The real deal on owning a velomobile
By Ben Coxworth
September 6, 2010
One fateful day back in 1984, I read an article in Popular Science entitled “Pedal-power slingshot.” It was about a vehicle called the Cyclodyne, which was a recumbent human-powered tricycle enclosed in a full polyester-and-epoxy streamlined shell. The writer claimed that he had easily got the thing up to 30 mph (48 km/h), and that it was designed to reach 53 mph (85 km/h) on flat ground. Good Lord, how I wanted one. Its US$3,800 price tag ensured that it would never happen, but that didn’t stop me from obsessing. That article was my introduction to the world of velomobiles, which can pretty much be defined as aerodynamically-shelled recumbent tricycles. The Cyclodyne is now long gone, and has been replaced in my yearnings by what is probably the sexiest velomobile currently available for purchase, the Beyss Go-One. This August, I had my first-ever chance to see a Go-One up close and personal, and talked to its owner about the fantasy versus reality of owning and using such a vehicle. What he had to say was definitely eye-opening.
Hugo Ciro lives in Victoria, British Columbia, where he runs a fair trade coffee importing business. His Go-One is one of about 13 in North America. He visited the Beyss plant in Germany two years ago, where he tried out a Go-One and met Michael Beyss, the company president and vehicle designer. Beyss also designed a little car you may have heard of, called the Smart ForTwo. Ciro decided he quite liked the Go-One, and arranged to purchase one. He also agreed to become an agent for the company, meaning that people in his region who want to try out a Go-One can contact him for a test drive.
When Ciro’s vehicle arrived in Canada, he discovered that the seat was designed for someone considerably taller than him, and had to replace it with a seat he made himself. He also discovered that while the tricycle was speedy on the flats, it wasn’t so good at going up hills – even with its carbon fiber body, a Go-One weighs in at about 30 kg. (66 lbs.). To remedy this problem, Ciro bought and installed a BionX electric assist motor. He now frequently uses the motor even on flat ground, to maintain an average cruising speed of around 40 km/h (25 mph).
“For me, this is not recreational, this is my commuter,” he stated. “If I’m going to ride my road bike, I want to go out and sweat and push myself and climb a hill. That’s not for [going to] work, because I don’t want to come in here and change from my Spandex into my working clothes and wipe all my sweat off... I arrive here after 20 minutes of riding from home, and I dry up right away, and I’m in my work clothes.”
“I get exercise out of this, but I also get more speed because of the electric assist and the aerodynamics. I feel safer in this, on the road,” he added.
Ciro has a place to park his vehicle at work, although he says he has left it unattended in the grocery store parking lot. Another Go-One owner I spoke to in Seattle said he has left his in the long-term parking at the airport. In both cases, the owners explained that they weren’t overly concerned about the possibility of theft, given how the vehicles stick out like sore thumbs. It would be somewhat like stealing the Mona Lisa, in that the thief would risk discovery if they displayed or tried to sell it.
Unfortunately for my fast-as-a-car velomobile fantasies, Ciro informed me that he travels at the side of the road, like a bicycle. Due to the vehicle’s eye-catching looks, he says he gets a lot more room than he would on a bike. Not being able to keep up with the traffic wouldn’t be such a big deal, if Go-Ones and all other velomobiles weren’t so incredibly expensive. The base price of Ciro’s trike was around CDN$10,000, although by the time it was shipped to Canada and the motor was added, it added up to about $15,000 (US$14,092). An electric ZEV7000 scooter with a top speed of 113km/h (70mph), by contrast, costs US$7,237.
“It’s definitely overpriced,” Ciro stated. “I’m embarrassed to tell some people what I paid for this... this is clearly a toy that needs a lot more economy of scale, so that the price goes down and it becomes more available to the masses.”
Even though some velomobile-makers have waiting lists of over three years, the vehicles will probably never reach a decent economy of scale unless they somehow become better able to function within urban traffic. While many of them are currently marketed as alternatives to cars, the fact that features such as turn indicators are almost always optional extras suggests that they’re really intended more for use on bike paths and quiet country lanes.
“I don’t want to say anything negative about what the Go-One is, and what Michael Beyss has done, but I think this is designed for something different than what I’m using it, and I’m using it for a commuter,” said Ciro. To that end, he is currently designing his own velomobile, better suited to practical use. “What I’m dreaming about is an alternative form of transportation,” he stated. “Not a car, not a pedal bike, not a Smart car, not a motor bike, but something in between.”
Personally, if I had $15,000 to throw around, I would gladly spend it on a velomobile if it could easily do the urban speed limit via human power on the flats, and via an electric motor on average-sized hills. As far as I know, however, such a vehicle doesn’t exist – not to call anyone a liar, but I have my doubts regarding what was written about the Cyclodyne all those years ago.
There’s also the small fact that not everyone wants what I want.
“People look at it and they say ‘Wow, cool,’ but they don’t say ‘Wow, cool, I want one,’” Ciro said of his Go-One. “There’s something missing there that, maybe just a handful of us crazies have an attraction to these vehicles... I’m a little concerned that if I pursue my dream of actually building one, that only 12 people a year will buy it... does oil need to go to $200 a barrel before people say ‘I really need to consider this, because my car is really not sustainable’?”