Change of plans

It’s been a few weeks since I last gave any updates, but spring is upon us here in Germany which means that time is moving fast. Over the past few weeks I’ve gotten a lot accomplished in preparation for June and now I have only 6 weeks until I will leave. I recently carried out my first overnight test of the camping gear which I’ll detail below. I have completed most of the maintenance on my list and I also continue to receive some generous donations from friends and family. This comes as world events have unfortunately forced a substantial change to the overall route.

This is only a test

Cycle camping on the Rhine River south of Cologne, Germany

Once I had received my one-man tent, camping mattress and finished the rear cassette swap, I was excited to try out the gear on a longer trip. I packed the velo on a Friday after work and left the house around 7am Saturday morning in late March for a ride out to the German city of Bonn. I was hoping that their famous “Altstadt” cherry blossom street would be already in bloom, but sadly I was a week or so too early! I rode through streets lined with bemused tourists who were photographing the flower buds and then almost falling over when they saw the Quest. The cobblestone streets were very uncomfortable with my new tires, so I made my way down to the river and followed the the Rhine north to “Camping Berger” and got things setup for the night. A one-man tent is quite a compromise, especially when you are 6′ 3″ tall (1.9 meters). Other than freezing my way through half of the night, things went very well. Even though my trip will be in June and July, Iceland’s weather is notoriously unpredictable, so I have a set of thermal underwear, hat and gloves set aside just in case sleeping up there becomes a challenge.

The pile of gear grows larger and larger

Repairs and technical challenges

With over 9,500 kms ridden in 2 years, the Quest has proven to be very reliable overall. Besides a single flat front tire and some derailleur issues, I have had only one serious recurring problem which has been the front wheel spokes. Over the course of 2 years I have broken 8 spokes between the two front wheels. I had gotten used to replacing these with spares made at a local bike shop, but this problem caused me concern. With the Quest loaded with 20 kg of additional weight, it seemed that this problem would only get worse. While on the journey to Cologne to test out my camping gear I was thinking about this problem and when I arrived at the campsite I found that I broke another spoke! I decided that it was best to get both wheels completely rebuilt by a bike shop using new heavier gauge spokes.

Removing the front wheels from the Quest in preperation for re-spoking

Removing the wheels from the Quest is a 2-3 hour affair of disconnecting 6 tie-rods, 2 brake cables and a speed sensor. I had done this work a few months ago when I serviced the brakes, so it was very familiar. When I took the two 20″ wheels to the local bike shop in The Netherlands, the technician noted that the old spokes were exceedingly tight which was the reason that they were failing. As many things go, this was my own fault having continually tightened the spokes over the past 2 years, never realizing that I was causing the breakage! So, out with the old 15-gauge spokes and in with a brand-new 13-gauge set. I also took the opportunity to replace the worn tires with new Continental Contact Speeds. This is a very fast and light tire with average durability. I am torn between which tire to use for the trip. Fast, light & low-resistance, or heavier, slower and bulletproof? I have had very good results with Marathon Supreme tires but they weigh about 6x what the Contact Speeds do! I will run these tires for a few weeks and then decide.

The recent gearing changes were a success during the 15-degree climb to the highest point in Vaals, Netherlands
The front derailleur after modifications made to prevent interference

I have also spent the past week trying to solve a long-running problem with my front derailleur. Because the Quest uses a very large gear-range for high speed and steep climbing ability, the front derailleur has to cope with a very large 53-tooth chainring and a fairly small 30-tooth one. I continued to have issues of the chain falling off the large gear and wrapping around the pedal cranks. I have made a recent modification to the derailleur arm by removing some offending material which should allow better clearance and hopefully a smoother shifting experience. This one issue has really caused some heartburn lately and I am keen to solve it once and for all.

New Directions

After spending a full week reviewing the planned route kilometer by kilometer and finding suitable campsites along the way, I finally finished the entire path up through Denmark and across Iceland. After finding campground accommodation all the way up through Germany and Denmark, I made my reservation on the Smyrill Line ferry from Hirtshals, Denmark. This will depart on 2 July so I plan to arrive in the area 2 days prior. At this point, I thought it prudent to check in with Jonar Transport, the freight forwarder in Reykjavik, Iceland whom will crate and ship my Quest onward. I got a quick reply that was sadly not good news. I found out that because of the ongoing worldwide 737 Max 8/9 grounding relating to the tragic recent crashes, as well as the collapse of WOW Airlines, the shipping company could no longer offer a direct route to Halifax from Iceland. If I insisted on this routing, I would have to pay to fly the Quest to JFK, then have it trucked backwards (internationally) to Halifax! Obviously this was not going to be cheap and it would also eat up more time.

So I have made the choice to now ship the bike direct to JFK from Iceland. This will cut approximately 1,500 kms off the trip, but will save about $1,500 in costs. I will still get to cross Iceland which will be the high point of the trip, and get to still cross NYC and then down the Jersey coastline to eventually cross the Delaware River to my home state. It is a regrettable compromise which I am willing to accept. This will cut the trip down to 2,300 kms (1,420 miles). Honestly, I do miss my wife and family and will be very happy to reach them by mid-July!

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Commitment!

The past few weeks have been very busy leaving me very little time for any velomobile trip planning, and absolutely no time for actual velomobile riding. After participating in a month-long overseas deployment, then going back on the road for another week-long trip and then flying back to the USA to visit my family and our new home…there’s been a lot of competing priorities! The trip has still been in the back of my mind and I’ve begun to build a mental list of modifications to the Quest which will need to be completed before I leave in late June 2019. Adding to this list is a small amount of equipment I will need to buy for the trip. It seems that traveling with the velomobile should prevent me from overpacking! Storage space will be a concern which I will cover later.

The first big upgrade I need to make the the Quest is to improve the bike’s climbing abilities. A recumbent bicycle has a distinct disadvantage of not allowing the rider to put his or her entire body weight on the pedals as you climb a hill. A velomobile deals with this problem with low gearing and the inherent stability of 3 wheels. On a very steep incline, the Quest may only be moving 3-4 kilometers per hour.

Velomobiles are built for the flats and this is where they shine, but I will need mine to climb some very large hills while also carrying about 15kg of additional gear in the bike. The solution is a lower gear ratio. At the recommendation of Theo from Velomobiel.nl, I chose to replace my rear cassette with a much larger 36-tooth version which is the largest sprocket possible that won’t cause interference on the Quest’s body shell. I replaced the chain at the same time even though the old chain was not near it’s wear-limits. I will clean the old parts in an ultrasonic cleaner and keep for future use.

The replacement 11-36 cassette and the original 11-28 version

This was the first time I removed the rear wheel since I bought the velomobile in July 2017. I was initially a little intimidated, but it was a pretty straightforward process after watching the video of Youtube presenter Saukki from Finland who has an identical bike to mine (same color too!). I can’t say enough about his channel. If you are curious about velomobiles (especially the Quest) take a look. The production quality of his videos is quite good.

Saukki showing how it’s done

Thankfully, Velomobiel.nl delivers all velomobiles that they sell with the necessary tools to remove the rear wheel. While I have over 9,000 kms on my bike and I never needed to remove the wheel, I think it will be a good idea to bring these tools along on my trip just in case. Finishing these upgrades now with a few months left before I leave will hopefully work out any bugs or issues I’ll face with the new parts. As part of my preparation, I will work up to 400 kms per week of cycling and I will increase the weight of the bike gradually over the next few weeks to mimic the weight during the trip. With the new cassette installed and the new chain fitted, I went for a 40-km evening ride to test everything out. There aren’t any large hills near my home, but I have plans to use a large 12% grade hill in Valkenburg, Netherlands to train on.

Using the axle puller tool to remove the axle from the swingarm

Storage

Truthfully, a completely unsupported trip of this distance is quite a challenge. The amount of gear I need to bring along is substantial. Tent, sleeping bag, clothes, shoes, food, cooking items, tools, parts, batteries, water, tire pump, shock pump, spare tires, spare tubes, chain parts, extra cables, bike lock, rain cover, passport & wallet…the list goes on and on. Most people embarking on a long-distance bike trip are going in groups and with upright bikes which may end up having greater storage options because of rear and front fork-mounted baggage. I will need to carry everything inside the carbon walls of the Quest. Unlike an upright bike, I can’t strap on another bag to increase my carrying ability without seriously impacting the aerodynamics. I have to therefore be very deliberate and thoughtful about what I bring along. Volume is my primary concern with weight being a secondary factor. Many smaller bags and pouches will be preferred over large bags.

Looking into the tail of the Quest with the seat removed. The Risse gas/oil shock and suspension swing arm take up a fair amount of room on the right side of the wheel well
Seat removed looking directly down into the cabin. On the left are the 2 front wheel-wells. Behind my headrest there is another small open space above the rear wheel approx 10cm wide and 35 cm long.
View looking forward with the 2 front wheel wells and steering tiller in view

Surely, not a lot of room to work with. While I am able to store many small items in the tail cone, behind the seat and under my elbows, there is also a good amount of wasted space in the front of the shell near my feet. Forward of the wheel wells there is room to mount some type of bags or storage on either side of where my legs are. With some small brackets I could make this space more useful. I have begun to search the house for any small zipper bags I can scrounge up.

I plan to construct some type of storage to mount in front of the wheel wells

I will also need a way to cover the manhole opening when I’m not riding to keep out the rain and dissuade sticky fingers while I am grocery shopping. Security and safety is a concern and I already have set aside a folding segmented lock which I will bring along.

And that commitment…

The bulk of my household goods are scheduled to be picked up in 5 days to be shipped to the USA…and the velomobile is not going. After that day, there is absolutely no backing out. The excitement of the trip is now met with equal anxiety of the unknown. If I said I wasn’t scared I’d be lying. In times of uncertainty and doubt I try and remember quotes like the following:

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ~Mark Twain

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Dreams

After almost 22 years of service, in June 2019 I will leave the military. Career transitions such as this seemingly always invite stress, worry, and anxiety over what the next steps will be or should be. The US military does a good job to give us the tools to help with this preparation, which can begin more than 1 year before retirement but what comes after is a very personal choice. Many veterans chose to follow a track aimed at moving into a similar career field which they worked in during their military service, which is where I fall into.

Before starting my new career it’s possible (and preferable for me) to take a short sabbatical. The counselors in the military call this the “sit on the porch” plan possibly in an effort to dissuade us on the idea. I tend to agree for the most part; I don’t think it’s healthy for humans not to have a daily routine which brings a feeling of accomplishment. Now some vets will decide after retirement or separation to switch roles with their spouse and become the homemaker, taking care of children, house, etc. and I’m certainly not discounting that as a bad idea. Whatever you decide to do, whether it be at home or for a new company, your work should be rewarding and I think studies have shown that working keeps us healthy as long as it’s toward something we enjoy.

But a sabbatical? The idea looked great on paper, but my thoughts inevitably shifted back to what my contemporaries were doing….was this really the right decision? Shouldn’t I be scrambling to get a new job lined up to start on the following Monday after leaving the military? After all, I’m in my 40’s, not 60’s. Not really retirement age yet. I won’t delve too deep into the philosophies of working to live or living to work…but I’m afraid that in America we are largely aligned with the latter, whether we admit it or not.

Without question, my biggest supporter of the sabbatical plan has been my wife. For countless nights at the dinner table she has become the unwitting sounding board for some of my elaborate ideas. When Elon Mush announced in 2017 that people would soon be able to buy a ticket to Mars for the cost of a typical American house, I brought up the idea over a spaghetti dinner…and she was not impressed! I think that this is because women inherently have an innate security gland which us men do not. She helps keep me grounded and realistic about our life plans while still entertaining (almost) all possibilities. As humans we are probably programmed this way…a healthy marriage needs the optimist and the pessimist. Without the pessimist, the boat would sink…but without the optimist, the boat would never leave the dock.

I have heard similar ideas voiced by friends over the years, detailing plans to do something big…take an around-the-world vacation, hike the Appalachian Trail, dive the Great Barrier Reef…but for some reason they had not acted on it. Perhaps because of fear, because of societal or financial pressures, for whatever reason, they had not been carried out. I thought of my boyhood and times spent wandering those forests looking for those tadpoles. Would I ever again have the chance to do something like this? Our own mortality never dawns upon us when we are young, but it is painfully clear to me how fast our lives go by. I have lost friends to cancer, car accidents, and many other ways all before they were out of their 30’s. What decision will I regret when I’m an old man? The answer was obvious.

The 3,400 km problem

Ride to the USA. Simple right? Living in Western Europe on-and-off for the better part of 20 years, I have become accustomed to efficient and readily-available transportation options. Here in Germany and The Netherlands, whether it’s trains, boats, bike paths or buses…no matter where you want to go, there’s a way to get there. Riding a recumbent bike does bring its fair share of logistical difficulties, although I’ve successfully traveled with my old trike onboard Deutsche Bahn trains numerous times. Moving a velomobile is a different animal, and when anyone thinks of a cycle trip from Europe to the USA, the most difficult barrier is also the most obvious. How would I cross the Atlantic?

Each time I asked the question on blogs or online forums I would get bombarded with ridiculous suggestions like “bring some oars”. This was obviously a waste of time. What do we already know? I can cycle up through Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark to the Danish port of Hirtshals. This will account for between 950 and 1300 km of relatively flat riding depending on my route. A ferry runs twice per week from Hirtshals to the Faroe Islands and then on to the Icelandic port of Seyðisfjörður on the east side of Iceland. The ferry takes 48 hours and allows bikes, cars and motorcycles.

Once on Iceland, I would be treated to a glorious 670 km cycling trip along the incredible southern coast of Iceland. This could easily be the greatest scenery of any bike trip I have ever taken as well as undoubtedly the most difficult physically. Over the 670 km (416 mi) of riding, I will have to contend with over 4,650 meters (15,308 feet) of climbing. Most of this climbing will be in the first few days as I climb out of the Seyðisfjörður fjord and cross the Axarvegur road to the south. An equally steep section sits west of the town of Vík í Mýrdal, and finally, a large climb of over 300 meters spread over 25km awaits before I’ll begin to come into Rejkjavik. A mechanical breakdown with the velomobile in Iceland will be a big problem because of the vast distances and lack of any repair capability. This subject deserves a thorough discussion, so mechanical preparation and maintenance while underway will be discussed later.

Once across to the western side of Iceland, I will reach a dead-end in Reykjavik. There are no ferries with service between Iceland and North America and the distance between these bodies is over 3,400 km (2,100 mi). What about the airlines? Checking the velo as oversized luggage shouldn’t be impossible. Then I remembered that the Quest is 2.85 meters or over 9 feet long! I e-mailed Icelandic Airlines. While they seemed intrigued by my choice of transportation, they were not much help. Stuffing a large velomobile into their cargo hold during the busy summer tourist season just wasn’t an option for them.

How about cruise lines? I checked with Cunard Lines, the operator of the QE2, but they were having none of it. Some suggested traveling on a cargo freighter, which seems possible if not very complicated, slow and not very cheap. The initial idea was to remain on the surface for the entire trip and not “cheat” with an aircraft…but compromises might have to be made. I finally found a freight forwarder in Rejkjavik (Jonar Transport) who offered the means to pack and ship the bike via air to Halifax, Nova Scotia, but it also was not cheap. This shipment would eat up almost 30% of the budget for the entire trip. I’ll continue to research other shippers, but I do need to start a realistic look at the budget.

Once the bike is on its way to Nova Scotia, I will fly to Halifax and pick up the bike. Hopefully the Canadians there are as friendly as their reputation precedes. From there it is a 350 km ride to the port of Yarmouth in the south with about 1,800 meters of climbing. I plan to split this up over 5 or 6 days for an easy 60-70 km per day. From Yarmouth it is one more long-ish high-speed ferry to Portland, Maine…and finally back in the continental USA.

It could really work.

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What’s a Velomobile and why do I have it?

I have always loved adventure. Whether as a kid hiking through the forests looking for tadpoles, building tree-forts on islands in the center of local creeks, or as an adult reading long-distance sailing lore of Bernard Moitessier…I have always had an insatiable urge to explore. I think it’s something that we all have buried within, something left over from past generations when we were hunters and gatherers always on the move, looking for our next dinner and our next homestead. At some time, we all probably find ourselves dreaming of how we would someday cast off the lines and sail away from the drudgery and responsibilities of life. Gone with the job, the bills, the expectations to fall in line with society…just go somewhere.

It is this feeling that initially led me to start cycling. I found on a bicycle that the world moved by at a more reasonable pace. On a bicycle you are more connected with nature, without a layer of glass and metal to separate you from the noise, the smells and the sights of the outside world. Traveling on a bicycle, even for a short jaunt of 20 or 30 kilometers, I felt the sense of adventure I remembered as a kid. What’s around that corner? Over that hill? In that village or town? I did not gravitate to cycling simply for the exercise, although that has been a wonderful side effect. I started cycling because it allowed me to explore and be in awe of nature. Gradually the distances grew longer and longer.

With chronic lower-back pain, I quickly found that upright bicycles weren’t for me. I remembered some years ago when a colleague had let me pedal his weird-looking recumbent bike around the parking lot a few times. Not wasting any time, I went hunting for some broken and rusted bike frames from the recycling center. Some internet searches and a few weeks with a borrowed MIG-welder and I had built a Long-EZ clone with a 700-sized rear wheel and 20″ front wheel. This was my first foray into recumbent bikes and I quickly fell in love with the comfort that they offered. With a laid-back posture and feet forward design, the recumbent bike opened up a whole new world of pain-free cycling. Now when I thought about a bike ride, I was not limited to the distances my rear-end could withstand as on my old upright bicycle. I rode this bike for 6 years and even commuted with it through an entire cold German winter.

My son Issac putting the “Long-EZ” clone through its paces in Alaska

Because of the “tiller-like” steering geometry of my DIY bike and the height of a clipped-in foot being 50 cm off the ground, the long-wheelbase 2-wheeled recumbent was quite a challenge on the Dutch and German cycle paths near my home. Also, pedaling a 2-wheeled recumbent up hills can be a dicey affair…and I crashed a lot! So in the spring of 2016, I began to look for a 3-wheeled tadpole trike which would retain the comfort of a recumbent without the danger of falling over. I settled on a used 2005-ish Steintrikes Mongoose which, at the time, seemed to be the ultimate machine. The trike allowed even longer distances to be covered and with the added benefit of carrying more luggage. The low center of gravity of the trike enabled fast cornering and allowed climbing steep hills without the danger of falling over. With a German-made 14-speed Rohloff internally-geared-hub in the rear, virtually any hill was no problem for the trike. In a recumbent, the inherent inability to put your entire body weight onto the pedals (as it the norm for upright cycles) is made up with very low gearing and spinning. The trike was an older design, but for a while, it was a great experience. I continued to commute with the bike on a daily basis. And then the winter came.

The trike was heavy. With temperatures below freezing for weeks on end, I had to dress out in multiple layers of clothing for my commute all the while carrying a military uniform, lunch, etc. I was sort of miserable. I tried to compensate for the shortcomings of the trike by adding a very expensive e-bike kit…and then it rained. Riding the trike lost its luster through the winter. I was ready to stop cycling until the spring. There had to be a way to commute by bicycle while staying dry, warm and comfortable. Enter the velomobile.

The Velomobile

On a bicycle, once you are moving faster than 20 km/h, 90% of the energy is spent pushing the air out of the way with only 10% accounting for the rolling resistance of the tires. If you can eliminate a large portion of the air resistance, a human is capable of vastly higher speeds on pedal-power alone. A velomobile is such a machine. Velomobiles are bikes (normally a 3-wheeler) which retain all of the primary components of a recumbent bicycle (chain, gears, brakes, steering) but has been cocooned inside of a fairing or shell of some material. The idea is at least 100 years old with the French first building bicycles with fairings to reduce air resistance felt by the rider. In the early ’90s the Dutch company Flevobike began producing kits out of aluminum for a velomobile model called the “Alleweder” meaning “all weather”. Models of this bike are still being home-built to this day.

Presently, about a dozen companies worldwide are producing velomobiles of various designs made from fiberglass, plastic, and carbon-fiber materials. Most of these manufacturers are based in The Netherlands, France and Germany. In 2016, I attended the world’s largest recumbent bicycle show in Germersheim, Germany. There I was able to not only see but actually, ride many different velomobile designs. Velomobiles are all hand-made and must be fitted and adjusted for each rider with special care being taken that the feet, knees or shoulders do not contact the shell while riding. Being 1.87 meters (6′ 3″) tall, climbing into each model gave me this piece of mind.

Many so-called “Velonauts” rode their velomobiles to the 2017 recumbent show in Germersheim, Germany. Front to back is parked: yellow and white Milan SL, red/blue DF, silver & green Alleweders, red Quest, yellow Quest.

After riding many models, I settled on a Carbon Quest 3-wheeled velomobile. This model has full suspension on all 3 wheels, two 20″ front wheels, a 26″ rear wheel, a 3×10 mountain bike gearing layout and a sleek teardrop shape. The velomobile is from the Dutch manufacturer Velomobiel.nl who are based out of Dronten, Netherlands. Buying a velomobile takes patience, and after a few emails I was in for a long 4-month wait while my bike was being built at their factory in Romania.

On 22 July, 2017 my lovely wife drove me up to Dronten to pick up Carbon Quest #818. I would be cycling the 260 kilometers (162 miles) back home over the course of two days.

The video tells part of the story (I had no camera mount yet) but in the end, it was a good shakedown trip which we did over 2 days stopping in Nijmegen, NL for the night. The ride totaled more like 285 kms which I cycled over about 9 hours. The first ride was not a speed-run. The goal was to learn how the bike behaved and not hit anything!

The speed in the velomobile is hard to describe. Recumbents are naturally faster than upright bicycles but this was something else completely. Pedal up to 35-40 km/h and coast for the good part of a kilometer, cycle at 35-45 km/h while bringing all of your gear with you with no worry of drag-inducing baggage hanging all over the bike, ride to and from work year-round in complete comfort…it was and still is incredible. The benefits of the velomobile soon began to shine. Within the first 3 months of riding, I lost 10 kg (22 lbs) while building leg muscles I never had before. I was now able to cycle in the rain, snow, cold, heat, wind, with relative comfort while getting in 2 workouts per day. In my profession of a military servicemember for the United States Air Force, this is important. Near the end of the summer of 2017 I sold the Mongoose 3-wheeled trike. It was sitting unused after being completely beaten in every regard by the Quest.

In the first year of riding the Quest I totaled 7,386 kms (4,589 miles) which was more than I drove in my car that year.

One aspect of the Quest that I never considered before purchasing it is all of the people who I have met while out riding it. If you don’t like talking to people I would not recommend owning one. Every place I take it I get inquiries, stares, laughs, questions, thumbs up, and mostly smiles. “More smiles per mile than Disney World” as I tell my wife. Everyone has questions about it, and always the first question is “Where is the motor?”. It’s difficult for people to accept that there is no motor when the bike goes past them at 40-60 km/h. I imagine that I have been photographed at least 10,000 times. This is what makes it special and why each and every day I get into this machine I still feel the excitement of the speed the velo allows which keeps me coming back.

The “Quest” to ride to the USA…

On a ride down the Mosel River Valley in 2017, I once met a Spanish husband and wife who were cycling from their home country to Sweden. And just like that, the idea first took hold.

Why not cycle from Europe to the USA? Of course, there would be some gaps where I would have to use ferries (and perhaps a plane) to cross the Atlantic, but could a normal guy like me really do this?

Once imagined, the idea persisted.

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