By Jose A. Hernandez
Perhaps you’re not lucky enough to live in a bicycle-friendly community. Maybe your daily commute takes you through gravel or dirt road or you are forced to jump on the sidewalk from time to time to get around traffic. Perhaps the roads around your house are as smooth as the lunar surface or you just like to ride a lot, love to tour, or just ride for pleasure and fitness without having to worry `bout the road conditions. Whatever your reasons for biking through the less traveled paths, you might have found that your recumbent bike’s not a happy camper when the road gets tough. Well, it seems that the recumbent folks at RANS inc. have felt your pain for a number of years and set out to design a bike that can do it all - well, almost! According to Dave Brull, RANS’s Bike Division General Manager, their quest for a recumbent ATV produced the first Vivo prototype in the fall of `97 though full production didn’t start till May of `98.
The first Vivo’s featured a high-end component group, a rear air shock (Cane Creek AD-5) with a Ballistic 600A suspended fork and Primo Comet tires. The Vivo’s ancestors were surprisingly nice bikes but their $1995 MSRP price tags kept many of us mere mortals away. Fortunately, RANS has once again lived up to its phenomenal reputation by listening and responding to our needs. The result is not only a more affordable RANS Vivo, but also one that offers significant improvements over its original model.
Our test bike was delivered to Atlantic Bikes of Margate Florida where its owner Mark Gregorie and Manager, Sean Wentzell graciously offered to assemble and adjust this bike for us. Two things immediately called my attention when I picked up the bike: The bike’s striking/commanding new looks and the enthusiasm shown by the shop’s manager (Sean) while he went over the bike’s new features. It was obvious that Sean was quite impressed with our test bike as he proceeded to “lecture” me on the virtues of this bike for at least 30 to 40 minutes. There was something special about the way Sean talked about the Vivo. His enthusiasm was indeed contagious. So much so that, at one point, I couldn’t wait for him to stop talking so I could start riding the bike!
As I suggested, the 2001 RANS Vivo is one cool looking bike. The bike boasts a hot yellow paint job over its beautifully shaped frame. I was immediately impressed with the aesthetics, the craftsmanship and the quality of this bike. Being that I’m a picky SOB I looked for flaws in the finish but found NONE. Not even a microscopic scratch! This bike radiates a sense of durability, strength and power. Its fully triangulated TIG-Welded Chromoly Steel frame, its massive RST suspension system and its fatter 2-inch main tube remind you that this bike is built to take the rigors of the real word.
The 2001 Vivo’s component group is admittedly a slight step down from that of its original ancestors but then again, its price tag will give you an additional $400 towards your next vacation. The original Shimano 105 crankset, Shimano Deore LX Hubs and Sachs chain were replaced with a Shimano Sora Crankset, SRAM ESP Hub and a KMC HG-50 Chain, respectively. The Crane Creek AD-5 air shock and the Ballistic 600A suspension fork were laid off and the RST rear coil and front suspension fork were hired. In addition, we noticed that the new Vivo’s wheelbase grew from 39 inches to a more stable 45 inch base and the skinny Comets were replaced with the almost indestructible Hookworm high pressure fat tires.
The suspension duties of a bike are complex and varied in nature. A good suspension system should augment the rider’s comfort level and protect the bike’s frame and wheels by soaking up the jolt of potholes, rocks and other path imperfections. The suspension system must also do its job without absorbing too much of your pedaling energy. Heck, you want to go forward and not bounce up and down. More importantly, a good suspension should enhance the way a bike handles and improve traction by keeping the tires in close contact with the bumpy surface. A limited number of suspension systems are available and they all have their plusses and minuses. Quite possibly, weight savings plus the ability to accommodate riders of varying weights are the biggest plusses of suspension systems that employ air shocks. Elastomer systems are also likely to be light in weight and maintenance free. However, these systems lacked the adjustability or fine “tune-ability” demanded for a bike whose design objective included versatility and mixed terrain riding. Thus, the RANS designers opted for the RST suspension fork and the easy to adjust RST rear shock.
The Vivo’s RST front suspension fork cannot be adjusted but its rear coil has a pre load adjuster that lets you control the sag (the amount the bike actually drops from the weight of the rider) of the rear of the bike with a simple turn of the coil’s collar. When you turn the collar towards the body of the spring, you’re actually compressing the spring and thereby decreasing the amount of sag. You can also adjust the amount of shock’s damping by turning the rebound adjuster clockwise (for a more firm ride) or counter clockwise for a softer ride. Your riding conditions and personal preference will dictate just how you’ll be adjusting the rear suspension system. If the rear shock is not stiff enough to your liking, you can always get a 650 and 850 lb aftermarket spring option, which is also available from RANS.
I also tend to look at the tires as an integral part of the Vivo’s suspension system. The Hookworms, while not my first choice for a road bike, complement the RST system and perform admirably well when road conditions are likely to change from one extreme to another. If you need to cruise on the road at say, 17-18 MPH, you’ll find it most helpful to pump a good 110 pounds of air into these tires and stiffen the rear suspension by playing w/ the two adjustment knobs. When the road gets rough, you can let some air out of the tires and soften the suspension as needed to get you through the rough parts.
Another part of the Vivo’s suspension system is, at least in my “fried” mind, the bike’s seat. (I guess you can say that just about anything that suspends a rider over the bike’s frame and absorbs some pounding is part of the bike’s suspension) What can I say about the RANS seat that hasn’t been already mentioned at least a zillion times before? Hmm… Would it be wrong to say, “nobody doesn’t like a RANS seat”? The seat offers ergonomic back support like few others. Besides comfort the seat is extremely easy to adjust via a couple of quick release levers - a great feature if more than one person in your household will be riding your bike. Lastly, this seat will protect your bottom with tender loving care. Comfort in the rear-end department is something that we recumbent riders can relate to. Who the hell wants to feel like you’ve been severely spanked by a 10-ton gorilla after a short bike ride?
Unfortunately there is a price to pay for all of this versatility, frame strength and “fine-tune-ability”. You end up with a pretty hefty bike that tops the scale at around 38 lbs, 8 oz. (as per Zach Kaplan’s super accurate scale) . This extra weight however did not affect the bike’s performance and it was only an issue when I had to load and unload the bike.
HOW IT RIDES
There’s only one logical way to test the bike’s ability under various conditions. You’ve got to ride the bike on the road and on the unfriendliest off road path you can find. Needless to say, I couldn’t find any decent hills in the South Florida area (there are NONE) but I managed to go over enough bridges to form an opinion on the bike’s climbing ability. So my test rides consisted of a few solo 5-10 mile rides around my neighborhood, a 25 mile group ride and a bunch of short rides through a very muddy horse trail in Davie, Fl and Markham Park’s Mountain Bike Trail.
My first ride around my neighborhood taught me a couple of quick lessons: The Vivo does not ride like any Short Wheel Base I ever rode before. It felt a whole lot more stable and sure footed than any of the SWB bikes I’m familiar with. If I hadn’t known I was riding a Short Wheel Base bike, I would have sworn I was on a friendlier Compact Long Wheel Base bent. The bike felt as sure-footed and stable as the BikeE RX I recently tested. So contrary to what I used to think before, the RANS Vivo convinced me that a Short Wheel Base bike does not have to be “twitchy” or hard to ride. The bike’s handling was quite predictable and stable at any speed. As I often do to check out my test bikes, I tried my no hands approach and yes… I could ride this bike for several seconds in this mode.
My initial rides had me convinced that the Vivo was a little bit on the “sluggish” side. I had been too lazy to check the Hookworm’s tire pressure and had failed to adjust the rear shock. Well, it turned out that the tires had around 70 lbs of pressure in them and the rear shock was way too soft. So I pumped up the tires to the recommended level (110 lbs), increased the spring compression to reduce sag and made the suspension stiffer by turning the damping control knob clockwise. All of a sudden, the Vivo was transformed into a different animal. There was no noticeable up and down movement and the frame seemed to be as stiff as RANS claims it is.
Although the bike is pretty heavy, the weight of this bike does not seem to detract from its performance. The bike accelerated very well and I had no trouble at all cruising at 16-17 MPH. I also had no difficulty climbing our Florida “hills” (bridges). The suspension continued to absorb the road shock but did not seem to soak up my efforts to go forward. Admittedly, I’m more experienced with Recumbent Bikes than the average bear so I like to test and validate my opinion by asking less experienced folks to ride the bike and tell me what they think. If my perception passes my “collective consensus test”, I then feel my opinion has some merit. I found four “volunteers” one of which had never been on a recumbent bike before (one of my son’s girlfriends). To my surprise, she took off like a pro and rode 12 miles before returning the bike. Upon her return, all she could say was: “That was FUN” and “It was EASY - just like a regular bike”. The other “volunteers” had similar reactions. One of them is the proud new owner of my awesome RANS Stratus. We switched bikes during our 25 mile ride and she had no trouble cruising at 18MPH and was equally impressed with the bike’s road manners. Thus, the Vivo passed my “collective consensus” test with flying colors. In my mind, the bike’s road performance is very acceptable and the bike is well suited for commuting, touring or just regular road biking fun.
The Markham Park Mountain Bike Trail consists of a number of paths that are classified by their level of difficulty. The novice path is mainly a flat dirt and gravel path around a lake. The intermediate path is considerably bumpier as it incorporates deep potholes, mud, medium sized rocks, grassy areas and roots and a few gradual inclines with sudden/unexpected drops. The advanced path; well… forget about this one - this is reserved for Jeep riders with a death wish - OK, not really but the advanced trails in this park can only be negotiated with a conventional mountain bike.
I approached the novice trail with some apprehension because I had never attempted a real off-road path on a very reclined Short Wheel Base bike and the “easy” trail had just been drenched by a torrential South Florida storm. A 3-inch layer of water covered some of the trail, and loose sand or a thick layer of mud covered the “dry” areas. So I basically expected to make a complete fool of myself at best, or wipe out and break my neck at worst. As soon as I hit the dirt, it was obvious I had to down shift to an easier gear but the bike handled as if it wasn’t impressed or challenged by the loose sand and gravel beneath me. It didn’t take very long for me to understand that the Vivo was going to stay under me! The tires gripped the otherwise slippery surface with confidence and traction wasn’t a problem unless I pedaled too hard, in which case, the rear wheel would simply spin a little. My speed soon increased in direct proportion to my confidence level. Soon I found I could hit some potholes and go over some pretty nasty obstacles at 10-12 MPH which, OK, its not great but remember that this path was mostly under water. One thing for sure, I found that riding the Vivo in all this mud was a blast.
The following day I tried the intermediate ride and dared to ride over tree roots, ride through areas covered by tall grass and attempt some of the sudden drops. On a couple of occasions the bike was actually airborne for maybe a fraction of a second but the “landing’ was quite controllable as I had no trouble keeping the bike under me. There were however, a few sudden inclines in the more wavy areas of the path that scared the heck out of me. Though I didn’t fall down, I did loose my balance or was unable to conquer some of the spots in the intermediate course. I suspect a more experienced or skilled off road biker would do a whole lot better than me so I’m not ready to pin my failure to conquer a few rough spots on the bike as this might just be a limitation of the rider.
Lastly, I chose to ride through a muddy horse path in the Davie area. The Vivo performed as reliably as the horses that frequent this path and provided me with most comfortable bike ride possible. Take my word for it, if you haven’t tried biking through the woods on a recumbent like the Vivo, you are missing out on something that is almost too much fun to be legal.
Nit Pick Section
If you’re a regular reader of our online magazine, you probably know that a review is not complete until we get a chance to nit pick. So here’s my chance to be a pain in the butt.
There were only a few things that I found slightly annoying. The RST front suspension fork is quite wide and my heels kept hitting it until I learned to re position my feet on the pedals. This of course is not a big deal unless your feet happen to be as enormous as mine but even then, I suppose you can learn to adjust. The other thing was that I kept hearing a clicking noise in some of the lower gears. This little problem might have been corrected by adjusting the rear derailleur but since it wasn’t that big of a deal, I chose not to bother with it. Also, I experienced some difficulty removing the front tire. The tires are so freaking fat I had trouble clearing the brake pads. Ok… I know, the fat tires are a necessity and my mechanical skills are way below average but I really did remember to release the front brake first. Last and quite possibly least is the heft of this bike. The Vivo is certainly not a featherweight.
The bottom line
My test rides made one thing very clear: the RANS Vivo cannot be judged by looking at its individual components. In my mind, the RANS designers not only managed to save you a lot of money but achieved something more important: The Vivo is a great example of design synergy. The bike’s components just work together to produce a bike that not only met its design objectives but exceeded my own expectations by a wide margin.
Great Value - Competitive price tag
Handling characteristics - User friendliness
Weight - Pretty heavy bike.
SWB inherited trait - heel strike