55km in a Leitra

dsc01212After a full day of explicating the finer points of velomobile design at the European Velomobile Seminar on Saturday, it was time to hit the road and enjoy velomobiling around Copenhagen!  My host Halfdan lives only two miles away from the Leitra factory so after a hearty European breakfast we drove over to check out our rides for the day.

While inside, I got a better look at a Leitra chassis being constructed of stainless steel and top flight components like a SON generator hub and a Rohloff.  Since each Leitra is built to order with a variety of components and options, it may be possible that Carl-Georg has never built the exact same Leitra twice.  The factory has several Leitra on hand as demos, mine was white and green with wheel fairings.  Luckily, the bottom bracket boom was of the right length for my legs though the fairing was a little higher than I’d like for good visibility.  I quickly settled in and in a few minutes our convoy started pedaling towards Copenhagen…

Over the nearly 25 years of production, the nearly 300 Leitras around the world have traveled more miles than any other velomobile.  If it’s not quite the newest and sexiest velo out there, It’s designer and builder Carl-Georg Rasmussen has constantly refined it into certainly the most practical and livable vehicle whose virtues of practicality and livability are revealed over miles and hours in the seat.

Even with just a thin cushion, the fiberglass seat was quite comfortable.  The fasteners are sited well away from any place where your body might touch them and the seat has just a little give to accommodate different body shapes.  My ride was equipped with a Sachs 3×7 drive and drum brakes up front and both felt like they had done many miles.   The brakes were not all that powerful but after a little practice, modulation became easier and it was at least possible to slow down smoothly.  The Sachs system suited the Leitra well but it happened to keep shifting past the gear I wanted to ride in most of the time.  For a while I tried to hold the gripshifter to keep it in gear but that became annoying and I just dealt with being in a gear just a little to high or a little too low.  I can imagine the Sachs would be a good choice as the internal gears ensure you won’t be caught out in too high a gear at a stop and the gears were spaced well with a range that made only one front sprocket necessary.

Steering the Leitra is by dual joysticks that fell right to my hands.  Unlike most trike steering systems, the joysticks in the Leitra don’t end up running into your leg with lots of lock;  they do go through a slight arc but after the first few actuations it feels most like a fore and aft motion.  I was surprised how tight a turning circle the Leitra could manage, even navigating around bollards at trail entrances or turning around  on sidewalks was no problem.

The Leitra handles better than I expected, after my time with a Catrike Speed I was expecting that with the Leitra’s higher center of gravity and shorter wheelbase that lifting the inside wheel in a corner and putting daylight under the rear wheel under braking would be a common occurrence, yet neither happened.  That can be explained by the far weaker braking power of the drum brakes on the Leitra but the more forgiving handling is possibly due to the slightly slower steering, soft front suspension and wider track.  That extra stability really inspired confidence that the Leitra could safely maneuver around the odd pothole, errant pet or any other obstacle that might lay in its path.

The all wheel suspension proved its worth on cobblestone surfaces as well as helping to soften the blow of riding up on low curbs (even in Copenhagen!).  The fiberglass springs don’t have quite the wheel control of a coil spring/oil damper setup but are much lighter, simpler and compact.

I half-expected the fiberglass shell to resonate to the point of irritability over the cobblestone stretches of downtown Copenhagen but it really wasn’t an issue.  More visibility would be welcome, especially to sight the front wheels while maneuvering around obstacles but it’s a delicate balance to prevent the cockpit from becoming a solar cooker;  it’s amazing how quickly sunlight and body heat make the interior warm and eventually a little too much so.  Then one realizes the reason why the small, upright windows of a Leitra make so much more sense than the fully transparent canopy used on a Go-One, for example.  For hotter climates, more flow-through air is required.  Halfdan has had great success with the front intake duct he made to channel air directly to his face and neck.  The real glass forward section of the windshield (which never fogged up, by the way) also deserves mentioning as it provides a scratch resistant surface for the manually operated windshield wiper.

Riding to Copenhagen is a very gradual downhill journey so the Leitra felt like it rolled well.  The trip home though, felt more strenuous than it should have with the Leitra not coasting well at all.  I figured it was due its general old age but once we got back to Halfdan’s house the diagnosis was simply underinflated tires.  A short trip from his house to the factory revealed a huge difference and made the velo much more enjoyable.  At least I got a good workout!

About Suhas Malghan

Inspired by the kinetic, this blog documents the design and development of environmentally sustainable machines and the overarching issue of humane design practices in general; machines that work for humanity as well on the move as they do sitting still.
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