Recumbent on the Devil’s Road.

FRANK COLVER explains how having your feet well off the ground and clear of the rattlesnakes is just one advantage of his Desert Bike recumbent. Edited by PETER ELAND.

‘El Camino del Diablo' is the Devil's Road, an old Spanish trail in Southern Arizona, a hell of loose sand and snake-infested gravel. I can say, with reasonable assurance, that mine was the first recumbent bicycle ever to ride this trail.

In the deserts of California and Arizona, a normal mountain bike is a misery, sinking in the sand, losing traction and jolting on the rocks. Such a contrast to riding a recumbent on paved bike trails - I wanted to be able to ride a recumbent in rough conditions as well. So after trying a couple of different recumbent bicycles off-road, with little success, I decided to put large knobby tyres on my Greenspeed trike and try it as an all terrain recumbent. This was better for stability, but lacked ground clearance and traction. My next effort was to design and build my own all-terrain trike with very large tyres. I later used the seven inch wide tyres on all three wheels. I built and rode two of these trikes, but by then I was ready to try a two-wheel design.

I called the new machine the ‘Desert Bike', because it was made for the rocks and sand of the Southern Deserts of the USA. But since then I've also ridden it on mountain trails and dirt roads and had huge fun. I can blast over rocks, ride over drop-offs, and descend steep grades that I'd refuse on any other type of bicycle. I have never been a ‘gonzo' mountain biker - especially not at sixty-four years of age - but this machine lets me ride places I'd be walking any other bike.

Rough terrain recumbent riding requires completely new bike handling techniques. A short seat back is essential so that I can move my upper body easily for balance, and the relatively high rider position gives more control over the bike as I shift my weight.

After years of riding more conventional bikes off-road, I still forget that I can get my feet on the ground easily and quickly when I have to. The low bottom bracket helps, and the wide tyres give me extra stability when I'm riding very slowly in difficult spots. When I first started I would ‘bail' too early. Now, I've learned to get out of a bad situation by applying sudden power to the pedals rather than slowing or putting my feet down.

The long wheelbase puts less weight on the front wheel so that it will ‘float' over sand and rock - but the wheel itself is heavy enough to stay ‘hooked up' when climbing. This is one advantage of the large, heavy ATV (All-Terrain Vehicle) tyres. I run these big tyres at 6psi for average conditions, 3psi for very soft sand (beach sand), 10psi for hard pack and 15psi for surfaced roads. I also made a set of road wheels with 20” BMX rims and high-pressure tyres, which I use for long rides on-road.

The bike is heavy, sixty pounds, and when you do fall over you have to get your foot down quickly or you can't get it underneath the centre of weight. The positive side of this is that you don't have far to fall! I have fallen several times, in difficult terrain and at slow speed, without even broken skin or bruises. I can't say the same thing for similar falls from my regular mountain bikes.

I am now building five more Desert Bikes, one of which I will keep so that I have two of them. The other four I'll sell - contact me if you're interested!. The bikes require a lot of machining, and since I am only working on them part time, it has been a long process. I have made some design changes along the way, building each new design into the original bike to ride test it.

I've also been experimenting with one of the new little (26cc) clean-running four-stroke trimmer engines for long ‘assisted human power' rides in the deserts and mountains. The results have been good, and I have been having a lot of fun riding the ‘Jeep' trails. It's quick-releasable in two minutes flat, giving me pure human power for trails which do not allow motor vehicles.

Even with the engine, I have to help by pedalling in deep sand or climbing a hill. Sometimes I am working as hard as I would be without the engine, except that I'm going faster and get to the top of the climb sooner.

I don't plan to build any more after these five because I already have other projects in mind. Wait and see!