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.

Support my journey!

https://www.gofundme.com/military-veteran039s-bid-to-cycle-across-the-world?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=fb_co_campmgmt_w&fbclid=IwAR1-L46IbIlRYbxBgAaGkwrWOqK4uOIUQv1Ao_vb9LWnPG1QXP001q_s0Nk

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