RODALE NEWS, KEMPTON, PA—It was all but impossible to miss "Bob the Bicycle Guy" at last weekend's Pennsylvania Renewable Energy and Sustainable Living Festival in Kempton, PA. In between the solar panel and gigantic wind turbine displays, Bob Swaim blatantly reminded us of a form of energy we're not tapping into nearly enough these days: human power. "I'm not going to try to sell you anything," he told me as I eyed up the seven-passenger conference bike. "This is a hobby, I just love bikes."
As it turns out, so do a lot of people.
With a few dozen rare and eccentric bikes under his tent, Swain grabbed a megaphone to address the growing crowd, talking about his collection of 200 bikes and his hope that more people will get off their butts and start using human power and riding bicycles to improve their health.
He even let me, and other members of the crowd, ride some of his prize cycles.
SIDE-BY-SIDE COMPANION BIKE
My first test ride was on his Companion Bike, a two-person cycle that differs from a standard tandem in that the riders are next to each other. Popular in the 1970s, the concept for this model dates back to the early 1900s. It's a nice setup because you can easily talk to the person you ride with while you both burn calories pedaling. That makes it a nice first-date bike, and apparently it can reveal a lot about the person beside you, too. 'I'm the captain, she's the stoker. The only purpose of her is power," Swaim said to the crowd as we got started, adding, "I always suggest if you start dating, take your prospective boyfriend or girlfriend for a ride on this to see if they're a worker or slacker. If you've got a slacker, move on!" Swaim added that the bike is a great way for a blind person to exercise with a friend, since only one of you needs to steer. To underscore that, Swaim took me out for a spin on the bike while I was blindfolded. Although it was a bit surprising going around turns, I just continued to pedal and burn calories while he watched where we were going.
MINI TANDEM BIKE
We didn't go very far on this one, thankfully. In fact, if distance is key, don't pick a mini tandem bike. It’s like a contraption the Three Stooges might have ridden—you pedal your butt off and exert a lot of energy to move small distances (and look pretty silly in the process). Maybe this would be a good choice if you have a small yard and want to slim down without leaving the lawn. Or are trying out for the circus. On the other hand, it's a great way to get kids interested in riding; I heard at least one child asking her mom if she could ride it.
If your boss ever talked about doing "moving meetings" at work to burn extra calories, ask him or her to check this thing out! The conference bike, a 400-pound tricycle that seats seven, was one of the most popular attractions at the energy festival. Everyone pedals, with one person also manning the steering wheel. This model featured a desk to take notes, and even an umbrella to keep the sun out of our eyes. It was kind of weird to be the one in the circle seated with my back toward oncoming traffic, but when people saw this machine coming, they got out of the way. You may get the opportunity to try one yourself, as they're sometimes for rent at outdoor events. Just avoid hills on the thing…it was killer going up one (but fun flying back down). With the hydraulic brakes, you can pretty much stop on a dime.
THREE-PERSON TANDEM BIKE
Swaim had the privilege of naming this rare bike, and he call it the "3-View PSU," in honor of his beloved Penn State University. It features a recumbent seat in the front, and a rear-facing recumbent seat in the back, with a standard bike seat in the middle. The gearing allows the rider in the back to pedal forward, even though the bike moves in the other direction. "I don't need a rearview mirror with this bike, because the person in the back is looking out for my benefit. He'll be the one to get hit first," Swaim said with a laugh.
Sometimes called a "swing bike" or "wobble bike," this cycle converts from a conventional ride to sideways mode with a quick flick-of-the-wrist adjustment. According to Swaim, a commercial version of the bike was popular with kids in the ’70s, thanks to an endorsement by Jimmy Osmond. Perhaps the risk of bellbottoms getting caught in the mechanism kept this model from really taking off.