Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Efficiency (3)

Efficiency (3)
Velomobile efficiency is one of the best reasons to own a velomobile.  This is the third post, the first was on aerodynamics, the second on rolling resistance and today I will cover weight and mechanical efficiency.  Each velomobile is different so the discussion has to be general in nature. 

I received many good comments on my previous post regarding rolling resistance and some pointed to items I did not mention.  First, it is clear that a tire/tube combination at a given pressure may work best in specific conditions but may not be optimal in all conditions.  There needs to be experimentation to find what is best in your riding environment.  All the measurements will provide some avenues to explore or give you a quick gauge for comparing but they do not provide a definitive comparison for your conditions.

Weight is an important characteristic of velomobile performance.  Weight has an impact on acceleration and ability to climb hills.  There are significant differences in the weight of commercial velomobiles, are in the 22-23kg range while others are in the 40 to 60kg range.  This is something to consider when choosing a velomobile because the rider has to move that weight.  Currently a racing velomobile can be in the 12 to 15kg range and we could see a sub 20kg production velomobile in the not too distant future.

Weight in cycling is very important.  Several years ago the UCI has mandated that road bikes should not be lighter than 6.8kg, this is to ensure that riders do not have an undue advantage when climbing or accelerating and it was also to ensure that manufacturers are not cutting corners affecting rider safety in the process of making a bike lighter.  Nowadays, with better techniques and materials bike manufacturers can easily make safe bicycles that are less than the 6.8kg limit and the UCI could easily revisit that rule to help increase the performance of cyclists.

As you can see the weight of a velomobile is significantly more than the weight of a good road bike. Even the lightest racing velomobiles mentioned above are nearly twice the weight of a good road bike.

When climbing up a hill, a production velomobile is at a significant disadvantage compared to a road bike.  A rider in the best production velomobile has to push the equivalent weight of more than three road bikes up a hill and it could be almost 8 road bikes for the not so light velomobiles.  Since there is no aerodynamic advantage on steep hills and the weight and rolling resistance of the 3 smaller wheels makes the effort more difficult for the velomobile.  As a result, the rider has to expend more energy to climb steep hills and the velomobile will not be able to match the speed of a road bike.

Fortunately, the added weight will be an advantage on descents and increase momentum and that is desirable when the road has a number of short rolling hills.  The energy stored will enable the experienced rider carry the momentum of the descent into the next climb almost effortlessly and at great speed while a road bike rider would need to climb each one.

Of course if one could reduce the weight of the velomobile, there could be important performance gains to be made.  Top velomobile designers will use their skills to choose the best materials to reduce weight and improve performance.  In choosing a velomobile many people will place the looks over other important characteristics such as the weight.  There are a few things the average rider can do to reduce the weight of a velomobile including some choices can be made at purchase time like the type of drivetrain.  But unless you are racing, some things like lighter wheels and tires for the velomobile may not provide a significant improvement since the resulting savings would only reduce the weight by a few percent of the overall weight of the velomobile, the same change would be three or more times as important for a road bike.  A velomobile used on public roads may encounter several hazards and velonauts should be careful when considering lighter components since they can potentially trade-off weight for sturdiness, it depends on the material used and the type of construction.  A light wheel for example could fold more easily in a pothole.

However rider who would like to improve performance can decide if they should be installing optional equipment like a sound system.  An even easier way to reduce weight is looking at what they carry in the velomobile.  I’m probably guilty of carrying too much as I like to be prepared for most eventualities.  Leaving at home the kitchen sink, personal anvil or other stuff seldom used could probably help you get better performance.  It is very likely that you carry a kg of stuff that is not really required.

Mechanical Efficiency
Mechanical is the last element of efficiency; power needs to be transferred from the pedals to the wheel with the smallest loss possible.  Most of this is determined by the design of the velomobile and components but for the most determined rider, it is possible to make some improvements.   I make my comments based on velomobiles with rear-wheel powered tadpole trike configuration because they are by far the most popular, however some but not all of these comments will apply to other models (delta or 4-wheel). 

Getting power to the wheel efficiently requires stiffness.  The crank, boom and swingarm are all elements that contribute significantly to stiffness but the monocoque shell or the frame, as the backbone, is the glue that holds everything together.  When pressure is applied on the pedals, any torsion or unwanted movement of any components will result in a loss of power transfer.  The unwanted movement can be a very small lateral movement of the boom or the swingarm but the loss will be noticeable.  The movement can be so small that you would not be able to see it while riding.  Well-designed components made of materials like carbon fiber instead of aluminum normally provide more stiffness.

People realising the issue have modified their velomobiles to increase stiffness.  Being the most popular velomobile, many changes were reported for the Quest in particular in order to address this issue.  Some of the changes include the replacement of the aluminum coat hanger used to provide stiffness in the turtledeck area and the point of attachment for the rear shock.  The replacement made of carbon fiber material creates an attachment point at the top of the wheel well.  A second change is the replacement of the aluminum swingarm with the newer carbon fiber version.  A third change is the installation of a carbon fiber pillar to give rigidity to the aluminum boom.  A number of riders also have added carbon fiber ribs in several areas of the shell.  Many of these improvements could also be made on different models of velomobile with similar results.  These changes also have the potential of adding extra weight with minimal stiffness improvements so one has to be careful in making this type of modifications by carefully researching, planning and implementing them.   In the case of plastics like the Rotovelo, while I cannot confirm this, I expect that the plastic material would be much less stiff and may contribute to a loss of performance that may be significant, especially in the case of the Rotovelo where there is virtually no additional metal frame.

In addition to stiffness, the drivetrain can be a source of power loss.  Chain line rubbing, unnecessary chain tube, damaged or missing idlers, bad alignment of chain line components are possible sources of power loss.

Suspension can also rob significant power; every push on the pedal can contract the rear suspension to some degree.  This is particularly noticeable when climbing a steep hill at low cadence.  There could be a significant bobbing effect.  Instead of using the power on the pedal to turn the wheel, part of the energy is used to compress the rear shock.  The problem can be larger when the rear shock is soft.  Adding more air in an air/oil shock or installing stiffer springs or polymer in a mechanical shock could improve efficiency.
 Bearings play an important role in the velomobile efficiency.  Since all bearings are not created equal, for the same size bearing, there are several categories, some have looser tolerances and there is a bit more movement inside so they do not roll as well as others, I would call them cheap but there are others that are of tighter tolerance and are more efficient.  In the United States there are 5 classes of bearings (ABEC1, 3, 5, 7, 9 with 9 being the best) but since bearings are made in many countries, they may use another standard such as the ISO and DIN that have similar levels, see table below. Bearing classes explained
ANSI Standard 20
ISO 492
DIN 620
Class Normal
Class 6
Class 5
Class 4
Class 2

The different classes take into consideration several factors that will affect performance internal clearance, surface finish, ball accuracy, torque, noise, cage type, and lubrication Some racers use the lowest friction bearings to lower resistance and improve performance but the gain could be small relative to the increased cost for those bearings.  A 406 wheel equipped with 28mm tires will turn almost 10 times a second at 50km/h and small movement could make you lose significant power but the loss is even greater if those same bearings are worn or damaged.

It may surprise some people but bearings in the front wheels can be subjected to intense heat generated by hub brakes.  Excessive heat can also contribute to bearing failure.  Repeated long descents under load may cause bearings to fail.

There are bearings in wheels, pedals, bottom bracket, cassette and some can be changed some cannot because they are sealed inside the unit and you may have to change the whole unit (cassette, pedal, bottom bracket) if they are worn or damaged.  Idlers could have bearings or bushings and the bearings could be sealed too.  A damaged bearing or bushing will typically have one of many of the following unwanted movement (lateral or perpendicular), difficulty turning, noise (grinding, rubbing) or other damage like missing or damaged seal.

A key aspect of power transfer is the drivetrain. There are many different types and all are not created equal.  Velomobile drivetrains borrow elements of several bicycle systems but they are different in several ways from traditional bicycles.  First difference is the chain length; velomobiles have the equivalent of 3 standard lengths of chain.  To function properly the drivetrain also needs idlers, tensioners, chain tubes to transfer the power from the pedals to the wheels, something only recumbent bikes use.  Second, because velomobiles have higher top speed than unfaired bikes, velomobiles need higher gearing but due to their higher weight, they also need lower gearing than most road bikes to climb steep hills.  As a result, the required gearing range is much greater than the gearing used by other bikes.  This means that components are often near or at the maximum capacity.  To meet the requirements, velomobile designers will mix and match different components made for different types of bikes (grupo) for example road and mountain bikes and even urban bikes.  They have larger chain rings some pushing 75 teeth, wider range cassette e.g.:  11-36 or more. 

Most often, high capacity long cage rear derailleurs will be chosen to handle the range.  I expect that designers will soon take advantage of the 11 and 12 speed rear derailleur developed for mountain biking with wide range gearing and install them in velomobiles soon.  It may not be a slam-dunk for velomobile applications there are several potential issues.  First, since the internal space required for the extra long cage derailleurs and the smaller chain may create some issues.  It is also not clear if the rear derailleurs designed to be used for single ring applications could handle the extra chain required for a 2 X11 or 2X12 configuration especially if the big and small ring has a big difference in the size of the rings e.g.: 62-34. 

When operating at or near the limit of components that were not designed together, one has to be careful that efficiency is not affected significantly.  Some of the new wide range cassettes may not fit standard hubs but if they did they may create issues.  There are cassettes with 9 and 10 teeth that are used to provide the speed for mountain bikes racing down hills or for trikes with smaller wheels.  In their applications they could be fine because these gears are only used seldom going down a hill for example but they are highly inefficient.  In velomobiles, we will tend to use the higher gearing even on flat ground and for much longer periods of time.  The angle of the tooth spacing increases and the chain does not sit in the grove very well; to illustrate this at the extreme, imagine a 4-tooth cog, the teeth would be spaced 90 deg.  The chain would get stuck or skip when you would try to turn the crank.  I have a bike with a Capreo hub with a cassette that has a 10-tooth cog and I find it awkward to pedal and I can feel the inefficiency.  Some road racers don’t even use 11-tooth cog on their cassette because they feel they are inefficient but I think they are OK in velomobiles.  As a side note, it is not certain that cassettes with 9 and 10-tooth cogs could be fitted on to velomobile axles as they are typically require installation onto smaller diameter hubs.

Velomobile with smaller rear wheels (20in/406 or 16in/349) at the rear will require higher gearing, to compensate because the smaller wheel means that it has to turn significantly more than a 26in wheel to achieve the same speed.  To address this issue, manufacturers will often install a mid drive; a secondary gearing that can be as simple as a 3-speed cassette and derailleur to Internal Geared Hubs (IGH) like a Rohloff.  Mid-drives add some amount of drag but can provide a much larger gear range.

As mentioned above, it is possible to use other gearing system like the IGH. There are different make and model of IGH with their pros and cons, there are also a few pedal-based internal gearbox and even hybrid systems that have an IGH coupled with a cassette and there is also crank based systems like the Schlumpf that multiply your gearing.  They each have significant advantages including providing a wide range of gears, some have the ability to change gears when at a standstill and they have low maintenance.  Unfortunately, some of those are noisy and can be heavy and may have torque limitations that can be exceeded by velomobiles under certain conditions and can’t be shifted under load.  As far as efficiency, some reports indicate that there is a 6% penalty for IGH compared to derailleur systems.  This can be significant for a performance-oriented rider and something to think about when making your choice for gearing.

There are other factors that could create power loss. In my previous post on rolling resistance, I mentioned ensuring proper alignment contributes to mechanical efficiency but so is truing of the wheels.  A wobbly wheel will sap your power because you will need to push harder to maintain your speed. While more rare, brake adjustment could be over-tightened and touch ever so slightly when the brake handle is released and this is another thing that could sap your power.  Brake adjustment should be part of proper regular maintenance. In short, if it rubs, squeaks or grinds it probably robs your power and needs to be fixed.

Lastly for a good velomobile, you also need efficient brakes to keep velomobile rider safe.  Most velomobile use drum brakes on the front wheels.  There are 70mm and 90mm drums and both will stop a velomobile efficiently on flat ground but when the road gets hilly, 70mm brakes will probably be unable to meet the challenge, the brakes will quickly overheat.  The larger 90mm version will fare better but they will eventually overheat and lose their braking efficiency.  There are 90mm drum brakes with added fins to cool brakes faster and some riders have designed simple water injection system to further cool brakes.  Riders in mountainous areas should consider these enhancements.  There are some velomobiles equipped with disk brakes that may offer better braking in some conditions but they require more maintenance and many have switched to drum brakes.

Through this three part series on velomobile efficiency I think that I have covered most elements affecting efficiency and performance. While I’ve touched on many things, the information is fairly superficial and there is much more to investigate to deepen your knowledge; an ocean wide but a foot deep.  There is still a lot to be researched and I would hope those who can add apiece to the puzzle would publish their findings through public forums so everyone can learn.  I hope that these post provided you a glimpse into what makes a velomobile efficient.


A new pedal-based gearbox designed for mountain biking is now available. EFFIGEAR's has a gear ratio of 444% with 9-speed providing a similar range as derailleur-based, double chainring 24/36t with an 11/34t cassette.  This system provides the ability to shift under load contrary to other IGH and gearbox systems.  The gearbox system weighs 2.8kg including cranks and shifters.  The gearbox can also be used with a rear derailleur to further increase the range.  Unfortunately to install in a velomobile would require the design of a new crank mount.  This system is similar to the Pinion gearbox that offers several systems from 9 gear 568% ratio, 12 gear 600% ratio to an18 gears and 636% ratio.



If you did not have a chance to attend SPEZI this year, there are several who reported on the annual show including The Laiback Report with an excellent Spezi video tour and interviews.  . Wim Schermer reports on SPEZI on his blog  and Ligfiets reports on several items of interest

Friday, May 5, 2017

Efficiency (2)

Efficiency (2)
Velomobile efficiency is one of the best reasons to own a velomobile.  The subject is fairly complex and I will try to cover the subject in a few posts here.   In my last post I reviewed how aerodynamics played a role in making velomobiles efficient. 

I received many comments and some pointed to items I did not mention.  There are radical ways that could potentially further improving aerodynamics but the potential gain would come at a cost like difficulty to manufacture, complexity, weight, etc.  What I tried to identify were practical and safer ways for improvements. 

Something I forgot to mention however is the potentially positive impact of velomobile shells while riding in the wind.  Not only does the shell reduce the effort when riding up wind but when the wind comes from the side or the back, the shell can act as a sail further improving performance.  On a regular bicycle, the effect is only felt when riding with the wind is coming more or less directly from behind.

In this post I will discuss rolling resistance; again, this is a high-level view at the issue, not a comprehensive thesis.  If readers want to explore this subject, there are many sources that can be accessed on-line but there is still much to be discovered.  Riders may want to perform rolling resistance tests to contribute to the discussion.

Following aerodynamics, rolling resistance has probably the second largest impact on performance.  In my opinion, paying attention to rolling resistance may be even more beneficial for a velomobile compared to a bike.  There are several things that affect rolling resistance that velomobile owners need to take into consideration.

Since the tires are effectively the points of contact with the road, therefore they are the point we measure for rolling resistance.  Several factors affect rolling resistance including weather, temperature, rolling surface but also tire construction, tire size, weight, inflation and type of inner tube/tubeless.  I will try to address most of these factors, more specifically their influence on velomobile performance.

Compared to a bike, a velomobile has three or four wheels increasing the points of contact with the road by 50 to 100%.  Furthermore velomobile wheels have a significantly smaller diameter that make the same tire brand/model potentially less efficient compared to a road bicycle with 700 wheels (size 622).  Most velomobile use significantly smaller wheels such as size 406 (20in) all around or a combination of 406 (20in) tires at the front and 559 (26in) at the rear.  More recently some velomobiles that can accept wide 406 tires have been able to replace those with narrow tires size 451 to provide more tire choices.  Australian Pedal Prix velomobiles use 349 (16in) all around or 349 (16in) at the front and 406 (20in) at the rear. There are exceptions for example the LeMans but these configurations cover most velomobiles and some riders have experimented with other sizes like 650B (size 584) and 24in (size 540).

The heavier weight of the velomobile may also increase the impact of an increase in rolling resistance.  While the weight is distributed over 3 or 4 wheels vs two, think of a heavy cart that you have to push empty vs fully loaded.

One has to recognize that most; maybe all tires are not developed for velomobiles, since the market is too small.  Tires are developed mostly for BMX, MTB, e-bikes and to a lesser extent trikes.  As a result, it is difficult to find the perfect tires for velomobiles.  Tires are adapted to velomobiles, to find the best tires for velomobiles involves research and experimentation.

A smaller diameter tire will be more affected by road surface than a large one.  To illustrate this, imagine you are driving a truck with large tires where you can drive over a pothole while the driver of a Smart car can fit the entire wheel in the same pothole.  The energy of the rolling wheel is almost completely lost when the small wheel gets in the hole while the larger wheel skims over with only part of the tire entering the pothole resulting in a minimal energy loss.

To a smaller extent, tires encounter bumps, holes and cracks even on regular road surface.  While it can be hardly noticeable, it will affect how much power is required to move the velomobile.  One advantage of the velomobile is that the wheels and tires are mostly hidden behind the shell while unfaired bikes wheel and tires are subject to aerodynamic loss.  That loss prompts unfaired bike riders to use narrower tires to reduce the aerodynamic effect while velomobile riders can use wider tires with negligible aerodynamic penalty.  Using slightly wider tires will help minimize the impact of road surface and compensate for the use of small tires.   Unfortunately some velomobiles may not be fit on all velomobiles that have narrower wheel wells.  A wider tire gives more contact surface and provides better weight distribution putting less pressure on the road.

As I mentioned above, all tires are not created equal.  Tire construction incorporates several components that will affect how the tire performs under different conditions.  Tire construction is a set of compromise to meet a perceived market demand.  In order to explain, I will re-purpose some information related to tires I previously posted on BROL.

Tire/tube/sealant weight also has an impact on rolling resistance; as a rule of thumb, if you compare tires of similar construction, the lighter the faster.  Changing the inner tube to a lighter and subtler tube will lower rolling resistance in the same tire and the improvement can be significant.

Tire characteristics
Engineers determine the physical characteristics that will be used in the construction of a tire, this will in turn determination the tire’s different qualities. It is important to note that two tires by the same manufacturer using the same name may have a different construction depending on size or manufacturing plant.  You have to examine tire specs carefully to spot this.

Some of the physical characteristics including:
• number of threads per inch (TPI) - the higher number of threads normally the better;
• foldable bead - faster tires normally fold;
• subtleness of the tire is a factor in rolling resistance;
• Protection rolling band to make the tire more durable and puncture resistant;
• Compound is the rubber mixture used to make the tire;
• Thread is the pattern of groves in the tire - a tire with more groves will evacuate water better but may also increase rolling resistance;
• Weight of the tire will impact the performance a heavier tire will take more power to move it;
• Most tires require tubes but some of the better tires are tubeless.

Some of the tire characteristics to consider include durability, puncture protection, handling, rolling resistance, noise. You also have to take into consideration that these characteristics may be significantly different under hot vs cold and wet vs dry or even on snowy and icy conditions. Unfortunately when it comes time for shopping you may fall victim to marketing hype. Many website will provide an assessment of the characteristics but for the most part the information is biased.

The tube inside the tire will affect the characteristics of the tire.  There are two main type of tubes used in bicycle tires Latex and Butyl What are the advantages/disadvantages of the latex tubes vs butyl.

Butyl Tubes
  • Butyl are inexpensive
  • Available everywhere
  • Available in all sizes
  • Available with Schreader and Presta valves
  • Have a slightly higher rolling resistance compared to latex tubes
  • Pressure remains for longer periods
Latex tubes
  • Much more expensive
  • Not available everywhere
  • Not available readily in velomobile wheel size
  • Available mainly with Presta valves
  • Have lower rolling resistance compared to butyl tubes
  • Requires frequent pumping to maintain desired pressure

Weather conditions and temperature also have an impact on rolling resistance.  As a rule of thumb, rolling resistance increase as the temperature gets.  Wet conditions also increase rolling resistance.  Some tires have provide better rolling resistance in low temperature or in wet conditions so it is important that you consider this when choosing a tire for your velomobile.

Tire pressure is critical to rolling resistance, the higher the pressure the lower the rolling resistance.  For best rolling resistance tires should be inflated to the maximum pressure for the type of tire used.  Some riders in order to further reduce rolling resistance, exceed the maximum recommended pressure but one has to be careful as blowout could occur.  While appears to be true in tests, tests performed by the BHPC found from roll-down tests that a wider tire at lower pressure e.g.: 50-60 psi actually gave lower rolling resistance on a broken road surface than higher pressures, presumably this is due to the suspension effect.  It is not clear if this is also true for fully suspended velomobiles.

Rolling resistance tests:
Several people and organizations perform rolling resistance tests of velomobile and bike tires.  Here are a few places where you will find this information.  There are generally 2 main methods where the rolling resistance of tires is tested.  The most common is to measure the rolling resistance of tire by spinning the tire against a friction wheel/roller.  Rolling resistance is calculated in Watt.  The second is to use a pendulum on a rig where two tires are mounted with the arm of the pendulum at the top.  The arm of the pendulum is pushed to the maximum and released.  The time that the pendulum takes to stop provides a relative measure of the rolling resistance.  The longer the pendulum swings the lower the resistance of that tire.

Some of the tests have compared rolling resistance at different temperature even in snow/ice conditions but I don’t think that the same tests were performed on different rolling surface.

For more information on measuring rolling resistance of tires, you can check Carboro (www.velomobil.ch/ch/en/rollenpruefstand) – The site in German and provides very good information on measurements and tire rolling resistance in general as well as some measurements.
Wim Schermer  (wimschermer.blogspot.ca/search/label/bandentest) – Wim Schermer has a blog (in Dutch) where he regularly tests only velomobile appropriate tires size 406 and 559 uses a pendulum to test relative tire resistance.
The Bicycle Rolling Resistance website  www.bicyclerollingresistance.com - the site has few tires test for tires in the sizes used by velomobiles. If the same brand/model is tested, check with manufacturer’s site to see if they the velomobile size has the same construction/compound. Use a friction wheel.

On the German velomobile forum, there is a 20in (406) tire testing thread (www.velomobilforum.de/forum/i...t.41020/) where Daniel Fenn and other velonauts discuss tires and post results. Daniel uses a friction wheel.

There is a thread on BentRiderOnline where velomobile tires are also discussed but there are no objective tire tests performed. (www.bentrideronline.com/messageboard/showthread.php?t=133279)

For the more technically astute, it is also possible to measure a specific velomobile overall rolling resistance through roll down tests or with velomobile equipped with a power meter.  These tests help you calculate not only the rolling resistance (Crr) but also the aerodynamic resistance (CdA).  Robert Chung developed a methodology that can be used to perform these calculations.

One important aspect of rolling resistance not mentioned above is to ensure that your velomobile alignment is correct.  When the alignment is not correct the rolling resistance will increase.  Remember that for the lowest rolling resistance, all (3/4) wheels should be properly aligned not only the front wheels.  After your alignment you can test your alignment using a roll down test.  To perform this test you need a road with small hill followed by a long flat section.  On a day when the wind is very calm, take your velomobile to the top of the hill, identify a spot where you can get the velomobile to coast down when you release the brakes and mark that spot.  Perform your first coast down and mark the spot where your velomobile came to a stop.  Climb back to the top of the hill and adjust the alignment of both front wheels very slightly about ½ turn.  Perform the same coast down if you go further, adjust another ½ turn and try again if you go further continue the same if you don’t go back to previous setting.  This should be the optimal setting for the lowest rolling resistance.

Velomobile tire and tube price/availability
On a related note, I searched for tires and latex tubes recently and was very surprised that latex tubes in sizes other than 700 (622) and 26 (559) were basically not available in North America and velomobile tires were significantly more expensive in North America.  Several tire models are only available several months after they are available in Europe and often not even offered by North American distributors. It certainly is unfortunate that manufacturers and distributors policies put North American velonauts at a significant price/availability disadvantage.


The 4-wheel DF prototype DF-4 made its first public appearance at SPEZI alongside the DF and DF-XL.  The DF-4 had a wheel pants a tail extension.


The sitko-velo was another new velomobile making its first public appearance at SPEZI 2017.  The new velomobile made of plywood comes with electric assist.  In my opinion the Sitko-velo will compete with similar velomobiles like the new Cab-Bike and the Orca.