Lightning Phantom II

When I first started looking at buying a recumbent bicycle some twenty years ago, the first or second bike I tested was a short wheelbase (SWB) recumbent with under-seat steering (USS). It had the typical large rear wheel and small front wheel, and it may have been my imagination but it seemed as though the front wheel was so far back that the steering column was directly in front of the leading edge of the seat. I remember feeling as though I might easily pitch forward under hard braking. The road vibration seemed to be transmitted straight up from the road through the front wheel right to my spine. The short wheelbase meant the steering was extremely quick.

Other people were riding them, so they were serviceable, but to my eye the thing's appearance had a pretty high geek factor. I was trying to keep an open mind, but I soon convinced myself that this was not the recumbent for me. As it turned out, this experience led me mentally to lump all these SWB recumbents into the category of bikes on which I wouldn't be caught dead.

Skip forward twenty years and three recumbents later. I'd owned a USS trike (very nice for bike paths, not so nice on public roads), a high racer with over-seat steering (fast and fairly comfortable, but my sit-upon and knees were still unhappy with any ride longer than about 25 miles), and a long wheelbase (LWB) cruiser with USS (more comfortable than the high racer, but heavy and slow). I started thinking about what features I liked from each of my bikes, and what I would want in my next bike.

The more upright seating position from my trike and LWB bike seemed to suit me better than the reclined position of the high racer. I liked USS on the trike, but on the LWB bike I realized there was no place to mount my bicycle computer: This meant getting OSS. The rear wheel had to be at least 26 inches in diameter to get the gearing I wanted. There are recumbents with two large wheels and upright seating, but the bottom bracket would then be high, and I was beginning to wonder of I was physically suited for a high bottom bracket. I also wanted the bike to be lighter than my LWB cruiser, and have the ability to fit longer crank arms. Most bikes come with 170 or 175 mm cranks, and I wanted cranks at least 190 mm in length. I have some aftermarket 190 mm cranks on my LWB cruiser and they made a world of difference in pedal smoothness and pain relief.

As I worked through my wish list, I realized that what I was describing was one of those geeky SWB recumbents I'd mentally written off years ago. It wasn't long before I was investigating recumbents from Lightning Cycle Dynamics. Lightning has been making SWB recumbents for decades, and their tremendous success in various forms of racing really opened my eyes.

As luck would have it, I came across a great opportunity to obtain Lightning's heaviest and slowest bike, the Phantom II, set up exactly the way I wanted it, with the large frame, large seat, extended boom, kickstand, seat bag, suspended front fork, and a set of Lightning's exquisite 190mm carbon cranks.

Even though I owned five bikes at the time, my wife enthusiastically supported me in getting it. Thanks, honey.

First ride

Lightning had my measurements, and so had the bike generally set up to fit on delivery. They did a great job. I hopped on the bike and off I went. The steering and front-end geometry, being different from my other bikes, took literally a moment of acclimatization, but that was it.

Seat

Lightning bikes come with a hybrid mesh seat. That is, the seat back is mesh, but the seat bottom is padded and covered. The combination is incredibly comfortable, both when riding and when stopped. You may wonder why a seat has to be comfortable when the bike is stopped, and the answer is that the backs of your legs have to get around the front and/or side edges of the seat so you can securely put down your foot. Traditional lawn chair style recumbent seats with mesh seat bottoms slung between two side frame members, can make this difficult, or at least uncomfortable.

I can't swear to it, but the fitment page on Lightning's website implies that Lightning offers different seat sizes for different rider sizes. All I know is the seat on my Phantom II fits great. The key to the fit seems to be in the seat back, which is not only tall enough to support my back, but also has an interesting curve in the lower back area that helps to lock me into the proper position.

Unlike some recumbents, the only seat adjustment on the Phantom II is the seat angle, and even that is pretty restricted. To make the adjustment, you loosen the thumbscrews at the bottom and upper rear of the seat, release the seat-stay clamps with an Allen wrench, set the angle, and retighten everything. The bike arrived with the seat in an upright position that allowed great forward view of the road ahead. Unfortunately, years of sitting in front of the computer, coupled with my wife's excellent culinary skills, have me carrying a bit more in my midsection than I should be. With normal-length crank arms this probably would not be a problem, but the additional 15-20mm of length in the the 190mm carbon crank arms created interference between the fronts of my thighs and my wife's trophy case. Tilting the seat all the way back created the clearance I needed.

One of the great trade-offs for not having a bunch of seat adjustment is that the seat stays where you put it. On some of the other recumbents I've owned, it has been a real challenge to get the seat clamp to do its job properly.

There is something in the seat that makes it noisier than other seats, though. I haven't taken the time to track down whether it's the connection between the seat and the frame, or the fabric scrunching around, but unlike some, I don't require my bike to be utterly silent: The occasional creak doesn't bother me at all.

Steering

If you've spent any time around recumbents, you know that in most cases, adjusting the seat means making other adjustments to match. The Phantom II was no exception in this regard, as additional recline moves the shoulders away from the handlebars and the feet away from the pedals. Adjusting the handlebars was trivial on the Phantom II, thanks to the locking tilt stem and riser. Even though I eventually set the locking tilt stem back to its straight position, it was great being able quickly and easily to change the angle of the riser and then lock it down. While the Lightning seems to favor the praying hamster arm position, I like a little straighter arm -- without being in the superman position. After getting the angle on the locking tilt stem the way I wanted it, I set the height on the riser, and then the angle on the handlebars for the exact cockpit position I sought.

Compared to my LWB bike, having the steering pivot so much closer gave the first impression that the Phantom II was much dartier (is that even a word?) than it actually is. During the first couple rides, speeds over 32 mph seemed mildly insane, but knowing that the Phantom II's older brother, the P-38, has been ridden for long distances at much higher speeds gave the needed assurance to press on. After putting on a few miles, though, even faster speeds seem perfectly controllable, and there is no sacrifice in low-speed handling.

If I had to guess, I would say that the Phantom II's excellent road manners come from the fact that the seat does not move back and forth on the frame, so Lightning can set the frame geometry the way it ought to be, and it remains that way for riders of all shapes and sizes. Even with the extension boom on the large frame of my Phantom II, virtually all the rider weight is right where it's supposed to be (according to Lightning), relative to the wheels. If you've ever ridden a recumbent that felt different depending on seat position and even seat angle, it may be difficult to imagine the alternate universe of the Lightning recumbent, but it works great.

There is something different about the way the Phantom II responds in turns, though. For the first two weeks, I found myself initiating turns with the handlebars when traveling less than 15 mph or so. Above 20 mph or so, it was far better to initiate turns by shifting my body weight. Turns at between 15-20 mph seemed neither fish nor fowl. With a couple hundred miles of experience, though, it has all become seamless. Intriguingly, I've never been able to ride hands off on any other two-wheel recumbent, but I can on the Phantom II. How's that for stability? Another nice thing about the OSS on the Lightning is that I can really fine-tune my line through turns by pressing into the turn on the outside of the handlebar. That is, without changing the steering angle or shifting my weight, I can subtly alter the bike's direction -- say, to avoid debris in the roadway -- with a simple side-to-side push on the handlebars.

The biggest accommodation I've had to make is that, as on the high racer, I have to pay attention to avoid hitting my foot with the front wheel during tight, low-speed turns. On my trike and LWB bike, interference simply isn't possible, although I tried not to develop the bad habit of having the outside foot forward on turns. Apparently, I was a little lax in this regard, as I have managed to hit my heel with the front tire once on the Phantom II. Fortunately, I was going very slowly, so my unplanned dismount was benign, if undignified.

Frame

Where Lightning uses a space-frame design on their flagship recumbent, the P-38, on the low-end Phantom II and its high-end R-84 Lightning uses a monotube construction. In the case of the R-84, the monotube is carbon fiber. In the case of the Phantom II, the monotube is steel.

As shown on the Moulton line of upright bicycles, space-frame design has a lot of merits. The drawback is that it's more labor-intensive to build, and therefore more expensive to purchase. Credit to Lightning to offer a lower-cost version of its space-frame recumbent that seems to give up little except in the weight department.

My LWB cruiser is all steel, and weighs a ton. I've noticed some side-to-side flex from the frame when really cranking on the pedals, but resolved to live with it given that any solution would almost certainly add yet more weight to the frame. The Phantom II, on the other hand, feels as though it weights half of my LWB recumbent, and if the front end is flexing, I'm not seeing it. This is one stiff frame, and it's the most flexible one Lightning sells!

The front boom is adjustable for length, and the bike comes with a chain tensioner (developed by Lightning to allow riders to share bikes during its record-setting Race Across America (RAAM) attempt in 1989. The most difficult thing about adjusting the boom is that Lightning does not provide any witness marks on the frame or boom, so you have to set the rotational alignment by eye.

Drivetrain

The Phantom II has 27 gears (three in front and nine in the rear), handled by Shimano. It comes with bar-end shifters, which can be a little awkward at first because the relationship between your hand and the shifter bars changes with each gear. Shifting to a larger cog is not a problem because you grab the bar with your little and ring fingers and pull back. Shifting to smaller cogs requires using your palm sometimes, and your fingers other times. It's not a huge deal though, once you've done it a few times.

My Phantom II has a 50-cog big gear in front (it appears that the newer ones now come with different gearing), which is low enough that most of my riding is done in this chain ring. The downside is that I spin out at around 35 mph (remember, I've got longer crank arms), and the bike is clearly capable of more. I love bombing down hill, so not being able to maximize my descending speed is a bit of a bother, but considering that I'm bombing only about a minute or two in each hour of riding (if that much), it's a trade-off I'm willing to make to be able to leave the front shifter alone.

As mentioned above, the Phantom II comes with a spring-loaded chain idler that keeps the chain at the right tension as you change the boom length for different riders (or for yourself, for that matter). I expected it would introduce a lot of drag into the drivetrain, and thus slow me down, but if it has I can't detect it. It does make an odd noise, though, which I found unsettling at first because it's not coming from the cranks nor from the rear derailleur. After a few outings, I became accustomed to it to the point that now I rarely notice it.

Wheels, tires, and brakes

The Lightning Phantom II comes with Primo tires, about which I know nothing. I can tell you one thing, though: They feel faster than the stock Kenda Kwests that came on my Bacchetta Giro 26 (and faster than the Schwalbe Marathons that replaced them, too). The carcasses of the Primos seem very thin and flexible, so maybe that's their secret.

The rim brakes on the Phantom II are way different from the disk brakes I've been using on my other recumbents. Not only do they seem not to work as well, they also are noisier until broken in. I take these factors as signs that I should stay off the brakes! On the plus side, it's a lot easier mounting and dismounting the tires with rim brakes, and during tumbleweed season, this is really important.

Miscellaneous

As mentioned above, I got the optional 190mm Lightning Carbon Cranks on my Phantom II. I don't know how much lighter they are than the standard equipment, but they look fantastic. The biggest issue is that I hate it whenever any dirt or grease get on them, so I'm always worrying over them like a mother hen. Of course, I didn't get them for looks but for the length of the crank arm. With the seating position on the Phantom II and these crank arms, my pedal motion is much smoother than on any other bike I've ever owned, and that includes the recumbent I owned that had Q-Rings.

Another option on this bike is the Ballistic 600A suspended front fork, which according to Lightning weighs two pounds more than its stock cromoly fork. I've never ridden one without the suspended front fork, but with the fork the ride is extraordinarily good. Between the padded seat and the Ballistic fork, the Phantom II is the most comfortable recumbent I own.

My Phantom II arrived with the Lightning seat-back bag, in yellow to match the frame. The first thing you notice about this bag is how securely it attaches to the seat. This is no after-thought, slip-on bag; it's really lashed on. There's a black strap on top that allows you easily to carry the bag after undoing the Velcro attachment strips underneath. The bag features a large-ish main compartment, and three pockets. At the top, there is a vent you can use for headphone cables, if you ride with your headphones in.

The Phantom II experience

So you've probably gotten by this time that the Phantom II is comfortable and stable. For me, it's also fast. Now, I'm not a fast cyclist, so fast is a relative term. However, in 2010 I did an organized 30-mile ride for time on my Bacchetta Giro 26 and finished in what I thought was a great time … especially compared against my previous year's time on a then-new Trek 7.3 FX. I kinda pushed myself, though, and my knees were upset with me by the time I was done. In 2011 I rode the Lightning Phantom II in the same ride over the same course. With the more upright seating position (and a little less training time), I was expecting to be slower, so I didn't push myself the same as I had the year before. Even so, I crossed the finish line with a lower time (and -- obviously -- faster average speed) than on the Giro 26.

And then there are intangibles. I like the position of the handlebars. I like having a place to mount my Garmin Edge 500 cycling computer. I like being able to put my feet down at stops and feel really secure.

There are a couple of areas in which I did not expect the Phantom II would improve my cycling experience, only to be pleasantly surprised.

The first thing is that I didn't expect it to be far easier to clip in (using Crank Brothers Eggbeaters) on the Lightning Phantom II than any of my other bikes, and that includes the uprights I used to own. For some reason, when I put my foot up, the cleat is almost always lined up with the pedal -- or at least close enough that I can wiggle them into engagement. For that matter, even when I don't get clipped in immediately, I can still pedal just fine as long as needed (to get across a busy intersection, for example). I put this down to the relationship between the seat height and the bottom bracket height. With other bikes there's always a lot of hunting to get clipped in, but not with the Phantom II.

The second thing I didn't anticipate was how much easier it is to get started on the Phantom II when going uphill, on when you accidentally stop in a too-high gear. Again, this must have something to do with the relationship between the seat height and the bottom bracket height, although there may be some part of the bike's inherent stability (in this case, as it applies to low-speed balance and maneuvering) that contributes, too. On the Bacchetta high-racer the bottom bracket is higher, and on the LWB Slipstream the bottom bracket is lower. Aboard each of these, starting from a dead stop going uphill (or even in the wrong gear) can be a real adventure. With the Phantom II, there is tremendous latitude in terms of hill steepness, gearing, mood, energy … you name it.

One other benefit of the upright seating position afforded on Lightning recumbents is the excellent forward view over the handlebars. With the seat fully upright (as it was on my bike when it arrived), forward vision is excellent. Reclining the seat reduces this benefit to a degree, but my forward view is still better on the Phantom II than on the Giro 26, in part because the Giro 26 seat reclines so much more.

The result of all these seeming disparate factors is that exploring unknown territories is much more relaxing and fun on the Phantom II than on my other recumbents. With the trike, the worry was wandering onto an unfriendly road. With the high-racer and the LWB, there was always the nagging fear about rounding a corner to find an inconvenient stop sign or steep hill. With the Phantom II, it seems that anything is manageable.

Negatives

There aren't much in the way of negatives on this machine. The first issue that came up, though, is that as fast and comfortable as this bike is, I'm just about out of options in terms of an upgrade path. The comfort is so intoxicating that I can't imagine myself giving up any of it — even for more speed. I truly am a bike potato now.

The other negative is that the frame mount for the water bottle position the bottle just out of where I can reach it without leaning forward -- which requires that I stop pedaling. Again, it's not a huge thing, and with a second's forethought water bottle retrieval and replacement are easy, but it would be nice to be able reach it on the fly. Note that there is also a water bottle mount on the handlebar upright, which does put the bottle front and center (literally). However, I use this as an auxiliary only on three-plus hour rides, because putting a water bottle there means I have to be more careful with my pedaling motion to avoid conking my knees on the bottle holder.

Conclusion

If the high bottom bracket on a traditional high racer is not for you, check out the Lightning Phantom II. Tim Brummer, the brains behind Lightning Cycle Dynamics, has been building and racing recumbents for decades, and it's clear that nothing appears by accident on a Lightning product. Before you buy, I encourage you to check out the Media and Racing sections of the Lightning website, to get a sense of the history of Lightning's current products offerings, and the thoughtfulness that goes into its bikes.


Note: In March 2013 I traded up from the Lightning Phantom II to a brand new Lightning P-38, reviewed here.