Review: 2007 Lightning Cycle Dynamics P-38
Beyond and before
By Becky Taylor
Many small companies are building recumbent bicycles these days. Some are considered to make the best long distance touring machines; others, the lowest and fastest, the lightest, or the most commuter-friendly. Whichever is your favourite, when it comes to long-established builders you have to include Lightning Cycle Dynamics. Lightning offers bikes in just one style: a short wheelbase and an upright riding position. In today’s technology of lowracers, highracers, monocoques, and carbon fibre everything, Lightning’s P-38 is an example of a classic design still holding its own.
Anyone who has ever owned a Lightning recumbent will know that when designer Tim Brummer wasn’t busy breaking records, he wanted to combine comfort, speed and practicality while creating a design that also paid tribute to the detailing of Italian bicycle frames. The P-38 isn’t an out-and-out racing machine in its naked form, but one only need look at the faired F-40 and F-90, the carbon-fibre R-84, or the X-2 streamliner to start tracing the family tree. Triangulated cro-moly steel tubing makes up the distinctive frame of the P-38. Up front, a stubby telescopic boom is braced against the headtube, which supports an attractively lugged fork. Teflon tubes of contemporary bikes are eschewed for two machined idler pulleys to take care of chain management, and out back, paired chainstays and delicate-looking seatstays end in dropouts with braze-ons for both a mudguard and a rack. Nylon mesh is strung across an aluminium seat frame with a gentle lumbar curve, a foam pad slides into a cover sewn onto the seat base, and the package is completed with drop handlebars atop a tall aluminium steering column.
Lightning bikes are a comparative rarity in the UK, with my interest piqued originally by a recumbent bicycle buyer’s guide. After a few years of low down recumbent riding I was looking for something higher up for riding in traffic, unsuspended and lighter for the hills and with a strong compact frame to make jaunts on public transport easier. Having long told myself that importing a bike was just too involved an operation, a favourable exchange rate between the UK and US was the clincher. Lightning will ship both framesets and complete bikes direct from their base in California, and after doing some sums I contacted them about a frameset. The P-38 frame, seat and steering column are built in various sizes with only limited adjustability and Lightning’s website provides a detailed fitting list, dependant on the rider’s build. It’s not so different from buying clothes, and with several measurements in hand and my numerous questions answered promptly, I called up Lightning to place my order and a few anxious weeks later, they e-mailed to inform me the frame was on its way; and soon it was at my door.
Off-the-shelf P-38s are currently  available in three versions offering different mixes of components, including lightweight road wheels and brakes to all-purpose Shimano 105, LX and XT, but building your own bike can be a lot of fun! To get their frameset going, you’ll have to call in at your bike shop first. I ordered mine with bosses front and rear for V-brakes, and Lightning included the custom ‘bent’ brake levers which match the curve of the handlebars. I aimed to make my bike tough yet reasonably light, using components that I knew would help with reliability for my type of riding. I used Shimano’s slick changing nine-speed sprockets on the back, and a FSA triple chainset on the front for a range of 24-120 gear inches, controlled by bar-end gear levers. The fork uses a one inch threaded steerer which limits the choice of headset somewhat but Ultegra is usually standard equipment from the factory and I didn’t see any reason to choose otherwise. Above this, a quill stem adapter is plugged in and the steering column is bolted on, but I added a riser to allow more clearance between my knees and the handlebars. After reading reviews written by all manner of mountain bikers, I settled on Avid V-brakes for stopping power: a standard model on the rear and an Ultimate on the front. The latter is probably no more powerful but it converts to left-hand cable entry which is desirable for the tight confines of the front of the bike, and its integral ballraced pivots should ensure a lifetime of use.
The large and extra-large P-38s use a 20" front wheel and a 700c rear wheel which is certainly an uncommon combination to find in the shops as stock, so I was quite prepared for some custom building. Wheel and tyre choice can become a very personal issue for many riders. For example, I frequently ride at speed on roads of less than excellent quality and I knew from experience that I’d need strong wheels! My local bike shop recommended a Mavic 700c touring rim while St John’s Street Cycles pointed me towards a 20" Sun rim. I laced them tightly onto Hope hubs, 3-cross DT Revolution spokes for the rear and 2-cross plain gauge spokes up front. Although the P-38’s chainstays are narrow, I was able to squeeze in a 35mm Panaracer touring tyre, and for the front I picked a Primo Comet to provide a little more cushioning than the fast but narrow Schwalbe Stelvio I’d originally shortlisted.
The complete bike sat on my scales at a handy 27 pounds, but it’s a bike I intend to ride year-round, not only at a race track or for Sunday best. So I didn’t request black paint just for stealth: if it does gets chipped, and I know it will eventually, I can retouch it easily. On went some mudguards, a pannier rack, cycle computer and bell. All of these fitted easily although the rack mounts needed persuading to match the seat stays and Cateye’s long cable was needed to reach the fork. I added the mounts for my Streamer fairing and finally, as the owner’s manual instructed, I tightened up the cord lacing of the seat mesh to ensure that it wouldn’t sag and contact the rear wheel.
I was especially excited to see how the bike handled in comparison with what I’d imagined. I’ve ridden a fair selection of recumbent bikes, from the nippy HP Velotechnik Spirit and popular Streetmachine and my own Speedmachine, to Challenge’s pared-down Mistral SL and Fujin, to the armchair of Nazca’s Paseo. I began my testing in my back garden and I was surprised at how happy the P-38 was at walking pace and slower. The upright seat and the lack of tiller effect on the steering allowed an easy sense of balance and very quick, accurate movements. Too slow a pace and my steering corrections got larger and larger, and over I went! For me though, the true test of the bike was on the road and on the hills. It was, after all, almost indisputably the best climbing recumbent in the world, right? I have to say that with the mesh seat drum tight and with not too much luggage on board, the bike was a delight when the road pointed up. The conservative gearing on mine probably contributed but the stiff frame and seat level with the bottom bracket really did seem to make a difference to how my legs powered their way along. I’m not a fast spinner when it comes to cadence, and high bottom brackets sometimes make my feet go numb; the P-38 felt very close to my ideal geometry. The riding position is one of the most closed, though, unlike a lowracer which lets you stretch out, and the P-38’s seat angle can only be changed a few degrees. I tinkered with it and actually felt happiest with the seat as upright as the frame would allow.
As I spent more time on the bike, I threw on my panniers and lights and started commuting on it. Descending some of the long hills gave a good turn of speed and any concerns of a too-twitchy bike were immediately dispelled. It tracked straight with only a guiding touch needed on the high handlebars, but the steering remained light for jinking around manhole covers and potholes. Quick steering suits me very well but it won’t be for everyone, and an o-ring can be added inside the headtube to slow the response if you need it. The steering also lended itself to quick turn-in on the corners; on smooth tarmac I found the bike sometimes a little too eager but a dab on the big brakes and a steady hand quelled its enthusiasm. I wasn’t entirely sure how well the bike would cope when it got to poor road surfaces. Bryan Ball from ’BentRider Online was realistic in his reviews and advised his readers not to expect a magic carpet ride. But I think Tim Brummer hit on a good compromise: the combination of the mesh seat, foam pad and the unusual cantilevered seat base works surprisingly well. Obviously you’ll take the bigger hits that pivoted suspension would absorb but it’s maintenance-free, and with the bike’s agility and a bit of care to lean forwards slightly on the seat over the bumps I found the ride quality far from harsh. And on the level? Any unsuspended recumbent with small tyres will struggle when the going gets rough, but on the smooth I found the bike accelerative and downright fun, and actually faster point to point than the aerodynamics would’ve had me believe. Gushing praise? Perhaps, but the bike feels as though it was designed around me, and with my hand on my heart I can see myself riding it forever.
All in all, I give the P-38 a big thumbs up. Lightning’s design has evolved sensibly and been refined gradually over the years, and it successfully combines many great aspects of recumbent bike riding. You sit you high enough to look most car drivers in the eyes, the riding position is tucked in but comfortable and the seat is nicely compliant. The bike’s design allows standard luggage to be carried and its compact size makes it convenient onboard trains and inside cars, and straightforward for speed demons to add a complete fairing. The frame’s made of steel, so it can be repaired or modified. Lightning has carried the P-38’s intention over to its less expensive model, the Phantom, and alongside the older Stealth and Thunderbolt, its an ideal selection for anyone looking to get into capable recumbent bikes. If you live in the UK they might be a little more difficult to find, but it’s worth remembering that the P-38 was a good bike 20 years ago, and in 2007 it’s still a good bike.
Factory options and accessories include:
- Small, medium, large or extra-large frame
- V-brake mounts or rear disc mount
- Performance wheels
- Fork with headtube suspension
- Tilting/locking steering column
- Quick size kit for boom adjustment
- P-38 Voyager build with S&S couplings and flight case
- Zzipper small fairing or F-40 fairing mount on boom
- Aerodynamic panniers
- Slip-on seat bag
When I sat down to write my first review, I’d been riding my P-38 for about four months, with a mix of commuting, utility, and leisure. It’s now approaching three years since I ordered the bike, and with more than 2500 miles under its wheels, has my opinion changed? Is everything all sweetness and light?
I’ll start with my favourite topic: tech stuff. It’s a really well built frame. I’ve not abused it but it’s definitely had some testing times: my usual city riding, three winters, a well loaded tour, and an accidental series of mountain bike trails when my navigating didn’t work; all are contributors to the patina that any well used bike develops. The slender construction of the frame, coupled with the tall seat and handlebars does lead to some torsional flexing, more noticeable when my pedalling technique is less smooth and my arms try to help out, but I spend a lot of time going up hills and it’s not something I worry about. I experimented with coasting no-handed, and found severe oscillations building up between the handlebars and the seat/me, but this is due as much to the way I’ve loaded and set up my bike as the inherent spring of steel. Keeping one or both hands on the handlebars, or indeed installing a front fairing, adds enough damping and weight to prevent it. A distinct creaking sound from the front of my P-38 at the 300 mile mark was eventually traced to the low quality ISIS bottom bracket I’d installed, and not to relative movement of the boom clamps as I had feared. Replacement with a much better FSA component solved that problem immediately. Buy cheap: buy twice, as they say.
The mesh seat is still one of the most comfortable I’ve tried, and it’s certainly one of the lightest. The square shape of the base is never a problem while I’m riding, but its front corners caught my leg several times when exiting the bike or when pushing it. The sharp plastic end plugs were replaced with ones much more rounded, and my legs are happier now. Living in a country where it rains a fair amount, the mesh material itself has been a mixed blessing. It has a degree of stretch, which is good for shock absorption. Certain nylons however have a tendency to absorb water, which here allows the otherwise tightly strung material to lose tension and this alters the riding position and brings the seat frame close to my body. The cord lacing of the mesh to the seat frame allows take up of tension, or at least until the eyelets meet the frame. On the latest Phantom, Lightning has introduced a new wrap around mesh which tightens at the back. I may yet investigate this one, along with trying a Ventisit pad in place of the foam for those times when my bike gets fair drookit.
Otherwise, my bike is very much as it was when I built it. I installed a new derailleur to cope with larger sprockets and a smaller inner chainring, I swapped the Primo and Panaracer tyres for Schwalbe Marathon Racers for more cushioning and wet weather grip, and I added a short chain tube to give my calf muscle an easier time.
Does it really happen?
I talked at length before about the handling and ride quality, and my opinion today is very similar. The geometry of the fork is ‘tippy;’ it lends itself to fast steering into corners, which I could liken to performing short swing turns when skiing; not unstable or twitchy, more eager. It’s matched by stability at high speeds, and on my usual downhill test route the bike remained composed at 45mph while I was busy steering around the bigger patches of mended tarmac. Only the corner at the bottom of the hill stopped me trying to reach 50 mph, and the Avid brakes were quite capable of shedding the speed. I wouldn’t rush to repeat the test in the rain because although my tyres might be up to it, I don’t think my brakes would be, good as they are. Lightning’s option of a rear disc brake — traditionally their recommendation for the faired variants — is a worthwhile consideration. I’d still like to see a disc-capable fork to match, and then Lightning could offer a fantastic all-condition machine.
A P-38 would probably not be my first choice for kitchen sink touring because it’s not an overbuilt frame, and frankly I think it’s too good to subject it to real rough and tumble surfaces. My tours usually involve two full panniers plus a rack bag or seat bag, with which the bike copes easily. Since I prefer to use public transport (that is, trains) from home to tour start, the compact size of the bike has been very useful. In its naked form my XL bike measures only a couple of inches longer than a standard mountain bike, so anyone on a small, medium or large frame shouldn’t have any problems in that respect. That this is also achieved with a 700c rear wheel on the larger frames is pretty impressive. My only real regret is that I didn’t spring for the Voyager version, which uses S&S Couplings to break the frame down into suitcase-sized pieces. However, since it’s a steel frame, the option is always there.
At home, my P-38’s main competitors are an early HPVelotechnik Speedmachine which offers full suspension and a significantly lower and reclined riding position, and a RANS V2 long wheelbase recumbent bike which can provide a very Lightninglike torso-hip angle, which will also be familiar to RANS V-Rex riders. I’ll make no bones about it: my Speedmachine wins hands down in outright bump-eating comfort and by some extension, top speed, sometimes but there’s a lot of bike. It’s heavier and the high bottom bracket still affects my feet over the long haul — so no change there. On climbs, I’m often a tick or two slower than on my P-38, with my perceived heart rate a little lower too (I don’t have a HR monitor, however).
Surprisingly perhaps, my V2 is quite close to the P-38 in its climbing credentials. For getting power through the pedals there’s little in it, given its substantial aluminium frame tubes, a fractionally more open riding position and RANS’ excellent non-stretch, non-water absorbing mesh seat back. Few would argue that low speed climbing on a long wheelbase bike with a lot of tiller effect in the steering can be tricky, but raw time on the bike does help. It’s more comfortable thanks to the thick foam cushion and the lightly loaded front wheel, and the dual 26" wheel format helps offset the aerodynamic penalty of the high and wide handlebars. For me it’s a bike for relaxing on, but with spindly wheels installed it’s for speeding as well. Coming back to my P-38 after two weeks’ touring on my V2, how I laughed when I rediscovered just how small and neat it was.
When riding in traffic during evening rush hour in a historic and fairly compact city — none of those six lane highways here! — both the Speedmachine and the V2 are slightly disadvantaged, I find the former a bit too low to make filtering and traffic jamming easy, and the V2 is simply too long!
The beauty of a bicycle is that it can be used in almost any situation. Certainly for getting from A to B you can use almost anything, from unicycles to quadricycles, from lowracers to Ordinaries, mountain bikes, folding bikes, load bikes and what-have-you. Knowing your target riding activities helps you find the most suitable machine, and you must decide what attributes are most important. You might trade off visibility for speed, or advanced suspension for lower maintenance, or compactness for carrying capacity. Lightning’s P-38 sits neatly alongside Woodside’s J-Dart, Easy Racer’s Aptera, Bacchetta’s Giro 20, RANS’ V-Rex and what I consider its closest rival, the Ti-Rex. All of those I might use for commuting, touring and even shopping, given a large enough padlock.
Perhaps the reason to buy a P-38 is to have a bike that seems to have most of the bases covered. It carries, it sprints, it’s light, it fits, and it ascends. It’s exciting and rewarding to ride, and yet it rarely bites back. It’s one of those designs in recumbency in which a whole lot of good ideas converged at a single sweet spot. I said this originally, and I’m afraid I stand by it: when my other bikes have gone, the P-38 will still be there.
Copyright © Becky Taylor 2010