I still remember my first bicycle. Her name was Perfuma (in honor of She-rah's most fragrant ally) and her shiny purple frame was decked with decals and textured rubber. She carried me through some of the most memorable streets of my childhood, but somewhere along the way, she became uncool. Around 1993, I discovered not only that tapered pants looked silly, but also that Huffy bikes were like "Glamour Dolls"—sad, mass-produced facsimiles of Barbie—or in this case, reasonably priced versions of quality brands. Like everything else, biking became more about image than fun, and that battle is still being waged.
In Boise, the battleground ranges from carved single-track to paved greenbelt, and weaponry can be anything from full-suspension mountain bikes to paper-light roadsters to the infamous "Wal-Mart Special" (a.k.a. the Huffy). And that's just in the basic category. All such bikes are offspring of the double diamond, a 150-year-old frame that is still considered the safest, most efficient design.
A small but saucy contingent disagrees. They are "alternative" bikers and engineers, people who break from tradition for the highs of novelty, invention and risk. Their toys of choice have become an independent industry, and though the market is relatively modest, the buyers are fierce. They are also territorial. But this is not a defining characteristic as all "hardcore" bikers seem to group up like deceitful high school girls, sneering at other factions and congratulating themselves on being the most progressive sportsmen around. Matching spandex and cost of equipment aside, who's to say what sort of biking is the coolest, purist or the biggest rush? And are alternatives to alternative transportation just a case of potato, potahto?
An online search provided photos and specs for dozens of alternative bikes. In China, young people are stoked on the "Monocycle," a contraption that puts the rider inside an overgrown wheel. This allows for tight control and a lot of distance per rotation, the tradeoff being that you look like you're steering an exercise wheel for hamsters. There were also bikes built for six or eight passengers, but the most life-threatening, original styles came from Atomic Zombie. This is a colorful Web site built by self-proclaimed "garage hacker" Brad Graham. His arsenal of hybrids includes the Invertabike, the Skyscraper Chopper and the SnowBus Winter Tandem Trike (which sounds like a super-villain from Pokémon). All were assembled from original parts and concepts, but the modifications make for a totally different ride.
The question remains—why change a winning game? Because human beings crave innovation, and history has unraveled countless "absolutes" in lieu of progress. Some alterna-bikes were designed to cut through weather, others to conserve energy and still others to shock and entertain. Take Graham's Guinness World Record Breaking Sky Cycle. This 15-foot high bike looks like a ladder on wheels—in fact, it is a ladder on wheels. It is clearly not built for speed or stability, but it defies belief, and that is enough.
While many alternative bikes are similarly circus worthy, there are a few that arguably improve on the original. The first is the e-bike, or electric bicycle. According to Greg Dietz of Dietz Automotive, one of Boise's first and only distributors of e-bikes, the business is limited but rewarding. His product combines man and battery power as a basic frame is rigged with a 36-volt jobbie that can coast up to 18 mph and go 20 miles before needing a recharge.
"We call it "Power-on-Demand." You can turn the motor off on flat ground and back on to coast uphill. It's a blast," Dietz said, "but the best part is watching peoples' faces when they try it. It's like they're kids again—they're all smiles."
The chances of seeing an e-bike in Boise are slim, but another alternative style is now a common sight along Hill Road, Bogus Basin and throughout Downtown. It's called the recumbent, a low-impact high-comfort ride that looks like a cross between a baby-jogger and a go-cart. Rather than wedging themselves onto a tiny seat and leaning forward, riders recline in a comfortable chair with their feet in front of them. According to Nathan at George's Cycles, you couldn't "thrash down a mountain" that way, but you could ride for hours and hours without much strain on your arms, hands or back. It's still a workout, but the physics favors those who want to enjoy the scenery.
Veteran bike mechanic and mysterious phone voice of Idaho Mountain Touring, Bob X had a lot to say about the friction between "real" bikes and recumbents. He suggested that the differences are less about functionality than form.
"Why alternative bikes? It's an exercise in individuality," he said, recognizing the comforts of a recumbent (like sitting in a La-Z-Boy) while acknowledging that its capabilities are more suited to a particular athletic type. "They're a unique group of cyclists, and you can usually spot them without their bikes," he chuckled.
Erich Korte, an avid recumbent cyclist, agreed and disagreed. Going into his fifth year and over 15,000 miles on his alternative rig, he makes no bones about the superficial consequences.
"It's like riding a piece of lawn furniture," he said, "and as long as you don't mind looking like a refugee from the Shriner's Parade, it's a lot of fun." Korte stopped mountain biking when his hands went numb back in 1999, but the compromise evolved into a passion. He has trekked everywhere from McCall to Death Valley, and he sees other bikers' stereotyping as "naïve criticism." "One of the most common misconceptions about recumbents is that you won't be seen ... that isn't true, cause you look so goofy. It's not a macho guy type bike, but anybody confident enough to ride one has got to be a babe magnet. Besides, you get a great angle on the chicks," Korte laughed.
In the end, anything that gets our feet off the ground is an alternative means of transportation. Some are cooler than others, but cool is an attitude. So whether you toodle through neighborhoods or tear down cliffs, enjoy what you're doing, because the kind of bike you ride is as ultimately defining as a Barbie doll.