Pedal to the mettle
A trip to the grocery store with Pete Menchetti and his neighbors on a bicycle built for seven evolves into a discussion about the future of human-powered transportation in a rapidly growing city
“I don’t hate cars. I just hate too many cars, and we have too many cars,” says Pete Menchetti.
He looks like a young Al Pacino with an early-Beatles hairstyle. The part-time-Renoite—he’s been dividing his time between Italy, Amsterdam and here—proprietor of Sticker Guy and Slovenly Recordings, is hosting a bike ride. On his septocycle.
Yes, “septo-” means seven people. No, it’s not a circus trick.
As twilight sets in, the warmth from a perfect fall afternoon lingers, and a few people carrying backpacks gather unceremoniously in front of Menchetti’s small brick house near downtown. Satellite Lounge owner (and marathon runner) Jessica Kleiderman, Deux Groz Nez owner (and Tour De Nez bike festival organizer) Tim Helion, and friends Heather Fuss and Marnee Benson lock their bikes next to the white tandem, the recumbent and the three-speed with fake-fur covered fenders, part of the multi-purpose fleet Menchetti owns in lieu of a car.
The evening’s mission is “to meet my neighbors, to advocate the bicycle as an alternative to $3 a gallon, to fill my fridge, and for fun!” Menchetti has been organizing weekly, human-powered grocery store trips for about a month.
His shiny red septocycle, also known as a conference bike, is a sedan-sized, spider-shaped, 450-pound, German-engineered tricycle built for seven. All seven height-adjustable seats face the center, where there’s a round, wastebasket-shaped piece of metal that provides handholds and enough space to hold a keg. (It actually has held a keg, en route to a party after a recent Critical Mass ride.)
We each take a seat. Menchetti pushes the bike out of his driveway (there is no reverse gear), and he steers from the driver’s seat, the only one that faces directly forward. We pedal down the tree-lined, one-way street. We quickly reach a consensus: We’ll shop at the new-ish Downtown Marketplace on Sierra Street.
“It lowers inhibitions, and after just a few minutes even complete strangers begin talking to one another,” claims the bike’s designer, Eric Staller, (www.ericstaller.com) on his Web site (www.conferencebike.com). Staller is an artist and engineer who’s no stranger to the idea of inspiring passersby to turn their heads as he travels; he’s the mastermind behind the dryly poetic Lightmobile, a Volkswagen Beetle covered with 1,659 computerized lights, which he drove around New York City for a while in the mid-1980s.
Staller’s promise turns out to be a most accurate piece of advertising hype. The septocycle combines a guard-lowering silliness factor with mechanical engineering prowess, making people cease to care that they don’t know us. A neighbor walking a Boston terrier pretends to hitch a ride. People wave and shout from cars. A driver slows down to match our speed, so her daughter can take some shots with a cell phone camera.
Helion points out that I’m the only one breathing heavily. The septocycle has no gears, and I’ve overestimated the amount of effort necessary to provide one-seventh of the leg power to keep it cruising 10 to 12 mph on flat ground. He’s right. It’s easier than I assumed. I slow down, to no effect on the bike’s speed.
Since Menchetti is watching the road, everyone else’s attention is free for socializing, until he shouts a warning—"Hold on, everyone!"—and shows off the conference bike’s turning radius by flipping a sudden 360.
The market is less than a mile from the house, but the trip takes over a half hour. After picking up College Cyclery owner Randy Collins at his house, stopping to chat with neighbors and detouring a few blocks to enjoy a swift descent down one of the Old Southwest’s steepest hills, we eventually reach downtown.
Downtown, people lean out of doorways to wave—or to yell, “What the hell is that?” I begin to feel like one of the popular kids in high school, on the coolest parade float ever, with a bunch of fit, friendly rock stars.
Sure, the bike gets lots of attention, ("Is this thing a total chick magnet?” I ask. Menchetti just smiles.) But its owner has another agenda, too.
Back at his house, after his neighbors have dispersed with their groceries, he reminisces about life in the Netherlands, where the bicycle is king. (I recall being in Amsterdam, impressed by the Dutch commitment to bicycling, especially as symbolized by bikes designed to deliver furniture or carry passengers in wheelchairs.)
Menchetti wrote a report earlier this year as a student at the University of Amsterdam, in which he argues for public policy that prioritizes the bicycle as a primary mode of transport. He compares transportation in Groningen, The Netherlands, a city
well known for its bike-friendly planning, with the more car-dependent Reno. The two cities have similar numbers of people, but Groningen has about 10 times the number of pedestrians and bicyclists as Reno—and about half the rate of obesity.
Is a more bicycle-friendly Reno in our future? Currently, the Washoe County Regional Transportation Commission reports there are over 50 miles of designated bike paths (separate from auto traffic), bike lanes (designated by white lines on the pavement) and bike routes (designated by signs as bike-appropriate routes). The RTC’s 2030 Regional Bikeways Plan proposes a much more extensive network of bicycle routes by 2030 (www.rtc2030.com).
“That’s swell, but it won’t be done till 2030. How old will you and your kid be in 25 years?” reads a flier being circulated by Critical Mass riders and written by Menchetti. The flier notes that freeway construction happens much quicker than that and urges citizens to encourage the Reno and Sparks city councils to complete the bike plan by 2006.
Menchetti’s friend (and RN&R contributor) Brad Bynum shows up, sporting a chocolate-icing colored zip-up sweater (Is brown the new black again? I can’t keep up.), and we set off into the night. Powering the mega-trike with only three riders requires more exertion per rider, especially going uphill, but we manage fine. We drop by the ATM then bask in the glow of the pink and white casino lights—and the continued attention—as we pedal up Virginia Street.
A police officer shouts from his car, “Hey, pull over.” Menchetti hesitates, certain he hasn’t violated any traffic laws.
“I just want to look at your bike,” says the officer.
We offer a lift to a pedestrian named John, who’s from Tennessee. Miraculously, Bynum, Menchetti and I each have a story about some experience in Tennessee, so no time is wasted breaking the ice. We drop off John at Shea’s Tavern and head to Silver Peak.
By coincidence, Paul Stangl, the new director of the land-use policy planning program at the University of Nevada, Reno, happens to be there having a pint of Oktoberfest. He’s just been discussing bicycle-route planning with his students.
During a conversation a few days later, he shares some thoughts on bikeway-planning trends.
Stangl is glad to see that Reno has the 2030 plan, but he notes some significant differences between cities that have succeeded in encouraging cycling and the city in which we live.
“It’s more than just painting a line on a street,” he says. He’s observed what he calls a “culture of respect” for cyclists in many cities—several in Europe and stateside Madison, Wis.—which may manifest itself in convenient bike parking and employee programs that provide amenities like showers at the office for bike commuters.
Another big hurdle to bike-friendly planning: “You have to make auto travel a little less convenient, and that’s a touchier issue in [the United States],” Stangl says. Muenster, Germany, for example, has been divided into four sections; it’s easy to get from one to the next by bicycle or on foot, but driving between sections has been made intentionally difficult.
It’s hard to imagine Americans tolerating such a thing.
Yet it’s not all that hard to imagine Reno reaching a population density where we’ll have to tolerate sitting in Southern-California-grade traffic on freeways for hours at a time.
“Is this going to replace the automobile?” asks a man in the parking lot who looks like a retired farmer. He’s openly skeptical but definitely amused. As the man’s blond-haired date eagerly negotiates with Menchetti for a ride around the block, I imagine a day when the streets are filled with septocycles.
Stangl, along with a couple other Silver Peak patrons, has joined the entourage. He seizes any opportunity to say the word “septocycling” with gusto and immediately becomes the vehicle’s new spokesperson as we pedal to the Hideaway.
We hear loud giggling from a house with the porch light on, just off Wells Avenue.
Stangl yells, “Don’t laugh! This is the future of alternative transportation!”
The two women drinking wine on the porch respond with a hearty, “Woo!”
Menchetti tells everyone to hold on, flips a doughnut and parks in front of the house. One of the women takes the empty seat. She seems elated at the sudden change in the direction of her evening.
We all share a pitcher at the bar, then continue pedaling and barhopping for another couple hours. Menchetti keeps sight of the fact that our lives are in his hands and doesn’t drink that much. Eventually, everyone gets dropped off somewhere near where they need to be.
“I’m in ‘I-don’t-want-this-night-to-end’ mode,” our designated driver says, smiling broadly.
Me, too. We’ve been riding around on the conference bike on and off for almost nine hours, meeting up with friends and strangers, spontaneously advocating for non-car transportation and taxiing people around. I’m exhausted. It’s almost 3 a.m. I’m obligated to peel myself out of bed some time before noon to get to the office, but still, it takes some willpower to decline the opportunity to pedal off into the sunrise on a bicycle built for seven.
The next morning, though, I ride my bike to work.