Reprinted here with the kind permission of Recumbent and Tandem Rider Magazine.
The Chinkara. What a great name for a recumbent. And what a picture! The clean lines, the gleaming stainless steel frame, with full suspension, and front wheel drive. Front wheel drive? How does that work, exactly? And how does it steer? Where is the head tube? Is there a head tube? No matter, the bike looks great. And I wanted one.
In 1993 I discovered recumbents. By that I mean I had long since passed the rationalization stage and had begun the acquisition stage. I initially set my sights on one each of every combination of long-wheelbase, short-wheelbase, above seat steering and under seat steering, figuring that these four bikes would be a good representation of what was possible with recumbent bicycles. But I was also ready to make exceptions, and the exception quickly became the obsession.
I had made several pilgrimages to a Southern California recumbent landmark, PeopleMovers, where Jim Wronski encouraged me to ride everything available. I found recumbents interesting because it seemed that each one had unique characteristics. Some had good low speed handling, while others felt like they were at home, at speed, on the highway. Some recumbents were just plain fun, while others seemed to have serious limitations.
I was always looking for more information, and on one trip I took home a magazine that was published in England called Encycleopedia. Something of a buyer's guide, it presented beautiful photographs of some of the most unique bicycles and accessories available at the time. And there was a picture of the Chinkara. It was a stunning bike! I immediately called Jim. Had he seen the picture? Could he get me one? He must have known that I would buy one.
Made by Swing Cycle in the Netherlands, the design concept is of a type more commonly called a Flevobike. Flevobike Technologies, also based in the Netherlands, currently produces a velomobile but most of the previous Flevobike designs are centered around the articulated steering/front wheel drive concept, and it is on this concept that the Chinkara is based. To my eye, Swing Cycle has taken the Flevobike design to its logical conclusion, and the Chinkara appeared to me to be an elegant and sexy recumbent.
On my next visit, Jim provided me with a package of Chinkara design specifications. There were many variants, with different wheels sizes and different frame sizes, but unfortunately the information was printed in Dutch. While I wasn't able to read the literature, I did learn that a Chinkara is a type of antelope, a perfect name for a recumbent. But how was I to decide which one to buy without having seen one in the flesh? I wanted to ride one. Jim said he would see what he could do.
The Peoplemovers' End of Summer Recumbent Party and Barbeque was a popular event, providing a chance to examine both bikes and their owners, to see what sort of functional accessories had been added and what type of modifications had been done. I arrived a bit late, and as I was looking over the assembled group, there it was! The Chinkara in real life, leaning against the building and folded at a funny angle so that it looked like it had been in an accident. I asked Jim if it was available to ride. He gave me a look and said I was welcome to try, but would I please sign a waiver first.
As can be seen in the pictures, the Chinkara is fully suspended, with elastomeric springs front and rear. On closer examination, I found the stainless steel frame construction to be both striking and interesting, with the so-called front fork and rear fork structures incorporating the same stays, the same elastomeric spring, and the same geometry. The steering axis seemed to be at about 45 degrees, and oriented along the spine of the rider. The 26 inch wheels were built with Rigida rims, and the bike sported fenders front and rear. The Shimano 105 crank had a single chainring driving a Sachs 2x7 hub. Front brakes were Magura hydraulic, and the rear brake was a Sachs drum. The white hard-shell seat supported a thin foam pad, was finished with black trim, and there was even a headlight and taillight!
No one who was present that day would consent to demonstrating the machine, but several people volunteered that they had seen a rider earlier in the day who displayed extended no-hands riding! I couldn't believe it. I didn't think it was possible to ride a recumbent without hands. At least my experience to that point hadn't convinced me that it was possible.
So I spent half the day trying to learn to ride it. It certainly exhibited some strange behaviors. To begin with, it just would not stay upright. The front half wants to fall over, and fall over fast. It isn't the kind of bike that you can push along gracefully while holding the back of the seat. In fact, holding the back of the seat is a sure way to let the front half fall over and of course, that happens rather quickly. And to make matters worse, just like more conventional underseat-steering recumbents, the handlebars are a little low to be comfortably used to direct the bike when standing to the side. But in the case of the Chinkara, the handlebars don't even provide enough leverage to counteract the front half of the bike, which seems to have a mind of its own. Such behavior made it hard to handle the bike. It wouldn't stand up on its own. It seemed impossible to control, and this was before even trying to get on...
Perhaps a different description will help with the image. When first approaching an underseat-steering recumbent, the rider will usually grab the seat-back and hold the bike upright. Then the rider either steps over the front frame or throws a leg over the boom, quickly changes the grip to the handlebars, applies the brakes, and finally is able to sit. It certainly sounds easy, and anyone who rides a recumbent will know the drill. But the Chinkara just doesn't behave like a conventional recumbent. Hold the seatback, and the front falls over immediately. Grab for the handlebars with your free hand, and you may be able to slow the fall, even stop it. And if by chance the potential rider discovers that he or she can keep the bike upright by holding the frame tube instead of the handlebars, the bike becomes a bit better behaved.
Of course, once having mastered the act of holding on to the bike, actually getting aboard proved somewhat more difficult, even embarrassing sometimes. Successfully straddling the bike required a gymnastic move worthy of the Olympics. With both hands now occupied, try to put a leg over the bike. Having trouble? It is like a game of Twister - right foot, yellow. There was just no way to swing a leg over the front without letting go of the thing. As the leg went over, the bike would begin to fall, sometimes in the same direction as the leg was moving, requiring a quickly improvised dismounting maneuver without ever having mounted. Images of the Jaws of Life being required to extract the rider from what was soon to be wreckage loomed large. It seemed impossible to get anywhere with this machine.
Eventually, a workable procedure evolved. It begins with a carefully timed leg lift, coupled with a quick release of the hand holding the boom. Then as the leg is going over, immediately grab hold of the boom again before it is out of reach. And all this is performed while holding the seatback with the other hand. I have since learned that this is sometimes better practiced in private, as it can seem quite funny to observers.
SHALL WE RIDE?
The initial startup quickly becomes a choice between commitment and panic. Trying to put a foot on the pedal? Be ready for the front to fall over. The potential rider soon learns to tense up every muscle, trying to keep the body rigid so the bike doesn't fold. Even this didn't seem to help much, but I was ready to try to roll.
I immediately discovered an interesting thing about the Chinkara. After rolling a few short feet and trying to keep the bike upright, a panic application of the brakes resulted in a quick launch forward, leaving me standing, and holding the bike with its tail in the air. Like one of those springloaded easy chairs for people that can't raise themselves up, the Chinkara pushes the rider out of it, while performing half of an endo. This isn't too much of a problem in practice, as you are quickly dropping your feet while the bike comes to a stop, but it happened so suddenly the first time and took me by complete surprise. Eventually this feature came in very handy while learning, and in fact came to feel almost natural. Perhaps it only seemed natural after performing the maneuver so many times, but whenever events began to get out of control a panic stop was preferable to the alternative, a call for the Jaws of Life. And controlled riding still seemed impossible.
About 3 hours later, I was managing to ride a rather convoluted course around the parking lot, as the front of the bike would fall from side to side, and I struggled with the handlebars and my body to keep the machine upright. I found I had better results when I was able to let the bike do its own thing rather than trying too hard to resist, but I was far from being in control. And it could be said that I was riding it. Starting continued to be a challenge, although I could usually keep the bike upright by using the extreme muscle tension technique through the initial roll. The bike seemed to have a particular speed where the input required of the rider was manageable, and a certain frequency of oscillation that was somewhat predictable. As for riding without hands? This definitely wasn't going to happen anytime soon!
But I was hooked. I bought it. I took it home. I tried to put it into regular service. What type of regular service wasn't immediately obvious. I mounted a Carradice Saddlebag behind the seat. I fixed the lighting system, and although the headlight looks great mounted in the boom, in practice the lamp doesn't put the light in the right place for night riding. I mounted a speedometer, but couldn't bring myself to push any speed limits. I thought that riding regularly would help in learning the bike's idiosyncrasies. I used the bike to run errands, to go out to eat, and to visit friends. Several hundred miles later, it has become a little easier to ride, but it still requires a fair amount of effort to keep upright.
Should a bicycle require such an extensive training period? Almost all of us learned to ride as kids, and most people can jump on a recumbent and ride without too much trouble. I have read that the Flevobike front drive concept can be easily mastered, but in the case of the Chinkara it seems that it will be a while longer before I can ride it without hands. I have since seen it done though, and was very impressed!! I suspect that for most people, learning to ride a bike like the Chinkara is somewhat improbable. For some, perhaps impossible. But it can be done! And I am left wondering how long it will take?
Is the front wheel drive system the holy grail of recumbent design? There have been several front wheel drive recumbent designs that were based on a more conventional geometry, with a headtube and a steerable front fork. And while the front wheel drive concept is interesting from a technical perspective and may have some merit in practice, I am not sure that the Chinkara represents a step forward for recumbent design. Calling it a creative breakthrough may be more appropriate, as it does demonstrate what is possible in steering geometry. But I think that the Chinkara, and by association the Flevobike front drive concept, probably isn't a very good choice of bike for novice riders, barring any significant design refinements that may have taken place. Flevobike fans are an enthusiastic bunch though, and there is a fan site. At the same time I suspect that even veteran recumbent riders can still look forward to an intense learning experience with such a design. And for most of us, isn't that part of the fun?
last updated 10 Aug, 2012