The Whee! List – Bullet Bike

Velomobile cockpit cam 02Don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard the term ‘bullet bike’ before, I just made it up. They’re properly known as velomobiles, but that just sounds too… French. Too wussy. It conjures up images of a fragile instrument that needs to be serviced by a mime with a big curly moustache. A bullet bike however, now that’s a man’s bike! Something any red blooded Canuck would be proud to talk about over a lager. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that velomobiles are far more common on the other side of the Atlantic than here, though they remain quite rare even there.

Fortunately for this blog, I happen to live only a short drive from North America’s one and only distributor; Bluevelo in Collingwood, Ontario. I was able to schedule a test ride on a beautiful Sunday morning with one of the incredibly helpful owners, Randy Mickevicious. He operates Bluevelo with his brother Ray, who recognized the appeal of velomobiles many years ago and decided that we needed to have them here too. There was hardly a wealth of pent-up demand for the product at the time, but their enthusiasm for the bikes lead them to open up shop here anyways, market sustainability be damned! The bikes’ popularity has been slowly growing ever since as more and more people discover them.

But wait, what the heck is a velomobile? …errrrr I mean bullet bike.

Simply put, it is a recumbent tricycle with full fairings. They kinda look like a bobsleigh with wheels. Like a bike, but shaped like a bullet. Get it? This form factor allows for superior aerodynamics, comfort, and versatility, making them ideal for long distance touring and commuting. But I prefer to think of them as what bikes would have evolved into if the Union Cycliste Internationale hadn’t ruled in 1934 that bicycles must have a certain ‘look’ that made them inefficient and uncomfortable. Those darned fanciful Frenchmen again.

One downside of bullet bikes is their cost, which start at around $8000 given the small volumes in which they’re produced. For those contemplating the purchase of a bike, one of the things Randy pointed out that’s worth keeping in mind is that they make unbeatable rolling billboards. Was he ever right! Even in the area immediately surrounding the Bluevelo workshop, people were slowing down, craning their necks, and chasing me down to chat about the bike.

In terms of performance, their big disadvantage is their bulk and weight. Maneuvering them in tight spaces can be challenging, but at speed this isn’t an issue as they are no wider than a typical wheelchair or even a bicycle with wide handlebars. However, there’s no way a rider could carry one up or down a few steps or ride it over a standard curb.

Randy provided me with a Quest model for my test ride. It was a genuine pleasure, and surprisingly so. I knew that bullet bikes feature full suspension since riders sit in a reclined position, meaning we can’t use our legs to absorb shocks over rough surfaces. Even so, I didn’t expect the comfort to be so remarkable. I couldn’t tell if the patches on the road were as rough as they looked because they felt so smooth. Even railroad tracks were a smooth crossing.

Another aspect that contributed to the comfort was the steady flow of air through the bike from the openings under my feet. Not only did it help to keep me cool but it also seemed to have the effect of blocking the wind in my face as the air rose up out of the cockpit opening. Despite the high speeds, up to 55 km/h, I never noticed any of the drumming wind noise that usually annoys me on an upright bicycle.

Unfortunately I had to abandon my plan to attempt a top speed run as it became evident that the terrain had an almost imperceptible slope. I only noticed it when I gained 15km/h without any extra effort on my part after I turned around to go back! This sensitivity to inclines is the real disadvantage of the bike’s weight, though the weight can also be beneficial as it helps to maintain speed over undulating terrain. Note also that I was still going faster in either direction than I would have gone on an upright bike.

The sensation of speed was exhilarating, and quite rewarding given the low effort it took to achieve. The very sharp steering response also contributed to the sporty feel. I had to learn how to ride while avoiding unnecessary steering inputs, which took some effort due to the rocking motion from my pedaling as well as the side-to-side bounce of the bike on it’s suspension.

When it came time to shed speed, braking was on par with an upright bike. The Quest only has brakes on the two front wheels as the rear tire would contribute almost nothing to slow the bike down. Here again the weight works against the bike, but that’s offset by the very low center of gravity that allowed me to really hammer the brakes without having to worry about going end over end.

Randy standing in front of a Yellow velomobile

Randy from Bluevelo

I must give a word of credit to Bluevelo for their amazing courtesy and level of organization in setting up this test ride for me. The bike was sized for me in advance, with some quick tweaks upon my arrival. They thoughtfully had a bike computer, GoPro mount and water bottle all ready to go, and Randy made sure to cover all the essential info that would help see me through the ride without problem. Experiencing his enthusiasm firsthand, I couldn’t help but reflect on all those stories one hears about pioneering artists, industrialists, or activists who jump into a field for the sheer passion of it. While the general public starts off unaware of their work, they eventually catch on and the pioneers become revered leaders of their field.

My wish is for that day to come quickly for the Mickevicious brothers and these awesome bullet bikes.


HPV Helicopter – The Final Frontier?

Pilot pedals helicopter above the ground crew at indoor soccer field.

Atlas helicopter in flight (Martin Turner

We did it!

Well, not me. It was the AeroVelo team from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering that designed and flew the world’s first human-powered helicopter on June 13, but since I live in the area I feel that they are my team anyways.

Their pedal-copter (named Atlas) managed to remain aloft for over 60 seconds, reaching over 3 meters altitude while the pilot maintained directional control. These were the requirements put forward by the American Helicopter Society to teams from around the world seeking to win the $250,000 Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Challenge. Though 3 meters height and 60 seconds duration may not seem like a lot, the Wright brothers achieved exactly the same results in their first recorded flights at Kitty Hawk. So yes, this is a significant feat that will go down in history.

In practical terms, the only use for Atlas might be to pedal yourself over a fast-moving train if you happen to find yourself blocked in on either side of the track. Of course, that’s not the point. The point is to push our boundaries, to advance the human race.

But with this latest achievement, have we done it all now? Is there another frontier in the human powered vehicle story? We’ve already done human powered boats, bikes, pedal cars, HPV planes, even HPV submarines (the speed record for which is held by another Canadian university; the École de Technologie Supérieure of the Université du Québec). What’s left, an HPV spacecraft? Mars, here we come! Of course we can always push further, higher, faster, longer, as Daft Punk might sing. But none of that will ever be worthy of an entry in the historical records.

Thanks to the AeroVelo team, it seems as though human powered mobility is now unlimited. Human power forever!