High-tech pogo stick takes a powerful leap

Flybar isn't cheap, but heart rate soars in matter of minutes


April 01, 2005|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

In 1960 Gordon Spitzmesser, an Indiana tool-and-die maker with an apparently restless mind, invented the gas-powered pogo stick.

The "Pop Along" worked fine. Too fine.

The government felt the super toy was a safety hazard and quickly pulled it off the market (whereupon Spitzmesser refocused his attention on trying, unsuccessfully, to create a car that could run on water).

"There's just a fascination with bouncing that humans have," observes Jeff Bergerson, a 29-year-old Washington state personal trainer and extreme skier who has fallen in love with a newer and potentially safer version of the high-performance pogo stick.

The Flybar - a joint design effort of an MIT-trained physicist and professional skateboarder Andy Macdonald - uses a dozen thick, adjustable elastic bands the size of road flares. It's capable of 6-foot-high hops, but they don't come cheap: The suggested retail price is $299.

Bergerson, who has been putting a demo model through its paces, incorporated the Flybar into his fitness regimen, sometimes going airborne two hours at a stretch while working up a formidable sweat.

"It's like a trampoline that I can travel with," he says. "I've been using it mainly for raising my anaerobic threshold, kind of high-energy exercise. I could easily max out my heart rate on the Flybar."

This newfangled pogo stick - which weighs 20 pounds and, thanks to that sleek, metallic shell, resembles a jackhammer with fashion sense - is produced by the same company responsible for the original wooden one that first captivated children back in 1918. SBI Enterprises of Ellenville, N.Y., has invested nearly $2 million in its Project Flybar.

Never mind that in the past few years competitors introduced a handful of high-tech pogo sticks, including an air-powered version from the makers of that wildly popular Razor retro-scooter.

None of them has yet made consumers jump for joy.

"It was all manufacturer hype. In 87 years we've seen them all come and go," says SBI President Irwin Arginsky, who insists his Flybar can deliver the 21st-century ultra bounce people crave.

SBI has sold about 3,000 Flybars since the rollout in September. Arginsky admits being disappointed in those numbers, but adds he may have made a marketing mistake in envisioning Flybar as a goosed-up toy.

"By coincidence," he says, the company has discovered there's a potential fitness audience. Arginsky notes Flybar was an unqualified hit at a recent sports exposition trade show in South Korea. In June, he's meeting in Europe with one of the directors of Austria's Olympic training program.

He's also talking with some upstate New York school districts about using Flybar in physical education classes.

"It's incredible exercise," says Joe Verzal, a senior at the University of Illinois-Chicago who is featured in a Flybar promotional video making great, grasshopper-like leaps and acrobatic spins. "I can go all day on a regular pogo stick. If I jump on a Flybar for 10 minutes, I'm winded."

Verzal, who's 5-feet-9, credits Flybar with strengthening his legs to the point where he can dunk a basketball. Previously, he could only touch the rim.

Verzal and Bergerson have finely tuned senses of balance and months of Flybar experience. But can the average person stay vertical long enough to burn a few calories? And does the world need a pogo stick with muscles?

Mark Milani is general manager of Merritt's Downtown Athletic Club. He's got a pogo stick hanging in his garage at home that his daughter used to use.

When Milani takes the Flybar for a test drive at the Downtown Athletic Club, he looks like a man attempting to ride a wild bull. He gets thrown after two hops.

Initial impression: That's one juiced-up pogo stick.

"I'm scared of it," Milani says. "I barely pressed on it. I can see the potential right off."

Karen Codd, a 25-year-old massage therapist and self-described "terrible" childhood pogo-sticker, warms to it quicker.

"If you get the hang of it," she says, bounding across an empty racquetball court, "it would be a full-body workout."

Seven hops without stopping ... 17 ... 23 ...

Codd's a natural, but the Flybar's future looks cloudy to her. "It's fun," she says, "but I don't know anyone in the world who would spend $300 on it."

Milani might. He's back, itching for a Flybar rematch. He snaps on a protective bicycle helmet and gets down to business. Twelve hops without stopping ... 17 ... 30 ...

What's this? He's doing hip throws. He's trying side-to-side jumps, backward jumps. He's hopscotching around the racquetball court.

You pay $2,000 for a good bicycle, says Milani. Why not $300 for the king of all pogo sticks? Why not Flybar classes in health clubs?

"People are always looking for something new," he explains. "This could be fun if it was a complete workout program with the twists I was doing and some of those back and forth movements."

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