As seen in RTR Issue #23 - Fall 2006
Review #139 Barcroft Columbia Recumbent Tandem | Great
Ride + Compact Size = A Winning Combo
by John Axen
Letís assume that one of you has taken the plunge, purchased a recumbent bike, and is spending a lot of time riding with your new bent riding buddies. In fact, you've been spending so much time on your new steed that youíre significant other is feeling a bit neglected. Does this sound a little familiar to you? Well, have no fear, my friend because I just may have the perfect solution to your problem. You need to get yourself a recumbent tandem bicycle and your problem will be solved! Or . . . is the problem becoming just a bit more complicated?
If youíve been reading Recumbent and Tandem Rider Magazine for any length of time you know thereís a whole lot to consider before you actually purchase your first recumbent tandem. Physical attributes aside, you need to develop good communication skills, coordination, and a really good sense of humor because youíre going to push the limits of your patience. You can read all sorts of articles in our past issues that deal with the "relationship" issues inherit to tandem riding, but what I want to discuss are the actual recumbent tandem bikes themselves. Until fairly recently, there have been relatively few recumbent tandems available. Pioneer companies such as Linear, Ryan, Infinity, Vision and Rans all produced two-wheeled recumbent tandem bikes. More recently, Sun has offered a much lower priced entry level tandem and Longbikes is offering a more refined version of the Ryan Duplex, called the Gulfstream. The Rans Screamer is probably the most commonly seen recumbent tandem on the road today.
For the recumbent trike enthusiasts, Greenspeed, WizWheelz, Trice, LoGo, and a few small custom builders, have produced tandems as well. Aside from the initial cash outlay for any of these tandems, their size alone can be daunting. You need a vehicle of considerable size to transport a recumbent tandem, on top or in back, and a tandem-specific rack can cost as much as $600! With gas costing more than $3.00 per gallon, many of us are choosing cars that are much smaller and economical. Are you still feeling the love? Well, donít give up so easily because I just may have a solution for you and it comes from the District of Columbia! No, Iím not talking about government intervention or a special tax incentive. We're going to take a very close look at the Barcroft Columbia recumbent tandem
At first glance the Columbia looks very similar to the popular Rans Screamer, only shrunken down a bit. You know what happens when you wash and dry your favorite cycling togs at the wrong temperature. Well, at first glance the Columbia looks somewhat like a Screamer that has been left in the dryer way too long. The overall bike is quite a bit shorter than the Screamer with the stoker and pilot riding over the dual 20-inch wheels. Not only does the Columbia resemble the Screamer, but it actually uses the very same seats and steering components!
Letís take a closer look. The Columbiaís compact mainframe is constructed with 2-inch diameter Chromoloy tubing, specifically designed for this tandem. Our Columbia came with the optional S and S couplers which allow for easy disassembly of the frame into five separate pieces. This $1,000 option is quite popular with those who plan to travel overseas. Our Columbia was powder coated in a fire engine red color with white vinyl graphics. The captainís cranks are mounted on an adjustable boom and are slightly lower than the seat. Much like that of a long wheelbase single bike, the rear cranks are in a fixed position that is considerably lower than the rear seat. This high/low configuration allows the overall length of the frame to be much shorter as the stoker's cranks are actually under the seat of the pilot. Both Rans seats are adjustable along the top tube by way of Rans Radloc seat clamps. The reclined angle of both seats is accomplished by adjustable seat struts. The Rans Flip-It stem and adjustable top hat permit fine tuning of the cockpit ergonomics. The Columbia wheelset starts with a pair of Shimano XT disk brake hubs, 20-inch (406) Sun Rhyno Lite rims, stainless spokes, and Tioga Comp Pool tires. FSA tandem-specific cranks spin on FSA Platinum Isis bottom brackets with 55/44/32 chainrings. The rear cassette can be either a Shimano or SRAM 11-34 tooth 9-speed, depending on availability. Also, the rear derailleur can be either a Shimano XT long cage or a SRAM X-9. The front derailleur is a Shimano 105 and the shifters are SRAM X-9. Speed control is accomplished with a pair of Avid mechanical disk brakes with 203 mm stainless rotors. They are modulated with a pair of Avid brake levers.
I'll bet you thought that I forgot the fork! Well, I saved the best for the last. When you have a short, stout tandem bike with 20-inch wheels you're going to feel every little imperfection of the road, unless you have a really good shock in the front. Barcroft spared no expense when they specified the White Brothers recumbent fork, specifically designed for 20-inch wheels. We reviewed this almost infinitely adjustable fork in one of our earliest issues and after thousands of miles we're still smiling. What you get for $4,250 ($1,000 more with the S&S couplers) is an 81- inch long bike with a 54-inch wheelbase that weighs in at 48 pounds. Compared to a Rans Screamer, the Columbia has an overall length and wheelbase that are 20 inches shorter, which should make transport a bit easier, but how does it ride? I thought you'd never ask. Don't get so anxious because we have to do the initial setup first!
Depending on rider size the initial setup should be quite easy, unless you're dealing with extreme differences. First the captain should get comfortable with the proper leg extension and stem/handle bar position. Make sure the seat is back far enough from the stem/bar position for safe and comfortable handling. Don't forget that you're in complete control and if you want a happy stoker you must remain in control. With only the seat adjustment the stoker position should be the easiest. Right? Well, yes and no. If you have a fairly short stoker, the rear seat has to be much closer to the fixed position of the cranks. When the optimum position was set, we found that our test stoker could occasionally nick her knees on the back of the captainís seat unless she rode with her knees slightly outward. This would eventually result with very sore knees and an unhappy stoker. So, this is where the fine tuning of both seat positions and the seat back angles was most critical. After nearly an hour of trial and error we came to a compromise for both seats that seemed fairly comfortable, but was it safe and efficient? Before we could take the Columbia for that first spin it was necessary to put the White Brothers fork at the proper pressure for out weight and personal preference for spring and preload. After a couple preliminary spins around the block I was confident that we were ready to tackle the road.
As has been the case for many years, the Rans seats and Flip It stem/ bars have been legendary in terms of control and rider comfort. With the Columbia it's no different. From the very first pedal stroke to the last few yards of nearly 200 miles we were still smiling. The 54.5-inch wheelbase makes the Columbia very maneuverable at slow speeds. In fact, U-turns within the limits of a single lane are possible with a bit of finesse. Those 20-inch wheels seem to accelerate even better than the more traditional 26/20 combination. Shifting through the gears was crisp and accurate. The drive train seems to be perfectly aligned and very quiet. In fact, with the considerably shorter frame configuration and the really quiet drive train, communication with the stoker was quite easy. You do realize, as the captain you must call out all the bumps and communicate your intentions. Make sure you play around with the Avid disk brakes a bit before you do any speed runs. The rotors require just a bit of scouring before they achieve optimum stopping power. With those 203mm rotors youíll be very pleased with both speed control on long grades as well as panic stops. So, after the initial short ride in the neighbor hood it was time to tackle the road! Our goal was to prepare for a Spring time Century ride three weeks from the day we received the Columbia.
Conflicting work schedules and late season rains restricted our training, but the Columbia made our training a joy as it has a very easy learning curve. Handling was crisp, predictable, and very stable at all speeds. We chose a 40-mile route that provided a variety of road conditions ranging from a brand- new pavement to crumbling gravel and potholes. Riding above and alongside a riverbed provided plenty of roller coaster hills to challenge our teamwork. The Columbia liked to tackle the hills with smooth efficiency and rewarded us with exhilarating speed on the descents. Youíd think those swift 20-inch wheels would transmit even the slightest surface problems to our posteriors but I think we were pleasantly surprised how comfortable they were. They do run you out of gears faster than a 26-inch wheel would but we began to enjoy coasting down the hills instead of pushing the speed limits. It seemed that there was just the right amount of vertical frame flex to be comfortable, without sacrificing frame stiffness while pedaling. Our initial opinion was that the Columbia seemed to ride very much like the Screamer, but with crisper handling. At this time we hadnít tackled any major climbs, but we knew we had a major 7-miler on our upcoming Century ride. Were we concerned? Well, maybe just a little. With 20-inch wheels you may not have a super top speed, but you get nice low gearing for those knee benders and we intended to see how the Columbia spun.
The eve of our Century came and we were fairly confident that we were ready. At least we had no doubts about the Columbia! Now hereís the beauty of this compact design. I was able to use a standard hitch- mounted rack on the back of my Jeep Cherokee to haul the Columbia. Only a few inches of bike extended beyond the body of the Jeep on each side and it was protected from all those pesky flying insects that seem to stick like epoxy glue to the frame. The Jeep remained as aerodynamic as it could without adversely effecting the gas mileage. Try that with your Longbikes or Screamer!
The night before the Century we prepared our energy drinks and water supplies but when it came to storing our spare tubes, pump, tools, and having a place to carry our spare clothing as the morning temperatures give way to afternoon heat we couldíve had a problem. As the Columbia frame is short there is really no room for a rear luggage rack and seat bags are rather limited in storage capacity. Fortunately, we didnít have to panic as weíd been testing the Easyreacher pannier mounts made by TerraCycles on another bike with Radloc seat rails. We found the ideal position under the rear seat of the Columbia and secured the Easyreacher, which allowed the use of a mid-size pair of panniers from Inertia Designs to haul our gear. This kept the center of gravity down low and the bags were in a more aerodynamic position. We were ready to put the Columbia to a real test on the back roads of the Central California wine country.
The morning greeted us with absolutely perfect conditions. It was cool and just slightly cloudy but the afternoon promised to be quite warm. The buzz about the staging area was that the wildflowers were the best in quite a few years, but we had to pedal over 25 miles of roller coaster hills first. We knew the Columbia was good on the short and steep climbs and we had no doubt about maintaining momentum. The Columbia had no problem keeping up with other tandem teams, which may have surprised them a bit. A three mile long descent dropped us into a beautiful valley full of all sorts of flowers and a much appreciated food stop. Our top speed was 37 mph on that descent and we never felt any hint of instability. A 90-degree turn and a cattle guard necessitated the sudden use of the Avid disks which I modulated with just two fingers each lever. These brakes are amazing! After a short break we were again rolling along with a rather large group of both single and tandem riders. To say the Columbia garnered considerable attention would be an understatement. Nearly an hour of conversation and fairly easy spinning brought us to the midway point and lunch where we had to stoke the fires for the dreaded "wall" weíd soon be climbing.
After a gourmet lunch, including huge fresh strawberries and monster cookies, we immediately hit a few roller coaster hills. We began to wonder if it was so wise to fill our bellies so full. Arenít you supposed to take a nap after lunch? It took a couple miles to get our legs back into the spinning mode just in time to see the "wall" ahead. We could see the riders strung out for a couple miles ahead of us which could have been a bit intimidating. By this time we were working like a tandem team that had more than just 75 miles in our resume. About midway up the 7-mile climb we began to catch a few of the singles and tandems that had previously passed us. A few of the "hotter" riders passed us as the ascent became a bit steeper but much fewer than we had expected. In fact, we found ourselves pushing the Columbia at a higher gear than expected. That little tandem may be a compromise in size but certainly not in performance. I have ridden a Screamer for several years in all sorts of conditions and I can truly say that I believe the Columbia to be a better climber. I was truly surprised!
About a half mile from the summit a cruel trick lays in wait for unsuspecting riders. A rest stop promising water and goodies beckon but we resisted the temptation and actually raised our output. Absolutely nobody passed us the last mile and the crowning of the summit rewarded us with the most awesome winding descent. The maximum speed we reached was 44 mph on that last descent and we earned it! At the bottom we rolled along for a few miles of gentle ups and downs to finish our Century in better condition than weíd expected. At the big BBQ bash we received a lot of compliments on both the Columbia and our performance as a team. Iím not certain who smiled more, me or my stoker! That Century ride was the perfect test for both our team and the Columbia.
We came to some conclusions about certain characteristics inherent to the Barcroft Columbia recumbent tandem. It is much easier to transport than longer tandems and if you plan to travel abroad the S&S couplers are a must. Once properly dialed in the Columbia is a very comfortable tandem. I expected the shorter design and smaller wheels to give a harsher ride, causing more fatigue at the end of a ride. The legendary Rans seats, stem, and bars live up to their name. The Columbia gets up to speed fast and easily maintains it. Itís a good climber on long grades and tracks very well and I never had any problem keeping it on the desired course, regardless of speed. The 203 mm Avid disk brakes instilled confidence and should be perfect for loaded touring. The White Brothers recumbent fork is truly active all the time. Some of the roads on our Century were filled with crumbling pavement and potholes and what I couldnít avoid this fork absorbs!
The only semi-negative comment I would say was in the setup for shorter riders in the rear. Even though we found the best adjustment the rear rider can occasionally scrape a knee on the back of the front seat. Taller rear riders shouldnít have this problem. For those who really like to push the big gears you may need to get some bigger chainrings. We were happy to just coast down the hills we earned. I think youíll find the Barcroft Columbia more than adequate for your local group rides and itís a great way to introduce your significant other to recumbent bikes. With the use of the Easyreacher rack and perhaps a two-wheeled trailer you could take the Columbia on that dream tour youíve been planning. Better yet, forget the trailer and just remember to take that Platinum Card and do a First Class tour! Go check out the Barcroft website for the range of standard colors and options.