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Go Back to the Tricycle: My Own Personal Elf Quest

by Wesley Cheney

Call me Cutter.

A few days ago I chanced to drive up out of the Chesapeake mudflats to the Carolina foothills, where I found a taste of the future in a cherry red, hot rod hybrid trike. If bicycling is the future of transportation, then the velomobile is the future of bicycling: the epitome of utility cycling: the cool waters of Sorrow’s End.

Elf velomobiles lined up outside Organic Transit's Durham, North Carolina headquarters.

A vision of an alternate future: Elf velomobiles lined up outside Organic Transit’s Durham, North Carolina headquarters.

The velo-what, you say? It’s no surprise that you’ve never heard of velomobiles: semi-enclosed, human-powered vehicles. Velomobiles are the quirky outliers of cycling (which is itself on the fringes of American culture). Think of a velomobile as a utilitarian cross between the car you want and the bike you need. Unfortunately, velomobiles are seen more often in encyclopedias (see: fastest human-powered vehicle) than on city streets . They have more unfulfilled potential than Edsel Ford, a Ford Edsel and a surly comic book geek combined.

ElfQuest: The cult-hit comic book that spawned a million man-buns.

ElfQuest: The cult-hit comic book that spawned a million man-buns.

With its retro-futuristic teardrop shape, Organic Transit’s Elf velomobile looks like it belongs in another time-stream: a product of an alternate universe where geek is cool, logic rules, and four-fingered elves ride wolves. But here in our gritty, grimy, polluted North America, the culture and infrastructure of the Twentieth Century were defined and dominated by the automobile. (Nearly) Everyone has drunk the Kool-Aid and fervently believes that a car is both the means and end of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

When I saw the Elf “Twofer” parked in front of Organic Transit’s downtown Durham, North Carolina headquarters, the clouds parted and I felt a moment of Recognition, You are my elf, I thought, And the fruit of our union shall be greater than the sum of its parts.

“Give me your soul name” Sending a telepathic message of recognition.


After signing a waiver, I was off on a test ride, and I felt as speedy as an elf riding a wolf bareback. The seat was a zip to adjust, and the controls felt intuitive. The thumb throttle for the electric motor was simple to operate, and the motor responded quickly, providing plenty of low-end torque. I was able to easily accelerate up hills from full stops. When I pedaled at the same time & made full use of the NuVinci hub, I was able to get up to the 25mph speed limit just as quickly as a Jeep or a hipster on a fixie. But unlike on my bare bones, carbon fiber & bamboo fixed gear bike, I could maintain that initial burst of speed, thanks to the aerodynamic fairing and electric-assist.

This is where the magic happens: the cockpit of an Elf velomobile, with dual throttles on the handlebar: one for the continuously-variable human transmission, and another for the solar-charged, battery-fed electric motor.

This is where the magic happens: the cockpit of an Elf velomobile, with dual throttles on the handlebar: one for the continuously-variable human transmission, and another for the solar-charged, battery-fed electric motor.

The plastic body of the Elf is lightweight, tough and modular. It keeps a driver, a passenger and their stuff protected from rain and grime, just like in a “real car.” The top of the Elf is covered by a solar panel that charges the battery for the electric motor. Behind the back seat is a small, covered cargo area, and more gear can be stored up front, too (which would improve handling, I’m sure).

The aluminum frame of the Elf is rigid, but lightweight. The wheels are available in two sizes: fat and fatter. Each of the three wheels is equipped with an Avid BB-7 mechanical brake. I felt so confident in braking with only the rear brake that I had to remind myself to use the front brakes, too. With all brakes on, the Elf stopped so quickly that it scared me. Ive been riding with BB-7s for over a decade now. I find them to be reliable, powerful and easily serviceable. I also started riding on semi-slick fat tires. I weigh more than a hundred kilo. I cant look at a bicycle tire skinnier than 32mm without blowing a spoke or a tube. Fat tires save big asses.

What do you like best about the Elf? I asked my five year old son as we zipped down a shady green hill in our sporty Elf trike. Over my shoulder I could see him grinning like we were on a roller-coaster. Without any hesitation he replied, Going FAST! I grinned with him and twisted the throttles harder.

Living the Dream: the backside of an early, well-worn Elf.

Living the Dream: the backside of an early, well-worn Elf.

The Elf handles like a grown-up go-kart. It zips around potholes, and corners off camber with ease. The rolling hills and gridded streets of Durham are the perfect playground for an Elf. Like any tricycle, the Elf could be rolled if pushed too fast into a turn too tight. As a kid I round around Maple Park on a 3spd, candy blue Schwinn tricycle, with one of the rear wheels up in the air and a football helmet on my head, imitating the Shriners I saw in the Dairy Days Parade.

Later in life I rode a Main Street pedicab for a season, and learned that I could tip a two meter trike, too. Carving a curve at speed on a trike requires leaning the upper body into the turn, in order to keep the inside wheel weighted. I never felt like I was on the verge of tipping the Elf. But, I also had a twenty kilo kid in the backseat, keeping the rear wheel weighted down. Without a passenger, I suspect I would need to use more body language in fast turns.

The devil is in the details. The Organic Transit Elf features two drivetrains: one for the electric motor, and another for the human motor.

The devil is in the details. The Organic Transit Elf features three brakes and two drivetrains: one for the electric motor, and another for the human motor.

Ive ridden in my share of 50km/h pace-lines. Ive delivered packages from Bloomsbury to Westminster. I’ve ridden from London to Rome, and from Boston to Montreal and back again (in less than ninety hours). I’ve been a recreational cyclist and a utility cyclist, but I’ve never been a fantasy cyclist. Driving an Elf 2-FR is about as close as Ill ever come to riding a wolf. Now, as I ride or drive down the street, I think to myself, I could be doing this in an Elf. As our concrete viaducts and asphalt streets decay, we have the opportunity to choose a different path: a path embodied by the Elf.

So kick back, drink the Kool-Aid with me, and watch Organic Transit founder Rob Cotter spread the good news in his Ted Talk below. Bottoms up to a world where the dominant automobile paradigm has been subverted.

Wesley Cheney is married to a midwife in Norfolk, Virginia. He writes about bikes and kilts at Foto by Wes, builds bamboo bikes at 757 Makerspace and reposts The Onion on Facebook. He’ll be buying his dream Elf as soon as he levels up and clears another dungeon level.

 
BOB Trailer x 2

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