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10.01.08

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Pedal Power

Inventors make bikes as easy to use as cars

By Gianna De Persiis Vona


I derive no pleasure from cardio exercise. I have never owned a bike that wasn't $30 or less from a garage sale. I was the type of child to take head-over-handlebar spills, landing face first into whatever happened in my path. Being laid-up on the couch for a couple of days from bike-inflicted wounds was not unheard of. Factor in my fear of dogs and traffic, and the chances of catching me in a spandex suit with crotch padding is close to nil. Just the same, when I catch sight of Steve Muscarelli preparing to mount and ride, I can't help but stop and inquire.

No doubt it is the solar panels attached to the rear of his bike that catch my attention. Later, Muscarelli will tell me that the solar panels, which jut up like a beetle's wings, are more for looks than anything else. People kept asking him where his solar panels were, so he put some on to satisfy the crowd. Far more useful is the electric motor, which is installed on the front wheel, and the pull cart attached to the rear of the bike, which carries batteries with plenty of room left over for strapping in groceries and speakers for the tunes.

I tell Muscarelli I want to see more, and he kindly agrees to meet up with me later for a more complete tour of his creations.

A few weeks later, we meet at the Sebastopol Farmer's Market. Muscarelli arrives on one of his six converted bicycles with friend Danya Parkinson of the Pyrokinetics art collective. Parkinson is with his family in his solar electric pedal hybrid. Parkinson's hybrid is built on a "social tandem," a two-seater with a canopy, most regularly found conveying tourists on the boardwalks of seaside towns. Parkinson's tandem is decked out to the hilt, with custom saddlebags and pillows sewn by his wife, a full solar-paneled roof, satellite radio, a seatbelt-ready front basket for the children, and a simple throttle system so effective that one need only pedal when especially inspired.

This baby goes up to 25 miles per hour, has a 40- to 50-mile radius (more if it's sunny), and lighting for evening rides. This is a bolt-and-bracket design, Parkinson tells me, which means that the integrity of the original bike has been maintained, and the entire operation can be taken off and put on another bike if desired. Accustomed to working with large sculpture with extreme fire effects, Parkinson is ready to move his art in a more environmentally friendly direction.

Both Parkinson and Muscarelli speak highly of their collaborative efforts on the converted social tandem. With this type of work, bringing people together who have varied skills and talents is not just essential, it's part of the joy of it. But what about those of us who want a hybrid bike, but have no skills to offer? Not to worry. In the last few months, Muscarelli has converted a total of eight bikes for use by others.

Muscarelli has been car-free for almost three years. In the winter, he puts fenders on his bikes, dons full rain gear and has rain covers for all of his stuff. The quality, lightweight battery packs hold up against moisture, and he is able to get everywhere he needs to go, 365 days a year, on his bikes alone. On the bike path, Muscarelli tells me, he is legally allowed to travel 15 miles per hour, which he does with pure leg power, using an electric boost whenever he pleases. On the road, his bike is allowed to travel at 20 miles per hour. Driving a 3,000-pound vehicle from point A to point B, for what are often the most menial and simple of tasks, is ridiculous, Muscarelli says, and with a bike like his, why get in the car?

Muscarelli even offers roadside service for his customers. These bikes are so simple, he says, that there are rarely any problems, but should a rider get stranded for any reason, Muscarelli can be called day or night. He will arrive with his tools in tow (which he can charge, by the way, on his bike), and the rider will be back up again in no time. Muscarelli sees the cultural climate of car reliance shifting, and with more bikes on the road, he predicts that a new paradigm is not far behind. "The stuff works," Muscarelli tells me. "That's the bottom line."

Suffice it to say that I now want one quite desperately.  

For more information, call 707.206.8659.


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