A great all rounder that will have you travelling long distances in complete comfort
I have recently had the good fortune of temporarily taking possession of Laid Back Bikes‘ demo Pelso Brevet, a lightweight carbon recumbent high racer that was released in the first half of 2018. This is one of the first Pelso framesets to reach the UK, and so I was very excited to get the opportunity to spend some time on the bike, putting it through its paces on the idyllic country roads of the Scottish Borders. It is an area that is particularly suited to this type of bike – hilly, quiet back roads with lots of snappy rollers and the occasional decent climb. The kind of bike that excels in this terrain needs to be both a good climber and also comfortable as the road surfaces are ‘varied’ to say the least. You tend to vary from 4 – 40 MPH on a regular basis, so you need a bike that is capable of excellent high and low speed handling.
The Pelso Brevet is a design by Szatuna Kft. (specialized in the design and process of fiber reinforcement materials) in Hungary and has had input from John Schlitter in the States as well (many of you will already know that this is the same combination that was behind the design of the Schlitter Encore).
I have had the bike for a few days twice – once a couple of months ago when I was still riding the Cruzbike V20, and then again more recently after 2 months riding the M5 CHR. It was interesting to come back to the Pelso after this time on the M5 which gave me a little bit more of a wider range of experience on the high racer format. I’ve never ridden a stick style recumbent before, so my comments below should be taken with the understanding that I only really scratched the surface with this bike, and have no real world experience on similar stick bikes (such as the Encore, which I’m sure many riders will see as the obvious comparison point). I’ve also only been riding recumbents for about 2.5 years, although I do take my training quite seriously and am aiming more at the performance end of the riding spectrum.
The frame is similar to a traditional stick bike, but it gives a nod to the European S-Bend design and dips in the middle enough to lower the seat pan by a good 2 to 3 inches over a straight stick frame. If you overlay pictures of the Brevet and Encore, you will see that they are quite similar in geometry and BB height, but the Pelso dips a good bit lower at the bottom of the seat pan. This is good news for riders with shorter legs who struggle on conventional stick bikes. More on seat height later.
The frame and fork are carbon fibre, and I think this is one area in which the bike differs from its siblings. The frame has been designed with some flexibility in it, so that it is not bone jarringly rigid on rougher surfaces, which means all roads where I ride! It is not noticeably soft when riding, but there is definitely a little bit of much welcomed suspension in there which puts it in a different class of comfort from more rigid bikes.
The frame is ideally designed for a 1x gearing setup with a super wide cassette at the back. There is no front derailleur post on the frame, although I understand there is a bolt on FD post in the works, to be released at some point soon. The manufacturer recommended groupset is a dedicated 1x Sram chainring / crankset with Sram 11 speed shifters, a Sram GX rear derailleur and Shimano M8000 11-42 cassette.
After riding the Cruzbike V20 for nearly a year, the frame on the Brevet feels quite big in comparison. The carbon frame is chunkier in cross section than the aluminium Cruzbike, slightly more boxy feeling. It is similar to the M5 in some ways in terms of the chunky cross section (although the overall look is nicer and less industrial on the Brevet). The Cruzbike is still hands down the nicest looking recumbent I’ve seen, it’s aesthetics are very pleasing on the eye. The Brevet is a very nice looking bike nonetheless, and I immediately liked its look and feel when I got my hands on it.
It does feel like it is a little less substantial than the M5 – the M5 frame feels more ‘solid’ compared to the Brevet. There is more weight in the basic frameset of the M5 (slightly less than a kilo overall) and I think a lot of this is in the carbon layup.
The finish on the bike is a very high standard, a lovely gloss black with bold red and white highlights. The graphic design is simple, striking and very pleasing. There are no factory blemishes at all on the frame. It looks like the class product that it is.
The total bike weight including pedals, seat pad, mirror and neck rest was just under 12 KG. There is some scope to reduce that – the Mavic Aksium wheels are a few hundred grams heavier than some lighter weight wheelsets. You could put lighter pedals on, trim the bar ends and get a smaller mirror such as a Zefal Spy. You could use lighter tyres and tubes as well – I think you could get this bike down to close to 11 KG with the right component and wheelset choice. At 11 KG you are talking about a pretty lightweight bike (and see my comments on its climbing ability below).
The bike has an 11 speed Sram Force 1x setup with carbon cranks and an 11-42 wide range cassette. The chain line is managed in the middle by an over/under idler in exactly the same way as the Encore.
This was my first time riding a bike with this chain line management and I really like it. It doesn’t require any chain tubes, there’s no chain / wheel interference and the whole thing runs very smoothly with low friction. It’s also very quiet – almost no noise at all from the drivetrain during use.
A single shifter sits on the right hand bar to shift gears at the rear. There’s no reason why you couldn’t use a twist shifter or a bar end lever. However bar end levers do increase the amount of interference between the bar and the leg in tight turns. I’ve never tried them in that configuration but I can see how they would make turning more difficult. I also have a twist shifter on the Quetzal tandem for the Rohloff internal gear hub, and I do find it a bit tiring on the wrist over a long ride – it’s not a very natural movement. I think trigger shifters offer the easiest, least tiring solution and so personally I would stick with those. The other advantage of trigger shifters is that you can shift and brake without needing to move your hand to a different position or do any contortions – everything is just at the right place on the bars to operate simultaneously.
At the back we have a long cage Sram GX 11 speed derailleur which offered precise, reliable shifting on this demo bike.
In use the drivetrain worked very nicely, very reliable and I really like the over/under configuration with the direct chain line that a stick bike can provide. Compared to the S Bend frames where you start to get a lot of chain / front wheel interference without adding more idlers, the simplicity and effectiveness of this system is very appealing.
One thing I have noted about 1x setups are that I find the gear spacing a bit wide to allow for effective feathering when riding fast. I find my cadence jumping too far to really get a comfortable rhythm going and much prefer a closer spacing with a double ring up front. I have exactly the same problem with the Rohloff on the Quetzal. It depends entirely on your use case though – for a touring or audax bike where speeds are lower the simplicity and lighter weight of this kind of drivetrain makes a lot of sense if you don’t mind your cadence jumping around a bit. Also bear in mind that you might not quite get the extreme bottom or top end you want with this setup – I live in a very hilly area and would probably gear a 1x setup to get me up the 15 – 20% gradients that I encounter every day. This would have an impact on the high end. For example, using Sheldon Brown’s gear calculator and assuming the an 11-42 cassette at the back and a 40T chainring at the front, I would get 25.7 gear inches in bottom gear which is just about enough for the steepest gradients if you’re happy pedalling at a low cadence occasionally, but at the top end I only get 98.2 gear inches which would spin me out at around 30 mph (assuming staying ‘comfortable’ at 100 RPM). I prefer a wider range than this. Something to bear in mind.
The bike takes disc brakes front and rear. This particular bike was set up with 160mm disc rotors and Avid BB7s mechanical calipers. These provide decent stopping power and are more than enough braking power for coming down steep hills in the wet. I have started to think that mechanical brakes are in general less hassle than hydraulics, although I like the hybrid TRP HY/RD calipers that have cable pull but a hydraulic reservoir in the caliper. This gives you the self adjusting pad convenience of hydraulics but the simplicity of cables to the levers. BB7s I find pretty decent, perhaps lacking a little in modulation compared to the TRPs but certainly good enough for any bike on the road and not doing technical downhill singletrack!
The brake levers are standard mountain bike type levers on the bars.
The bars on the Pelso are a modified version of the original J-bars designed by Julien Mauroy and John Schlitter that can be found on the Encore. The Pelso J-bars are angled down by 5 degrees, and are also a little wider. The riser system is simplified to make assembly and adjustment of desired handlebar position simpler.
These bars are incredibly adjustable in all directions – you can slide the whole assembly forwards or backwards via bolts on the base mount, lift it up or down via bolts on the stem and set the bars at any angle you like. It’s very quick and easy to get them to a position that suits you. When I got hold of the bike the bars were in quite a narrow, high configuration that wasn’t really ‘me’, so I quickly had them widened right out in the same way as I have my Nazca bars on the Quetzal and Fuego. I quickly found a great position that I found very comfortable.
I think the design of these bars is excellent and will allow pretty much anybody to find their optimum configuration. There’s a few things worth noting –
- If you slide the bars quite far backwards (towards you), you will benefit from shortening the protruding bar ends that stick out of the base, otherwise they can catch your legs on turns. Maybe not something to do on a demo bike but if it was my own, once I had it dialled my position in, I would shorten these to free up space for the legs. As per the advice from Szatuna – “once the rider finds his/her first position, these ends should be cut off with some excess to allow fine tuning of the bars later on“.
- The bars are quite flexible – they move a lot when you pull on them. Compared to the Nazca bars which are completely stiff, the J Bars feel very flexy. To be fair they are probably half the weight of the Nazca bars which are pretty heavy and also less adjustable. I prefer the feel of the Nazca bars but the functionality of the J Bars is definitely much better. Take your pick – adjustability and less weight or rock solid and heavy!
- When you loosen off the two bolts on the base mount, be very careful. The instant the bolts loosen enough, the bars fall to each side, and if you’re not fast enough they will whack your lovely carbon frame. I caught them in time – luckily! Next time I adjusted them, I put a velcro strap round the top of the bars which meant that I could loosen them off and make small adjustments to the strap length to really dial in a perfect fit without having to hold the bars up with one hand.
The recommended mudguards for the Pelso are the SKS Raceblade Pro. Note however that these are designed for tyres up to 25mm so wider tyres might require some creativity.
The demo bike came with a Radical Aero seat back bag which has space for quite a lot of luggage, certainly way more than you would need on a standard day trip. You can easily stuff all your tools, a water bladder, food and a jacket in there and still have room to spare.
The Radical Aero bag fits very nicely but does compromise how far back you can put the seat. This is the same on pretty much all high racers with a large back wheel. If you want to put it back further, you might want to think about something like the Fastback Double Century bags which in my experience fit pretty much any bike you like no matter how laid back you go (although they are considerably smaller in capacity), or some Radical Banana Bags.
There is currently no supported pannier racks.
There is an optional light mount threaded insert on the frame that mounts on the downside of the BB unit. The recommended light mount for this insert is this mount available on Amazon. You can mount most front lights with an internal battery on this. Front lights with an external battery pack can be mounted but the battery would need to be placed taped or zip-tied to the boom or handlebar and cabled down to the light. The picture below (supplied by Szatuna) shows a front light attached to this mount:
Most rear light holders with adjustable mounts (angular adjustment) will fit on the seat stays. Regular rear light holders fit on the seat stay clamp, its outer diameter is a road bike standard. Here’s another picture from Szatuna showing this in action:
Here’s a close up of the front light mount on the underside of the boom:
Cabling is nicely routed inside the frame, keeping it out the way and giving a nice neat finish overall. It might be nice to have some grommets on the entry / exit holes to stop the possibility of sharp carbon edges eating into the cable housing.
If you’re planning a double chainring configuration with the soon to arrive FD mount post, then also note that currently there is no way to route the FD cable inside the boom. I’m hoping this would be included in future production batches to keep everything consistent.
The seat is carbon fibre, and very nicely made. It is quite narrow which suits me – I found it very comfortable and your shoulder blades have plenty space to ‘hang’ in the air. The bottom end of the seat does not have too much of a lip on it, which means it doesn’t cause problems catching the underside of the legs when you put the seat right back. This one had a missing Velcro patch on the top of the seat but you can see the outline of where it should be.
The seat is attached to the frame at an adjustable mount point at the front, and two telescoping seat stays at the rear. By taking the front mount bolts out, you can lift the whole seat assembly up like a convertible car roof. The mount point has three sets of bolt holes which allow you to move the seat mount point forward or backward at a coarse grained level, and once you’ve selected your bolt holes you can still make finer adjustments by sliding the mount forward or backward. Altogether there is 12cm of adjustment possible. It’s a nice setup and is pretty quick to adjust.
Seat recline angle is adjusted using the telescoping seat stays. One allen bolt on each stay holds them in position and it is again very quick to loosen them off, set your desired seat angle and then tighten them up again.
The seat pad (branded as ‘Air Through’ by Pelso) is a similar concept to the ubiquitous Ventisit pad, but a little softer and less abrasive. I felt it had a bit more cushion in it compared to my Ventisit pads, and I actually thought it was a little more comfortable. I didn’t ride it long enough to make a comparison after, say, 6 hours on the bike.
The ride position on this bike is still quite high compared to bikes such as the M5 CHR and Cruzbike V20. From a Brevet / Encore picture overlay it looks a little lower than the Encore.
With an X-Seam of 46 inches (and the seat moved back quite far to accommodate this X-Seam), I was just about able to flat foot it on one side when coming to a stop with my other foot still clipped in. It wasn’t completely flat but near enough. So I could probably go a good two or three inches higher and still be reasonably comfortable. Beyond that you need to start sitting up at junctions to keep your balance as it gets a bit precarious lying back on tip toe.
I think stick bikes are one of those designs where you really need to make sure the frame fits you before you buy. The further forward the seat goes, the higher it gets (although this is less of an issue on the Brevet, the seat starts lower and doesn’t raise so much over the course of it’s adjustment range).
The Brevet takes standard 700 or 650 wheels – it’s disc brake only and by default you’ll fit with 160mm rotors front and back.
The bike was fitted with Mavic Aksiums with Continental Gatorskin 28C tyres which were nice and comfortable and grippy, although the higher rolling resistance of these tyres would mean a bit of speed bleed off.
Two fork options will be available for the frameset. The forks have different fork offsets to ensure the same ride characteristics for both (same trail). The options will be:
1. disc brake fork with tyre clearance up to 45mm – fork offset: 55mm
2. disc brake fork with a tyre clearance up to 28mm – fork offset: 45mm
This bike was fitted with the narrower option:
The back wheel has enough clearance to fit a pretty big tyre:
Quick Comparison with the M5 CHR
Here’s a couple of pictures of the Pelso and the M5 sitting next to each other. It’s quite an interesting comparison.
With the Pelso at the front, you can see that the BB heights are almost identical. The M5 wheelbase is considerably longer, and it has a much more pronounced bend in the frame round the front wheel. The Brevet looks quite sleek from this angle. However, swap the bikes round and you can see a bit more:
Now it is quite easy to see the difference in seat height – a good 3-4 inches lower on the M5. The Pelso seat is not really high by any means, it just shows you how low the M5 seat is. You can also see that there is a lot less bar sticking into the wind on the M5, and how much further forward the seat and BB are in relation to the front wheel. The bars are much more ‘in your face’ on the M5 which makes the cockpit more enclosed. The weight balance on the M5 is much more towards the centre, whereas the Pelso is more rear biased. This manifests as a very different feel to the steering between the bikes. The Pelso steering is much lighter. You may prefer one or the other – they are very different bikes!
So what’s the bike like to ride? The short answer is – very nice indeed.
My first two thoughts after pedalling off were that it is very comfortable and incredibly stable. The carbon frame minimises a lot of the road buzz, and because it has been designed to be a little bit more compliant, it has some built in suspension. On my first few days with the Pelso I A/B tested the bike with the Cruzbike, and the difference was vast. Little bumps that were barely noticed on the Pelso would shake your teeth out on the Cruzbike. The Cruzbike is a very jarring bike to ride on rough roads, but the Pelso just soaks it all up. A different class of comfort altogether. The M5, whilst still pretty rigid, is much closer to the Pelso than the Cruzbike in terms of comfort. Although the Pelso frame is not completely rigid, I couldn’t feel much mushiness at all, even when putting out high power (or as high as I can muster!). It is a little softer than the M5 and I am able to put out slightly higher wattages on that platform, but in general the Pelso feels very solid and responds well to increases in power.
The bike is very easy to control and had no strange quirks that I could find. I was almost able to coast no hands on my first ride. It is a little rear-biased weight wise, so the steering is quite light but not in a way that feels bad. It’s a lot of fun to ride and control, possibly one of the easiest 2 wheeler recumbents I’ve ever ridden. Very beginner friendly.
The drive train is very quiet which is most welcome. Not quite as quiet as the Cruzbike (where all you hear is the hum of the tyres on the road) but not far off it. The M5 is much noisier than either.
On the large size frame, heel strike wasn’t too bad. You still need to deal with it on tight bends as with most dual 700C bents, but it’s not as bad as some other designs. I have big feet with inset heels so I get it worse than most.
Starting the bike is a little harder with a high BB / seat delta. On inclines, you might struggle a little at first if you are not used to the position. I had the same issue on the M5 when I first got it, but practice soon solved the problem. On the Pelso you can sit up easily to start with the open cockpit bars, which makes it more user friendly than the M5 where you are effectively pinned into the bike by the fixed tiller. This can be quite important on steep hill starts and tricky junctions. I have toppled the M5 a couple of times in the learning process which would never happen on the Pelso. My usual starting technique is to do one or two revolutions one legged to get some speed before adding the second foot and clipping in.
I did most of my riding on this bike with the seat not too reclined and the Radical Aero bag on the back. I did try a couple of rides with the bag off and the seat much more reclined. To be honest, I didn’t like the lack of forward vision. The J Bar base blocked the exact point on the road I wanted to look at, and the bars themselves obstructed where I wanted to look when cornering. I appreciate a lot of people ride stick bikes in this position and manage just fine, but I like a bit more forward vision so I put the seat back up again. With the seat at a higher angle, forward vision is very good. I still feel the bars obstruct the line of sight when cornering in a way that just doesn’t happen with a tiller, but it’s nothing you wouldn’t get used to. The Cruzbike has almost completely unimpeded vision even at 20 degrees and the CHR is also slightly better than the Pelso, although there is a bit of obstruction on that bike as well due to the large BB / seat delta and front derailleur post. Side vision is better on any bike with a tiller though which gives a better view when cornering.
I think this might be one of the crucial factors to consider if you were interested in this bike, particularly if you’re intending to race it – make sure you understand from a test ride how much your vision will be impeded with the seat right back. According to Szatuna, the Pelso’s BB and seat heights are 25mm lower than they are on the Encore. In addition, the handlebar is pushed 15mm forward on the Pelso, so you can lower the assembly a bit to end up with better forward vision. I haven’t ridden an Encore so I can’t compare, but it sounds like I probably wouldn’t get on that well with it if the vision is worse than the Pelso. It’s not a position I was comfortable with as it made navigating potholes quite difficult. None of this applies if you put the seat up to a higher angle of course.
In terms of climbing performance however, the Pelso is excellent. I have a nice cat 4 hill just along the road from my house that is about 9 minutes bottom to top for me. I recently did this hill on the Cruzbike. At an average power of 287W I ascended in 9:01. On the Pelso, I averaged 291W and made it in 8:58. So almost exactly the same, but also consider that the Pelso was over half a kilo heavier (which should make about 3 seconds difference) and was running Gatorskins on cheap, heavier wheels, whereas the Cruzbike was running custom built lightweight wheels with DT Swiss 240s hubs and Schwalbe One tyres. Obviously one comparison on different days doesn’t mean much statistically, but my feeling was that the Pelso is a great climbing bent and I didn’t for one minute think I was losing all that much power through the slightly more flexible carbon frame. A great bike for hilly terrain.
On the flat and descents, the Pelso in its current configuration (i.e. comfort riding, fairly upright seat position) cannot compete with the Cruzbike or the M5 as you would expect. This really needs to be taken into account when reading the paragraph below. I could significantly lower the seat on the Pelso to improve aerodynamics but I didn’t because that’s not the way I would set the bike up if it was mine.
I did some testing on the flat, 5 runs out and back about quarter of a mile each way trying to sit at a steady 250W with the Cruzbike and the Pelso (I didn’t have the CHR at this point). I averaged the out portion and the back portion separately. My power fluctuated a bit due to small undulations but in general, the Pelso averaged about 2 MPH slower than the Cruzbike. No real surprise there given the aggressive riding position of the Cruzbike – I was just curious as to how the Pelso would perform when set up the way I would ride it (i.e. with good forward vision due to a higher seat). I’m pretty sure you would get a closer result if you laid the seat right back.
I also did one 40 mile ride where I did my usual training pace – mid tempo with some bursts at higher power up the longer hills – and averaged a couple of watts more than my last run on the Cruzbike. This confirmed that in its current configuration, the bike is about 2 MPH slower overall than the Cruzbike for the power levels that I was putting out (which averaged out at around 215W over the course of the ride including some long descents freewheeling). I am also very slightly faster overall on the Fuego, which is much heavier but dramatically more aerodynamic and reaches very fast speeds on the descents. You do feel the Pelso bleeding off speed a little when the wind gets up in a way that the Cruzbike and the M5 just don’t do.
The take home lesson from all this is that you need to lay the seat right back if you want to make this bike as fast as it can go, and if I was buying this bike to race I would do some proper testing to make sure the numbers stack up.
Overall, I would describe ride experience as very enjoyable, quite uneventful (in a good way!) and quite confidence inspiring. The bike is brilliant for social riding with DFs – your head is not far off the head height of the other riders and you can mix it up with them very nicely. I did a ride with my wife on her road bike and it was so much more sociable than going out together when I’m on the Fuego, where my head is lower than the seat on a DF.
I really enjoyed my time on the Pelso. I don’t think it’s designed for all out racing, but I’m willing to bet there are people out there who will buy this bike, slam it and show that it is indeed a worthy speed machine. I think it would make a great bike for long rides such as sportives and audaxes, or as a touring bike – assuming you can get enough luggage on board using banana bags or something similar. You can go wide in the tyre department, meaning that the bike will be more than capable of tackling some rougher surfaces. The comfort is absolutely fantastic for a non suspended bent and you could easily spend hours or days on the very comfortable seat just eating up the miles. I like adjustable bikes which lend themselves to multiple use cases, and as with other bikes with telescoping seat stays, you can put this one in an upright comfort configuration or low racing position in a matter of minutes and just one allen key. I like the Fuego for this exact same reason – a quick QR release and you can move the seat up or down.
It feels like a much easier bike to live with than either the Cruzbike or M5, particularly if you are not a seasoned veteran on recumbent high racers, or are just looking for something that doesn’t have significant design compromises and is easy to hop on and off. Despite being a high racer I do think it’s one of the easiest riding recumbents I’ve tried.
If I was looking for pure speed I might not choose this bike over something with that singular purpose in mind. Otherwise, it’s a bike you should definitely check out. It’s great to see a new model coming onto the market, and it deserves to do well. I’m sure it will!
Also please remember that I have no previous stick bike experience and only a few days’ riding on the Pelso, so it’s very much a first impression only.
Thanks to Laid Back Bikes in Edinburgh for lending me the bike. It’s currently available at the shop for demo rides and mini tours.