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A Bike for All Seasons. The Birth of a Sport Utility Bike

I want a bike that will do it all.

I want a Sport Utility Bike.

I want a bike that’s comfortable enough to ride all day, sturdy enough to haul an overnight sack, big enough to fit a guy over six foot tall, and reliable enough to go months between tune-ups.

I’ve ridden full-suspension mountain bikes that are plush enough to handle the biggest drops. I’ve ridden minimalist track bikes that will tear cartilage and blow flats all day long. I’ve ridden beach cruisers that can be beaten daily without complaint. I’ve ridden road bikes that were fast on the hills but hard on the back and hands. I’ve ridden cargo bikes that can haul a toddler, a dog and a keg of beer. I’ve captained tandems and piloted pedicabs. I’ve been around the block more than once.

While all of those bikes were good in their own way, I need a Sport Utility Bike, a bike that I can ride on road and off, on both sunny summer days and drizzly winter nights, with gear and without. I need a bike that I can use for both delivering sandwiches around a flat, gridded college campus and for exploring backcountry Alaskan trails. I need a bike that is both sporty and practical.

Trailer-cycle
BikeShopHub author Kristen Bonkoski tags along with a Sport Utility Bike.

Like many of the writers here at Bikeshophub.com, I ended up with a hardtail mountain bike,  the SUVs of the bicycle world. Hardtail mountain bikes are incredibly rigid and reliable without the rear suspension of more expensive and complicated bikes. And, they are also adaptable to a multitude of purposes.

BikeShopHub author Matt Maynard adventuring on a Sport Utility Bike.

While many riders opt for a suspension fork up front, a rigid fork paired with a fat front tire can provide just as much comfort, with the added bonus of better traction from a wider footprint. Fat tires are less prone to puncture. They dampen the shock load for not only the rider, but for the bike as well. Less stress on welds, threads, and bearings means that components aren’t as likely to break and will last longer.

“This is not quite the bike you want.”  The standard issue Trek Procaliber mountain bike was not what the author wanted, with its flat handlebars, suspension fork, robot-built wheels and plastic saddle.

After breaking yet another frame with a lifetime warranty, I had an XXL  Trek Procaliber aluminum frame to build my dream bike around.  I installed my old favorites from a decade of Sport Utility Biking, with the help of my Local Bike Shop. Being a big guy who can fold mass-produced wheelsets with only a glance, I commissioned a custom set of wheels, hand-built by a grey-haired bike mechanic.

The King of the Hill. “The Beast” stands proudly atop the tallest snowbank in Tidewater Virginia. 

I dubbed my creation, “The Beast.” It’s the biggest, beefiest bike I’ve ever owned. A Surly Karate Monkey fork up front offers the simplicity of a rigid fork, the vibration dampening of steel, and the ability to mount fenders and racks around a tire twenty-nine inches tall and three inches wide. The Mavic 821 rims are nigh-invulnerable, and offer the flexibility of riding with tires from thirty five to seventy five millimeters wide (1.5″ to 3″). The Brooks Conquest saddle combines the suppleness of leather and the cushioning of steel springs. The Jones H Bar handlebars offer plenty of ergonomic positions for my big paws.  The Ergon GP3 grips offer a stable platform that buffers my wrists from both chatter and hits. The Shimano Deore XT M8000 shifters  pair with the Shimano XT M8000 brake levers into a reliable, tunable, minimal control station. The Shimano Deore XT 2×11 drivetrain offers enough gears to get up most any mountain and zip across any valley. Down the line, I’ll be installing detachable polycarbonate  fenders and carry-all front racks. HYPERLINK THIS TO CATALOG.

 

The Beast shall rise from the depths of the Green Room. I assembled my Sport Utility Bike at 757 Makerspace.

I have a history of breaking frames.  I bought my first 21″ aluminum Gary Fisher Rig circa 2005. A year later, I cracked the frame at the weld between the seat tube and the bottom bracket. But Gary Fisher frames are sold with a lifetime warranty, so I got it replaced with the same size frame. A year later, I broke that frame at the top of the seat tube. So I returned my second frame for the updated, “G2” design. While the new design was beefier, I still managed to crack the frame at the bottom bracket within a couple of years. I repaired my bike with a composite lug, using the skills I had learned to build bamboo bicycles at the Brooklyn Bamboo Bike Studio. And sure enough, I cracked the frame again, just below the seatpost collar, which I repaired and rode again. While competing in the Tidewater Mountain Bike Challenge, a fellow racer suggested that I return my frame for a new, unbroken one, and then upgrade it with a composite lug beforeit breaks. Sometimes the simplest solutions are never seen. I took his advice to heart, and before I ever pedaled The Beast, I wrapped the bottom bracket in synthetic paracord, polyurethane foam and epoxy. Combined with the latest design advances, I’m confident that I’ll be able to ride The Beast for at least five years without breaking it.

The Beast stands taller than your average five-year-old.

One bike to rule them all,

One cause to bind them,

One man to find them all,

And in the darkness bind them.

Living the dream. Author Wesley Cheney delivers freaky fast sandwiches in the treacherous unplowed bike lanes of tidewater Norfolk, Virginia.
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Go, Go Golden Circle! Biking the Golden Circle with BOB

Ker-PLINK !

Another broken spoke. My heart sank. My bike tour was going nowhere fast, and it had barely even begun. I had too much weight on two cheap wheels, too flimsy for a Clydesdale like myself. I needed a trailer.
Author Wesley Cheney at the start of his six hundred kilometer Golden Circle ride through Alaska, British Columbia and Yukon, before hooking up with BOB.

I felt my goals were modest enough: I wanted to bike the “Golden Circle” from Haines, Alaska, through the Yukon Territory and British Columbia and back to Skagway, Alaska in less than four days. I would be crossing two major mountain passes and riding six hundred kilometers on the Haines Highway, the Alaska Highway, and the Klondike Highway. I could not afford to have spokes breaking. It would be three hundred kilometers between bike shops and gas stations. I only had one emergency spoke with me.

Admittedly, it was a problem partially of my own creation. I was riding a Trek Alpha 1.1 entry-level road bike. If I’d read the fine print on the warranty, I’d have seen that I exceeded the maximum recommended weight. But I’d been hesitant to ship my favorite touring bike from Virginia to Alaska for my first season as a bike tour guide. I didn’t know if I’d really need it. Instead, I bought a used rental bike from my shop. And promptly started breaking spokes.

Ker-PLINK!

If I was going to make it any farther than the ferry dock in Haines, I was going to need another wheel. I didn’t have the time or the funds to buy another bike, even if there were any 63cm touring bikes available, anyway. (Did I mention that I’m almost always the tallest guy in any room?) But there was a BOB Yak Trailer for rent at Sockeye Cycle Co. And I had ridden many miles with a BOB in tow before.

The BOB Yak Trailer is amongst the most versatile of bike trailers, and a worthwhile investment for cyclists who need to get the groceries or go five hundred miles.

I bike by the seat of my pants, literally. The feel of my bike comes through my seat, through my pedals, through my handlebars. Different roads, different trails, and different bikes all feel distinct and different.  If I really want to get in touch with nature, I ride my skinny, high-pressure tires down a rutted gravel road. There’s nature, pounding my palms and soles mercilessly. The same holds true for carrying loads on bikes. The location, size, and volume of cargo directly affect how a bike feels in motion. To the seat of my pants, cargo carried in trailers is more stable and less tiring than cargo carried on bike racks. And carrying cargo in a backpack is even more of an exertion than carrying cargo on a bike rack.

Larger than Life: Touring with a bike trailer spreads the load out, making it less taxing on both the body and the bike to ride long distances with cargo.

Bicycles are physics in motion. And carrying cargo on a bicycle is an act of compounded physics. In addition to balancing myself atop two wheels, I’m also balancing a static load. The higher that load is above my pedals and wheels, the more work I have to do. Lower loads are less work. Handlebar bags and baskets are great for quick access, but when they’re overloaded they make a bike harder to handle, both in motion and standing still. Watching my bike flop over on its kickstand and spill a couple of smoothies over a couple of sandwiches made me swear off handlebar baskets once and for all. Feeling my shoulders ache under the pinch of overloaded backpacks was one thing, but it was another matter to feel the wind gust and jerk bulky backpacks. It taught me that it’s not just the weight of a load that matters, but also the volume. Biking is like sailing. Air resistance is everything. Tucking down into my drops lets me pedal faster into a headwind. The location of loads makes a difference in how the wind feels. Higher loads place the center of resistance to the wind higher on the bike, and require more work, making the bike more finicky and twitchy, and leaving me craving more burritos. Whereas lower loads are easier.

 

Cargo on the Down Low: The OMM Ultimate Lowrider Rack is a great option for lowering the center of balance on a touring bike, and keeps the weight evenly distributed.

The same load carried in a trailer will be more stable than carried on a bike. When it comes to moving cargo on a bike, two wheels are good. But three, or more, wheels are better. Moving my cargo from my back and my bike to a trailer made all the difference in not only the amount of energy required to ride but also decreased the strain on my bike. The biggest difference was in the number of flat tires and broken spokes that I had to deal with. I already weigh over a hundred kilo. I’m big enough to be mistaken for a (svelte) linebacker. My spokes don’t need the added stress of extra weight. By moving my cargo to a trailer, I removed weight from my rear wheel, moved the center of mass below my bike hubs, and lowered the center of wind resistance. Furthermore, I was able to carry bigger loads, both in terms of weight and volume. The only trade off was that I was carrying more deadweight. Even empty, a bike cargo trailer weighs at least twice as much as a pair of panniers and a set of racks.

BARGAIN GEAR ISN’T ALWAYS A BARGAIN

You get what you pay for. Buying a bike rack at a big box store may be easy on the wallet, but it doesn’t make for reliable gear. If you’re only using a bike rack once a month or once per season, then it may do just fine. But if you plan on loading your panniers every day, carrying groceries home, bringing books to class or paying the rent by delivering food, then you’ll want to invest in a quality rack.

The Ortlieb Touring Rack R2 is a sturdy, affordable option that beats any bargain bike rack in the long haul.

 

PLINK!

The replacement spoke sang as I plucked it on the truing stand at Sockeye Cycle. I swapped the skewer on my rear wheel, set my wheel back in the dropouts, and mounted a rental Yak B.O.B. (Beast of Burden) trailer onto the rear of my bike. With my spare clothes, bivouac sack and food transferred from sitting high over the rear wheel to sitting down low behind my bike, I now had a more stable ride, and I was stressing my rear wheel less. Four days and six hundred kilometers later I was exhausted, but happy that I’d made the switch. I only wished that I’d done so sooner.

When I finished my own private odyssey a few days later, I unclipped the BOB trailer and lickety-split, I had a little, lightweight road bike again. Unlike a cargo bike or a touring bike that is always loaded down with racks, the BOB Yak is easy to detach and store when it’s not needed.

And, it looks darn cool.

A rainbow stretches over the Haines Highway and the author’s bike during his self-supported Golden Circle bike tour with a BOB Yak trailer.

Author Wesley Cheney leads bicycle tours in Alaska and Virginia, blogs at The Kilted Writer, and delivers freaky fast sandwiches in the off-season.

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Some of My Favorite Things

Gore-tex that doesn’t go damp,
Treads that don’t wear flat,
Chains that never skip or squeak,
These are some of my favorite things.
Gloves so good I’ve loved them to death.

When you ride for long enough, you settle into habits and gear. Maybe it’s a brand of socks that don’t bind, or bib shorts that don’t chafe, or gloves that keep your hands from going numb. Sometimes it’s a more expensive piece of gear, like a fine leather saddle or a good Goretex jacket. A good tool allows us to do something without being aware of the tool’s toolness. Think of how conscious we are of a pen’s faultiness of  when it runs dry, or the annoyance of a skipping chain, or the tactile and visual frustration of a cracked screen. In those moments a portion of our awareness is constantly consumed in being aware of the faultiness of that poor tool while we’re using it. A broken tool can be worse than no tool at all. “Don’t think about GORE-TEX products,” the banner ad at GORE-TEX.com proclaims, “Think about achieving your goals.” Sadly, I’m thinking about gore-tex.

My favorite flipback gore-tex gloves are coming to the end of their useful service life, no doubt because I wear them nearly every day. Twice daily I guide clients a dozen at a time down the twelve-mile long White Pass in Skagway, Alaska for Sockeye Cycle Company. I depend upon good gear to allow me to do my job. I bought my flipback gloves the better part of ten years ago from Duluth Trading Company, and they instantly became my favorite wet weather gloves. Whether I was riding swampy trails in the cold and dark with my crazy mountain bike friends in Norfolk, Virginia, delivering freaky fast sandwiches during Nor’easters, or leading bike tours through the clouds in Alaska, I’ve relied on my Duluth Trading hybrid glove/mittens (glittens?). They are big enough for my extra large hands, and cut loosely enough that I can layer full-finger gloves underneath them. The mitts flip over fingerless gloves for warmth and rain protection, but flip back for fine tasks. Uniquely, the thumbs even flip back, too, making it easy to tighten barrel adjusters and seat posts in the rain. They aren’t puffy gloves, filled with lots of insulation. They aren’t made for wearing below freezing. But they’re great for when it’s wet and chilly enough to see your breath, but not cold enough to see snow.

The seams of my gloves are splitting. I’ve worn holes in the leather thumb pads. The gore-tex exposed underneath the holes has grown shiny with dirt and grease. The velcro no longer holds tight. There are more than a couple of rips on the knuckles. And worst of all, my gloves are no longer waterproof. There’s a subtle, insidious and inexorable phenomena when waterproof clothing slowly loses its waterproofness. At first you want to deny that you’re feeling more dampness than before. You try to blame it on the wind blowing rain up your sleeves, or the extra rainniness of the day. But gradually you come to the point where you accept that you’re just as wet wearing your formerly-waterproof gear as you would be without it.

So now I’m faced with the dilemma of replacing something irreplaceable. Duluth Trading no longer makes my favorite gloves, and I find myself wondering what else I can use. I’ve found cheap fleece mittens online that are cut to the same design, but aren’t waterproof. I’ve found expensive snowboarding gloves that are waterproof and (supposedly) compatible with touch-screens, but don’t offer the same flexibility of flip-back thumbs. I’ve found a few gloves that come close, but nothing that matches the utility of my once-favorite tool. Regardless of whether I pay ten bucks or a hundred, I don’t want to spend my money on gloves that aren’t as functional as the ones I have now. Which means that, for now, I’m resigned to wet hands.

“My first couple of seasons I didn’t worry about being wet, I just focused on staying warm,” one of my fellow bike guides said to me. Warmth and wetness don’t go together, though. If I’m wet, sooner or later I’m not going to be warm. But until I can find my perfect pair of gloves, I’ll settle on being warm.

Wesley Cheney leads Klondike bike tours for Sockeye Cycle Co. in Skagway, Alaska. He earned his Eagle Scout Badge with Troop 216 in Springfield, Vermont, biked from London to Rome via the Route Napoleon, sailed with the USS Kearsarge to Equatorial Africa, earned a Bachelors Degree in Philosophy from Old Dominion University, completed the final Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200km Brevet, and most recently delivered freaky fast sandwiches for Jimmy John’s in Norfolk, Virginia. As a professional photographer, he has captured images of Harrier jump jets, Norfolk Southern intermodal trains and mountain bike races. Wesley has built, pedaled, paddled and sailed bamboo bicycles, bamboo kayaks, and bamboo sailboats. In the off-season he sings in the choir of Christ & St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, teaches screen printing at 757 Makerspace. He regularly contributes questions to The Thomas Jefferson Hour, plays the ukulele and the flugelhorn, reads the New Testament in German, and prefers to wear a kilt.

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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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An Ode to Laborers on Two Wheels

Let us now praise Sweaty Men and Women;

All hail the Bicycle Courier,

Who is fast on feet and two wheels,

Bringing us coffee and sandwiches and beer.

 

Three cheers for the bike messengers of the world, the “cyclo-laborers.” While we cower in climate-controlled cubicles, they brave the sun and rain, the light and dark, the heat and the cold. They sweat, so we don’t have to. Our recreation is their vocation. We ride for pleasure. They ride for profit. We ride when we want to. They ride because they have to. We get to sit out rainy days. They get to ride twice as far in the rain, and make twice as much in tips.

Riding for pay weeds out the amateurs. Guys and girls who can’t straighten or tighten their own handlebars and seat posts dont get far: fast, or pain-free. Their wheels wobble, brake pads bleat, and seats squeak. They don’t need a bell because their rusty chain announces them to any pedestrian with ears un-budded to hear.

The experienced couriers know their delivery area like a hipster knows his ukulele. They make the lanes of the streets into runs of strings, sliding from one chord position to the next with the utmost of grace, efficient and unhurried. They assert their presence in traffic safely and predictably with a steady beat.

And when they arrive at their destination, bike couriers deliver happiness: an artfully wrapped sandwich, a creamy frappacinno, a verdant bouquet of flowers. No, bike couriers may not be paid as well as the mostly professional classes that employ them, but like a good butler, they take pleasure in a labor done well, finding utmost satisfaction in a smiling client.

 

All hail the Bike Courier who brings us Cups of Good Cheer.

May you enjoy this Labor Day, and many more.

Many happy returns to your shop for more deliveries.

Godspeed, Sweaty Rider.

May the wind be to your back,

May your track stands be flawless,

May your tips be undeclared,

And may you always keep the rubber side down.

Author Wesley Cheney sweats on a sultry summer day to deliver piping' hot Jamaican patties (in a kilt).
Author Wesley Cheney sweats on a sultry summer day to deliver pipin’ hot Jamaican patties (in a kilt).

 

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 BM 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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To Bike and Protect: Cops Bike for the Common Good

Cops on bikes? It sounds like a Monty Python skit, to be sure. But what could be more utilitarian than bike cops? If the purpose of police is to protect and serve, and if the bicycle is the vehicle that allows police more contact with the community and more opportunity to fight crime, then why aren’t there more cops on bikes? Luckily, more and more police departments in the 21st Century are coming around to a 19th Century idea: cops on bikes do more to protect the common good.

Bicycles and professional police came of age together in the 1800s. As the Industrial Revolution took hold in Europe and America during the first half of Queen Victorias reign, large numbers of people congregated in urban centers. But the traditional, rural practice of policing was an ad hoc, amateur affair, often motivated by rewards and bounties, and it was ill-equipped to deal with large masses of people unknown to each other. Sheriffs, whether appointed or elected, served at the pleasure of their political patrons, and only part-time at that. Increasingly common riots and civil disturbances were often suppressed by the army and militia, with predictably bloody results. In response, Sir Robert Peels Metropolitan Police force (the Bobbies) was founded in 1829 by act of Parliament in Great Britain, and became the modern model for the civilized world: a professional, civilian law enforcement agency that (in theory, at least) served the entire populace.

As professional policing spread westward across the Atlantic to the old Colonies, so too did the bicycle. While the first laufsmachine or velocipedes were built in Germany and France around 1820, it was not until the 1860s that pedals were added to create the bone-shaker, a bicycle that enjoyed a brief heyday in the 1860s, and earned its eponym from its rigid wheels and frame. An Illinois sheriff is reported to have outfitted his deputies with bone-shakers in 1869. Boston Park police were patrolling on high-wheeled penny-farthings in the 1880s, and probably chasing down the Scorchers, in what must have been a quaint, Victorian high-speed pursuit.

Scorchers were the bane of the new urban landscape. In their pursuit of speeds of a dozen or more miles per hour, they terrorized the promenading bourgeoisie in Central Park, Boston Common and Kensington Gardens. The spinning, over-sized, shoulder-high, fixed-gear pedals of penny farthings were particularly dangerous, promising to crush the collarbones and dash the skulls of innocent perambulators.

Scorching Still Rampant! Boycott the Bicycle!
Scorching Still Rampant! Boycott the Bicycle!

The introduction of the “safety bicycle” in the 1890s only brought more chaos to American streets, and police departments across the nation established dedicated bicycle squads. Then-Commissioner of the New York Police Department Theodore Roosevelt, himself an avid cyclist, had one hundred “wheelmen” stationed in their own precinct, assigned to keep speeding cyclists in check. For a brief period cops on bikes were the darling of the media.

Scorcher Copper to the Rescue! Bicycle-mounted Policeman stops run-away horse team.
Scorcher Copper to the Rescue! Bicycle-mounted Policeman Stops Run-Away Horse Team!

Cops were outfitted with bikes fast enough to catch even the fastest scorchers. In the days of fixed-gear bicycles, that meant that they were riding with front chainrings of epic proportions.

Arnold Kurth, first bicycle patrol officer of Stamford, Connecticut, poses with his high-speed pursuit bicycle. Not the epically massive front chainring!
Arnold Kurth, first bicycle patrol officer of Stamford, Connecticut, poses with his high-speed pursuit bicycle. Note the epically massive front chainring!

And in a scene yet to be replicated a century later, President Teddy Roosevelt’s electric limo was escorted by police officers mounted on chainless bicycles! Later on, President Roosevelt’s car was pulled over by two bike cops for doing 25mph in a 15mph zone. While bicycle squads represented less than 10% of the police force, they were regularly credited with more than 25% of the arrests.

Police Squad are on Columbia Chainless Bicycles
The President and Chairman Jacob L. Greene in an Electric Automobile. The Police Squad are on Columbia Chainless Bicycles.

But like the bicycle, the bike cop was soon overtaken by first the motorcycle and then the automobile. By the 1930s bicycles had been almost entirely discarded in favor of faster internal combustion vehicles. While radio-dispatched patrol cars certainly allowed for centralized efficiency, they did not necessarily create safer communities. Officers in squad cars were isolated from the communities they patrolled.

Beginning in the 1960s, police began to return to bicycles in cities as diverse as Baltimore, Dallas and Chicago. As their forefathers had discovered two generations before, “with their ability to move slower, officers [on bikes] can observe more. They can utilize more of their senses to detect crime, and when necessary they can respond quickly. Due to their stealth advantage, bike patrols oftentimes ride right up on criminal activity while it’s occurring.” -Lt. David Hildebrand, Denton (Texas) Police Department.

The re-introduction of bicycles to policing in the 1960s and 1970s was mostly an ad hoc affair. They focused on muggers in Central Park, car-radio thieves in Baltimore and drug traffickers in the Canal Zone. It was not until 1987 that a formal, full-time bike squad was established in Seattle, in part as a response to the gridlock caused by construction that immobilized police officers in their squad cars. By getting out of their cars and onto bikes, Seattle police were able to move faster and respond quicker.

Seattle's Mountain Bike Cops, 1988.
Seattle’s Mountain Bike Cops, 1988.

In numerous studies, bike cops have been found to be twice as effective as car cops: they have more contact with the public and make more arrests. They are able to navigate areas inaccessible to cars, and do so silently. There are now more bike cops per capita in America now than there were a hundred years ago.

But for any child of the Nineties, the zenith of bike cops was surely “Pacific Blue.”

Biking on the Boardwalk: USA Channel's hit cop
 drama on two wheels,
Biking on the Boardwalk: USA Channel’s hit cop drama on two wheels, “Pacific Blue.”

It featured all of the bikini-ogling thrills of “Baywatch,” but with kick-ass Trek Y-bikes and Spinergy wheelsets. Guest appearances included stunts by Hans Rey and April Lawyer. Suddenly everybody wanted a mountain bike, and everyone wanted to be a bike cop. So kick back and raise a glass to that great guilty pleasure, “Pacific Blue:”

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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.