Short Review – Optima High Baron

(When you’re done here, you can see all the other recumbents I’ve reviewed on this page.)

A few weekends back I spent an enjoyable Saturday testing out a pair of European-style highracers – the brand new Optima High Baron and one of the many permutations of the Metabike. Both are similar in some ways, but surprisingly different in others. I’ll write about the Baron first, for reasons which will become apparent…

Background on highracers

Firstly, a bit of context. There’s no real definition for a ‘highracer’ recumbent, but a sensible approach seems to be ‘frames which can take a pair of 622 size wheels’ (or 700C/29er/28er, depending on which particular nomenclature you prefer). This has a couple of bonuses when compared to an average lowracer like the Fuego:

  • The biggie – you can use normal road bike wheels and tyres. The 622 size is where all the research money goes and what the bulk of the performance cycling market is interested in, so you can generally pick up a speedy set of wheels for a much cheaper price.
  • Bigger wheels and higher volume tyres tend to result in a bike that rolls better over dodgy road surfaces.
  • Equally-sized wheels mean you only need to carry one size of inner tube (and for longer distances, only one spare tyre)

Taller wheels also often result in a more straightforward chain routing, as you haven’t got to deal with the rider’s backside getting in the way… Finally, you can get the entirety of the rider’s body into a flatter position without losing all your ground clearance, which goes some way to offset the increased aerodynamic drag of the taller platform.

Note neither of these ‘highracers’ are actually all that high – the Baron in particular slings you between the wheels so your eyeline is only a few inches above that in a lowracer. You could raise yourself further by adjusting the angle of the seat, but then you start to diminish the aerodynamic performance of the machine.

A last bit on wording; I mentioned these were both ‘European’ highracers. This is a not-very-standard term to indicate that the frame bends around the seat and wheels in a natural way, unlike the American stickbike approach used by manufacturers like Bachetta:

The rather tasty-looking Bachetta Carbon Aero 2.0, demonstrating the American stickbike approach to highracers. Click for more details.
The rather tasty-looking Bachetta Carbon Aero 2.0, demonstrating the American stickbike approach to highracers. Often results in a lighter bike, but can also cause really high bottom brackets for riders with long legs. Click for more details.

Right, on with the show.

The Optima High Baron

The High Baron is new on the scene, but Optima’s Low Baron is a well-regarded lowracer, so there’s a good bit of pedigree behind the name at least. The Low and High Barons also share a similar frame, including the rather dashing swooping chainstays..

The Optima High Baron, with the seat in the fully-raised position. Note the minimal deflection at the idler in the power-side chainline, and the general beauty of the thing.
The Optima High Baron, with the seat in the fully-raised position. Note the minimal deflection at the idler in the power-side chainline, and the general beauty of the thing.

The High Baron is very definitely aimed at high performance and efficiency. Quick bikes tend to be stiff, light, and aerodynamic, and the Baron solidly ticks all of those boxes with its fully rigid aluminium and carbon frame, well-braced boom and low-slung seat.

Frame and build options: Stiff, light and single-minded

The bike I rode was supplied as a framekit to LaidBack bikes and built up using a variety of parts, so I won’t comment particularly on the components. It’s certainly a very pretty bike, even in this rather lairy boy-racer green. Equally striking red and white options are also available.

The front fork (and optionally seat and boom) are both carbon, with the rest of the frame aluminium. The optional folding stem (shown above) arcs rather irritatingly into your eyeline at lower seat elevations, so you’re probably better off with the straight non-pivoting version. There’s no provision for a kickstand nor a rack of any sort, although a tailbox is available and various back-of-seat luggage options would work fine. A conventional rear mudguard is fine, but you’ll have to resort to something racing-snake thin for the front.

The two slightly unusual elements of the frame are the curved chainstays at the back, and the additional bracing around the headset. The former is just flexible enough to smooth out any road buzz, meaning that despite the lack of suspension you’ve got a chance of finishing a long ride with all your fillings still in place. The bracing around the fork and boom attempts to reduce the bob of the boom when you put power through the pedals, again increasing the percentage of the energy that you put through the pedals that reaches the rear wheel. Given the high bottom bracket the most powerful part of your pedal stroke will be parallel to the boom anyway, but every little helps.

Drivetrain: Efficient, but loud and very cramped

On paper, the minimal deflection at the power-side idler should result in an exceptionally efficient drivetrain. Bonus points should also be available for the double return idlers, avoiding the needs for a chain-tube guide.

Power idler at the top, and the first return idler at the bottom. The power idler is non-standard (Optima forgot to put one in the box) and absolutely requires a chain-keeper to stop the chain bouncing out.
Power idler at the top, and the first return idler at the bottom. The power idler is non-standard (Optima forgot to put one in the box) and absolutely requires a chain-keeper to stop the chain bouncing out.

There’s certainly no real drag felt in the system, so I can’t grumble too much. However, it feels like Optima just applied the Low Baron’s drivetrain, without really considering what other options become available with the bigger wheels. The power idler creates so little deviation in chainline that  any bump causes the chain to make a bid for freedom. As Optima forgot to include a chainkeeper with this particular delivery, every five minutes or so I had to reach down and dig the chain out from under the seat to put it back on the idler. Although the ‘keeper solves this particular problem, the chain then spends a lot of time rattling off the metal bar rather than neatly held on the idler teeth, so the transmission becomes unsociably noisy.

Everything is also really rather squashed together around the front fork, with the chain crossing over itself right next to the front brake. This particular bike only has  handful of kilometers on it and already the caliper is scuffed from chainrub.

This photo still doesn't do justice to how cramped the area by the front fork is.
This photo still doesn’t do justice to how cramped the area by the front brake is. These two bits of chain are travelling in opposite directions about a millimeter apart, which is inevitably going to affect chain life as the outer plates catch against each other. You can also see the abrasions on the caliper around the ‘R’. The caliper is mounted behind the fork, if you’re struggling to get your bearings…

It all works fine, but just doesn’t feel quite right on a performance bike like this.

Brakes: Pants. Well and truly

Oh Optima.

Really?

The slight concerns with the drivetrain I mentioned above pale into insignificance when placed next to the headline fact that the High Baron simply doesn’t want to stop. Rim brakes aren’t a personal favorite, but a good, well-adjusted set can be just as grabby as disc brakes. The problem is that somewhat peculiar design decisions made around the brake mounting points mean that if you stray from the exceptionally long-drop brakes that Optima recommend (Tektro R730s), you simply can’t get effective braking on the High Baron without some pretty ropey bodging. This particular build had part of an SPD pedal cleat attached to the rear brake to guide the cable run around parts of the frame, whereas Dave McCraw has one, two and three articles on his eventually successful attempts to find a way of reliably slowing his red Baron.

Sure, you can go with the Tektro option and be rewarded with just-about-bearable stopping power, but long drop brakes should be there to deal with big mudguards and fat tyres, not lazy frame design. Vitally important elements of any vehicle should not require parts of a shoe and a few hours with a metal file to set up.

Until Optima sort this out or release a disc brake front fork for the High Baron, this is a deal-breaker for me. Which is a shame, because of what happens next.

The ride

Is simply superb.

Me, steaming along a slight downhill.
Me, steaming along a slight downhill. Dragging the brakes as well, because about 500m away is a junction, and the Baron requires about this much notice to actually slow down…

No, really. Once you banish that nagging fear of being unable to stop abruptly and start to play around, you realise that the High Baron is one of the best handling bikes around. The steering is light and responsive at all speeds; it flicks in and out of corners, carves a line like a lowracer; and the light, rigid frame and direct chainline mean it responds instantly to pressure on the pedals.

My test route was a 25km loop with a few sharp climbs and it was an absolute delight throughout. Uphill it climbs strongly and there’s no sense of wasted energy or frame flex. On the flat and downhill the laid back seat and high legs tuck the body neatly out of the airflow, and the four chainstays take the edge of the buzz from cracked road surfaces. Potholes hurt – this is after all still a fully rigid bike – but the shock isn’t shunted straight into your spine like the Metabike.

cross setction
This shot from the rear demonstrates two points. A) amusing slogans on the back of your cycling top are rather wasted on a recumbent seat, and B) when your ears provide a measurable fraction of your total front surface area, you can safely claim that a bike is pretty damn aero…

I wouldn’t recommend it as a first recumbent. The nimble steering reacts to a slight wobble, and the instability that allows you to throw it into corners also means that you get limited help from the bike itself in staying on the straight and narrow. Start with something sensible, cheaper and more comfortable like the Nazca Fuego.

However, if you’ve already cut your recumbent teeth on something more accommodating, you’ll struggle to find something more exciting to ride than the High Baron.

Conclusion: World beating ride, but some basic faults

With the current braking and drivetrain issues, the High Baron feels like a first draft at something brilliant. Broken, but with huge potential.

Add in a front disc brake and improve the rear brake cable routing, move the power idler forward to increase the chainline deviation and drop the return chain out of the way of the brake caliper, and this would be a simply sublime racing recumbent.

All that being said, I still heartily recomment that you go find yourself a demo model and some quiet roads, and spend a few hours releasing your inner child. Maybe you’ll have enough fun to overlook the failings.

After all, the best relationships require work.

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