By Bryan J. Ball
Editor, ’BentRider Online
November 18, 2003
Many months ago I wrote an article about test bikes that I’ve missed having around the test lab. I could have very easily followed it up with a list of bikes that kept me up at night because I HADN’T tested them yet. The Lightning P-38 would probably occupy the top spot on that list.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Tim Brummer’s Lightnings and very much enjoyed the Phantom and Thunderbolt A-10 test bikes that we had previously. I also owned a Stealth B-2 (now called Phantom II) for a few months. All of the Lightnings that I rode struck a chord with me but after a few brief test rides, P-38’s left me longing for some more seat time on Brummer’s best. Unfortunately the somewhat exclusive nature of the P-38 never allowed me to get my hands on a tester. Thankfully, I was finally able to negotiate a long-term test bike just in time for the second installment of our “Living Legends” series.
The P-38 definitely qualifies for the title bestowed on it in the heading of this article. Its space-frame design gives it one of the most distinctive profiles in all of recumbency and its performance potential is renowned. Many people still stand by the old adage that recumbents can’t climb, but the P-38’s ascending prowess has done more to break that stereotype than any other recumbent before or since. In 1998, the usually anti-bent Bicycling Magazine called it “A Recumbent That Knows How to Climb.”
What kind of man is behind such a well-known and well-respected machine? Tim Brummer’s background is actually in rocket science. In 1984 he left that field to design recumbents. After a few prototypes, Tim came up with the P-38 and started Lightning Cycle Dynamics.
His first project turned out to be a home run. The P-38 quickly made Lightning a direct rival to Gardner Martin’s Easy Racers unit that was tearing up the HPV racing scene at the time.
The Lightning X-2 (which was essentially a P-38 inside a Nomex and Kevlar fairing) and the Gold Rush (which was essentially an aluminum framed Easy Racers Tour Easy with a fairing of similar construction) battled it out in places like Indianapolis, while their unfaired production counterparts fought for supremacy on the roads around the country.
Even after the X-2’s heyday in the mid 1980’s, the P-38 went on to set numerous speed and distance records both in its “naked” form and as the heart of the fully faired F-40 production streamliner.
BREAKING THE MOLD
The heart of the P-38 design is its triangulated space frame. Rather than using a thick monotube design, Brummer used a framework of thin chromoly tubes to give the P-38 its strength. The P-38’s frame is made up of a virtual spider web of narrow gauge chromoly tubing. Many of these tubes are custom made for Lightning. Some other SWB’s use triangulated frames (RANS V-Rex, Angletech MC2, etc.) but the P-38 predates most of them and its design takes the idea of triangulation to a whole new level.
The P-38’s appearance has always remained relatively the same, but there have been many recent under-the-paint changes to the P-38’s frame. A double butted down tube, tapered stays and some additional bracing have made the P-38 significantly lighter and stronger than it ever was before.
The craftsmanship on our test bike’s frame was very good. The welds were clean and the lug work really ads to the bike’s classic look. The fork is also lugged and would look right at home on a (very small) high-end Italian road bike. We ordered the P-38 in a color that Lightning calls chrome. It’s really more of metallic silver, but did look good nonetheless. The sticker kit on the bike looked a little plain and was applied over the clear coat but it went well with the bike’s overall look. Lightning recently started powder coating all of their seats black and that has also added to the look of the bike.
Lightning’s handlebar layout is almost as distinctive as the frame itself. Tim Brummer’s “drop-bar” design is standard on the P-38 and optional on other Lightning models. The love-it-or-hate-it design offers many different hand positions but requires a pair of custom made brake levers. These bars also use handlebar tape rather than conventional grips. Bar tape has a tendency to come unraveled if it’s not properly wrapped and ours was coming undone right out of the box. It was easy to fix, but a bit annoying on a $2,600 bike.
Our test bike was mostly equipped as a stock base-model P-38. This setup includes a Shimano LX rear derailleur with a Shimano 105 front and Dura-Ace bar-cons. The wheels are built on Shimano LX hubs with Sun rims. The front tire is a Schwalbe City Jet and the rear is a Panaracer Pasela. Odyssey A-Brakes do the stopping.
Most of these components worked fine but they were still my biggest source of complaint. First of all, on most bikes in this price range, you would be looking at a mix of Shimano Ultegra and XT, not 105 and LX (the $3100 P-38 XT comes with these components). Secondly, Shimano LX components come in two different colors (the traditional gray and a new black and gold combo). The LX parts on our bike didn’t match and the black/gold derailleur really clashed with the chrome paint. Lastly, the tires didn’t match either. They both had black sidewalls so the mismatch didn’t jump out but it was still irritating. The mismatch tires and parts all performed just fine but it’s small finish details like this that make Lightnings look just bit less polished than the competition.
Our test bike’s crankset was decidedly NOT stock. We ordered our P-38 with Lightning’s new Carbon Composite Integral Crankset and bottom bracket. These high tech cranks are not only advertised to be very stiff but are also ridiculously light. The entire crankset/bottom bracket assembly only weighs 390 grams with the spyder. They retail for approximately $500. The cranks on our test bike used Shimano 105 chainrings.
Lightning’s carbon cranks were definitely the highlight of the bike’s component package. I usually can’t tell the difference between one crankset or another without looking at them. I could definitely feel the difference between these cranks and the Ultegra’s that are on my regular ride. They definitely felt both lighter and stiffer. I even swapped back and forth between the stock 105 cranks and the carbon fiber cranks to make sure it wasn’t in my head. The only problem I had with the cranks is probably a personal one. My hip is very sensitive to wide Q-factors (distance between the pedals) and while the Lightning Carbon Composite crankset has the same Q-factor as a set of Shimano XTR cranks, I found it to be a bit too wide for me. I prefer narrower road cranks. Other than that, the cranks were great.
A RIDE THAT STILL HOLDS UP
Since the P-38 virtually created the short wheelbase recumbent market in the mid 1980’s, there have been countless imitators. How does this living legend stack up to the newcomers?
Well there’s certainly very little to complain about in the seating department. Lightning’s seat design has been called one of the most comfortable in the business. I’ve certainly never had any seat comfort issues on any Lightning bikes that I’ve tested. From a distance the Brummer-designed seat looks like a RANS-style mesh back seat with a molded seat pan. Closer inspection reveals that it’s actually a sling mesh design that has an integrated seat pad for some added comfort.
The seat is perfectly designed for this type of bike. Hardshells are all the rage on many current high-performance SWB’s and they do work exceedingly well with many of these laid back, high bottom bracket designs. With the Lightning’s more upright and closed riding position, a seat with a padded base is preferable. Lightning’s mesh seat back is also strung very tight and probably doesn’t lose too much to those hardshells in power transmitting efficiency. Like all of the Lightning test bikes that have come here before it, I found the P-38’s seat to be very comfy, with no pressure points or recumbent butt. Its only downfall may be the size of the seat base. It can interfere with your legs a bit when you put your feet down if you’re a big guy.
I’ve also always found the hand position on the P-38 to be very comfortable. Lightning’s turned down handlebars have gained a great reputation amongst Brummer’s fans but they may not agree with everyone. One of the commonly heard knocks against them is that a rider can easily bang one of the tip shifters on his/her leg. This has only happened to me once on a P-38 and it was on my first ride during a u-turn. I adjusted to it pretty quickly.
The P-38’s bottom bracket used to seem pretty high, but with the rising popularity of highracers and European-style high bottom bracket SWB’s it no longer seems that extreme to me. However, when you combine it with the upright seating position it does make the P-38’s riding position feel noticeably more closed than other bikes.
This closed position is what makes Lightning’s unique and is most likely one of the major reasons that they all seem to climb so well. It has been known to make a few riders feel somewhat claustrophobic, but if you find it comfortable enough, it allows you to make a lot of power.
This powerful position, the bike’s stiff frame, lightweight and firm seat back make the Lightning feel extremely quick off the line. In my experience, nothing accelerates like a P-38. All of these factors also make the P-38 feel even lighter than the 27 pounds our test bike weighed.
Lightning’s detractors will be quick to claim that the upright seating position is not aerodynamic and will slow you down at higher speeds. While some other more laid back SWB’s will most likely out-roll the P-38, the margin will usually be very close unless we’re talking about a lowracer or something similar. In many cases the P-38’s climbing ability would probably make up for the slight aero disadvantage.
The P-38 has also gained what I feel is an unfair reputation for twitchiness at low speed. The Lightning is very nimble and it’s may not be as confidence inspiring as some modern SWB’s that really excel in this area, but it’s far from what I call “twitchy. On tight low speed turns one does have to be mindful of heel interference, though. The bike’s short boom may help make the P-38 one of the stiffest SWB’s in the biz, but it does put your feet pretty close to the front wheel. In my experience heel interference can easily be adjusted to and I think that it would only take the average ‘benthead a ride or three to adjust to the 38’s low speed behavior.
The Lightning’s high speed handling is even easier to adjust to. I found it to be at least on par with other popular short wheelbase bikes. I was able to crank it on up to the mid 40 mph range on descents on a couple of occasions without too much worry. High speed cornering was very good. The term “sporty handling” as applied to short wheelbase recumbents may have originated with the P-38.
The Lightning’s assembly process was a bit more intense than that of many other recumbents that I’ve received. I’m sure some of this was due to the fact that my bike was crammed into a smaller than usual shipping box to easier facilitate shipping to Germany (at my request). However, when I worked for a Lightning dealer this was also the case. This is annoying to dealers and can cause more bikes with problems to make it into customer’s hands. If you’re buying a Lightning, make sure that you get it from a dealer that knows what they’re doing.
So no, the P-38 is not perfect. But aside from the complicated assembly and a few component choices, I very much enjoyed the bike. My area has a lot of hills and just as many tight and twisty descents. The P-38 is perfect for this type of riding. Its high level of comfort, light feel, and quick acceleration also fit my tastes perfectly. In my opinion, this bike’s positives far outweigh the negatives. The P-38 is joining our long-term test fleet now and I’m sure I’ll enjoy having it around.
Part of the allure of the P-38 is its storied heritage. Its design was groundbreaking at its inception and it’s a very classy machine with a great bloodline. It’s not old, it’s a classic in the truest sense of the word.
Highs — Climbs like an F-16, Very comfortable
Lows — Heel interference at low speed, A bit pricey, Labor-intensive assembly
MSRP — Starting at $2,600
Reprinted by permission