Friday, March 30, 2007


In the 1990s I wrote a series of articles and columns that appeared in my friend Bob Bryant's excellent magazine, Recumbent Cyclist News. There have always been some recumbent enthusiasts who believe that recumbents should and ultimately will be the dominant form of bicycle. While I don't think that will ever be the case, that "what if?" discussion was the seed of this story.


by Kent Peterson

When you work for the world's top selling bicycle magazine, dealing with wackos is just part of the job. Usually Bob is the guy stuck talking to the nut-cases but this week he'd taken the RCN jet to Bermuda with the models for the annual "Women of Recumbency" photo shoot. It was up to me, Nicole and Billy the intern to get the current issue out the door. Nicole was off getting vital office supplies while Billy and I were wrestling with a tricky issue of layout, so we didn't notice the stranger until he cleared his throat.

"Billy you pinhead!" I said, "you've got this picture of the carbon Bachetta backwards. Look, the drive train is supposed to be on the right side!"

"Gee boss," Billy sniveled, "you sure are cranky before you've had your coffee. I hope Nicole gets back with those lattes soon."


Billy and I turned and noticed the stranger for the first time. His face looked normal enough, but his clothing was unusual. His shirt and shorts seemed to be made of some kind of thin stretchy material that clung tightly to his skin. The shirt was garishly colored and it had pockets in the back while his black shorts appeared to have some kind of diaper-like pad built into the seat. Frankly, the total look of the outfit was ridiculous but over the years I've learned that it really is best not to judge a book by its cover. I managed to keep a straight face and shot Billy a look that made it clear to him that he'd best do the same.

"May I help you?" I asked.

"Yes, yes I think you can. Dr. Bryant, I presume?"

"No," I replied, "Dr. Bob is out of town. I'm Mr. Peterson and this is my associate Billy. What can we do for you?"

"Actually," the stranger began, "it's not so much what you can do for me, it's what I can do for you. You see, I've got a bicycle design I think you'll find very interesting..."

"Hold it right there Mr., uh-mm what did you say your name was?"

"Oh, where are my manners?" The stranger fussed. "The name's Backer. D.F. Backer."

"Well, Mr. Backer, no offense but we're kind of busy here. Maybe you could call back next week and make an appointment." This was pretty much the standard brush-off we've developed over the years. It seems like every George, Tim or Gardner thinks he's the next great bicycle designer and sooner or later they all come to let us in on the ground floor of their magnificent idea. And they pretty much all expect Bob to fork over some cash to help turn a silly impractical sketch into an even more improbable reality and they never believe us when we tell them that it just doesn't work that way.

But Mr. Backer wasn't so easily dismissed. "But I've come such a long way. Just give me five minutes."

"Well," I wavered...

"Great!" Backer beamed. "Come outside and I'll show you my bike!"

I looked over at Billy and shrugged my shoulders. "OK Backer," I grumbled, "you've got five minutes." Billy and I followed the man with the silly clothes out to the RCN parking lot.

I have to give Backer points for originality; his bike was like nothing I'd ever seen before. The bike had two large wheels and an absurdly short wheelbase. Instead of having a boom out front, the crank was located a few centimeters in front of the rear wheel. The frame stretched upward for no apparent reason and I didn't see anything that even remotely resembled a seat. A small wedge of plastic topped a metal tube protruding from the top of the frame, but I couldn't conceive of anyone voluntarily perching on that tiny platform. The front of the machine sprouted a wildly curving collection of metal tubes that looked like the remains of a particularly messy accident involving the trombone section of an unfortunate marching band. I could only assume that this was the steering mechanism of the unusual contraption that Backer insisted on calling a bicycle.

Billy and I stared slack-jawed at the machine and it took me about thirty seconds before I could even formulate my first question: "How the heck do you ride that?"

"It's easy!" Backer exclaimed as he threw a leg over the machine and began riding it in wide circles in the parking lot. Despite the machine's bizarre configuration, Backer rode it with apparent ease and the wide grin never left his face as he answered the questions that now tumbled from my lips.

"Isn't it uncomfortable?"

"Not really." Backer explained. "My weight is supported not only by the saddle, but also by my hands and feet. It might feel strange at first, but once you get used to it, it's fine."

I wasn't convinced. "I don't think I'll ever be comfortable having a wedge of plastic shoved up my butt." I scowled but Backer only laughed.

"Don't knock it until you've tried it. Actually, I believe this kind of bike will appeal to the folks who like to 'Think Different.' I'm going to market them here under the brand name 'WedgeE'."

"But it doesn't have any suspension," I countered. "It's got to have a really harsh ride on rough roads."

"That's not really a problem," Backer replied as he drove the machine straight for a set of speed bumps. Just before he hit the bumps he stopped turning the cranks, bent his elbows and lifted his butt off the saddle. The bike bucked as it hit the bumps but Backer hovered an inch or so above the saddle with that annoying grin still plastered on his face.

"Whoa, that was cool!" Billy exclaimed. Even I have to admit to being somewhat impressed.

I wasn't completely sold on this device, however. "Look here Backer, I'll grant that your machine has some interesting features, but you've got to admit that it's an aerodynamic disaster."

"Well," Backer said "I really can't argue with you on that point. But it's not as bad as you think. If I grab the bars up here and stretch my back out flat, I cut through the wind better." At this point Backer grabbed the part of the handlebars that looked like the slide section of a trombone. Even though he was still grinning, he really didn't look comfortable.

"Come on Backer, you don't expect me to believe people will ride around all stretched out like that!"

"Actually," Backer replied, "I know they will. I've seen hundreds of riders on bikes just like this one..."

"OK, OK." I'd had enough. "Look here Backer, I've given you your five minutes and I'll even grant you that your machine has some interesting features but you don't expect me to believe that there are other bikes like this out there. If there were bikes like this anywhere in the world, I think I would have heard of them by now."

"Oh no, " Backer said, "you wouldn't have heard of these because they don't exist in your world... yet. You see, I'm really not from around here."

I was pretty sure by now that Backer was an escaped mental patient, but that didn't explain where he'd gotten his strange contraption. While I was pondering this, he continued rambling on. "No doubt you're familiar with the quantum worlds hypothesis?"

"Yeah," I grunted. "SciFi stuff. It's the theory that different events actually spawn of different realities. So there's actually some world out there in some dimension where Hitler won World War Two. Stuff like that, right?"

"Exactly!" Backer beamed. "But trust me, that Hitler world isn't very conducive to the interests of an inter-dimensional entrepreneur such as myself. However I've found a very interesting opportunity between your world and a place called Earth. Your worlds are so very close, they really only differ in a few bits of technology."

"And you come from this place, Earth?"

"Oh heavens no!" Backer laughed. "Their world is even more primitive than yours. Neither of you have invented the mechanisms of inter-dimensional travel yet. I'm merely a businessman. I make my living by exploiting economic opportunities I perceive existing between similar worlds."

"But couldn't you make a lot more money selling this inter-dimensional technology to these various worlds?" Of course I wasn't buying any of this for a second but even though Backer was an obvious wacko, he was at least an interesting wacko.

"Where I come from they have pretty strict rules against that. Simple one-for-one technology swaps between parallel worlds are easy but you wouldn't believe the paperwork involved in trying to get anything really complicated through to you people."

"But doesn't the fact of your telling me all this violate some kind of Prime Directive?"

Backer laughed again. "Oh really, you must watch too much TV! Prime Directive, that's rich. It's more like a really complicated tax-code. We can tweak around the edges but it's really quite hard to change the world in any significant way."

"Tell me about it!" Billy injected sarcastically.

I shot Billy another one of my "put-a-sock-in-it" looks and then said to Backer, "OK, so your scheme is that you'll make money selling these, uh-mm what did you call them..."

"WedgeEs" Backer and Billy both said simultaneously.

"Yes, WedgeEs. You think you'll make money selling them here?"

"Yes, I do," said Backer earnestly.

"Well, I've got to tell you Backer, I don't see it. It's a fundamentally flawed design and around here superior products win out. Billy can tell you a lot about that. Billy, why don't you tell Mr. Backer about how you dropped out of college and tried to make a computer system to compete with what Jobs and Wozniak were doing?"

"Ah Boss..." Billy begin whining but now it Backers turn to look dumbfounded.

He looked closely at Billy and muttered quietly "well I'll be damned..." His bewildered look quickly turned to one of resolve. "Mr Gates," he said, addressing Billy formally, "would you like to go into the WedgeE business?"

"What would it pay?" Billy queried cautiously while I added "Look here Backer, you can't just waltz in here and start hiring away the RCN staff!"

"I'll double whatever Dr. Bob is paying you for starters," Backer said briskly. Billy and I both looked at him like he was crazy but I could tell Billy was intrigued.

"I'll want to see some money up front and I want my lawyers to work up the contracts," Billy spoke quietly, with an intense
resolve I'd never seen in him before.

Backer laughed. "Of course," he said, "I'd expect nothing less."

I, on the other hand, didn't know what the heck was going on, much less what to expect. I didn't even know if Billy really had a lawyer.

Backer and Billy exchanged business cards and then Backer rolled away on his crazy contraption.

When Nicole came back with the lattes, Billy told both of us he'd decided to quit the magazine.

"I'm going to miss you," he said pointedly to Nicole.

I got the impression he wasn't going to miss me at all.

"C'mon, Billy," I cajoled, "you've got to at least help us get this issue done."

"You and Nic can get it done, I've got a business to build."

And with that he walked out the door.

I recounted the story of D.F. Backer and the strange bicycle to Nicole.

"Wow," she said, "do you think he'll really be successful selling those things?"

"Not in this world, Miss Kidman. Not in this world."

1 comment:

phil varner said...

Inspired, I posted this from a 1937 Le Cycliste: