Archive for April, 2010

Seen on the Natchez Trace Parkway: the “Aerobic Cruiser” Human/Electric Hybrid Bicycle

April 14, 2010

We didn’t expect our tour of a portion of the Natchez Trace Trail in Tennessee to include a sneak preview of a new product, but we got one, Sunday, April 11th.

Sherry and I were celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary with a Sunday drive over a nearby portion of the scenic Natchez Trace Trail. We had just left a stop at the intersection of the Natchez Trace Parkway with Tennessee 96, where we gawked at a spectacular and unusual concrete bridge with graceful arches and soaring columns.

Natchez Trace parkway Bridge

Couldn't get it all in one shot, without a wide-angle lens, but here's most of it. Nice!

While we were looking at the bridge, one of the dozens of bicyclists who passed the parking area escaped our notice. We left that stopover and headed for the first rest area to the north, so we could stop and eat the chicken dinner picnic Sherry had packed for us. On a long uphill grade just minutes from the bridge, we caught up with and passed a cyclist who seemed to be expending a little less effort than the rest, considering the grade.

His bike seemed a little unusual, as well. It was a sort-of recumbent, with a comfortable-looking seat with a backrest, and a double-tube frame, with smaller-diameter wheels than the typical road bike. There was no obvious brand name on it anywhere that I could see.

In the middle of the frame was an enclosed area, the function of which I couldn’t readily identify. When we passed him, I was struck by how little effort he was putting into pedaling, compared to other cyclists, as he reached the top of the grade.  Without any obvious evidence, I suspected he was getting a boost from an electric motor hidden somewhere in that unusual frame.

Sherry, my lovely wife of 30 years 4/11/2010, at the picnic table

Sherry, my lovely wife of 30 years 4/11/2010, at the picnic table

I didn’t think any more about it, because I didn’t have any spare brain capacity left over from looking forward to chicken, potato salad and dessert. While I sat at a picnic table at the rest stop, with my back to the parking area, the cyclist I had spotted pulled in, along with a companion on a similar bike. They pulled in behind a fairly fancy bus-style RV that was pulling a trailer decorated with elaborate, colorful graphics.

Support vehicle and bikes

My view as I crossed the big parking lot in search of more info.

I hurried to finish a second piece of chicken, my curiosity having gotten the better of me, and I grabbed the camera and walked across the large parking area to find out more. Two men from the RV and the riders looked my way, and seemed to talk a bit, and the riders started off away from me. No waves, no hellos; just showing me their backs as they rode off.

riding off

"No time to talk..." apparently. But, I already had good pictures.

However, my Canon S3 IS has a 12X optical zoom, and I was able to catch some detailed views before I was close enough to run them off, if the team didn’t want much exposure.

Aerobic Cruiser, left side

Close-up of the shy celeb -- the AC before it was ridden away.

The guys at the RV seemed in less of a hurry to get back on the road, and when I approached, they were cordial but appeared to be busy closing up the trailer with the intent to get underway. One had just rolled up and stowed a set of red and black charging cables with alligator clips on the ends.

The cables were longer than the typical set of jumper cables, but not quite as thick, and other end disappeared into the trailer. I surmised that they were for juicing up the batteries in one or both bikes. The bus and trailer appeared to be a support vehicle for the bikes, and the whole operation was certainly more than a casual bike tour of the Trace.

The artwork on the trailer showed some classy color graphics of the bikes, and the words, “Aerobic Cruiser Hybrid Cycles,” “Make exercise fun,” and a Web URL, “aerobiccruiser.com.”

trailer rear graphic

Snazzy artwork on the back of the support team's trailer

The whole support team vehicle -- very classy.

The RV crew smiled and bantered a bit as they closed up the trailer, asking me if I had seen the model I wanted, or words to that effect. I said I wanted one, all right, but didn’t expect it would be available at a price I could afford. They seemed to be busy packing up, and I was inexplicably reluctant to ask prying questions, so they got underway without spilling any more information. I did get enough pictures to prove it happened, though, and enough info from those to do some research when we got home.

After finishing our tour and stopping off at home to freshen up and refrigerate the leftovers, we went to dinner in Ashland City with Sherry’s niece and nephew and their kids, who are like kids and grandkids to us. They brought us a cake and a funny card, and bought our dinner, so that was extra fun.

When we got back home, I set out on Firefox for “aerobiccruiser.com.” The site is there, but there is a message on the top page reminding the owner that he hasn’t put up any content, yet. Oops. I hope the marketing catches up with the product.

Nice trailer, nice product, but no content on the URL. They need to get busy on that. A dead end? Hardly. I searched using Ixquick (I left Google long ago) for “aerobic cruiser,” and got several threads to pull. One of the first I tried yielded pay dirt: Runabout Cycles

This appeared to be the origin of the bikes I had seen.  There was also the story of the development of a tricycle, powered by an electric booster motor. According to the site, the two-wheeler venture had found some good investors, and was moving from its birthplace in Massachusetts to near Memphis.

I sent an email to one of the contact addresses on Runabout Cycles, for Josh Kerson, asking if he was associated with the bike, and included a couple of pictures. He replied fairly quickly that he was. According to the email, he was involved in the development and design, and the project had been taken from his shop to Tennessee, where it would find “bicycle-friendly” weather and demographics that would help with marketing.

Josh said I was holding one of the few pictures of the bike, and (if I read his email right), he was unable to release any photos himself. Maybe he was embargoed from going public while the marketing effort was ramping up. The developers thought the ride on the Trace was a necessary “shakedown cruise” before going public. I agree. If the bike (and rider!) could survive those hills, or if it can be made ready to do so after fixing whatever shortcomings are discovered on that tour, it’s probably ready for prime time.

I’d certainly like to try the bike out, since I live on a dead-end, county road with about 3.5 miles of curvy, hilly terrain with little traffic. This road is quite a challenge for me on my Trek, although it is a very efficient machine. Of course, there is no boost to be had when I twist that handgrip… and the seat, although about as good as it gets in an upright bike, is only a little better than straddling a sawhorse. OK, it’s not that bad, but it still gets old for this Baby Boomer, after even a short ride.

Among the details I caught in that zoomed-in side view was that comfortable-looking seat. Nice! No sawhorse beam, and a backrest that holds one’s torso at a comfortable angle, but without the “butt dragging the ground” look of the usual recumbent, and eye level that allows good visibility ahead.

Seat looks pretty ergonomically-sound. Good hip flexion angle for prolonged pedaling.

Is this the battery pack? If so, they must have come up with some of the high-power-density batteries that are evolving to meet the appetites of the electric car market. This feature will only get better as the battery R&D people refine their products to beat their competitors.

battery pack?

If this is the battery pack, they have found a high-power-density pack, indeed.

A close look at the rear of the bike shows a lot of attention to comfort – note the coil spring (and shock absorber?) between the rear fork and the upper frame. Also, the large hub is probably where the motor is, if this example from another electric bike site is any indication. (See below for this and other sites of interest.) That rectangular box with a heat sink in front of the spring might be a voltage regulator or speed control, or both. Also, is that a disc brake on our side of the motor housing? That would make sense, since this is a lot more weight to stop than a wispy, delicate touring or racing bike, and on a downhill, pedaling with the motor adding torque, it can probably get going pretty fast.

rear wheel

Rear wheel -- note the hub (probably houses the motor), what may be a disc brake, and the shock absorber for rider comfort

Altogether, the Aerobic Cruiser looks like a serious attempt to marry pedal power with electric power in a practical, functional, comfortable package. I don’t know what they will sell for, but I’d love to have one. Given the four-digit prices for high-end, non-electrified bicycles, I don’t know that I could ever afford one, though. On the other hand, if gas prices do what any reasonable individual can expect them to do in the wake of a carbon tax, anything’s possible.

REFERENCES and links of interest

For some technology background and some idea of the competition for the electric-assist bike market, check out the following links:

Aerobic CruiserUPDATE (4/14/10) — New Web home, showing a base page with a graphic like the one on the rear of the trailer. NO LONGER  “Currently unavailable.” Maybe it will get live soon.

Home-made electric bikevideo from a Nashville TV local news feature

E-BikeKitElectric Bike Conversion System

Electric BikesAll sorts of electric vehicles – “Practical transportation for errands and short commutes”

Electric Bikes -N- Electric Scooters

Aerobic Cruiser’s Yahoo Local Directory Listingin Cordova, TN

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