Tuesday, May 22, 2012 - 04:41 AM
The Three Wheeled Whirlwind
We take a trip to Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park via Laid Back Bikes to try the latest, fastest trike from ICE: the Vortex 2012.
We reported on our factory visit to Inspired Cycle Engineering (ICE), the Cornwall-based trike manufacturer, back in Issue 41. They’re a bustling enterprise, producing many hundred trikes each year, largely for export through dealers in many countries. The 2012 Vortex is the latest incarnation of their ‘fast trike’ design, and it comes in two standard specifications. The trike we reviewed was a plain Vortex (base price £2792). A higher specification version, the Vortex+ (from £3905) adds a carbon fibre seat, the SRAM XX groupset, hydraulic brakes and Schwalbe Ultrimo tyres – this bringing the weight down to around 13 kg, as opposed to around 14.6 kg for the standard version. Both versions can of course be customised and accessorised, either via the ICE website or through their dealers.
Among the main options are the ‘flex pack’ of mudguards, rack and chainring guard (£233.77) and the ‘convenience pack’ which adds quick-releases for wheels, boom and mudguards, a headrest, and a front light mount (£133.87). Other notable options are 152 mm short cranks (just £4.84 extra), and a third (parking) disk brake for the rear wheel (£84.19). Flag and mirror are included as standard. The frame comes in a single size and colour (white). It should fit a fair range of riders: it covers a range of 10" or so in terms of leg length (measured as specified on the ICE website). There are two seat sizes. Rider weight limit is 104 kg. The trike we rode was a newly assembled demo machine belonging to Laid Back Bikes in Edinburgh. David from Laid Back kindly accompanied me and second test-rider Becky to the city’s Holyrood Park, as well as arranging photography permits for the day. A second demo trike, an ICE Adventure, provided a handy platform for photography, and to carry our gear.
White may be an overexposed colour-scheme of late, especially when it comes to consumer gadgets. But on the Vortex, it looks great. This is a trike that looks the part: I don’t think we had a single negative reaction. It’s immediately obvious that it’s cool sports gear, and although I am normally a ‘just ride in normal clothes’ sort of person, this bike does sort of encourage sportswear to match. Thus kitted out, instead of being a slightly odd person on a cycling contraption you’re a radical athlete on a daringly fast-looking machine…. The long and low look of the Vortex is a consequence of its speed oriented design. To improve the aerodynamics the rider lies down low (seat height around 16.5 cm) between the 20" (406) front wheels. The seat adjusts from around 25 to 32 degrees in five steps, and the 700c rear wheel has to go out behind that, extending the trike length to 2.0 to 2.2 metres (depending on boom extension). All three wheels are shod with 28 mm Schwalbe Durano tyres, essentially high-pressure racing slicks. Overall width is 750mm, so it’ll roll easily through most doors. As is typical for ICE trikes, the central cruciform arrangement of tubes is steel, with aluminium boom and rear sections ‘plugged in’. Unlike most of their other machines there is no folding mechanism built in to quickly make the frame more compact; so for everyday transport you’ll want to keep it in one piece. Realistically, that’s a car roof rack for most I’d imagine. If you do need it smaller, with a little time you can remove seat and wheels, and then disassemble some or all of the three main frame parts.
I won’t waste too many words on the loveliness of the frame: just look at the pictures! It’s an impressive example of industrial design as much as of recumbent technology. I think the colour-coordinated hubs and rims really help when it comes to the looks. Less obvious perhaps at first glance are the red ‘highlights’ matching the frame graphics and brake adjusters: the spoke nipples are red-anodised, as are a number of quick-release parts, axles and the like. Also red is the centre of the rather spectacularly-sculpted chain pulleys. Note too the derailleur post, externally butted between the clamp and bottle boss areas to reduce weight. And the front axles are titanium, apparently… The seat is a hard-shell type, with foam pads providing cushioning. Substantial ‘channels’ between the pads are there for ventilation, and extra pad sections can be easily slotted into these to suit different riders. The shape of the seat is supportive, with slightly raised ‘hip wings’ to keep your bottom in place as you corner hard. The Vortex comes equipped with a good level of derailleur gearing components, with a 30/39/50 Truvative chainset driving a very wide range 11-36 ten-speed cassette, via a SRAM X9 rear derailleur. This gives a gear range from 22.5 to 123 inches. Both front and rear derailleurs are controlled by SRAM bar and shifters. These are on the ends of a one-piece handlebar, which unlike the ones on some of the more touring-oriented ICE models doesn’t offer width or angle adjustment – but the weight saving has to come from somewhere. The minimal foam grips contribute to the stripped-down feel. Braking is in the form of the well proven Avid BB7 mechanical disks, with each hand controlling one front brake. A Velcro strip provides a low-tech but effective and very lightweight parking brake. Finally on the handlebars there’s a mirror fitted as standard – it’s a Zefal Spin. It's certainly neat and tidy, but the lens is just a bit small for my taste.
A Mirrycle is quite a bit larger, and would be my preference. Pedals aren’t provided as standard. What’s left? Just the standard flag, and a note that there’s scope to mount no fewer than four bottle cages: one on the front derailleur post, one on the bosses on the front of the frame, and two to the seat sides. That should be plenty for even the hottest climate – or maybe one or more could be used to hold some minimal ride essentials instead of loading the machine up with conventional bags. The ‘official’ options of rear rack or Radical side pods (15L each side) would be great for more substantial loads, but the ‘naked’ look of our trike would I think be dispelled by either. If you could get by with toolkit, waterproof and wallet stuffed into a ‘fake’ water bottle, that could be a very tidy alternative.
Holyrood Park is a good playground to try trikes: the encircling ‘main’ roads are fast and swooping, but cutting through the middle is a quieter one-way section, the ‘high road’, taking you up a steep climb to Dunsapie Loch, before sweeping back around Arthur’s Seat with stunning views before a fast descent to a roundabout where you re-join the main road. Surfaces were generally good, though with fairly ‘coarse grained’ tarmac surfaces in places. We joined the main road at the top of a hill, and the first chance I had to let the Vortex loose was on a swooping fast downhill: it swiftly pulled away from the accompanying Adventure. Clicking up through the gears I was soon in top, then spinning out and freewheeling. Some quick maths suggests I will have been going at least 50 km/h or 33 mph (given a cadence of 90ish). And that’s just on a short hill, not really terminal velocity! That lack of wind resistance is clearly significant, and it’s fair to say it rolls well. But what really struck me was the stability: even at top speed the trike felt utterly secure, to the extent that on a subsequent descent I could ‘blip’ the steering off to one side at speed just to see if I could make it misbehave (it didn’t). The steering self-centres well, and isn’t thrown off much by bumps either. I’m certain the long wheelbase helps with stability at speed: about the only thing more stable is an in-line tandem trike. The very low seat also contributes, but is even more important in cornering: you’re so deep between the front wheels that you can scare yourself (certainly when getting used to it!) without actually being in any danger of tipping.
Corner really hard and you can get the trike to drift a little, the outside front wheel working hard and gently scrubbing sideways. But the steering stays light and easy. I mentioned the texture of the tarmac earlier, and the reason is that the hard narrow tyres did transmit a certain amount of road buzz up to my hands – not annoyingly so, but perhaps fatiguing if you had miles of such surfaces. Given more time, it would have been interesting to try a few circuits on varying tyre pressure – I wouldn’t be surprised if dropping a bar or two of pressure would eliminate most of the tarmac buzz without significantly affecting speed. It might even be faster – the energy for that buzzing could otherwise go to forward motion. Larger bumps were dealt with very well, the length of the frame helping to absorb them, and the very laid-back posture ensuring that any shocks are distributed across the whole area of your back. The brakes were very good, smooth and powerful even though the test trike hadn’t really been ridden enough to wear in the pads thoroughly. And the ‘zero brake steer’ geometry that ICE have developed over the years works spectacularly well: squeeze just one brake hard while descending at speed and it’s almost uncanny how the frame flexes just enough to tweak the steering geometry to compensate for all the braking being on one side, so the trike stays in a straight line without any steering correction from the rider. Climbing in the Vortex exposed the limitations of the rider rather than the trike, I fear, but the low weight (for a trike) certainly made things easier. Climbing on a trike is a matter of patience really – just get in a comfortable gear and twiddle away on the pedals. On the level, pushing back hard against the seat would get it scooting off; there didn’t seem to be any undue flex in the boom. The seat’s shape suited me well, with its somewhat scooped base providing a really secure foundation, and the curves of the back falling comfortably. I wasn’t quite so sure about the foam pads; they do look great, and provide a very ‘direct’ link to the trike, but after a wee while riding (in just a T-shirt) I did have a suspicion of hot spots developing where the pads made contact. Maybe wearing a more ‘technical’ top would help…
Finally, a quick word about being so low. With the seat at just 16 cm or so off the ground, getting in does seem a long way down from a standing position. ICE say you shouldn't use the handlebars for support as you get in or out, but the manual shows a good method using the wheels and seat back for support. I was also a bit concerned that I might be craning my neck to see forwards, given the very leaned-back seat, but this didn’t seem to be an issue at all in practice. Nor was being seen by other traffic – you’re spectacular enough to be conspicuous!
The Vortex is a very polished speed trike – as it should be, one might say, for the best part of £2800! It is very much a trike with a single purpose: going fast, and I’m not sure it would make much sense to take it beyond this by loading it up with luggage. Nor should you expect excessive comfort: that’s very much secondary here. It does look great too, and ICE are known for their good back-up. When it comes to competitors, there’s a limited field once you exclude two-wheelers. The venerable Windcheetah is a fast machine, but has a much more upright seat. Greenspeed’s racing SLR model is just as low, but with a small rear wheel and it’s made only as a custom order. The mainland European makers concentrate more on touring than sheer speed, and I can’t think of an equivalent trike from any of them. That leaves the £2145 Catrike 700 as the only direct competitor to the Vortex, in the UK market at least. We’ll be reviewing one next issue to see how it matches up. It’ll have a tough job to match the Vortex, going by the all too brief ride I enjoyed up in Edinburgh. Often in VeloVision we look for the practical and functional; this instead is more of a hedonistic indulgence for those with an adrenaline habit and some cash to spend on it. If you’re tempted, go for it now while you’re fit enough to take full advantage!