I captured this story in the late summer, and had just become confident to experiment with other people’s bike experiences firsthand. It made me a better writer, but more importantly it made me realize I had misperceptions about different aesthetics, and I really needed to get over that.
This chapter is intentionally longer than most. It’s technical, for one thing. It’s also a heck of a lot of fun, and I owe Arne Pelkonen a chance to show off his neat invention on my blog. Arne’s EcoCycle is one really neat bike.
The night Toronto decided to celebrate The Blackout by staging a spontaneous Critical Mass was the night I met Arne Pelkonen. He was riding beside me on a tricycle, very low to the ground.
“What’s that?” I heard myself saying, before I realized how rude it sounded. Just as riding beside a tall bike is intimidating, so riding beside Arne on his bike made me feel slightly superior. Arne smiled expansively.
“It’s an EcoCycle!” he told me. “I designed it myself.” He was beaming like a schoolboy. “It’s a lean steering tricycle.” His enthusiasm was enough to make me stop, draw out a card, and jot down a few notes hoping to bump into Arne and his bike again. He rode off into the darkness at panther speed, silently.
Only hours later, I received an email from Arne agreeing to an interview, here at the Boardwalk Cafe on the Beach. It’s a sleepy Sunday evening and the cafe is nearly deserted except for the live band playing in one corner.
I realize as I get to know Arne without the bike that I had formed some misconceptions. Like all the cyclists I’ve interviewed, Arne exudes health and friendship. His eyes twinkle with mischief. He loves to talk. He is also a tree trunk of a man. Tall and robust. Not overweight, but solid. Durable. If Tonka made men, Arne would be a prototype. That he proudly rides a bike that, at full height stands at about three feet, is misleading. And it occurs to me to wonder just how stable this bike of his might be.
Arne is still beaming as we start talking. The waitress is clearly flirting with him, whether it’s for a tip or not is outside my realm of reckoning. She is drawn to him. I keep telling people how attractive all my interviewees are, and it’s good to have confirmation from an objective observer. Arne is just Arne, chatting about his bike. I suspect he could do this for hours and never tire.
As a child, Arne was an avid BMXer, but Arne has carried a dream around for years. He has always wanted to build a stable three-wheeler that handles well. He wanted something you could maneuver around corners, that would turn on a dime and yet that would inspire confidence at both high and low speeds. Three an a half years ago, he made up his mind to live that dream out. He tells me earnestly that he “didn’t want to regret not doing it.”
His goal has always been to develop a bike to “work as good as I had in mind.” The dream was easy to visualize, but hard to make a reality. The mom in me encourages him automatically. Complex projects bring an extra level of satisfaction. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Yes, he agrees, but there’s more than that. He didn’t want “to die not trying.” Arne’s business, EcoCycle, is driven by a dream, not by a business case. He is not chasing wealth; he just wants to be comfortable, to “make a living.” Here it is again. This city is full of people who are not all about the money, like me. We want to be paid a fair wage, but we are not driven by riches. We are driven to produce something of quality, something that will satisfy and that will endure. It is enough that we see our dream become a reality after months and years of toil.
Arne’s bikes are named for their place in the development cycle. There have been thirteen prototypes.
“I give them each an identity,” Arne says. “They occupy my mind from the moment I wake up to when I manage to fall asleep. They even occupy my subconscious, at night.” He has spent the past four years basically living in his garage, developing, refining, and tweaking this bike design. He works twelve-hour days, drawing, welding, building.
The seat and fenders are fibreglass, although he has experimented with carbon fibre. The big advantage of carbon fibre is that it weighs half what fibreglass does, which comprises a substantial three pounds per vehicle. An equally big downside is that you have to wash absolutely everything in the room down; his garage is a small environment, so it’s completely dedicated to the task during the entire process. Furthermore, the process is extremely time-sensitive, because if the gel coat is allowed to cool for too long, it shrinks. Moreover, with carbon fibre you must get all the bubbles out before you can move to the next step. Removing the bubbles is a task in itself, requiring a lot of patience. One night, he finally celebrated a bubble-free experiment, at which moment the surface peeled off: the entire thing was destroyed. It was an expensive failure. A linear yard of fibreglass retails at $3.67; the same amount of carbon fibre retails at $44.00. Arne shares how he cried in frustration, but that he “had to walk away and regroup.” Still, he now understands the process and he feels great satisfaction in this knowledge.
“And then,” he tells me, “I went back to fibreglass.”
Arne has gone through a lot of learning curves in the process of giving life to his dream. On the production side, he has learned autoCAD, milling and machine work, welding, and on the legal side he has immersed himself in income tax laws and liability issues. He rides his bikes as much as possible, all year long. Each time he makes a modification, he tests it out at once to ensure that the change improves the ride. For example, the bike’s design has inherent stability, so the winter ride is less challenging than expected.
And now, Arne must learn how to market his new product. “Begun is half done,” he quotes a favourite family saying. He has begun by promoting Prototype 13 in various public displays, like Trikefest in Port Hope.
Optimistic that he will shortly be making his first sale, Arne is busy putting together his first half dozen bikes for the product’s official unveiling at a big fall bike show in Montreal called Expocycle. He calls the show “insanely expensive,” but it’s his best chance at cracking into the trike market. He spends hours physically fabricating the product. The EcoCycle is extremely labour intensive at this stage, the ratio being 1:10 with a common bike. Next time round he hopes to reduce the amount of welding required. At the moment, the EcoCycle is “all made in Canada, by a guy who makes $0 on labour.” A single EcoCycle retails for about $4000; components alone are $2500, before the fibreglass pieces Arne designs and produces himself.
Looking up from my book, I wonder what drives this guy.
“Do you have a family?” I ask tentatively, wondering whether I’m about to hear how he spends each evening in his cups. In fact, Arne is a very happy family man. He has two small children, and because he works from home, he can pick them up from school and prepare their meals while his wife is at work. His daughter comes into the shop regularly and devotedly tidies up scraps around the shop. Arne confides that he just feels like a really cool dad.
“How do you complain when you’re living your dream?” he asks me, arms spread wide.
And then there’s Arne’s wife. She was a skeptic, like me, until he took her to Kempenfest with him. When she saw people gravitate to the EcoCycle and realized the response it was garnering, there was a change in her perception of her husband’s dream.
“She’s becoming a believer,” he explains. When Arne talks about his company, he always uses the pronoun ‘we’. He laughs as he does it again. “I say ‘we’ to give the company more depth.”
Arne has only been marketing his bike for a few weeks, so he hasn’t the confidence of a sale. Arne is—at this stage he has to be—a salesman. I admit that I’m skeptical; I can’t share his enthusiasm for riding a three-wheeler in winter conditions, and the fact that it rides so low worries me. I ask him about this and his comment is that, because the bike rides low, your centre of gravity is closer to the ground. Cyclists actually have less agility on higher bikes. The bike is very stable.
Of course, I’ve never been on a three wheeler, so who am I to say? I smile politely and scribble down everything he tells me.
To expose the bike to the cyclist on the street, he’s ridden it through this year’s Taste of the Danforth and at the Jarvis Bike Lanes ride. He felt this second event was his big chance to promote the bike in the city. Arne turns a bit serious suddenly. He tells me he had no opinion at all about the Jarvis bike lanes, until he tried to return to his car after the event ended at city hall. He had parked around the corner from Allen Gardens, where the event began. When you ride in a mass, you feel entirely safe apart from the occasional wonky rider. You don’t worry about traffic, because the mass is taking up half of the road. Yet, when he had to navigate the streets without the security of the mass, he started to get into trouble. On Queen Street, the bike got caught in the streetcar tracks. Then, because the tricycle is inherently wider than a standard bike, he didn’t feel he had adequate space, until he reached Jarvis Street. Entering the bike lane, he suddenly realized he “owned a piece of the road.” It was a turning point for Arne. It all made sense why cyclists in the city would react so passionately.
At the moment, Arne tends to ride more in the Beach area.
“How does it handles around all those people?” I ask.
“I bring it to the boardwalks a lot, and I have yet to run over a toe,” he says, his grin returning. He tells me when he has the bike out, the response is amazing. “I’ve been cut off and flagged down. People are enthusiastically interested.”
And then I realize what drives Arne. He says you can’t appreciate the project properly until you hear the commentary around you.
“I’ve come to feed off the positive energy in the reactions I get,” he explains. Arne tells me pragmatically that he loves the simple, elegant design of a bike. “It’s just a couple of triangles, regardless of the brand.”
“How much attention could this thing possibly attract,” I ask him, surprised.
“A lot,” he admits. “I know it attracts attention, but I’m trying not to get large-headed about it.”
The sun is setting, and it’s time I left. Arne smiles mischievously.
“Would you like to try it out?” he asks me.
“Would I?!” I gasp. “You have it here?”
We walk to his van, in the back of which sits Prototype 13, patiently waiting. Arne lifts it out and explains generally how it works. The gears are integrated into the handgrips, where the brakes are also located. He climbs into the seat and circles around a few times, leaning into turns and playfully swinging around potholes. He brakes elegantly, at my side. Repositioning the seat for my height, he beams again and gestures for me to get in. He is forcing my skeptic’s hand, and I am eating out of his.
Instinctively grabbing the brakes, I push into the pedals tentatively. It’s a different set of muscles entirely and I have to concentrate to make the bike move forward. Unconsciously, I release the brakes and try leaning into a turn. It works! I feel like I’m on a horse, giving gentle signals to an alert and eager companion who immediately responds. Riding to the far end of the parking lot, I swing around a couple of potholes, tease a few pedestrians, and then dash madly back to where Arne is standing, beaming. I suddenly realize I forgot about the brakes. I felt secure the whole time I was out there, riding.
I try hard not to be artificially enthusiastic, and climb out of the seat. Just then, a man begs a moment of Arne’s time. He has been watching intently from the back of his car. He works at a hospital, tasked with enabling those who need more independent forms of transportation. He likes how low it is to the ground, its full fenders, and the recumbent position. Arne states that he only knows one other recumbent that leans. The two men get to talking about how people with disabilities might have some transference issues, and would it be possible to move the handlebars.
“Of course!” Arne the builder beams.
“How is it for dismounting?” the fellow wants to know.
Arne tells him, “When I want to get out, I brake and it catapults me out.” Oddly, I have an urge to try this.
Next, the man inquires about its maneuverability, and it’s all I can do to not interrupt. Arne tells him that it has a seventy degree cambre in the rear wheels, so “you can drive aggressively with side loading.”
I don’t understand the technical aspect; all I know is that it works.
Arne gestures to the bike. “Try it!” he enthuses. It takes a couple of attempts, but Arne and I finally convince the man to climb into the seat. He beams. I wonder momentarily whether I beamed like this. It’s an entirely different experience from riding someone else’s bike. It’s comfortable. It’s fun to experiment with the lean, with speed, with braking. This thing is a hoot.
When the man returns with the bike, he is still beaming. You can see he wants one of these, or at least wants to get some of his patients into it. He really liked the turning capabilities.
“When you try to turn,” Arne the salesman tells him, “there’s a tire scrub on conventional tires. No tire scrub here. That’s the real advantage with this one.” I’m only half listening as I climb back into the seat. Arne beams again.
“Do you mind if I take this out again just for a minute?” I ask, shyly.
“Be my guest!” he enthuses. I want to hug him.
I’m not endorsing my new friend, EcoCycle Prototype 13. I’m just sayin’.