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  Sierra Magazine
  January/February 2005
Table of Contents
 
  FEATURES:
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Sierra Magazine
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Transported!
Two-wheel travel made easy.
by Bob Schildgen

"The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart."
— Iris Murdoch, The Red and the Green, 1965

The Wright brothers made an awful mistake when they abandoned bicycle manufacturing for aeronautics. If they'd saved just a fraction of their genius for bikes, we might well be pedaling through the air today instead of polluting it.

Some cycling devotees, like mountain-bike innovator Joe Breeze, are now trying to make up for the loss. It was Breeze, along with a few pioneers in Marin County, California, in the 1970s who added derailleur gearing to sturdy one-speed balloon-tire bikes to create the first mountain bikes and spawn an explosion in recreational cycling. Today, he's dedicated to promoting the bicycle as a practical, energy-saving form of basic transportation.

"It's hard for people to imagine how significant bike traffic could be," Breeze says, rolling out one of the "Breezer" commuter bikes at his SimpliCity Cycle Company in Marin. The company's CEO, John Doidge, points out that 87 percent of all U.S. trips are by car, even though 40 percent of them are less than two miles. Bikes account for only about 1 percent of U.S. trips, compared with 30 percent in countries like the Netherlands. "That makes a huge difference in fuel consumption," he adds.

Thinking outside the car

No matter how efficient cycling can be, bike advocates have a tough ride ahead to convince the public to start pedaling. We're still so immersed in car culture that even simple tasks like grocery shopping seem inconceivable without a vehicle. Yet it's very easy: a rack over the back wheel with baskets on each side, a basket in front, and a backpack if needed.

This lack of appreciation of the practicality of bicycles partly explains why only a fraction of bikes sold are intended primarily for transportation. Recreational use is dominant, which means that many bike dealers are understandably reluctant to stock more transportation-specific models. You may have to call around to find shops that carry them. The easiest way to locate dealers near you is through the companies' Web sites.

"But bikes are so fussy"

To get more people to do everyday tasks with bikes instead of autos, Breeze frankly acknowledges that we need a bike "more like a car" in its ease of operation. As he takes me out for a test ride of a Breezer, I get his point. You shift by simply twisting the handlebar grip, changing to one of seven or eight speeds, so there's no torment for the sprocket-challenged. The bike is also free of derailleurs -- those devices that move the chain from one sprocket to another. The gears are sealed inside the back hub, and a guard completely surrounding the chain forestalls the problem of getting dresses or pants ripped, or stained by oil. Substantial fenders keep water from flying up at the rider when it rains. In some models, a generator in the front hub powers the back and front lights, while carriers -- "panniers" in bike-speak -- latch to the frame for hauling. You can learn more about the Breezer at www.breezerbikes.com.

"I live too far from my job to bike"

Even a bike fanatic would be disinclined to make a 60-mile round-trip every day. And if the nearest mass transit or carpool is not walking distance from your home or work, you have no choice but to drive. That is, unless you get hold of a folding bike that you can collapse into a portable form in seconds. If you don't want to make a public statement about your transit habits, you can stash it in a carrying case. Most portable bikes on the market weigh

20 to 30 pounds, and some even less, like the 17.8-pound Helios SL from Dahon. I've gotten adept enough with a Dahon to unfold it for action in only 20 seconds. Because a portable bike's wheels are usually just 16 or 20 inches in diameter, you feel oddly high above the tires at first, but it's easy to get used to. The company now offers ten different folding models designed especially for commuters, and has a guide to local dealers at www.dahon.com/locator/usdealers.htm. SimpliCity, Giant, and others also offer folding bikes.

"But I'm not in very good shape"

For folks who can't or don't want to exert themselves, there are some intriguing two-wheeler "hybrid" options. These aren't a cross between road bike and mountain bike, but hybrids that combine an electric motor with pedaling. Giant makes one with a compact motor powered by a nickel hydride battery with a range of 20 miles per charge. Like the Breezer, Giant's Lite Electric has the gears inside the rear hub and a twist shift on the handlebar grip. When it's turned on, the 250-watt motor automatically drives the front sprocket, boosting your pedaling efforts. This "pedal assist" makes riding uphill more like being on the level. With the motor, it weighs 43 pounds. For more information, see www.giantbicycle.com.

Finally, there are totally electric two-wheelers. Think of the Motorini, those scooters that help Italians burn less than half the oil per capita that Americans do. But here's a Motorini without a snarling engine and exhaust fumes. The eGO, a clean and quiet battery-powered scooter, has a 25-mile range per charge and a top speed of more than 20 mph. Cruising on only 8 to 20 cents' worth of electricity per charge, it becomes even more appealing as fuel prices rise. For a car to compete with it, gas would have to drop to less than 20 cents a gallon. The eGO recaptures braking energy as electrical energy by using the drag of small dynamos. The notion that stopping creates motion may not be quite as mystical as T. S. Eliot's "still point of the turning world," but it was oddly gratifying while test-riding the eGO. The comfort of resting your feet on its running boards and its sturdy cargo rack are also appealing. For more about the eGO, see www.egovehicles.com.

"But what about bad weather?"

You'll hear this question even from rugged backpackers known to slog for miles through miserable downpours in steep terrain dreaming of themselves on the cover of Outside magazine. But there is all manner of waterproof raingear for the cyclist, plus fenders and mud flaps will keep water away. And, as Joe Breeze points out (chiding his fellow Californians who have one of the kindest climates anywhere), northern European cyclists are myriad, despite their bad weather. Even cities above the Arctic Circle have programs to enhance bicycle use.

"But I don't have time to bike"

Think serious time management. Many trips can be faster by bike. By the time you've found a parking place, or trudged a half mile through a parking lot, you might have locked your bike near an entrance and commenced shopping, fighting city hall, praying, or getting your legs waxed. SimpliCity CEO John Doidge, who commutes by bike from his home four miles away, says, "I can get to work faster than by car, and don't have to spend extra time for physical activity." Since a half hour of biking at a moderate pace burns up about 300 calories, fitness and efficiency nicely coincide.

Or look at it from a purely economic standpoint. Cars cost the average American $250,000 over a lifetime. If you earn, say, $50 an hour, that adds up to 5,000 hours, or the equivalent of almost two and a half years of 40-hour weeks in your ever-shortening life!

"But I'm scared stiff of biking"

Well, you should be. There are a lot of idiots behind the wheel, and 662 cyclists were among the more than 42,500 Americans slaughtered in motor vehicle accidents in 2002. Bikers should learn safety measures and, above all, wear a helmet. About 85 percent of those cyclists were not wearing helmets. Avoiding main roads and staying sober greatly increase your odds of survival, since about 60 percent of bike fatalities occur on major roads, and over a fourth of the dead cyclists had been drinking. Also, the fatality rate soars at night.

But people can also get involved in the growing number of local and state bike coalitions that advocate measures to make bike travel safer, such as bike lanes and paths. Ten years ago, there were few such organizations. Today, the Thunderhead Alliance, a national coalition of these groups, boasts 104 member organizations in 46 states, with a total of 136 full-time staff. For more information, visit www.thunderheadalliance.org.

Some innovative cities, including Madison, Wisconsin; Boulder, Colorado; and Santa Barbara, California, provide city employees with bikes. (Breeze even offers a consulting service to help cities and businesses set up bike fleets.) You can be sure that if the number of biking bureaucrats reaches a critical mass, cycling will become so safe that the main hazard might be falling asleep at the handlebar.


BOB SCHILDGEN is Sierra's managing editor and writes "Hey Mr. Green." Up to Top


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