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The Swiss Army Bicycle Did All That, and More

This is the fifth post of our 6 part series, Bicycles at War.

Part 1 Boers on Bikes

Part 2 The Great War

Part 3 The Bikes of WWII

Part 4 How the Bicycle Won the Vietnam War

Part 6 Bikes in the Cold War and Beyond


“A Swiss soldier without rock-hard buttocks brings shame on the army.”

A Swiss conscript riding a standard issue, shiny, new Modell-05 bicycle, circa 1990.
The original single-speed hipster. A Swiss conscript riding a standard issue, shiny-new Modell-05 bicycle, circa 1990.

Bicycles are almost as Swiss as Swiss Army knives, and the Swiss Army proudly maintained a front-line bicycle infantry regiment into the 21st Century. While it was disbanded in 2003, The Swiss Army continues to use bicycles for base transportation, lending some credence to satirical news reports suggest that the bike regiment will be revived:

Frankly, young Swiss men used to be fine specimens of manhood, but today many have let themselves go, Defence Ministry spokesman Thomas Fisch supposedly told The Local, “Our view is that a Swiss soldier without rock-hard buttocks brings shame on the army.”

The Swiss Army bike regiments were tasked not with offensive reconnaissance, as many bicycle units had been during the Great War, nor with logistical supply as in Vietnam, but were rather a quick-strike (Handstreich), defensive unit. For five hundred years the Swiss have pursued a policy of armed neutrality. While there were occasional border skirmishes and accidental bombings in the First and Second World Wars, Switzerland hasn’t been truly at war since it was conquered by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798. It is a naturally defensible country. The Swiss Army, therefore, trains to defend their country. And for that purpose, the bicycle reigned supreme for one hundred years. Regardless of whether Switzerland was being invaded from the east by the Warsaw Pact or from the west by NATO, the bicycle regiments were expected to quickly and quietly traverse both rural and urban settings to ambush motorized forces.

Try riding a double metric century with a 75kg rucksack IN SWITZERLAND!
Try riding a double metric century with a 75kg rucksack in Switzerland. Now that’s “army tough.”

The Swiss bike regiments were the lite of the army, the equivalent of U.S. Army Rangers or Royal Army Gurkhas. While most civilian cyclists would be daunted to ride two hundred kilometers, bike recruits were expected to do just that at night, with a seventy-five-kilo pack on a single-speed “velo” over alpine passes. “They come to the cyclists’ regiment because it is something very special,” said Lieutenant Tobias Zuercher, “You can be proud of it when you tell your family or your friends.”

The original Swiss Army bike, MO-05, was introduced in 1905, and remained in service for nearly ninety years. Only the fittest conscripts could pedal a single speed bike 200km with a 75kg rucksack!
The original Swiss Army bike, Ordonnanzfahrrad Modell 05, or MO-5 for short, was introduced in 1905 and remained in service for nearly ninety years.

The bicycle began service in the Swiss Army in 1891 as a courier vehicle. Enlisted soldiers assigned to headquarters would bring their bicycle from home, as they had done previously with a horse or pony. In 1905 the Swiss Army introduced the first standard bicycle, or “Ordonnanzfahrrad,” the Modell 05. It was built “army tough,” weighing 22 kilograms, or almost 50 pounds. With just a single gear, riding the MO-5 up an alpine pass would have been a challenge, to say the least. And descending a pass would have been even more exciting, as the MO-5 had just a spoon brake on the front and a coaster brake on the rear (upgraded to a drum brake, post-World War II). Thankfully one of the frame bags included all of the tools necessary to field strip the MO-5, as a single, substantial descent would have burned off all of the grease in the coaster brake.

A spoon brake on a rat bike. Spoon brakes use the the tire itself as a braking surface, as opposed to the rim, a disc or the hub.
A spoon brake on a rat bike. Spoon brakes use the tire itself as a braking surface, as opposed to the rim, the hub or a disc.

Facing a shortage of spare parts for the MO-5, the Swiss Army introduced a new bike in 1993, dubbed the Militrrad 93, or MO-93. The MO-93 was equipped with a rear derailleur and seven gears, a hefty derailleur guard, and (then) state-of-the-art cantilever brakes.

A Swiss soldier poses with his Modell-93 bicycle, circa 1999. In addition to a sprung leather saddle, it also carries a bazooka and a bicycle helmet.
His is bigger than yours. A Swiss soldier poses with his Modell-93 bicycle, circa 1999. In addition to a sprung leather saddle, it also carries a bazooka and a bicycle helmet.

But in 2001 the Swiss Army announced that the bicycle regiments were to be disbanded by 2003. The venerable velos were to be replaced with armored, motorized fighting vehicles. The loss was lamented by cycling aficionados and lampooned by internal combustion snobs. “No-one can understand why they are going to abolish us,” said bike commander Julian Voeffray in a 2001 BBC interview, “It is stupid. Over short distances, we are very fast, much faster than the motorized units. We can be very discreet, we are well armed and we perform well against the tanks.”

A Velo '93 with an army-issue cargo trailer, now relegated to vintage parade duties.
A Velo ’93 with an army-issue cargo trailer, now relegated to vintage parade duties.

A few years later, though, the Swiss “Ministry of Defence, Civil Defence and Sport” ordered 2,400 (some sources say 4,100) new bicycles, dubbed the MO-12, but colloquially known as the “Velo Zwolf.” The MO-12 is a dream commuter bike, built by Simpel, a Swiss company. It addition to a reliable, eight-speed, internally-geared hub, it sports front and rear disc brakes, fenders, cargo racks. It looks beefy enough to haul a bazooka, an assault rifle, and a rucksack, all at the same time. The reflective sidewalls on the semi-slick Schwalbe tires, though
, belie that the M-12 is meant for “cadet officers, sergeant majors, quartermasters, cooks, guards…physical training, and movement between barracks and firing range,” but not the frontline.

The Swiss Army Model 12 bike was introduced in 2012, and is the epitome of utility.
The Velo Zwolf, introduced in 2012, is the epitome of utility.

On April 1st, 2015, a Swiss news site published a satirical article announcing the reinstitution of the bicycle regiments.

Switzerland’s defence department has ordered the reinstatement of the bicycle infantry for the Swiss Army in a bid to improve fitness standards among soldiers.

The Swiss bicycle infantry was phased out in 2001 but a defense department spokesman said late Tuesday that its resurrection would help deal with the thousands of recruits who are out of shape.

Spokesman Thomas Fisch said the army favors the return of the single-speed bicycles used continuously by the army between 1905 and the 1990s.

Frankly, young Swiss men used to be fine specimens of manhood, but today many have let themselves go, Fisch told The Local.

“Our view is that a Swiss soldier without rock-hard buttocks brings shame on the army.”

The bikes, equipped to carry food rations and battle gear, weigh a hefty 25 kilograms or more, making them challenging to maneuver in mountain terrain.

As well, soldiers in the cycling infantry will be expected to carry up to 32 kilograms of equipment.

Defence Minister Ulrich Maurer is an avid cyclist who served in the army as a major commanding a bicycle battalion.

In addition to being useful for improving the fitness of soldiers, the army says bicycles will play a vital part in national defense.

“Frankly, we’re getting a bit worried by the French and their crack Segway regiment,” Fisch said.

“We hope that putting our men on bikes will stop them getting up to any mischief.”

The infantry will enable the army to respond nimbly and without the noise of motorized vehicles, he said.

A budget for the new bicycle contingent has not been announced but thousands of the Swiss-made bikes will have to be ordered at an estimated cost of 2,500 francs apiece, including maintenance over ten years.

Maurer, concerned about the overuse of motor vehicles by the military, wants all recruits to take their turn in the bicycle infantry around 10,000 a year.

The Swiss Army has raised the alarm about recruits being unfit for the tasks they have to take on, with more than 20 percent of them being sent home within three weeks of starting training.

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Rolling Recumbent Part 2: Neuroplasticity and You!

“You can laugh at them now, Wesley,” my biking buddy Liz had told me a decade ago on a group ride, “But someday youre going to be one of those old guys on a recumbent.”

Well, that day has come. I’m a certifiably older, slightly goofy guy on a recumbent. On my first sandwich delivery of the day, the front fork on my favorite touring bike had cracked, folded and failed. I crashed in the middle of a brand new bike lane, and dislocated my shoulder. After I crashed I dragged my bike to a light post one-handed, locked it up, and walked the remaining block to make the delivery. I got a ride back to my car and drove myself to the emergency room for an $800 relocation session. I was achingly aware that I needed a way to keep pedaling, keep working my job and keep buying groceries. As soon as the Percocet and Advil had kicked in, I had texted my shade-tree bike engineer buddy, Byron, who builds and flips recumbent bicycles out of a trailer park by the Great Dismal Swamp. “Byron, I need a recumbent, fast. It’s gotta be comfortable and it’s gotta have some cargo capacity. Waddayagot?”

The BikeE was an attempt to mass produce and mass market recumbents. Unfortunately it succeed.
Nice try, but no ROI: The BikeE was an attempt to mass produce and mass market recumbents. Unfortunately, it didn’t succeed, due in no small part to the puny front wheel, which made handling squiggly, and amplified potholes.

I had ridden recumbent bicycles before, in one fashion or another. My mom had bought a BikeE recumbent in hopes that it would help her carpal tunnel syndrome. I had taken it for a brief ride, but being almost a foot taller than her, I didnt really fit the BikeE. My mom never adapted to the handling of her recumbent and found it cumbersome to transport, and ended up selling it. Several years ago I had built a tandem tow tricycle for a bicycle parade, which I had piloted in a relaxed, foot-forward, beach cruiser position.

The Tandem Tow Trike, aka T3, aka Frankenstein. Big enough to haul a small trailer in a Christmas parade for Bike Norfolk. Pilot: Wes Cheney. Stoker: BC Wilson.
Freaky, but not fast: The Tandem Tow Trike, aka T3, aka Frankenstein. Big enough to haul a small trailer in a Christmas parade for Bike Norfolk. Pilot: Wes Cheney. Stoker: BC Wilson. Top Speed: 10kmh @ 150rpm.

As it turned out, my buddy Byron had just the bike I was looking for. The vinyl shed next to his mobile home was a cycling pack rats haven: wheels and forks and frames shared space with a drill press, an oxyacetylene welder, and a truing stand. Byron showed off just the bike I’d had my heart set upon ten years ago, when I thought the pain in my hands would force me off my touring bike: a Burley Canto, circa 2002.

My new, old ride: a secondhand Burley Canto short-wheelbase recumbent bicycle.
My new, old ride: a secondhand Burley Canto recumbent bicycle.

Made in Oregon by a worker-owned company, the Burley Canto combined a beefy steel frame with standard, stock Shimano components. The asymmetrical tires, 26″ in the back and 20 in the front, allowed for a reasonably upright position. The frame extended past the bottom bracket to a second steering tube, allowing the Canto to be converted from a Short Wheel Base (SWB) to a Long Wheel Base (LWB). The longer the wheelbase of a bicycle, the plusher the ride. And conversely, the shorter the wheelbase, the more agile the handling. This is why beach cruisers arent nimble and BMX bikes arent smooth. Byrons Burley Canto was set up in SWB, and the handling was different, if not disconcerting.

I felt like I was riding a Lazy Boy welded atop a BMX bike. The handling was quick, but my feet were disconcertingly right in front of me. I was staring at my feet turning circles. My coordination was all off. I dumped it. I jumped off and ran it out a couple more times before I figured out how to launch, and then land, a recumbent. Learning to ride a recumbent was like learning to ski or skate. It was an exercise in neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to create new networks of neural connection, or learn. During childhood, the brain is constantly doing this. But in adulthood, the brain creates fewer new networks and relies on preexisting networks. It’s easier to learn to ride a bike or play the piano as a child than as an adult.

Attention DIY'ers: Rewire your own brain!
Attention DIY’ers: Rewire your own brain!

“It’s like watching a toddler stumble around,” a studio mate had remarked as I wobbled in figure eights in a parking lot. But after ten or twenty hours of riding, I felt basically proficient: I didn’t fall over at most traffic lights. I could ride down a curb. My launches and landings were mostly smooth. I could ride down a sidewalk without crashing into shrubbery. I was creating new neural networks. Just as with my upright bikes, the more I rode, the better I got.

Wear a good pair of hiking boots the first time you take a recumbent for a ride, and ride somewhere soft. If you dont like sharing your awkwardness publicly, stay away from parks. Riding a recumbent requires a similar, but different, set of skills than riding an upright “normal” bike. Your brain and body know how to balance a bike, but the body language that you are used to using doesnt apply the same. The center of gravity on a recumbent bike is lower, while the center of effort is both higher and farther from the center of gravity; On an upright bike, you stand over the pedals. It feels natural for your feet to move underneath your hips. It is an intuitive balancing act that some riders can extend into track stands, where their bike remains horizontally motionless but balanced.

Dont be surprised if you “run it out” the first time you hit the front brakes hard on a recumbent. Most upright bikes have more weight over the rear wheel than the front. That’s what makes wheelies possible.

Your recumbent can't do this... Due to the geometry of most recumbents, wheelies are impossible.
Your recumbent can’t do this… Due to rigid seatbacks, wheelies are impossible on recumbents.

On a recumbent more of the riders weight is on the front wheel, and with a short wheelbase bike the riders feet will be in front of the front wheel. A fistful of front brake on an upright bike will launch a rider over the handlebars and onto the
ground. But a fistful of front brake on a recumbent will just launch a rider upright, to land on their feet and run off their extra momentum. Low-speed accidents on a recumbent are more likely to harm a riders pride than their skin. Recumbents can stop remarkably fast, and skilled riders will “pop up” dramatically at the last second as the bike halts, transforming forward momentum into standing upright.

As with all my bikes, my Burley didn’t stay stock for long. I swapped out the handlebars and pedals, added a rear rack, fenders, old school thumb shifters, a front disc brake, and most importantly, upgraded the front wheel. The tires that originally came on my Burley were skinny and bald. They tended to twitch on cracks and debris. I found it all but impossible to ride over curbs with just a 20″ front wheel. I had on old 26″ suspension fork lying around from another project, as well as a disc brake and a decent 26″ front wheel. It took me a couple of hours to install a new front fork. The taller fork and wheel raised my reclining angle even further to the back. But after having ridden a recumbent for a couple of weeks, I had become more dexterous and confident, so the further adaptation wasn’t too challenging. The now symmetrical tires made the bike more stable in turns at all speeds. The handling was more natural and akin to my “real” bikes.

Behold, The Jimmy Bike:

“Quick, Robin, to the Jimmy-mobile!”
The backside cargo box has space for five drinks and a dozen sandwiches. That's enough to feed a hungry board of directors.
The backside cargo box has space for five drinks and a dozen sandwiches. That’s enough to feed a hungry board of directors.

The flat, sea-level street grid of Norfolk, Virginia makes for fast riding on a recumbent. Along the south edge of Old Dominion University campus is a long, wide street with two radar speed signs. On my fully-loaded Burley, I’m routinely clocked by the radar sign at 21mph. I get paid to ride” freaky fast,” and tipped in cash. On my recumbent, I’m living proof that neuroplasticity pays.

The Bicycle Courier.
“The Bicycle Courier.”

Don’t Miss Rolling Recumbent Part 1!

Wesley Cheney bikes for family, fun, profit and necessity in Norfolk, Virginia. He writes about bikes and kilts at Foto by Wes and (re)builds bamboo bikes and bamboo kayaks at 757 Makerspace. When he is not delivering sandwiches for Jimmy Johns on his bicycle, he aspires to earn (another) Bachelors in Music Education at his alma mater, Old Dominion University. Wesley loves leather saddles, full fenders, helmet-mounted lights and mirrors, platform pedals, front racks, double kickstands, and vintage friction Suntour Command shifters. He warbles on a flugelhorn, sings bass in the choir of Christ and Saint Luke’s Church, and studies ukulele under the amazing Skye Zentz.

 

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The Practical Cargo Bike, or, are Cargo Bikes just the New Black?

Are cargo bikes practical? asked a denizen of Quora.com recently (a more polite version of Reddit).

An interesting question, I thought, but whats a cargo bike, and whos to say whats practical?

If cargo is defined as anything in excess of the human engine, then any bike that can carry a water bottle is a cargo bike. Therefore, the time trial bike that Greg Lemond rode to victory in the final stage of the Tour de France would be a cargo bike, since it carried a water bottle. But with asymmetric wheels and a decidedly limited riding position, Gregs custom bike is not a grocery getter.

“Ceci n’est pas une bicyclette. Ceci n’est pas Coca Cola.” This is not a bicycle. This is not Coca Cola. This is a picture of Greg Lemond winning the Tour de France on a bicycle with a water bottle. (With Dadaist apologies to Ren Magritte.)

A more workable definition of a cargo bike might be, a bicycle with a frame adapted to carrying cargo in excess of water bottles. While just about every bike on the market has braze-ons for mounting water bottle cages, only half of them have braze-ons for attaching fenders or racks. But do braze-ons a cargo bike make? If that were so, then every cheap Chinese Huffy, Schwinn and beach cruiser sold by Walmart would be a cargo bike

A rack does not a cargo bike make.
A cargo rack does not a cargo bike make.

Thankfully, Wikipedia rescues us with a crowd-sourced definition: “cargo bikes, box bikes, or cycletrucks are human powered vehicles designed and constructed specifically for transporting loadsThe frame and drivetrain must be constructed to handle loads larger than those on an ordinary bicycle.”

The cargo bike then is to the common bicycle what a pickup truck is to the common car. It’s purpose is to not only transport people, but to transport stuff. And while you may see a mattress and boxspring tied to the top of a Toyota Camry, that does not make it an F-150 pickup truck.

Having defined what is a bicycle, let us turn our attention to the question, “What is practicality?” The most practical definition would be, how well does form follow function? To what degree does performance match necessity? In that context, practicality is an existential value: the value of a bicycle is not in how in was designed (its essence), but in how it is used (its existence).

Greg Lemond’s time trial bike is therefore supremely practical in the context of winning the Tour de France. And it is conversely supremely impractical in making a grocery run: it may win a 3,000km race by 8 seconds, but it can’t bring home the bacon and the milk. Vice versa, a “box bike” is supremely practical at carrying home a toddler, a liter of milk and a kilo of bacon, but supremely impractical at winning the Tour de France in the last stage by the smallest margin ever.

So, when we ask, “Are cargo bikes practical?” what we are really asking is, “Are cargo bikes capable of meeting my needs?” And the answer, for most of us, in most situations, is, “Yes.” For context in North America, how many of us ask, “Is a pickup truck practical, or can I get by with a station wagon or sedan?” Most readers of this blog will be self-selected to answer that question in the negative. If Greg Lemond and Lance Armstrong set the standard for practicality in automobiles, then we would all be driving one-seater Formula One race cars. We would disregard how much we could carry, and instead focus on how fast we can move ourselves.

It's the station wagon of bicycles. Yuba offers electric-assist long-tail cargo bikes for parents who need a little help getting going in the morning.
It’s the station wagon of bicycles. Yuba offers electric-assist long-tail cargo bikes for parents who need a little help getting going in the morning.

Oddly, in North America, the low cost of gasoline has made it possible for drivers to be interested more in fashion than function; The cheaper the gas prices, the more likely we are to drive vehicles that exceed our needs. In Tidewater Virginia (this author’s locale) gasoline prices are amongst the cheapest to be found anywhere. And there is an inverse proportion of the cost of gasoline to the number of pickup trucks: the low cost of gas encourages folks to drive more truck than they truly need. The popularity of country music also correlates to the popularity of pickup trucks. As people move to the city, they yearn for the country. They listen to music and drive trucks that remind them of their bucolic halcyon hometowns. The flat, coastal-plain topography of Tidewater Virginia only exasperates the prevalence of pickup trucks: Southeast Virginia is home to not only the largest naval base in the world, but also home to the second most popular monster truck franchise in the world: Grave Digger. Thousands of patriotic Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines drive solo to their duty stations in jacked-up pickup trucks. More than a few of them are modified to be louder and dirtier than necessary, and fly the Stars and Bars. But yet the people that ask if pickup trucks are “practical” are marginalized as being Anti-American.

“Rolling Coal:” the stupidest reactionary trend since whatever…

What would happen if we approached our bikes the same way we approach our automobiles? “Well gosh, I probably don’t need that much cargo and towing capacity every day, but what if I do? Maybe I’d better get the bigger model, just to be safe…” If we bought bikes the same way that we buy cars, then we’d all be riding cargo bikes, or at least bikes like the LIFT Bike:

It's a Bike! It's a Cargo Bike! No wait, it's just a bike...
It’s a Bike! It’s a Cargo Bike! No wait, it’s just a bike…

The LIFT Bike promises to be the best of both worlds: a regular bike when you just need your regular bike, and a cargo bike when you need that. While any convertible, multi-purpose widget will have some compromises as compared to single-purpose widgets, the hope is that for the average, amateur user the convertible widget will be good enough. The LIFT Bike will never be able to match the weight capacity or stiffness of a traditional cargo box, and it will probably scratch your bike’s paint job, but it should get the job done.

For those who aren’t ready to commit to a part-time or full-time cargo bike, there are other options besides backpacks and messenger bags, and www.bikeshophub.com is the place to find them. The Surly 24-Pack Rack is the perfect first step into carrying cargo in style on your bike: it mounts to the front fork, allowing you to keep an eye on cargo, and avoid kicking it off while mounting and dismounting.

What could YOU carry on the Surly 24 Pack Rack?
What could YOU carry on the Surly 24 Pack Rack?

Cargo trailers are another popular option. Bike racks are a semi-permanent investment, and can’t be easily removed for a cleaner, lighter ride. But trailers can easily be detached from the bike, and often don’t require any permanent mounting hardware. This author’s favorite cargo trailer is the B.O.B. Yak, a single-wheeled trailer that is easy to load, rides low to the ground, and makes almost no impact on bike handling.

Is that a bottle of wine in your basket, or are you just happy to see me? The B.O.B. Yak offers stylish options for carrying cargo, including bonus panniers for those who just can't get enough.
Is that a bottle of wine in your basket, or are you just happy to see me? The B.O.B. Yak offers stylish options for carrying cargo, including bonus panniers for those who just can’t get enough.

The temptation with bike racks is to overpack them. While cargo bikes are designed to be loaded down, overloaded panniers can adversely affect handling, leading to human errors and mechanical failures. Cargo trailers minimize this by adding an extra wheel or two. The extra wheels help to spread the load, keeping the bike more stable. Granted, a bike trailer is going to slow you down, but when you’re carrying your groceries home, you’re not trying to set a personal best.

So, If we bought bikes the way we buy automobiles, then almost all of us would be riding cargo bikes. And if we bought automobiles the way we buy bikes, then we’d almost all be driving neck-snapping sports cars. So let’s consider, for a moment, an alternative world where we buy the car and the bike we need, not want.

Because, it’s a small world after all.

“Rolling coal” on bicyclists.

Wesley Cheney bikes for family, fun, profit and necessity in Norfolk, Virginia. He writes about bikes and kilts at Foto by Wes and (re)builds bamboo bikes and bamboo kayaks at 757 Makerspace. When he is not delivering sandwiches for Jimmy John’s on his bicycle, he aspires to earn a Bachelor’s in Music Education at his alma mater, Old Dominion University. Wesley loves leather saddles, full fenders, helmet-mounted lights and mirrors, platform pedals, front racks, double kickstands, and vintage friction Suntour Command shifters. He warbles on a flugelhorn, sings bass in the choir of Christ and Saint Lukes Church, and studies ukulele under the amazing Skye Zentz. He promises that if he is elected to office he will not roll coal on anyone or anything.

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Bike Medics Do It Faster

If you’ve been to an outdoor festival or a marathon, you’ve seen the guys standing on the sidelines with overloaded mountain bikes. At first glance you might have thought they were just part of the crowd, but their matching uniforms and EMS embroidery tells a different story: they’re Bike Medics.

Paramedics of the Norfolk Fire Department stand next to their EMS bikes at Harbor Fest 2016.
Paramedics of the Norfolk, Virginia Fire Department stand next to their EMS bikes at Harbor Fest 2016.

Surely in the Twenty First Century internal combustion is the answer to everything, but hundreds of ambulance services across the country and world have found that even a bicycle weighing fifty pounds is faster than a two ton truck when navigating through big crowds and congested city streets. And its not a new idea, either. Bicycle infantry battalions were all the rage leading up to The Great War, and they played a decisive, if largely forgotten, role in the Japanese invasion of The Philippines. Soldiers on bikes inevitably spawned the need for medics on bikes.

In a pre-Great War exercise better suited to the parade ground than the battlefield, a stretcher is suspended between three individual bicycles.
In a pre-Great War exercise better suited to the parade ground than the battlefield, a stretcher
is suspended between three individual bicycles. Note the contraceptive head bandage.

While the original bike medics were more akin to pedal-powered ambulances, today’s bike medics focus on Basic Life Support, or BLS. Their job is to keep airways unobstructed, keep patients breathing, and keep the blood circulating. They are the first responders, who stabilize an injured person for long enough that a bigger ambulance can arrive and transport them to more advanced care. Their tottering packs may be equipped with antiseptic cleansers, bandages, basic drugs, a defibrillator, oxygen, pulse and blood pressure monitors, mask resuscitators, and of course, rubber gloves.

The ubiquitous bike cops in contemporary cities trace their roots to the Seattle Police Departments 1987 founding of a mountain bike-based patrol, but the Indianapolis Fire Department actually beat them to the punch. Three years prior, in 1984, they purchased bikes for medical response.

As any Boy Scout can tell you, it is the first few minutes that are most critical in a medical emergency. Impaired breathing, unchecked bleeding and circulation failure quickly lead to shock, brain damage and death. It is in these first few minutes that paramedics on bikes have an upper hand over traditional ambulances in crowded, congested areas. The Los Angeles Fire Department maintains a full-time bike medic team at the L.A. International Airport, which routinely responds to emergencies within two minutes, while ambulances can take up to fifteen minutes to respond in L.A.’s notorious gridlock. In crowds of thousands of people, bicycles can navigate quickly and without imperiling the general public.

A Cycle Responder of the London Ambulance Service at work.
A Cycle Responder of the London Ambulance Service at work.

The British National Health Service, while slower to adopt bicycles than their American counterparts, has done so with a cost-cutting vigor that only a single-payer system can implement. The London Ambulance Service’s “Cycle Responders” were at the forefront of the 2012 Olympics, and a permanent, full-time bike team is stationed in the heart of the city, the Square Mile. The NHS estimates that in one year alone London’s cycle responders saved 100,000 (US$160,000) compared to using ambulances alone. And only 4,000 of that was in fuel savings.

Understanding the cost benefits of bicycles, the NHS has not been reluctant to equip their teams with gear that would make even the most diehard gear-head drool: fat tires, disc brakes, suspension forks, aluminum frames, front and rear panniers, bells, sirens, strobe lights and fenders are all standard issue. A fully equipped British medic’s bike can cost over 6,000 (US$10,000).

American medic bikes tend to be more basic, reflecting the part-time nature of most teams. The paramedics deployed by the Norfolk Fire Department to the fortieth annual Harbor Fest in Norfolk, Virginia last weekend typified the American approach. They only deploy a few times per year to large events, “whenever the streets are going to be too crowded for us to provide our normal level service.” Given that they rarely ride, but mostly stand on the sidelines, their unit’s equipment is a mixture of hand-me-down police bikes and low-end bikes that “serious” cyclists would sneer at; the Smith & Wesson sticker on the 1980s rigid steel frame is just an add-on. The flimsy cantilever brakes and cheap kickstand would be at home on any Walmart mountain bike. The panniers piled high and heavy on the back of their bikes won’t make for particularly nimble riding, but suit the needs of a mostly stationary crew.

As with any innovation, the true American seal of acceptance is when a buck can be made off of it: Across the country private ambulance service, such as Medics on the Ball, now offer bike medic teams for sporting events, concerts, festivals and movie production sets.

Even though most American bike medics may only be part time bicyclists who don’t ride in the off-time, “I hadn’t ridden a bike in twenty years before I signed up for these bonus shifts,” said one NFD paramedic, they are still at the forefront of utility cycling. They demonstrate to an increasingly lethargic public that automobiles are not the only way to get there. And in fact, bike medics can do it faster.

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.

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Go Back to the Tricycle: My Own Personal Elf Quest

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.

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Meet Joe’s Lawnmower Bike Cart

It’s a sight you don’t see everyday- A guy riding a Walmart mountain bike, with an oversized, lopsided cart strapped to the back of his bike. He’s hauling a lawnmower, a weedwacker a broom, a big red cooler, a 5-gallon bucket, a couple of gas cans and a backpack.

Joe pedals his bike and handmade cart to his next lawn job in Ocean View, Virginia.
Joe pedals his bike and handmade cart to his next lawn job in Ocean View, Virginia.

Joe rides his bike from one yard to the next and cuts grass in Ocean View, a neighborhood of Norfolk, Virginia. Joe’s license has been suspended since his last DUI, but you gotta be real drunk to get pulled over on a bike, Joe says. Since he couldn’t drive his truck, Joe downsized to a bike. Now he rides the streets through muggy summers and wet winters, cutting lawns wherever he can.

Ocean View Avenue stretches for nearly ten miles through the southern sand dunes of the Chesapeake Bay. OV Ave is long, flat and straight. It offers the perfect setting for riding a utility bike. While the summers can be brutally muggy and hot in Norfolk, the winters are mild. Which is good for the crabgrass, and good for Joe.

Joe’s cart is a testament to backyard engineering on a Walmart budget. It may have once been a baby trailer, but only the axle and wheels now remain. The pop-up trailer frame was replaced by part of a wooden fence. A two by four trailer tongue is suspended from the saddle by a dog chain. The saddle is high enough to keep the tongue off the rear tire, but is too high for Joe to sit on, and forcing him to constantly pump the pedals standing up. “Just like a beach cruiser,” Joe says.

Joe doesn’t wear bike shorts or a helmet. He doesn’t clip in. He rides in the same clothes that he wears to work: grass-stained sneakers, white socks, cut-off jeans, a sleeveless t-shirt and a boonie hat that was once white. The guys out for the weekly A-pace ride blow past Joe on carbon fiber bikes that would fold in half if they had to pull half of what Joe’s bike moves every day.

Well, we all got somewhere to get to, Joe says.

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.

 

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Yuba Bicycles

A new sponsor for Commute By Bike is Yuba. Yuba makes great looking cargo bikes, that are not only well thought out but great accessories. Below is a rundown of the model line and key accessories, we hope to interview podcast with the guys from Yuba in the coming weeks for your listening pleasure.

Yuba Mundo Cargo Bike

Yuba Mundo Models

Mundo Wheels 4 Life, 6 speed, Limited Edition $899

From Yuba : The Wheels4Life Special Limited Edition Mundo 6-speed is an awesome bike for carrying groceries, kids, music equipment, and sporting gear. But by investing in this model of Mundo, you are buying not just one Cargo Bike but TWO: One MUNDO bike for you and one MUNDO bike for someone in Africa or Central America. This individual will ride to work, to the clinic, to a transportation hub, to deliver mosquito nets, to haul books, to carry medical supplies, or to move pineapples and chickens.

Mundo 21-Speed $1,099

21-speed to get you down and up that local hill, or maybe the mountain you are crossing for your world wide tour.

Yuba elMundo Electric Bike

elMundo Electrici 21-speed $2,297

It’s electric. Utilizing a 750watt front wheel hub motor and a Lithium-ion battery.. Top speeds are 20 mph with a 20 mile range. With a load this will vary but could be that last extra kick you need hauling your children or groceries.

Yuba Accessories

Yuba Peanut Shell

Peanut Shell

Carry one, or carry two, these peanut shells will take your peanut safely with you wherever you may go. Each Peanut Shell carries up to a 48 lb child and you can carry two peanut shells on the back of your Mundo.

Yuba Go-Getter

Go-Getter

Be functional with your Yuba with this go-getter attitude weatherproof bag. 85 liters and can be used with other long tail bikes. Utility panniers never looked better, well maybe if they color matched the bikes.

Experience

Do you own a Yuba or have you ridden one? Let us know your thoughts. Join the conversation on Twitter, add us @BikeShopGirlcom

Visit Yuba online