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In the last few years, bicycles and tricycles have become more commonplace. While trikes aren’t as popular as bikes, it’s safe to say that most people are familiar with both. However, the same cannot be said about velomobiles, a fun, though rare, variation of bikes and trikes.
Velomobiles, also known as velocars, can best be described as a “bicycle-car” and are generally available with two or three wheels, though some can have even more. The rider is situated in either the upright or recumbent (leaned back) riding position. Like a traditional bicycle or tricycle (standard and recumbent), or even a pedal go-kart, it’s human-powered, which means the rider generates the energy required to propel the vehicle forward.
Unlike a standard bike or trike, velomobiles are enclosed, a feature that comes with all kinds of advantages, including enhancing aerodynamics and offering protection from weather and injury in an accident. Because an enclosed body improves aerodynamics, velomobiles are capable of achieving speeds that no rider-powered bike or trike could ever reach; they’re designed with speed and efficiency in mind. In fact, some velomobiles have been specifically constructed for racing and have even set some world records in efficiency and speed. Most velomobiles are made for street use, and while they may not set any world records, they still offer a thrilling ride.
Recumbent riders are particularly known for making the switch, but velomobiles can be ridden and enjoyed by anyone! Because velomobiles are so versatile, they can be used to fit just about any bill—entertainment, exercise, or even a replacement for a motor vehicle. With so many options to choose from and ways to personalize these special machines, there’s bound to be a velomobile for everyone. And though often considered recreational vehicles, velomobiles are often subjects of efficiency studies and often compete in endurance events, where electrically-assisted velomobiles equipped with solar panels often achieve efficiency levels 80+ times higher than that of electric cars!
Over a decade before World War II began, Charles Mochet built a “bike-car” for his son, an event that would inspire him to create a variety of “bike-car” designs, vehicles that would be known as “velocars.” The earliest known publicized mentioning of the velocar was in 1927. Over the years, he designed one-, two-, and four-seat vehicles that were pedal-powered, eventually adding small engines. To create the enclosed body, he used a steel frame and thin plywood.
Other early velomobile designs implemented a body-building technique commonly used on airplanes of the time, a technique sometimes called “birdcage” due to its appearance. The method involved a process of sewing a fabric “skin” onto closed spaced wires or tubes and then painting them with a liquid that shrinks the fabric upon drying. When dry, the body resembles a birdcage.
The 1970’s saw the well-designed People Powered Vehicle, a cheeky little velomobile that boasted a side-by-side tandem seat, steel sub frame, and molded plastic body. While it offered the protection, comfort, and space that many desired, it was large, heavy, and was equipped with brakes and pedals that were ineffective and difficult to use. As the auto industry developed and transformed, consumers turned their attention to motor vehicles and left the velomobile in the dust for quite some time.
These days, the velomobile market is quite small and is perpetuated by the passionate minority of people who have a true understanding and appreciation for the velomobile.
Since its creation, there have been over 30 velomobile designs that have been published. Of those, there are a few key models that have stood the test of time and are most popular among today’s velomobiles. Because velomobiles are such a niche item, there are only a few manufacturers that produce them. Thanks to DIY designs, plenty of people who truly appreciate velomobiles are given the opportunity to take on the challenge of designing and building their own from the comfort of their home.
Body-on-frame refers to a velomobile design consisting of two parts: an unfaired cycle and a body, often known as the “skin.” They can be made using a standard bike or trike, but a custom cycle with specially designed fittings to mount the body is more common; special fittings increase overall fit and durability, allow for flexible configuration, and can also reduce weight. Because the body doesn’t have to be self-supporting or structural, there are a variety of materials that can be used to construct the body, ranging from fabric and plywood to fiberglass and carbon fiber. In addition to allowing for versatility in construction materials, the body-on-frame design also means multiple bodies can be made to use with just one frame, or that that cycle itself can be used without a body entirely.
Another common velomobile design is the Alleweder, also called “monocoque” or “unit” construction. This method involves forming and riveting an aluminum sheet to construct a body and attach it to the cycle, creating a single-piece machine, and was originally used in airplane construction before 1920 and in velomobile construction since the 1970’s. While aluminum itself is inexpensive and easy to recycle, the cost of having a velomobile made in this manner is significantly higher than others due to the many rivets and rivet holes and there are certainly limitations to the body shapes that can be created. Thankfully, there are kits available to both reduce the cost of construction and to offer a fun challenge to those who enjoy making their own machines.
Monocoque shell made of FRP (fiber-reinforced plastic) plus sub-frames of welded aluminum tubes
The monocoque method using an aluminum sheet is often preferred due to the lower cost of aluminum and because aluminum is recyclable, but velomobiles can be made using the same method with a different material. An FRP-based monocoque shell made from fibers with higher strength-to-weight ratio can reduce overall weight by several kilograms, but comes with a heftier price tag. This method can also be used to create a variety of body shapes and improve aerodynamics, making it a better option than the birdcage or aluminum sheet monocoque approaches. Even though separating and recycling FRP materials can be challenging, for many avid velomobilers, a higher price tag for a lighter, faster, more aerodynamic velomobile is a trade-off worth making.
While velomobiles are generally human-powered, they can also be found in electric versions, a benefit for anyone who’s looking for that little boost of power. It should come as no surprise that there are a variety of electric velomobile designs, giving enthusiasts options.
Some manufacturers and enthusiasts are looking for ways to make the environmentally friendly electric velomobile even more so. One example of this is a Finnish velomobile, the Northern Light 428, described as looking “like a human-powered rocket.” It also boasts a very special design—a hybrid system that allows riders to create and store power on easier terrain that can later be used on more strenuous tasks, such as climbing. Instead of linking the pedals to the drive wheel, the crankset activates a generator which then charges the battery that eventually powers the rear hub motor so the rider can receive that extra bit of assistance.
Velomobile specs will depend entirely on your personal preferences and needs. Just like any other bike or trike, there are certain features to be aware of and, depending on your needs, to specifically look for when on the quest for the right velomobile.
Most velomobiles produced since 2017, are “tadpole” tricycles with two wheels in the front and one in the back, a design that is recommended for those who plan on using their machine regularly—especially if they are looking for a vehicle that offers additional stability, easier stops and starts, and better crosswind handling. This layout offers a bit more stability than the “one wheel in the front, two in the back” design. Four-wheeled velomobiles are not nearly as common but boast increased stability and luggage capacity, tradeoffs for the additional weight and decrease of aerodynamics that a fourth wheel brings with it. However, if the primary concern is speed, then two wheels may be the way to go. Two-wheeled velomobiles rely on a small retractable parking wheel assembly that keeps it upright when stationary and at low speeds, and during slow maneuvers. Some argue that the added wheels also mean an increase of surface contact points, which is theorized to cause drag and reduce the vehicle’s aerodynamic properties.
Open versus closed
Whether you opt for an open or closed design will depend entirely on the kind of weather and terrain you’ll be riding through. Velomobilers who live in a region where rain is a regular occurance may want to consider an enclosed design.
Velomobiles use the same kind of braking systems as other cycles, but drum brakes seem to be a bit more common than disc brakes because they’re generally easier to maintain and much less noisy. When riding a bicycle or tricycle, lights are generally used as a safety feature that have been strategically placed for visibility purposes. However, unlike standard bikes and trikes, brake lights are a necessity for those who plan on riding their velomobiles on roads shared with others.
Drivetrain, shifters, and gears
Velomobile drivetrains are the same as those found on a bike, upright trike, or recumbent, and include a bottom bracket with at least one chainring and a rear derailleur. To promote function and protection, many velomobiles are also equipped with idler pulleys and chaintubes along the drivetrain. In fact, one of the velomobile’s distinguishing characteristics is that drivetrain and chain components are protected from weather and road elements that could otherwise result in premature wear or damage
With velomobiles being such a specialty product, there aren’t as many accessories on the market as there would be for their more traditional, non-enclosed counterparts. Thankfully, there are plenty of bike and trike accessories that can also be used on a velomobile.
Velomobiles offer more protection than any cycle without a body, but that doesn’t mean a helmet becomes optional. Anyone who finds themselves riding in a velomobile must make it a priority to always wear a helmet—enclosed-top velomobiles included. Even the more careful riders cannot compensate for the inattentiveness and inadequate maneuvering skills of a bad driver, pedestrian, or fellow cyclist.
When scouting new helmets, establish a price range that works for you, identify the most reputable helmets that fall within your range, and always consider how you’ll be using it when you ride. For example, if you wear glasses while riding, then confirm that whatever pairs you intend to wear with the helmet don’t interfere with strap placement or overall comfort. In the event of an accident, there’s a good chance that an uncomfortable or ill-fitting helmet won’t work as intended, so it’s best to head to a local bike shop with your bike list and glasses to ensure a proper fit. A helmet should feel snug (not tight), shouldn’t shift when you shake your head, and should be comfortable overall. Make sure to test out the chinstrap, as it’s commonly the culprit behind discomfort. Wearing earbuds while out and about on your velomobile isn’t recommended; being unable to hear others with whom you share the road puts everyone at greater risk of being involved in an accident.
For help when selecting the right helmet for you, refer to our guide on choosing a bike helmet.
After a helmet, a good lock (or two) is the most essential accessory. While velomobiles are bulky, difficult to steal, and somewhat difficult to resell, they attract thieves with their uniqueness and high perceived value. To mitigate loss due to theft, always be sure to lock up your velomobile when it’s not in use. Due to their odd shape and large size, conventional U-locks aren’t going to be very useful. Thankfully, it’s standard for a velomobile to offer cargo storage, so it’s not difficult to keep a long sleeved chain on-hand, making it possible to lock a velomobile to an immovable object such as a cemented-in bike rack.
Bell or horn
Since it’s likely you’ll be sharing your riding space with others, it’s imperative that you are able to communicate your presence whenever necessary. A good way to do this is with a bell or a horn.
Even though velomobiles sport a brake light system, riding with fully-charged bike lights is always recommended—even if you don’t actually plan on riding in the dark. A study conducted in 2004 and 2005 concluded that cyclists who ran front and rear lights during the day lowered their accident rate by 19% over those who didn’t have the lights. Weather can always change or you could get lost, both situations that could affect the duration of your ride and your ETA. You might not be planning an evening ride, but if you unexpectedly find yourself riding in the dark, you won’t regret having them. A front and back light are recommended to ensure others see you from both directions. Remember that the point is to protect yourself and others by making yourself as visible as possible.
Water bottle holder(s)
Because velomobiles are mostly, if not entirely, enclosed, it’s going to be toasty inside of one even on a mild weather day. For any ride longer than a leisurely neighborhood pedal, bring water and be sure to stay hydrated.
For those who rely on GPS to navigate the roads, the safest way to do so is with the use of a phone mount. There are even frame bags that are a two-in-one type deal—they offer a holder for a water bottle and a place to put your phone.
Even though velomobiles are classified as cycles, implementing the same road rules that are applied when driving a motor vehicle is still recommended. Using mirrors can be the difference between a “close call” and what could have been a preventable accident. Mirrors are a must for those who find themselves riding through busy cities or neighborhoods, as they allow for better road awareness and visibility.
In most countries, including the US, velomobiles are considered bicycles and are permitted wherever conventional and e-bikes are, including bike lanes, shared paths, and city roads. While some velomobiles are significantly faster than bicycles, they are not permitted on highways. When sharing a road with cars in a velomobile, one must be cognizant of the associated safety concerns: velomobiles are exceptionally low and are quite small and can easily be unnoticed by drivers. Consider equipping your velomobile with daytime running lights and a safety flag. If you’re lucky enough to have access to shared paths, beware of the dimensions of your velomobile while passing fellow cyclists, pedestrians, or executing an emergency maneuver.
Velomobiles are a rarity, so if you decide to invest in purchasing one, you’re going to want to protect it to the best of your ability. That means always properly securing it whenever it’s not in use. Garages are left open and unlocked all the time, so it’s never safe to assume that simply storing your velomobile will be enough to protect it. That’s why you should always secure it with a solid U-lock to an immovable object—even in the garage. To further protect your bike from theft, bicycle insurance could be a great option. In addition to protecting it from theft, you can also protect yourself with options like medical gap coverage and vehicle contact protection. Velomobiles can be fun, but the only way to truly enjoy yours is by having the peace of mind that if something goes wrong, someone’s got your back. Visit the velosurance website for a quote in just two minutes.