholed and littered with debris. You cannot safely ride in the middle of a humped tarmac road if there is any traffic. Quiet lanes are different but then you must watch out for faster cyclists trying to overtake you.

It is safest to use a road without any traffic, or even parked cars, for your very first practice session! It is much safer to walk the trike to en empty car park on a Sunday. Be patient and eventually you will learn to master the trick of *not* balancing instinctively as you do on a bicycle. It may not be today or probably even tomorrow. Or the day after that unless you have plenty of time to practice. Make sure that the brakes work well and use the brakes often to control any wild behaviour by the trike. If it starts to tip you must turn into the tip to bring your balance back within the narrow triangle formed by the three wheels. If there is an obstruction on the side to which the trike is trying to tip you cannot easily steer away from it without some considerable practice!

Speed is your enemy to begin with because it suddenly brings overwhelming and terrifying centrifugal forces into the equation before you are remotely ready for them. You are a large and very heavy blob perched high up on top of an unstable machine which constantly feels as if it wants to tip over. In fact a trike can't fall over on its own Not until you get on and upset its balance. It is only your instinct from having learned to ride a bicycle which is sending you all the wrong signals. As the trike tips one way or the other on constantly changing road surfaces you feel every movement through the saddle. So you think the trike wants to fall over or even to steer itself.

You must learn to relax and place your own weight correctly to balance out the constantly changing forces. You have to use your own weight to counter the effects of centrifugal force/inertia on corners. It is your own weight which needs balancing. Not the lightweight trike itself. You must lean into the corners to bring your weight over the inside wheel. If you are lucky the camber will help you remain on an even keel despite your speed being too high. If the camber is against you, it will want to tip you even more! Which means you have to lean even further into the inside of the corner to overcome both centrifugal forces and the opposite (road) camber. This feels very unsafe indeed until you have fully mastered it.

Meanwhile, back at the first riding lesson: Ride slowly at first in wide, smooth circles on a large, flat, empty practice space. Try leaning gently inwards towards the centre of the circle you are following. It isn't easy to pedal and lean your upper body but you'll have to learn to. Increase your speed only a little at a time and keep the trike flat on the tarmac at the same time by leaning further inwards on turns. If you try to turn too quickly, perhaps to avoid an obstacle, the trike will tip and hurl you straight into the object you desperately wanted to avoid! So make sure there are no parked cars on your practice ground. Or you may face an uninsured bill for a repaint and new panels!

Railings and fences are potentially lethal to the beginning triker. So choose your practice space carefully. Avoid slopes, if you can, at least until you have had some practice on the flat. If you have no nearby car parks then try using playing fields, a local park or quiet industrial estate. If traffic comes put your brakes on and stop and look straight at the driver. You will feel like a fool but the vehicle can see that you are stationary and make their own arrangements to pass you safely. Moving without full control you are a highly unpredictable hazard to any driver. They will make some allowances for you because you look like a disabled tricyclist. Get used to it. Most other cyclists will ignore you as potentially dangerous or mentally ill. Don't worry about it unduly though. The compensation of triking easily outweighs family, friend's, colleague's, neighbour's and strangers doubts about your physical and mental stability. Remember it is you who chose to try triking. So grin smugly and go merrily on your way as an entire class or school bursts into laughter and ribaldry as you pass. Just keep repeating to yourself: "I am not a victim. I am not.."

After an hour or so you have circled and done lots of rather frightening figures of eight and increased your speed and are feeling quite confident. It seems so easy to ride on the flat in a wide open space but as soon as you leave the safety of the park you will encounter the evil of road camber. Then run uncontrollably, straight down onto the kerb! Unless you can brake first, of course. You mat even end up falling over to land on your unprotected hand, elbow or knee. If there is no kerb your will end up in the nettles or exploring a spiky hedge.

There is another difference between bike and trike. Since a trike doesn't lean on corners (we hope) the bottom bracket can be made quite low. This leaves the choice of which pedal to have down in corners. Photographs of racing tricyclists show they prefer to have the inside pedal down in corners. This gives them a low and stable rest for their foot while they hang completely out of the saddle in corners. This takes some getting used to because it is the complete opposite of bicycle technique. On a bike you absolutely must avoid grounding the pedal in a corner. To do so would lift the entire machine off the ground by the pedal. With traction lost the bike will slide away from the corner dumping the rider on the tarmac. This obviously can't happen with a trike since it remains flat on the road throughout all corners. Traction and stability need to be maintained by leaning one's weight towards the inside of any curve or corner. As ably demonstrated by Dave Keene (and others) in the link below.


After considerable practice I have fallen over twice on my new, narrower trike! Both times while at a complete standstill! Both times I had pulled off a busy road to get away from a juggernaut which refused to overtake me! In my haste to escape I badly misjudged the slope of the rough ground. I tried to turn into the fall but still tipped straight over like a falling tree. Without a chance to save myself! Ouch!

Later, you will be able to ride on quite rough surfaces. Choosing your path to avoid the worst boulders. Even when the scenery is leaning, as it is here. Not that you should really attempt this with lightweight sprints and tubs.

I might even recommend you borrow some skateboard elbow pads for the first tentative trials on a three wheeler. Or buy some elbow pads cheaply from the local charity shop. A helmet might be a very good idea too though I don't like them personally. Remember how much further off the ground you are compared with a 3" high skateboard! Thick leather industrial gloves and elbow pads may save you from real pain if you do fall over on your first practice sessions.

If, on the other hand, you find trike riding as easy as (cough) "riding a bike" then feel completely free to ignore all of the above. Just as I once did:

When I had my first trike back in the 70s I thought I had it completely mastered after a few trial runs around the local square. Boy, I was very sorely mistaken! Being so used to haring about town on my racing bike I set off for the reference library on my trike with the same degree of confidence. The reference library was on a very smart Georgian square with trees and antique iron railings. Being in a valley the entire square was tilted. The traffic ran only clockwise in two lanes.

All seemed to be going well as I careered downhill in a nice straight line as if on my bike. Until, that is, I met the first, opposite-camber, bottom corner of the square at much too high a speed! The inside wheel lifted. I corrected wildly. Hanging instinctively on for dear life but without sufficient weight overboard on the inside of the corner. I proceeded to follow a violently snaking path from the safety of the inside of the corner, to the outer kerb on the bottom of the square, on only two wheels! Luckily I managed to hop the front wheel over the low kerb and ended up entangled with the uniformed doorman! He who guarded the revolving doors at the entrance to a very smart hotel! He was remarkably polite under the circumstances and helped me to regain my mount and composure. Suitably abashed and profusely apologetic I trundled in a far more stately fashion to my destination on the uphill side of the square. Had there been any traffic I would probably not have been here to tell the tale. Terrifying and amusing, all at the same time, I shall never forget that first ride into town on my first trike!

My Longstaff tricycle conversion attached to yet another bike frame.

I never thought I'd ever find a YouTube video of an upright trike but, finally, here we are.  A video I found while endlessly searching for anything online about trikes.  It was only posted a couple of weeks ago and was apparently their first attempt with a video camera. I'd really like to see a carefully edited version of this video. Judge for yourself.  Paul, the trike rider nicely displays the skills and daring required for cornering at speed on an upright delta trike. The hill he is descending is amazing! :-)

Here's the YouTube URL for a larger version and the details:


I found the video on the blog below. He pinched my wallpaper! :-) 

http://410 Oakwood: Racing Trikes

Here is a compilation of videos by Belgian tricyclists: Just follow the links:


These includes footage of a trike race with international riders and scenes from a race track with enthusiastic tricyclists having fun.

At last! A YouTube Video of  trike racing in Belgium with an international field of riders. The course looked wet, narrow and slippery in places. Causing a couple of tangles and falls. The frustrated rider, at the very end of the race, broke his chain while almost certain of a win and fame as the Tricycle World Champion.

Clicking on the symbol (on the right below the picture) will provide a full screen view in HQ if your computer and internet connection can manage it.

And another trike racing video