News - April 21, 2010

Green advocates aim to cross country on electric bikes

by Dave Boyce

There are many means of locomotion from Palo Alto to Washington, D.C. What you pick may depend on your age, health, finances, and urgency.

Brother and sister Oliver and Catherine Bock, 55 and 61 respectively, and both residents of Woodside, are choosing bicycles, recumbent electric bicycles with memory-foam seats. They're leaving from Palo Alto on Earth Day, April 22.

They're not concerned about cost, they're giving themselves a couple of months, they're in decent physical shape, and it's a chance to talk with people along the way about the green lifestyle — a passion for both of them.

Electric-bike technology is at a point where the trip should be doable, Mr. Bock said. They'll be accompanied by a van with a bicycle mechanic behind the wheel. And, Mr. Bock added in an interview, this adventure, to his knowledge, has not yet been done.

"It's not a low-carbon voyage, unfortunately," he added, commenting on the necessity for the van. Nevertheless, their purpose is to demonstrate the viability of electric bikes as alternatives to fossil-fuel-powered transportation.

They hope to meet generous, like-minded people. With a plan to make 80 miles a day, they will likely be in small towns as the sun goes down. In seeking accommodations, Mr. Bock said he will ask around for residents who've installed solar panels.

Sleeping in or near the van will be an alternative. They hope to recharge the bicycles' batteries with the van when electric outlets are unavailable.

Another hope: that at the end of their adventure, President Barack Obama will have lunch with them and talk about their trip and interests.

There are pre-arranged visits, including to a Navajo drum circle in Arizona and a stop in Durango, Colorado, where the public transit system is "fabulous," the bike trails are "excellent," and the bike community is "huge," Mr. Bock said.

"The people I've been contacting I really want to know," he said. "Sustainability is a spiritual quest. It creates a sort of different way of being in the world. It's me trying to be in a community with whomever I meet."

"The story behind sustainability is that we want a planet for our kids," he added. "This is a pretty cool planet to be on. I can't think of a better planet."

Historic route

With bike lanes rare and that pesky Continental Divide insisting on being steep, the siblings are hedging their bets by heading to Barstow and Route 66, a 2,400-mile cross-country path that dates from the 19th century, avoids mountains and, according to Jennie Avila, vice-president of the California Historic Route 66 Association, is still two lanes.

Route 66 was once well-traveled. Is it now a lonely place? The stretch through the Mojave Desert can indeed be lonely, Ms. Avila said, but she noted that east of the desert, spaces between towns are not so great that loneliness would be a problem.

Asked for his route to Barstow, Mr. Bock replied: "Circuitously, as indirectly as possible."

Ms. Bock said that she and her brother have spoken with "bicycle coordinators" in the various states to find routes that avoid heavy traffic.

"It's cross country and it's scary," Mr. Bock said, but the point, he added, is to prove that an electric bicycle can make the trip.

And encounters with pickup-driving, gun-toting, bicycle-despising rednecks? "Obviously, we're going to (meet) people who think we're nuts," Mr. Bock said.

The plan is to appeal to their motor-head tendencies by engaging them with the mechanical challenge of a cross-country trip on an electric bike.

Will they be wearing or flying the U.S. flag? Mr. Bock said he is considering it and has more than once compared his trip to the fateful one in the 1969 movie "Easy Riders."

"It's interesting to see how we'll do," Mr. Bock said. "That's part of the story, to see what happens." The Bock family has always been "real active," he said. "This is kind of stretching the limit a little."

Ms. Bock said she was "a little worried" about the toll on her body. "The bikes are impossible to sit on for more than an hour at a time," she said, referring to the mesh seat-back, to which they're adding sheepskin.

The only thing that might cause them to turn back, they said, would be their 89-year-old mother, who inspired them to live greenly, becoming seriously ill.

She is apparently not behind them this time. "She keeps saying, 'You're not really doing this stupid bike trip, are you?'" Ms. Bock said.

What if it rains? "We'll get wet," Mr. Bock said.

Storms in Kansas are a breed apart from storms in California. What about them? "We just hope they come with a tailwind, not a headwind," Mr. Bock said.

The electric motors on their bikes give them three to four miles of travel per amp, and these bikes have dual batteries for a total of 32 amps.

Pedaling up a hill with an electrical boost is like pedaling on the flat, Mr. Bock said.

"I'm going to be getting way, way behind him," Ms. Bock said.

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