Pedaling For Profit

July 20, 1992|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

Joseph and Joan Azzalina climbed out of the bright yellow contraption with an embarrassed backward glance at the driver who had just whisked them back to their hotel.

There they were, positively sweat-free despite yesterday's noon heat, two happy tourists from Lehigh Valley, Pa., loaded down with souvenirs from their weekend in Baltimore.

But the bicyclist who had saved them a 15-minute walk from the Inner Harbor was collapsed on the seat, his face a neon red, panting and taking long gulps from a water bottle.

"The ride was fun. But I thought the guy worked awfully hard for his money," Mrs. Azzalina said, giving the drenched pedicab driver another sympathetic look before heading into the air-conditioned comfort of the Days Inn to finish packing.

Ben Schwartz does work hard for his money. He labors up steep hills, weaves past buses spewing fumes in the tourist-choked harbor and rattles down rough cobblestone streets. The 20-year-old college student from Cincinnati, Ohio, is one of approximately 50 bicyclists pedaling for a living in Baltimore this summer.

Pedicabs are the hottest new trend in historic cities, from San Francisco to Charleston, S.C., to Annapolis, said Lisa Michael, who founded Baltimore's pedicab company two years ago. The three-wheelers, common in the Far East, have become an increasingly popular, environmentally correct transportation option.

"They're safe, comfortable and a great way to get around. You don't have to find a parking spot, you don't have to worry about drinking and driving, and you don't have gas fumes," said Ken Best, Lisa's business partner in Destination Baltimore Inc. He hadn't been on a bike since he was a child.

She couldn't find the hydraulic disc brakes, let alone tell them apart from the chain.

But when Harbor Court, the hotel they were working for, considered starting a pedicab company, both fell in love with the notion. As the hotel backed off, they quit their jobs, bought six pedicabs, and leased a small warehouse in Fells Point.

Ms. Michael worked out a financial plan and obtained a loan with help from Women Entrepreneurs of Baltimore Inc., a network that trains women starting their own companies. Meanwhile, Mr. Best taught himself the mechanics of the customized bikes.

"It's kind of funny now," Ms. Michael said of the company's rocky start. "We didn't know any of the lingo. We'd call up a manufacturer and say, 'Something's wrong with that tube up front.'

Matthew Stephen, 23, has been a driver since last September. A sculptor who dabbles in tie-dye and plays Ultimate Frisbee in his spare time, he needed a job and figured it was a great way to earn money and get exercise.

The pay is decent, especially for the hour-long rides for which drivers charge $25. But the work is grueling.

"It's hard when it's really hot and you're sweating and all. But hey, this way you can go to work in a T-shirt and be outside all day," said Mr. Stephen, whose calf muscles are now hard as stone from taking people around the Inner Harbor, Fells Point and Federal Hill.

He's pedaled visitors to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, driven house-hunters around neighborhoods and taken two 200-pound men to dinner. Business is brisk at dinner time and after midnight.

The pedicabs weigh more than 200 pounds alone, so the drivers have to be in good enough shape to haul more than 500 pounds. Mr. Stephen remembers with a grimace how he panted up a hill one day with a woman in back who filled the entire seat. But most days, he says, he enjoys chatting with the customers and pedaling across town, his T-shirt whipping in the wind.

Couples like to hire pedicabs for romantic rides, although women sometimes are reluctant, said Mr. Schwartz. "The women are always, like, 'We'll walk,' or 'We need to walk off dinner.' Men are basically more lazy."

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