A Different Point of View

by Dave Ductor

Reprinted here with the kind permission of Recumbent and Tandem Rider Magazine


 

My mom, Carmene Ductor, was a long-time cyclist, but by 1997 her age began to limit her riding. And when the problems that come with age begin to limit your recreation opportunities, then life can become boring, even depressing. This was as unacceptable to me as it was to my mom and I wondered what sort of cycle, if any, would meet mom's needs. A tricycle may have been acceptable, but mom's range would have been very low. A tandem bike would provide the means to achieve a reasonable range, but most conventional tandems have what I would consider a typical drivetrain, with a crossover drive system enforcing matched pedaling cadence, and I was sure that mom wouldn't want to pedal as much as me nor at the same cadence. And why would mom want to ride behind me? My research led me to the Bilenky Viewpoint.

The Viewpoint is a semi-recumbent tandem bicycle manufactured by Bilenky Cycle Works. Steve Bilenky and his team build several models of conventional tandems, single bikes, cargo and travel bikes, but the Viewpoint has to be the most interesting and unique tandem available today. While exotic materials, such as carbon composites, titanium, and Kevlar, have been applied to bicycle frames and components in what seems to be a never-ending quest for lighter weight and faster riding, the Viewpoint may seem somewhat conventional, or even retro, for not taking advantage of the latest in materials technology. But the Viewpoint is an excellent example of that most valuable human ability, creative thinking.

I am sure many tandem riders have asked themselves, "Why can't the stoker be in front?" And maybe the most asked question has been, "Why can't the stoker have a better view?" The Viewpoint answers these questions in a brilliant package, one that opens up new possibilities. With the Viewpoint, the stoker rides a recumbent, and has the pleasure of the front seat. The Captain is in the rear in the typical upright position. Both riders have a clear view of the surroundings, and can communicate easily.

But there is much more to this bike than is obvious from first appearances. The Viewpoint can be ordered with various options, and one very useful option is the semi-independent drivetrain. This feature places a 7-speed freewheel in the drivetrain, between the Stoker and the Captain, and allows the stoker to pick a different cadence than the Captain, and also allows the stoker to coast. Freed of the requirement to pedal at the same time as the Captain, or at the same cadence, the Stoker can contribute as much or as little as desired. Rest stops for the Stoker no longer have to be stops, as the Stoker can stop pedaling and relax, have a drink, snack, or take photos while the Captain can keep the bike moving.

Stokers with less endurance are easily accommodated, as are Stokers who wish to contribute more than the Captain. On the downside, the semi-independent drivetrain requires the Captain to pedal when the Stoker is pedaling. And all such options can add some weight and a little more complexity to an otherwise simple and elegant design, but the strength of this design is that such options are easily accommodated. Also, the frame is not as stiff as today's conventional tandem frames, because the front cranks are at the end of a long boom, and the boom can flex much like some recumbent frames when pushed hard. But this bike was the answer I had been searching for. One look at this machine, and it seemed such an obvious solution.

WHAT WAS IT LIKE?
The first time out on a new bike is always a little exciting, approached with some apprehension, and maybe a little trepidation. With the Viewpoint as with more conventional tandems, the first ride usually has the Captain going solo, in order to become familiar with the handling characteristics. A leg over the saddle and the bike starts to roll. First impression? What a long snout! Second impression? This is something entirely different! Like riding a conventional tandem and captaining from the rear, but that is not something most captains would try as experienced adults. I remember an attempt to perform such a feat as a kid and the ending was not pleasant. But this was very pleasant, and comfortable. The Captain's riding position on the Viewpoint is upright and conventional, and the controls are also conventional.

From the Captain's point of view, the stoker cranks appear to be very far away, and the front boom has a way of attracting the captain's attention, because it is in the field of view. This is a bike for jousting!! But after running up and down through the gears, and accomplishing some surprisingly short radius turns, one of the initial impressions is that this is a bike that handles very easily. How would it handle with a Stoker? Just like the process used on most conventional tandem bikes, the Captain maintains control of the bike while the stoker assumes the riding position. The Captain has both feet on the ground and brakes applied. Nothing different there. What is different is that the Captain can now see the process. This is where Captains should be cautious of comments. But once the Stoker is ready, it is time to ride.

What does it feel like? Remember as a kid when you gave someone a ride on your handlebars? The Viewpoint feels a little like someone is riding on your handlebars. With a Stoker on-board, the front of the bike is heavy, as a majority of the weight on the bike is supported by the front wheel. But because of the short wheelbase and the steering geometry, the steering feels surprisingly light, and the bike is very maneuverable. Take-off and initial low speeds can be a challenge on a conventional tandem, but it is very easy on the Viewpoint. Have you ever tried to use that low gear on a conventional tandem, and found it difficult to maintain the bike in an upright position? The Viewpoint can crawl at 2mph, and track a straight line, whether the Stoker provides input or not. High speeds are rock solid, but the Stoker may demand a speed limit, at least until the Stoker can develop a certain level of trust in the Captain's abilities.

What about communication? The Captain should still announce upcoming changes, but doesn't have to use a loud voice, or direct comments to the rear of the bike. The Stoker can actually point out things of interest and the Captain can visibly see what is being referred to. The only weakness here is that the Captain must display extra concern for stoker comfort, because those quick turns, hard bumps, or any unannounced direction changes can make the stoker feel very uncomfortable. It is sort of like the difference between riding in the back of the bus and not having to pay attention to the trip, or sitting in the front seat and getting a firsthand look at someone else's driving abilities. It might not be pretty.

Other observations? The captain is in charge of all of the goodies, because they are usually out of reach of the stoker. Not so bad. The Stoker can hold the map in such a way that the Captain can see it. That isn't so bad, either! But the stoker can get chilled easily, depending on the weather, and their effort and ability. Not so good. A fairing can be installed, but warm clothes can also help. The ride in the front seat can be a little rough, because the Stoker is directly on top of the front wheel. Good captaining skills are a help here, by being able to miss those pesky potholes, and uneven sections of pavement. But the bike's outstanding handling characteristics make this an easy job for the Captain. Remember though, having the stoker in front effectively blocks the Captain's view of the road directly ahead of the front wheel, so some extra level of attention is required of the Captain.

 

THE ORIGINAL CONFIGURATION
The bike was originally set up with a 7-speed 13-32 freewheel, a 30-42-52 triple chainring, Shimano thumbshifters mounted above the handlebars, Ritchey Logic Brake levers and cantilever brakes. The Captain's handlebars are typical straight bars with long bar-ends mounted slightly inboard of their usual placement, allowing for a very comfortable hand position while riding. With the brake levers mounted on the bar-ends, the brakes were placed exactly were I wanted them, as no grip change was required to reach the brake levers. But the thumbshifters were very hard to use with this hand position. I had to move my hand and change my grip every time I wanted shift, and I found that somewhat uncomfortable. So my first upgrade to the bike was a new rear wheel with a 7-speed cassette, a 13-34, and a pair of Shimano Rapidfire brake/shift levers mounted on the bar-ends.

The comfortable hand /brake lever position was retained, but now the shifting was at my fingertips. It was a great improvement, and the new components in the drivetrain now provided a slightly lower low gear. After many miles, I began to think about the chainrings. The bike is not the fastest tandem on the road, and probably never will be, and the 52-tooth chainring combination was all but unusable for us. The gearing at the low end needed more of a selection, and I replaced the chainrings with a 26-39-50 combination. This combination provided a large selection of gears in the mid-range, and ended with a 26-34 low gear that allowed us to crawl up any hill!! When I found a pair of 8-speed Rapidfire brake/shift levers, I was looking forward to an upgrade. But when I found that the selection of 8-speed cassettes available at the time did not include a 34-tooth cog, I was reluctant to carry out the change.

After reading Sheldon Brown's articles about gearing, I decided to continue with the upgrade by assembling my own cassette. I purchased two cassettes, a 7-speed with cogs of 13, 15, 17, 20, 24, 29, and 34 teeth, and an 8-speed with cogs of 11, 13, 15, 17, 20, 23, 26, and 30 teeth. I disassembled both, and being sure to use the 8-speed spacers, replaced the 23, 26 and 30 tooth cogs from the 8 speed, with the 24, 29 and 34 tooth cogs from the 7 speed, and created my own 11-34 8-speed cassette. This cassette provides the same cog selection as the former 7-speed, plus adds an additional 11-tooth cog for the occasional high speed descent! No problems have been observed and the shifting has been flawless. Unfortunately, I am not looking forward to future replacements. The disassembly of cassettes used to be possible, because cassette cogs were held together using a set of three 2x30mm bolts that could be unscrewed, but the latest cassettes that I've seen have either a spider acting as a mount for the larger cogs, or a set of rivets permanently holding everything together.

I tried different tires too. On the rear, the bike originally came with an Avocet Cross, 26x1.25, with the inverted tread design. The front was a Haro 20x2.1 slick. When it was time to replace the rear tire, I replaced the Avocet with a Richey 26x1.25 Tom Slick, and I couldn't believe that we were actually faster, a little more than .5mph on our typical 30 mile ride! This may not seem like much but for the first 1500 miles or so, we had been averaging 10 mph on our rides no matter what route, so a 10.5mph average was a significant and noticeable improvement. This was new to me. How could rubber make that much difference? I couldn't resist trying another tire to see if we could again increase our average speed. I tried a Specialized Fatboy, 26x1.1, and we went slightly faster!! Another .25mph increase in average speed. Now we were up to 10.8 mph average speed for any ride we did! This certainly wasn't a very scientific test and the results could be just perception, but we have been able to keep an average speed of 10.8 mph for the last several years.

The front tires haven't made nearly the impact that the rear tires did. Eventually the Haro gave out, and I have been using various BMX tires since, such as an Avocet 20x 1.75 Fastgrip Freestyle, and an IRC 20x1.95 Flatlander. Mom says that the smaller tires that are high pressure provide a very hard ride, and she likes the soft ride of the larger but lower pressure tires. The Flatlander has provided good service for almost 1000 miles now, but I am still looking for that elusive combination of soft ride, and low rolling resistance.

Other things have been added to the bike over the years. The first addition was a rear rack so that we could carry some groceries or anything else that would fit. The rear rack also provided a convenient place to attach one of those flashing taillights. The bike worked so well as a city errand runner that I added the front rack so more could be carried, and a pair of battery powered headlights were mounted under the front seat so that we could stay out after dark. The front rack fits under and slightly to the rear of the front seat and does not affect the handling of the bike. I installed fenders in an attempt to keep the bike cleaner. Without a front fender the front wheel throws everything, and leaves the lower frame covered with road grime, and in a wet environment puts water directly on the Captain's feet.

Other changes have been the result of repairs or updates. The rear triangle was damaged by airline baggage handlers, and while having Bilenky perform the repairs, I included some modifications, such as adding the S and S couplings. I also upgraded the Stoker seat rails to the new design which provides a place for attaching bar-ends for Stoker handgrips. I also had the front boom modified to include a short post, the type that would serve as a front derailleur mount on some recumbents. Such an addition provides a great place for mounting a headlight and a second speedometer. Moving the headlight up front was a big improvement, but the speedometer was probably not such a great idea. Now mom knows how fast we go when I shift into the highest gear and pedal as fast as I can down my favorite hill. Recently, I added the Schmidt dynohub lighting system. This system works great, and light is available at the flip of a switch on the back of the headlight. The only thing that remains to be done is a possible change to a 9-speed cassette, and a front fairing to keep mom from getting cold when the weather isn't great.

TODAY
We have traveled more than 6000 miles with this bike in the 5 years I have been keeping track, and we have had a great time. Mom is able to stay physically active, and the bike allows her to contribute to her abilities without requiring her to keep up with me. And we have been able to share things we never would have otherwise, such as the time we were crossing the Apennines in Italy. We had been climbing all day, and had made about 25 miles and gained about 3000ft. All of a sudden, an old Italian on his old road bike came up behind us, slowed abruptly, gave us a once over, and said, "Stupendio!", and disappeared around the next corner.

 

THE END
The Viewpoint, as usually configured, may not be the fastest tandem in the pack, but it will not be the slowest, either. Nor will it be the lightest weight. But it will be the center of attention!! With so many options that can be ordered and built into the Bilenky Viewpoint, this is a bike that can be tailored to fit your needs. Add the hand-crank option, and potential stokers with disabilities can enjoy cycling, while contributing to the best of their abilities independent of the Captain!! And don't forget those accessories that make the bike useful for everyday service. There is the special front pannier rack that fits under and slightly to the rear of the front seat, and a trunk/glove compartment that installs directly behind the front seat, in front of the headtube. And don't forget to order the headlight mount, for the next Paris-Brest-Paris ride.

When you need to take a break, when you need to stop and have a look at your surroundings, to gain a new perspective, you normally would pull over at a viewpoint and take in the sights. The Bilenky Viewpoint is a bicycle that allows its riders to do just that, to appreciate the view. And with Bilenky's reputation for superior workmanship and exceptionally beautiful finishes, the Viewpoint is a wonderful example of what is possible.