Human Powered Scooters – The Undiscovered Transportation Solution
By Jeffrey the Barak
Energy Efficient or Exhausting?
Apart from the in-line scooter craze of 1999, the use of scooters in our society has been almost totally non-existent. Many would-be scooter riders have observed that it can be much less tiring to ride a bike for mile than to ride a scooter for the same mile. While this is true, it is also false! How can something be both true and false? Well, if you ride that mile at 12 MPH, the bike may be less tiring, and you will finish the ride in 5 minutes. But if you ride that same mile at 6MPH, it will take 10 minutes and you will find it less tiring on a scooter.
With the scooter, you don’t need that uncomfortable bicycle seat, the oily chain, the mounting and dismounting, and the extra weight of the bicycle. The scooter is simple. Even if you think you are not going very fast, the walking pedestrians you passed a few seconds ago will be way behind the next time you glance back at them. The key to energy-efficient scootering is to resist the temptation of going full speed and instead just letting the vehicle glide along. Using fewer, longer strokes and changing your body position and switching feet, you are not stuck in one position, as you would be sitting on a bike with pedals. At low speeds, it can sometimes seem as if you are getting an effortless free ride, compared to the hapless pedestrian.
This brings up the other reason that scooters never took their share of our transportation needs. We remember the toy scooters that we had as children. They often had hard solid tires on loose wheels that had primitive pin axles and the rolling resistance of an upside-down sheep. (Don’t ask me how I know that). The old scooters just coasted to a virtual halt and all your energy was wasted in restarting the momentum with each push of the leg. There was a glimmer of hope in the 1980’s when the BMX scooter almost became a good seller, but then the scooter vanished again.
And then suddenly there were the folding inline scooters of the late 1990’s. The skate bearings had a low rolling resistance, but the wheels were so tiny that you lost energy to the bumps, and the vibrations of the ride were subtly exhausting to the rider. Just like inline skates, the Razors and their many imitators were superbly portable and great fun on shiny smooth concrete, but a hard and potentially catastrophic ride on bumpy asphalt and uneven pavement. Even the high-end small-wheelers, the “Xootr” and the “Know-Ped” were challenging to ride for great distances.
The Obvious Solution: Big Wheels!
Enter the scooter with bicycle wheels. Looking like a bicycle with no seat or pedals or gears, this bare bones vehicle has a lot in common with the ancient bone-rumbling ancestor of the bike, but with a reasonably light weight and a reasonably low rolling resistance, these bike/scooter hybrids are at last the perfect answer to efficient low speed travel.
The large wheeled scooters have been quite popular in Europe for some time but have found the American market to be a tough nut to crack. So where did they come from? Scandinavia is a snowy place, and about a century ago, Kicksleds became popular. Basically a scooter with parallel runners instead of wheels, the Kicksled remained almost uniquely Scandinavian until Finn Hannu Vierikko refined the design in the 1980’s and the modern Kicksled was born. Hannu then developed the Kickbike so he could train for his Kicksled when there was no snow on the ground.
Soon the Kickbike inspired other makers such as Sidewalker and Diggler to market large wheeled scooters and their use began to spread from Finland, to Europe, to Australia and to other small pockets around the world. The original Kickbikes inspired organized sports and riders now compete in international competition just like cyclists. Americans, still recovering from spending a huge sum of money on unused inline scooters, have yet to realize how fantastic the large wheeled scooters can be, but it’s only a matter of time until more scooters hit the streets of the US. If you ever rode an inline scooter or skated in the street, the difference on a large-wheeled scooter will astound you. Obviously it’s a much larger item, but there is no comparison between the experience of riding a Sidewalker or a Kickbike versus riding on a Razor or Rollerblades.
Electric scooters have enjoyed very limited success because they run out of charge in well under an hour and that simply is not enough for an afternoon out and about. Plus, the wheels are still much too small on most designs. No, if you want to enjoy a whole day of low speed outdoor fun, you can teeter around getting your tender butt kicked by a hard bicycle saddle, or you can buy yourself a good push scooter with big wheels. Kickbike athletes have ridden mind-boggling distances on their twenty-pound mounts and many enthusiastic owners have pushed their range to dozens of miles in one day. Once again, there are two approaches to this. Fast and tiring, or slow and easy.
The KickbikeUSA website has published details of the first ever US coast-to-coast human powered scooter run. In Summer 2001, Jim Deltzer followed a 3,100-mile Northerly route over bad roads and mountains, and through snow and headwinds. It took him five weeks to travel from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and a diary of this record setting run is on the Kickbike.com site.
In late 2001, Dan Nielsen rode from the beach on the Pacific coast to the beach on the Atlantic coast, following a much shorter 2,378-mile Southerly route, he made the trip in just three weeks and a diary of this record breaking run is on the KickbikeUSA site.
vu-test: Kickbike vs. Sidewalker.
To illustrate the reasoning behind this discourse, which at first may sound unconvincing or indeed downright crazy, the-vu decided once again to put it to the test. Purchasing a Sidewalker City from SidewalkerUSA.com, and also a Millennium Kickbike from KickBikeUSA.com the road tests began in August 2003, in and around the former “roller-skating capital of the world”, Venice Beach, California.
The Sidewalker City was $299 including free shipping. The Kickbike Millennium is the same price, but does not include shipping, which makes it $45 more.
The Sidewalker was shipped from Canada on a Saturday and delivered in Los Angeles, CA, USA on Wednesday. Not counting Sunday, that’s three days. At the time of writing, SidewalkerUSA do not charge beyond the $299 price for shipping, but you could say it’s built in. The Kickbike was shipped on a Tuesday and arrived three days later on the Friday
On the side of the Sidewalker box is the first indication of where the scooter was made, Taiwan. I was originally wondering if it might have been born in an Austrian factory, since Blauwerk, the maker of Sidewalkers, is ostensibly Austrian, but I suppose Austrian labor does not come cheap, and who’d buy a $900 scooter? The scooter was alarmingly free within its thin and torn cardboard box, but arrived in perfect condition. Seemingly missing was the rear reflector, and the longest included bolt at 1″ was not long enough to go through the fork to attach the front lightweight plastic fender. The Kickbike’s box was no more substantial, but arrived undamaged and the contents were wedged in tight to prevent movement.
Assembly, tools, accessories and documentation
With the Sidewalker, there were no instructions, and there was no booklet, no video, no invoice and no tools. Eying a bag of bolts, I decided immediately to take the scooter to a mechanic and pay to have it assembled, which turned out to be very simple. It was just a matter of knowing how to turn a wrench and how to adjust brake cables. If you don’t mind the occasional spray of dirty water on your legs, It may be worth omitting the fenders from your Sidewalker assembly. They are so light and flexible that they are constantly moving themselves towards the sidewalls of the tires and catching your swinging foot.
The Kickbike shipped with a small pile of accessories including a VHS videotape, a spare front tube, a wrench, a double hex key, a double screwdriver, a mini pump with bracket, a simple manual, a “letter” from the inventor and 2 promotional stickers. Before you even receive your Kickbike, their website has a simple photographed step-by-step assembly guide, but KickbikeUSA also recommends professional assembly. The Kickbike’s brake cables are already connected so you basically just insert the handlebars into the fork, adjust the brakes and you’re done. The very solid, chromed, rear fender is preinstalled and there was no front fender in the box. Was it missing or is the front fender an optional extra? I emailed Kickbike USA and Herb Seres explained that they no longer include the front fender because the Kickbike is almost universally preferred without the front fender installed. The frame keeps the ground water off the rider anyway. In all the Kickbike photos you see online, there are almost none with the front fenders installed. Also missing: a front reflector. Without the front fender, a bike mechanic can assemble the Kickbike in about five minutes.
The Sidewalker City weighs 26lbs (11.8 kg) and the Kickbike Millennium weighs 19.84lbs (9 kg). Each vehicle is considerably lighter than any normal bicycle. There are some rare bicycles that utilize expensive and rare metals, carbon fiber and plastics and end up weighing less than a Kickbike, but we’re unlikely to find them in a normal bike shop. Pedals, gears, chains, crossbars, seat posts and saddles add a lot of weight, which has to be pedaled around by a seated bicycle rider. Both of our full size adult scooters can be considered very low in weight compared to any normal bicycle. And weight is very important. Just as the extra weight of that big off-road SUV you use as a station wagon means you burn more gasoline per mile, a heavier scooter means your body has to output more energy per mile. In use, the Kickbike feels much lighter than the Sidewalker, and it also has a lower rolling resistance, but that’s a high standard and the Sidewalker is also light and easy rolling.
The Sidewalker’s 26lbs is easy to lift and carry with two hands, but a bit heavy for a one handed hold, and with just the front wheel removed it slips nicely into a mid-sized sedan’s trunk with the back seat folded down (a Dodge Stratus). With both wheels off you can use the trunk alone. Fully assembled the Sidewalker City seems like a giant. I am 5′ 7″ but I feel small beside this scooter. At 19lbs without the front fender, the Kickbike is much easier to lift or carry and the smaller rear wheel just seems to keep out of the way. The huge 700 front wheel is ultra light and the thin tall tire makes it so easy to pop on and off without unhooking the brakes.
Comfort and ride position
Scooting slowly at a leisurely pace is the key to enjoying the Sidewalker. The upright riding position is relaxed and the footboard is just low enough for an easy kick, but high enough to clear the obstacles of an average sidewalk. It takes a few minutes of practice to steer a straight line during the kicks and to keep the scooting leg away from the rear fender, but once your technique develops, the only sound you’ll hear is the occasional rattle from the plastic fenders/mudguards as they flex on the bumpier pavement. As with any scooter, smooth concrete is heaven, but the large wheels and built in flexibility of the Sidewalker’s frame iron out all vibrations from rough asphalt quite nicely. The Sidewalker’s lightly treaded 26-inch road tires are quiet and smooth at 65psi.
On the Venice Beach road test on a sunny but not too hot August weekday, the Sidewalker sped along the bike path with little effort, keeping abreast with or passing the beach cruiser bikes and attracting plenty of attention. The temptation to go very fast everywhere had to be controlled in order to extend my range, but once I slowed down a little, tiredness and fatigue did not become an issue during my ninety-minute scoot.
The very next day I took the Kickbike on the same run. Compared to the Sidewalker, the Kickbike just wants to go and go and go. With very little effort the feather light Kickbike cut through the air like a silent glider in a dive. On a slight downhill with a tailwind, the Kickbike reached racing speeds with absolutely no input. It was as if an invisible helping hand was pushing me along for an hour.
As with any unfamiliar exercise, it will be advisable to slowly build your endurance. I have to admit that my enjoyment of the test rides overrode my common sense and I woke up stiff and tired after a few days of self-inflicted punishment. But with a gradual start, anyone can become a strong and enduring scooter rider. In no time at all you’ll be easily covering distances that will add to your pleasure as they continue to increase in distance.
High Speed Riding
The Sidewalker’s upright riding position is not designed for the 100-yard dash. With the high bars and the proximity of the frame to the supporting knee, flat out sprinting is possible and fast, but it just doesn’t feel right. The Sidewalker’s ample deck makes it easy to pause between kicks and coast with both feet 5.5″ above ground, and even though it’s a heavier scooter than the Kickbike, it is still fine for a long hard fast ride. In the 1980’s I used to ride a 12″ kick scooter at high speed along the very same Venice Beach bike path and I naturally and independently developed many of the same techniques that you can see in the streaming videos on the Kickbike.com website. Back then I also fantasized about a large wheeled scooter that didn’t yet exist, and also about adding a battery and motor to a scooter. Of course other people went ahead and developed these things for me, so all I have to do is buy them! Anyway, the point is, by utilizing the standard Kickbike methods which are illustrated nicely on the somewhat grainy free video cassette, you use gravity and your whole body to transfer energy into your forward motion. While the seated cyclist can only use his or her legs, we scooter riders can use everything from our heads to our toes.
Day two on the Kickbike blew the doors off the previous day’s speeds achieved with the Sidewalker, but remember the full title of this vehicle is the Kickbike Millennium Pro Racer, and a racer it is! Going this fast in silence with your foot 4 inches off the concrete is just amazing. A racing bike may be faster, but the Kickbike high-speed experience is truly worth every cent.
This is the strong point of the Sidewalker City. With the comfortable upright riding position, slow speed cruising for several hours on city streets and bike paths is an invitation that beckons from your Sidewalker. As long as you resist the temptation to triple-kick and Hop-Switch and tire yourself out, you can go slowly for hours on this thing. During the Venice Beach test, I took a couple of slow passes on the boardwalk instead of on the bike path. With just the occasional casual scoot I glided from the Santa Monica city line to the Washington Street pier at a very pleasant rate of about three or four times walking speed. The amount of foot traffic on a weekday afternoon made this safe and easy. The Sidewalker was stable and upright, even at speeds barely above zero, and the people seemed to react very positively to the giant blue scooter gliding silently through their midst.
The next day on the Kickbike, I found the lighter weight made cruising effortless also. But it has to be said that at such low speeds on the Kickbike, the bent forward riding position soon gets a little tiring for the neck, shoulders and hands. Instead of cruising upright and relaxed with bent elbows as on the Sidewalker, the low bars of the Kickbike force you to point your arms down and stoop. The Kickbike is still okay for cruising at 5MPH, but the Sidewalker is the king in this department.
The bicycle style brakes on the front and rear wheels of either scooter make stopping under any conditions very safe and efficient. The low weight of the vehicle means there is very little inertia to have to pull to a stop.
Comparison of specifications.
Weight: 26 lbs or 11.8 kg
Length: 72 inches
Handlebar Height: Adjustable up to 44 inches
Deck Height: 5.5 inches
Deck Size: 14″ X 5″
Tires: Both the same: 1.5″ wide, 26″ nylon-belted street tires
Kickstand: Center Stand
Kickbike Millennium Pro Racer
Weight: 19.84 lbs or 9 kg
Length: 66 inches
Handlebar Height: 33 to 35 inches
Deck Height: 4 inches
Deck Size: 13″ X 4″
Tires Front: 700-25c Maxxis Kevlar-belted road-racing high-pressure tire. Rear: 16″ X 1 3/8″ Primo Comet high-pressure tire.
Kickstand: Side Stand
With fewer parts than a bike, it has to be easier to maintain a scooter. As long as you check your tires, brakes, and nuts and bolts, you should never have any significant problems with either scooter.
As a scooter rider approaches an onlooker, the scooter looks just like a bike, it’s the movement of the rider’s body that gives it away. Everyone looks to see what on earth you are riding and how you are making it go. Parking a Sidewalker and a Kickbike together attracts attention, and people go over and check each one out approximately equally. Because there are no others around, I found that all kids noticed me immediately and most skateboarders, skaters and cyclists at the beach gave me at least a quick glance as I scooted along.
But it is the Kickbike, not the Sidewalker, that really gets people going. Everyone looks at it and many comments and questions flood towards the rider. “Look Mommy a scooter bike”. “How much do those cost?” That’s different!” Cool bike, er, scooter?” “Wow, that thing really moves!” “Whoa, I didn’t hear you coming”. “That thing is beautiful”. “Where’s the motor?” “What’s making it go?” “I want one”.
Which one to keep, which one to sell?
Having purchased one of each to test and play with, I am faced with the choice of which one I should keep for myself and which one I should consider selling. Different people would of course have different criteria for picking their favorite from these two great devices. But my extensive testing leaves me with little doubt as to which is the ultimate vehicle; it’s the Kickbike.
There is an exception though. For the older or less athletic rider who wants to cruise on the sidewalk and go at lower speeds in a comfortable, relaxed, upright manner, the Sidewalker City would be a much better choice than the Kickbike. For the speedster, or for someone who just wants to look cool, get a Kickbike Millennium Pro Racer, ride it daily, and don’t let it out of your sight!
The bike shops in your town are unlikely to have jumped onto the scooter wagon, so direct-sales rule here. If you are reading this in the United States, Order from the following two websites.
Writer Jeffrey the Barak is the publisher of the-vu and has had a thing for kick scooters for a very long time. In the late 1980’s and early 90’s he was seen every day on the Venice Beach boardwalk as the sole scooter rider, except for the occasional child. He took the same lousy 12 inch toy scooter to Hawaii and was the only scooter rider there also. A decade and a half later he is in a unique position to appreciate just how wonderful the vehicles discussed in this article truly are.