If you want to understand why form must surrender to function, look no further than the hyena, an animal with a set of dropped hindquarters that are the Serengeti version of rapper 'Lil Wayne's low-hanging pants.
It may not look good, but it works. A biology professor once told me low-slung rear hips make it harder for a pursuing lion to get its claws in, so hyenas with sloping back ends survived and spread their seed. The better-looking ones with elevated rear flanks got eaten, eliminating them from the gene pool and ensuring that future hyena generations would follow the Lil' Wayne model.
With this in mind, let us consider the Flevobike Versatile, a pedal-powered enclosed tricycle that belongs to one of the smallest, most occult vehicle niches in the world - the Human Powered Vehicle (or HPV.) I'm all in favour of human power, but the Versatile quickly showed me why the bicycle dominates the category. The bicycle is a triangle with two wheels. The Versatile resembles a giant vibrator that has been outfitted with a tiller-actuated steering system, a flip-up canopy and three wheels instead of two. Acolytes believe the HPV is the future of short distance transportation, offering the ecological benefits of the bicycle along with weather protection and extra cargo space.
But there are some problems with their plan, and they were illustrated by the Versatile. For starters, it weighs over 40 kilograms - about six times as much as the bikes that racers use in the Tour de France. If the Versatile had an engine, the weight wouldn't have been a problem. But since I was the power plant, every kilo counted - when I rode the Versatile up a long hill, I felt like I was carrying ten bags of Portland cement to the top of Everest. (On my carbon fiber racing bicycle, that same hill was nearly effortless.) The Versatile was really good at two things: attracting attention, and going incredibly fast down hills. Its attention-getting powers put a Ferrari to shame. And it's streamlined body dramatically reduced wind resistance, the force that holds a vehicle back at high speed (aerodynamic drag increases as the square of velocity.) I could do almost 50 kilometres an hour on the flats, and my speed downhill was limited only by my courage.
The aerodynamic advantages of the HPV platform are significant. Advocates occasionally gather in Nevada for human-powered speed competitions, using stripped-down machines that look like miniaturized torpedoes. To reduce drag, they have only two wheels (helpers hold the machines upright until the rider gains speed) and lay flat inside the teardrop bodies. Some machines even dispense with the windshield - riders steer by watching the road through tiny video monitors. Speeds sometimes top 130 kilometres an hour.
If I wanted to set a pedal-powered speed record, the HPV would make sense. But as daily transportation, it was the wrong solution. The Versatile cost over $13,000, and it put me at hubcap height with cars. The weather protection was better than a bicycle, but that came at a price - unlike a bicycle, I couldn't carry the Versatile into a subway station or stash it an apartment. It was too slow for the road, and too big for the sidewalk. I never got tired of looking at the Versatile, but I realized that looks must take second place to function, and like the hyena with the raised rear end, the HPV is probably on the road to extinction.
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