The Lightning F-40: Still a cool ride after all these years
By Steve Friedlander, Hamilton, NJ (firstname.lastname@example.org)
I was sitting in my F-40 at a traffic light, waiting for the light to turn green. A car pulled up besides me and the driver called out, “That thing looks slick as heck!”
“Yup, it’s aerodynamically correct,” I replied.
“Did you build it yourself?”
“Oh no, you can actually buy these.”
“So long,” said the driver as the light turned green.
“Have a nice ride!” I called out as he sped away.
Such exchanges are just one of the many little pleasures associated with the recumbent experience, particularly for those riding a fully streamlined vehicle like the venerable Lightning F-40.
I first encountered the F-40 on a group ride back in the fall of 1994. In those days of old before widespread use of e-mail and the internet, John Tetz (an “early adopter” of the F-40 who went on to become New Jersey’s leading builder of home-made bents and velomobiles) had somehow managed to get about a dozen bents to converge on a parking lot in north Jersey. It was the first time I’d gone on a ride with other bents, and I think it was one of the first gatherings of what was to become MARS, the Metro Area Recumbent Society.
The coolest contraptions on the ride were undoubtedly the two fully-faired Lightning F-40s that showed up. Both of them had gorgeously painted nose cones; one of them featured a brilliant star-spangled night sky pierced by bolts of lightning. And both of the F-40 riders made it a point to occasionally zoom past the other riders during the course of the ride. It soon became obvious what my next bent would be.
By this time, I had been riding a Tour Easy for over 5 years and was well on my way to becoming addicted to recumbency. The time had come to take this little obsession to the next level. With the encouragement of John Tetz, who let me try out his F-40, and a recumbent dealer in Massachusetts who was a Lightning enthusiast, I became the proud owner of an F-40. It’s basically a short-wheelbase Lightning P-38 with a streamlining package that consists of a fiberglass nose cone and body sock that wraps around the rest of the bike.
The F-40 was first developed around 1987 by aerospace engineer Tim Brummer for the purpose of competing in (and winning) HPV races, while at the same time serving as a practical vehicle for daily commuting. In 1989 a four man team piloted an F-40 to victory in the Race Across America, establishing a record of 5 days and 1 hour that has never been equaled. Over the years, Brummer has sold about 300 F-40s and continues to sell about 15-20 each year. (For more information on the early history of Lightning bikes, see the articles “Lightning Progress: An HPV development case history” and “Lightning P-38 Design History”.)
Since the F-40 first appeared, a lot has happened, and the vehicle has been overshadowed by the proliferation of low racers, high racers, tricycles and velomobiles, as numerous bent manufacturers have come and gone. And there doesn’t seem to be as much interest in adding fairings as there used to be, at least here on the east coast. Since acquiring my F-40 in 1996, I’ve owned a succession of other bents and test ridden many others, but for my money, it’s still the coolest thing you can ride on two (or three) wheels. Getting fully faired is the ultimate recumbent experience, and for many riders, the F-40 streamlining package is still the best practical way to do it.
The F-40 Streamlining Package
The heart of an F-40 is Lightning’s P-38 frame, a classic recumbent that’s been Lightning’s flagship model ever since it first came out in 1984. The P-38 has been widely acclaimed for both its unique “space frame” and its ergonomical seat. The highly triangulated frame, with five discernable triangles in its structure, provides an optimal combination of stiffness, durability, and light weight. (Although the frame is made of chromoly, the bike weighs in at only 22-26 pounds, depending on frame size and components.) It has earned a reputation as the bent that knows how to climb, and it is common for P-38 enthusiasts to recount how they often pass uprights on uphill climbs. In my own experience, the bike does a reasonably good job of keeping up with uprights on uphills despite the extra weight of the streamlining package.
Lightning’s patented seat consists of mesh slung across a light-weight aluminum frame. My initial impression of the seat was that it was too upright in relation to the bikes fairly high bottom bracket. Once I got used to the fairly closed riding position, however, I found it more comfortable than other bents I’ve owned — mainly Easy Racers and Rans. The seat fits the curvature of my back in a way that’s both highly comfortable and conducive for generating power. (Losing a few extra pounds from my midsection seems to have helped in terms of comfort.) There is no issue with “recumbent butt” on longer rides as there was on my Easy Racer bikes, nor is there any tendency to slip forward as on my Rans bikes.
For an extra $3,000 or so, you can get a P-38 frame equipped with the F-40 streamlining package, which includes:
- The fiber glass nose cone attached with hose clamps onto a small tube that protrudes forward from the bottom bracket. (This tube can be welded onto a standard P-38 for those wishing to upgrade to an F-40.)
- An aluminum frame behind the seat that goes over the rear wheel and supports the body sock. The sides of the frame are covered with stiff Dacron fabric that provides additional support and stiffness for the body sock. Additional tubes can be added below the seat and on each side of the rider to further maintain the body sock’s “aero” shape.
- A spandex body sock that attaches to the nose cone with heavy duty Velcro and fits around the rear frame. It is also supported by the turned-down handlebars and upper portion of the seat frame. Unlike other body sock set-ups, such as those used on Easy Racers, the F-40 sock wraps completely around the bike, with openings for the wheels and rider’s head. Heavy-duty zippers are strategically placed for installing/removing the sock and for entering/exiting the vehicle. There are two slits just below the rider’s feet for starting and stopping.
- Other accessories included in the F-40 package consist of a small plastic windshield that attaches on top of the nose cone (which I no longer use, since it makes it harder to load the bike into my mini-van), wheel disc, and fork suspension.
- The F-40 package is also available with Lightning’s carbon fiber R-84 model, whose geometry is similar to that of the P-38. The complete bike, which comes with a Kevlar/sailcloth fairing and racing windshield among other goodies, is called an F-90 and sells for $14,000.
The whole package has the look and feel of a true HPV and should result in greater speeds than the simpler Easy Racer style body socks. At 32-34 pounds, the complete bike weighs only about half as much as a typical velomobile. Upon first seeing the bike, a friend of mine remarked, “That thing looks like a blimp.” Although not intended as a compliment, the name stuck, and I commonly refer to it as “The Blimp.” When talking to non-recumbent folks, I describe it as a “blimp on wheels”.
The World’s Fastest Production Bicycle
Lightning claims the F-40/F-90 is the fastest production bike out there and cites its extensive record of winning HPV races and setting speed records. I haven’t been able to find out how the F-40 stacks up against the faster velomobiles, but here’s my personal experience: On my “test course,” a three mile loop containing a couple of gradual hills, average speeds on the unfaired P-38 are from 16.3 to 17 mph. With the full F-40 fairing (except for the windshield), my averages increase to 21 to 21.7 mph. The nose cone alone results in average speeds of 17.2 to 18.9 mph, making it a somewhat more effective front fairing than the Zzipper and Mueller fairings I’ve used on long-wheelbase bents. (These result in about a one mph speed advantage in my experience.)
These speeds may not sound too impressive, but several things should be kept in mind. First, I suspect many of the speed claims one hears about are exaggerated, where seemingly minor changes (performance wheels, tires, tail socks, lighter components, etc.) supposedly produce dramatic speed improvements. Second, the above results do include some hill climbing. On a flat course, the aero advantage should be somewhat greater, as it would be for faster riders. On the other hand, on a typical ride with hills, traffic, occasional stops at intersections, and lower average speeds, the speed advantage of the full fairing over just the nose cone tends to be somewhat lower — generally in the two mph range.
At this point, some of you may be thinking, “Big deal! I can average over 20 mph without a freakin’ fairing.” But the important thing to keep in mind here is that because wind resistance increases exponentially with speed, aerodynamics become more and more significant at higher speeds. According to the speed curves shown on Lightning’s website, a rider doing 20 mph on a “conventional” bike would be able to do over 30 mph on an F-40 with the same amount of effort. So if you’re already a pretty fast rider, with an F-40 you could think about riding with guys like Lance, Cadel, and Alberto (as long as they’re not riding in the Alps or Pyrenees). With an F-40, slower riders can keep up with faster riding groups, and members of the slower sex can keep up with their faster spouses. As with size, speed matters!
The F-40 Experience
According to Lightning, the F-40 is for experienced riders only. It’s not particularly difficult to ride, but one thing that takes some getting used to is that with the body sock fully wrapped around the bike, you’re “separated” from the pavement. Stopping takes about a second longer, since after unclipping, you have to carefully lower your feet through the slits before touching the pavement. For this reason, I try to avoid having to stop on uphills and also prefer to avoid riding in busy stop-and-go city traffic.
The F-40 experience is not just about speed. Riding an F-40 has a totally different feel than riding the unfaired bike. With the front end weighted down by the nose cone and your body shielded from the wind, the ride feels more solid and “car-like.” It’s like having two different bikes — which should make it easier to justify the cost of buying one. The body sock, particularly the heavy duty one that I have, provides extra warmth — like wearing an extra layer of clothing. This makes the vehicle particularly suitable for winter riding. I use the sock mainly for riding during the colder half of the year. The sock goes on in November and then comes off when the weather gets warmer around April. The nose cone, which makes a pretty effective fairing by itself, remains on the bike most of the time.
Riding an F-40 has put a whole new spin on the winter season. Prior to getting one, I never had any interest in winter biking. There were plenty of more sensible things to do when the thermometer dropped below freezing: indoor exercise bikes, indoor tennis, walking, and occasional skiing — both downhill and cross-country. Getting an F-40 changed all that. It is in cold weather that one most appreciates the cozy feeling of being ensconced inside an F-40. Temperatures in the 30s and 40s are ideal. I actually look forward to those bleak, overcast days of November — there tends to be less wind on cloudy days — when the body sock comes on. When the temperature gets warmer, the top zipper in front of the rider can be opened for ventilation. I generally do this when climbing hills, and also to drink from the water bottle.
There are a few limitations, however. Cross-winds are the biggest nemesis when riding a fully-faired vehicle. I prefer to avoid riding when the wind is much above 10 mph. I have yet to be blown over or swept off the road, but I just don’t like the feeling of being at the mercy of the wind and not in full control of the bike. (As explained below, my heavy duty sock is more sensitive to wind than the spandex sock.) Part of the “F-40 lifestyle” thus includes regularly monitoring the wind speed forecasts on weather.com and planning my ride schedule accordingly. Before setting out on a ride, I look outside to see if trees are swaying in the breeze. I also take a bungee cord along on rides, so that in case the wind picks up, I can remove the sock, fold it up, and strap it onto the rear bike rack. In 15 seasons of riding, I’ve only had to do this on one occasion.
Since the weather is often either windy, stormy, or there’s ice and snow on the roads, the number of good riding days during winter in New Jersey tends to be limited. One of the joys of being retired is that having a flexible schedule enables me to take advantage of those days. It also helps to have another bike available for use on windy days.
Because riding an F-40 is quite different then riding an unfaired bike, the type of rides I do are also a bit different. The bike has a strong preference for cruising on flat open roads, where it excels, and has an aversion to hills and congested areas. Riding on highways becomes less objectionable if they have nice shoulders and you can whiz along with few interruptions. Long stretches of uninterrupted highway that would otherwise be boring on an unfaired bike, are welcomed when you’re whizzing along in a streamlined vehicle.
The use of aerodynamic devices also greatly expands the variety of rides I can do with the local bike club. With the unfaired Lightning, I’m basically a “C+” rider (13–14 mph average); attaching the nose cone makes me a “B” rider (15–16 average), and with the full fairing, I can do B+ (17–18 average) and possibly A (19–20 average) rides that aren’t too hilly. On the other hand, with slower bikes, such as my Bike SatRday, Rans Screamer Tandem, or my fiancee’s Sun EZ Sport, my speed is in the upper C range. (C rides average 11–12 mph.)
Once I’m zipped into the body sock and cleated onto the pedals, I prefer to keep moving without interruptions, but in recent years I’ve come to appreciate the F-40’s usefulness as an around-town city bike. The body sock’s bright peach color and weird looking appearance makes it highly visible in traffic, and its speed is closer to that of cars. When you run into pedestrians, the blunt front fairing is far less lethal than the chainring located in front of the unfaired P-38 and other SWB recumbents. (This is not based on any personal experience, but was pointed out by Zach Kaplan in his review of the F-40 for RCN.) And of course, more people get to see this magnificent contraption when it’s ridden in urban areas.
A good urban bike need not be slow and clunky. When doing errands around town, I’m usually in a hurry, so the extra speed certainly helps (except on short rides when the speed advantage is offset by the extra time it takes to enter and exit the vehicle). The nose cone, with its transparent windshield in front, is designed to accommodate a headlight inside, and there’s room for storage inside the body sock. The F-40 thus performs credibly as an urban vehicle. Of course, where I live in Hamilton, NJ (a few miles northeast of Trenton) isn’t exactly lower Manhattan. It’s a relatively flat, sprawling suburban area criss-crossed by broad avenues that are ideal for cruising in a bent.
The ‘blimp’ at age 15
Since I’m not much of a gearhead and subscribe to the principle, “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” I still have most of the original components from 1996 on the bike, which adds to its uniqueness.
When I bought the bike, one of the more artistically inclined mechanics at the shop offered to perform his artwork on the nose cone. I suggested painting it to look like the front end of a car from the 1920s or 30s — something like a PT Cruiser — but the mechanic was inspired to paint a map of the world instead, and I went along with the idea. The map has turned out to be a rather useful addition to the vehicle, as I’ve glued stickers on it to show all the places where I’ve ridden bikes. When people see the F-40 and ask me where the hell I ride something like that, all I have to do is point to the nose cone — the answer being just about anywhere in the world.
Gearing: Another unique feature is the bike’s “half-step” gearing configuration. When I bought the bike in ’96, seven speed cassettes were pretty much the norm. The F-40 came with an 11-34 rear cassette and a 28-50-54 chainwheel to provide a nice wide 23-133 inch gear range. The middle and large chain rings are sized to provide what used to be called “half-step” gearing back in the old 10-speed days. Shifting between the middle and large chainwheels changes your gear ratio by roughly half as much as shifting between cogs on the rear cassette. This provides a lot of evenly spaced gears, but requires a lot of double shifting to fully take advantage of it — something I was never inclined to bother with. The current F-40 comes equipped with a 30-46-60 crankset for a super high gear of 145 inches.
Front wheel: Another thing that makes the old bike unique is its 17-inch Moulton front wheel. The only other production bikes that use this odd size are British-made Moultons. For many years, this was the standard wheel that F-40s came with. When Lightning bikes were first developed, smaller front wheels were more compatible with the bike’s overall design, and better tires were available in the 17-inch size than the 16-inch size used on a standard P-38. The downside is that tires are a bit pricey and 17-inch tubes cost $20 apiece, which motivated me to get into the habit of patching tubes when they get punctured. Luckily, I haven’t gotten many flats. (I’ve tried using cheaper 16-inch tubes without any luck.)
Another drawback to the 17-inch wheel is that there was a tendency for spokes to break occasionally, something that almost never happens on any of my other wheels. This may have been due to the wheel having only 16 spokes. I recently replaced it with a 24-spoke wheel and expect to have better luck with it. The current F-40 package comes with an Aerospoke carbon 20” 5-spoke rim, with the 17-inch wheel still available for shorter riders of about 5 foot 6 or less.
Body sock: The standard body sock is made of spandex that is light in weight but also somewhat flimsy. Mine became stretched out after a few seasons of use and also got frayed at corners. I replaced it with a heavy duty sock made of “Darlexx,” a sports “performance fabric” that consists of two layers of spandex fused together with a thin layer of rubber in-between. The Darlexx sock is stiffer and more durable. It has a more solid feel than the spandex and makes the vehicle feel more like a true HPV, thereby making it a good compromise between a flimsy body sock and a heavy hard-shell fairing. Mine is still in good condition after 10 seasons of use, though the bright peach color is a bit faded after several annual washings. Darlexx fabric is no longer made, but a rubber-coated spandex sock, which is similar to Darlexx, may be available from Lightning for an extra $100.
The one drawback is that a heavy-duty sock makes the vehicle more sensitive to cross winds, since it does not “breath” or flap around much in the breeze. The spandex sock tends to flap around in the wind, which doesn’t make for a fun ride, but at least one can control the bike in moderate winds — in the 20 mph range or so. The Darlexx sock is also less suitable for riding in warm weather, but as mentioned above, it’s ideal for winter riding.
It ain’t cheap but …
The Lightning F-40 is not a cheap bike. The complete standard F-40 package is listed at $6,100 — admittedly a bit pricey, but still significantly less than most velomobiles. And as mentioned above, if you ride it both with and without the fairing, it’s like having two different bikes. I paid about $4,400 for a new F-40 in 1996 and it’s turned out to be one of my better long term investments.
I’ll conclude this piece with a few words of wisdom on safe riding from the Lightning owner’s manual that came with the bike: “Wear a helmet. If your head is worth less than $50 (the price of a good helmet), you don’t need one.”