Pedal power

Frans van der Merwe is about 6 feet 4 inches tall, and traveled across the country in a nearly 9-by-3 pod on wheels. This makeshift tricycle is called a velomobile, meaning bicycle car.

“The attention is great. I don’t think a Ferrari or any kind of sports car could get me that,” van der Merwe said. “So, for a fraction of the price, I have royal treatment.”

Van der Merwe was one of 50 velomobile riders to participate in a trek from Portland, Ore., to Washington, D.C., called Roll Over America. The riders made the trip in 28 days, and averaged 126 miles per day.

At the beginning of the journey, half of the riders were American and everyone else was European. After the first couple of weeks, the ratio dropped to one-third of the group being American, van der Merwe said. The trip ended with 37 riders.

“The Europeans didn’t have much of a choice: They had to go all the way because their flight ticket was on the other side,” he said, noting the second week was tough because he got bored and his body wasn’t used to the physical strain. “You kind of take your own pace and find your own route … but we all start from the same place and end in the same place every night.”

Van der Merwe trained for the trip by commuting to and from work in his velomobile. One thing his training did not prepare him for was riding through mountains.

“Coming all the way through to the Appalachians, that was lots of ups and downs, ups and downs; that was very hard, and very steep, but also amazingly beautiful, so you know it was a trade off,” he said.

He first thought about a velomobile when he looked for a way to liven up his daily commute of 33 miles from Oklahoma City to Guthrie — too long for a bicycle. The OCU alumnus builds aircraft at Zivko Aeronautics, so he had all of the knowledge to build his own vehicle.

“It was basically just putting wheels on an aircraft,” he said.

The project took about two years and an unknown sum of money to complete.

“I kind of stopped calculating. I went up to $15,000 and then I didn’t count anymore,” he said.

The vehicle has a steering system, brakes, an air conditioning system and a small screen inside for rear views.

Van der Merwe still commutes to work in his newfangled bike at least two days a week. Before the tour, the commute took him about 2 hours, but now he has a new best time of an hour and 24 minutes.

After conquering America in his velomobile, he is considering biking across Europe with his trusty steed. He said he was surprised at how helpful people were when he was preparing for the cross-country trip.

“It’s amazing to see how much people want to be involved and want to help,” he said. “They love the innovation and want to keep it in Oklahoma.”

Carmen Forman

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