Sit down, blast off

An improbable bike appeals to the geek need for speed.

DO NOT TRY THIS AT home. Only trained professionals or demented folk should attach jet engines to bicycles. Fortunately, Joel Smith is a trained professional, and I know some demented folk, so on this sunny winter's day we're all set for an exercise in pointless, heart-racing speed.

I have convinced my friend Jon Espenschied that it is a good idea to ride the bike and tell me about it. It was like convincing him to breathe oxygen. Despite a recent motorcycle accident, a young child, and a wife who can definitely kick my ass if something goes wrong, Jon's game. In fact, I remind myself, as Smith and Ricky Comar fire up the kerosene fuel system, Jon's the one who sent me the Web page that got me involved with this preposterous contraption.

It's a beautiful thing. The bike is a Vision Recumbent built by Advanced Transportation Products (ATP), a Mountlake Terrace-based company founded by Smith, who went from building planes at Boeing to building bicycles that let you scoot down public roadways semireclined in the open air. They're marvelously odd-looking devices, and their status as a Seattle geek toy (why is it the guys I see on these things generally look like old-time Unix programmers?) is enhanced by the nonstandard addition of a jet engine—a model-plane jet engine, but a jet engine nonetheless.

The AMT AT180 engine has 18 pounds of thrust, which sounds like a tiny bit of juice until you remember that it's a constant accelerative force. It starts off like your dad's hand on your back pushing you along on your first two-wheeler, except that Dad doesn't quit pushing when you get going fast enough. Dad lets you go faster. And faster. And faster.

JON FORWARDED ME the Jet Bike link more with lust in his heart than hope in his head that I could find out something about a vehicle that is most emphatically Not for Sale but so clearly meant to be appreciated by the Geek-American community. The good folk of Gregg's Aurora Cycle (who were kind enough to set up this lark) don't offer a jet-powered recumbent, though they do have test-ride vehicles available for leisurely pedaling. I wish Jon had known that, since about an hour before our adventure, he mentioned that, by the way, he'd never actually ridden a recumbent, and would that be a problem? I swallowed hard, said a prayer for his ass-kicking wife, and reflected that this, too, was part of the adventure.

Breathes there a nerd with a soul so dead he never to himself has said, "I'll bet I can make this thing go faster," be the thing a chip or a car or a program? We have decreed there to be virtue in both speed and elegance, and the qualities that make us strive for better code and faster computers have side effects like strapping engines to things that don't normally have them. Were this not so, this engine would probably not exist; the $2,895 engine is made for highly sophisticated model airplanes. This one could be attached beneath the wing of a tiny F-15. At the moment, as Jon takes a few tentative practice laps (engine off) around the ATP parking lot with Smith trying not to look worried about this development, it's attached about two feet below his head, with a liter and a half of 1,020-degree kerosene in it.

At this point you're either hoping someone phones the Orphans' Aid Society or wondering why I'm not on the bike myself. Aside from Jon's life-saving full set of motorcycle leathers, I'm once again wondering what sets geeks apart from the rest of us. I like recumbents (good for those of us with back injuries). I like trying new things. I have no spouse or child to take into account.

But I haven't got the need to Go Faster, just as I haven't got a need to build a faster microprocessor or write a cleaner-loading word processor module. I can admire the beauty of the bike and the handmade mountings, but I just don't have it in me to crave the acceleration. My trade is writing, which, if I do right, has the logic and grace of a really well-written program, but a good piece of writing doesn't share good code's cardinal traits. There's no benefit to me in being faster. A writer wants her words to linger with you, and geeks achieve most when their deeds melt into the slipstream, ubiquitous and invisible and fast and even faster.

IT'S PROBABLY NOT street legal, as ATP is the first to point out, but there's a street here and we're going to try it anyway. Jon still doesn't look too comfortable on the bike, and that engine is only going to get hotter (it burns kerosene or Jet A-1 fuel). Too bad. It's show time.

He eases gingerly into the road and taps at the throttle. The engine has two controls, the throttle and a kill switch; the rest is up to him. We stand in the road. Jon hits the throttle and off he rolls. The engine makes what can only be called a baby jet engine sound, and the heat plume shoots back. We refrain from running after him, and for a few moments there's no reason to run. Off he goes, slowly, and then goes and GOES, and after a block he's got a good bit of momentum as he shoots round the corner and out of sight. We hear the engine cut out for a second (you can literally hear that thing a mile away, notes Comar), and right about then, along comes the cop car.

The engine starts up again, the cop car rounds the corner, and we all stand at the top of the hill wondering what the hell to do next and whether the Weekly will post bail. Fortunately, this is one of those times when the cop shakes his head and goes off to find trouble that doesn't require figuring out which citation applies. Jon reappears after a few moments, heading the other way. We don't chase him that way, either, because here comes the school bus: Dozens of little faces press against the window as Jon goes by, a grown-up in full leathers, sitting in an open-air chair with wheels and an engine. You don't see that kind of thing at show-and-tell.

Did some kid go home after seeing that and wire up her Razor scooter? Another geek is born. Kids get the concept of "faster" intuitively. That's why writing about geeks beats writing about politicians or celebrities or any other grown-ups I know: To geek is to never grow up completely, to be honest and open to learning the way kids are. To geek is to believe the world is more interesting than the BS most adults make to screen out reality, as we see in the faces of drivers who go past Jon and do their damnedest to pretend nothing's happening.

He's out of kerosene, and his wife won't have to kill me; our adventure is over. We all try acting cool when he pulls up, but the effect is shot when Jon starts laughing maniacally after he takes off the helmet.

And why shouldn't he? Speed is fun! Cooler heads, such as science writer James Gleick, have rued our culture's increasing obsession with going faster. But speed is our drug. Caffeine makes us go faster. Better computers make us go faster. Even innocuous devices such as the cell phone and the microwave speed up the day so we can get to the next thing (or the next three things in our age of multitasking) so that at the end of the day, we can rest and think about all the things we haven't got time to do. The world is a wonderful place.

Strapping an engine to a bike that leaves you sitting down and enjoying a sunny day is by definition half-retro. This bike (which ATP built as a trade-show booth attraction) has no purpose besides proving it can exist, which contradicts the thing we tell ourselves about having a need for speed, rather than a lust. This is the lust: We do it because we can and because the joy of devising is as important as the device. We're here because it's a fun way to spend a Friday, speeding leisurely along. It's a fine day to be alive—no Microsoft security meltdowns, no Amazon layoffs, no encroaching legislation and swarming marketing ploys, just geeking.

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