Spinning around town on bicycle built for seven

June 07, 2007|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Sun reporter

"This really is the perfect ride for this thing," says Stuart Blum as he and six friends pedal his bike along the Light Street side of the Inner Harbor.

Yes, that math is correct: Seven cyclists are pumping away on one, single, not-so-solitary "Conference Bike."

Sometimes whimsy can be the mother of invention.

A Dutch sculptor/wannabe mechanical engineer created the Conference Bike. There are about 150 in circulation worldwide. Blum, a 47-year-old lawyer who collects exotic bikes, teamed with a friend to buy a used one on eBay last year for $9,000.

The group saddled up at Blum's Otterbein townhouse, bound for Sunday breakfast in Fells Point. The Inner Harbor makes for perfect riding conditions because there's a wide shoulder - and no hills. The Conference Bike is a beast, a normal bike on growth hormones: 400 pounds of steel in motion, maximum speed about 12 mph.

It looks like a poker game on wheels - three to be exact: The Conference Bike technically is a Conference Trike.

Seven people sit around a large, circular handlebar, legs independently turning pedals linked to a central chain drive. The rider in the rear seat-post position (in this case, Blum) commands the brakes and steering wheel.

"Dude, you should be in a parade," Karen Pfarr, a first-time rider, says to Blum as they cruise past startled tourists.

In a way, the fire-engine-red Conference Bike is its own parade. Crowds always form. Eyes bug out. Cameras get pulled from pockets. A contagion of smiles spreads across once-stony faces.

Everybody perched on the Conference Bike feels compelled to wave, as if they're transportation royalty out for a spin among the lumbering, lead-footed masses.

Listen to what those lowly bipeds have to say:

"Awesome!"

"Hilarious!"

"It's a great physics experiment."

"Check that out!" shouts one onlooker. "Go, baby, go!"

Something about any bicycle and its youthful connotations puts people in a good mood. Something about weird, multipassenger bikes makes folks almost giddy.

Larry Black is the founder of College Park Bicycles and Mount Airy Bicycles, and Blum's Conference Bike co-owner. "I've always been into bonding on bicycles, having gotten too little love as a kid," he says, jokingly. "The Conference Bike is the best way to surround yourself with people. It's literally a barrel of laughs."

Cindy Ching, who knows Blum through their membership in the Baltimore Rowing Club, brought her parents along this morning. Her father, Chay Ching, is an environmental engineer. He's impressed with the design of the Conference Bike, how it transforms seven sets of legs into "one power generator." He wonders if this might be the commuting future: bikepooling?

"It's amazing," Ching says as the big bike glides to a stop at the Fells Point waterfront. "You turn the flat power into rotational power. That's not easy."

Blum says the Conference Bike is a low-maintenance marvel that has the added bonus of being "grossly overbuilt." Eight feet long and 6 feet wide, it is almost impossible to roll yet steers like a dream.

"It's not a hothouse flower," he adds. "This was built to be used."

When in use, the Conference Bike delivers a surprisingly good calorie burn. After all, that's quite a pile of steel to push around. Riders do a lot of talking, but also a lot of sweating.

"It was more of a workout than I thought," says Paula Hickey, as she sits down to breakfast, shirt wet with perspiration.

Blum has chugged as far as 25 miles on the Conference Bike. He's thinking of taking it to Bike New York, the five-borough, 30,000-strong cyclefest, next spring - providing he can recruit a team of like-minded masochists: "I would need seven people that at the end of 45 miles would still be friends. Forty-five miles on this would be work."

Meanwhile, Blum is willing to rent the Conference Bike for fun jaunts: $125 an hour. But beware: Supercycling can be seductive. Ask his wife.

"I fell in love with the bike first," says Larysa Blum, "then Stuart."

GET THE BIKE

Buy it

"It's a carnival ride busted loose from its moorings." That's how Eric Staller describes the Conference Bike. He should know: He invented it about 15 years ago. You can read about Staller and his Conference Bike (plus buy one if you've got $18,000 to spare) at conferencebike.com.

Ride it

Co-owners Stuart Blum and Larry Black rent their Conference Bike for $125 an hour (they supply the "driver"). E-mail bikelarry@gmail.com.

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