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Pedal Pusher

Fit To Live


Published August 30, 2006 at 4:00 p.m.

Steve Norman's Burlington yard is a grease monkey's dream: a sagging, green Volkswagen bus, a vintage BMW motorcycle and a 1981, multicolored VW Sirocco all share lawn space outside his blue-and-white house. But the coolest set of wheels is an old, black $50 KHS road bike, which stands inconspicuously against a pile of lumber.

It's not so much the bike itself that intrigues, however, but its pedals. Instead of rotating around, they pump up and down, as if the single-speed had mated with a Stairmaster. Says Norman, as he hops onto the saddle and cruises down the driveway, "It's a totally different way to make it go."

Norman is the inventor of the "Linearc," a revolutionary concept in bicycle design that's about to be unveiled as part of the Green Mountain Stage Race, a four-day cycling competition in the Waitsfield and Burlington areas this weekend. From a distance, it looks like a regular road bike. But up close, you can see that everything is different. The chains, sprockets and derailleurs are gone -replaced by a single, fluid system of levers, cables and pulleys that just might be faster, safer and easier to learn on than anything on the market.

The idea first came to Norman three decades ago. "It was back in the '70s sometime, during the first gas crisis," he recalls. "People were thinking, 'What can we do to burn less gas and get better exercise and work on improving life?'" Norman, a New York City native, longtime lawyer and motorcycle mechanic who moved to Burlington in 1983, began envisioning a more efficient ride with up-and-down pedals.

But figuring that someone else had probably tried the idea and failed, he let it sit - until three years ago, when he decided to research other similar designs and begin building a model. "Since the '70s, there have been 10 or more patents granted for attempts to do the same thing," Norman says, rifling through a stack of drawings he pulled from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's online database. "But they haven't reduced it to its essentials; they've all involved extra machinery and weird stuff, like one pedal crossing over the other."

The best known of the Linearc's predecessors is the Alenax bike. Developed in the 1970s and '80s, it features the "Transbar Power" drive train, which has an up-and-down pedal stroke. It's still a cult classic among cycling enthusiasts, but the pedals tended to get stuck and make a lot of noise. "Riding around at bike events and drawing stares is the best use for the bike," writes a Boise-based bike collector on his web page under the headline "Bike Oddity."

Norman admits that the Linearc is a bit odd, and he's done some screwy experiments. To compare its speed with that of a conventional road bike, he carried 5 pounds of sugar in his backpack to equalize the weight, and conducted acceleration tests up and down his street. His home is just a few hundred yards from the Burlington Bike Path - another "laboratory."

"The only time anybody remarked was when I passed people going the same direction," says Norman. "It doesn't look very strange, and it doesn't feel very strange, either."

Friends and family members have tried out the Linearc, as have a few members of the Burlington biking community. "It took some getting used to," exclaims Chapin Spencer, executive director of Local Motion, the Burlington nonprofit organization. "The pushing down and pressing up seemed so foreign to me."

Both Local Motion and the Old Spokes Home, a used bicycle shop in Burlington, stock plenty of unconventional bike designs, but none quite like the Linearc. "It will be hard for [Norman] to convince people to change what they know," says the Old Spokes' Ralph Eames, who's also taken the Linearc for a spin. "There are inventors out there with new ideas all the time, but the tried and true is two wheels, a pair of cranks and a chain driving the rear wheel. He's up against tradition, so we don't know exactly what to think."

Still, Eames adds, "It's interesting and cool, and everyone has a different opinion, so chances are he'll find a niche."

Norman has spent more than $5000 on the soon-to-be-unveiled bright-yellow prototype, which is the new and improved version of the black one sitting in his yard - it has variable speeds. To avoid any of the problems that faced the Alenax, he has recruited an engineer from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to help design the levers with the assistance of a computer.

"There's been a lot of scratching of the head over design issues," says Norman, admitting that on the eve of his invention's debut at Burlington's Green Room, he still hasn't finished. "I think there's a tradition of pulling an all-nighter at the end of one of these things."

The final design, says Norman, will have several advantages over rotary pedals. Conventional bikes are inefficient, he suggests. "With the forward and backward portion of the rotary cycle, almost half your motion is lost." Another advantage of the Linearc: "There's less bending of the knees, so it will be good for old people, and for kids it will be easier to learn to ride, because there are no dead spots," he says, explaining that when the wheels stop moving for a moment, unstable riders tend to lose their balance.

Instead of making hundreds of Linearcs himself, Norman plans to license his invention to bicycle manufacturers. He expects them to produce everything from rock-bottom-cheap Kmart versions to high-end, custom-fabricated Linearcs fetching thousands of dollars. And he predicts that the Linearc could even take off among freestyle riders, since it will be easier for them to find the pedals with their feet once they've thrown a trick.

"There's a certain amount of skepticism out there," Norman concedes. "But my design is so clean and elegant that I think it will survive in the marketplace."

At the Green Room, Norman plans to mount the Linearc on a trainer for the public to ride in place. "I don't think I'll let strangers ride it around town," he says. "Because I don't want to have to chase them down."

Local Motion's Spencer says he can't wait for the debut, and that the Linearc has good potential, especially among biking nuts. "There are more eccentrics in the cycling community than in most other communities," he says. "It's a crazy idea, but Steve's taken it to such a level of refinement, it might just have legs."