Pods with pedal power make for an exhilarating experience, writes Bryn Reade
Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Who would pass up on the opportunity to give an old university mate a hiding (in the spirit of friendly competition), pedalling enclosed in an aerodynamic Perspex bubble, suspended from a monorail? Thinking about it, that's probably what crossed Eli's mind when I suggested to him that we meet at Rotorua's Velocity Valley for a duel on the Shweeb Racer.
Emerging stiff-legged after a two-and-a-half-hour drive on the road south from Auckland, I found my confidence reduced. Eli is a "Rotovegas" local and arrived looking altogether too fresh and lively and with a mountain bike in the back of his pickup. My confidence dwindled some more.
Somehow last night's pinot noir and the morning's espresso and banana-for-the-road had failed to find equilibrium. Still, at least I didn't have to balance on anything: the Shweeb is based on a recumbent cycle design - one of those reclined slightly bonkers-looking bicycle contraptions - and, since it dangles from its rail, you can't fall off. I asked attendants Harley and Lela if anyone had ever been sick inside one. They said that they hadn't.
As I was being fitted into my pod - the seats slide forward for short-legged Shweebers - I asked Lela if there was some way she could make sure I would win. She pointed to a button on the overhead handlebars and said, "Press that for pedal assist." I looked across to check Eli hadn't heard. Harley and Lela closed and fastened the side doors and then, with a "three-two-one", a controlled shove and a shout of "pedal, pedal, pedal!", we were off.
Eli must have been given a bigger push because he established an early lead. At the first incline, I pushed the hyperspace button and... nothing happened, or not so far as I could tell.
Crikey, it was a lot louder than I thought it was going to be, too. The Shweeb certainly looks the "eco-topia" part, but the experience of racing it is more vintage fighter aircraft than low-friction, sci-fi swoosh: it's all rattling rivets and adrenalin. We were booting along - in this reclined position the pedal action is a powerful leg-press as you brace against the seat - and our pods swung out satisfyingly on the bends. But it was soon clear that my position of honourable-second-out-of-two was not going to change. Indeed, as Eli continued to extend his lead through the second lap I wondered if I might spoil the Shweeb's unblemished record on the final third. But I retained my breakfast.
The Shweeb is the brainchild of New Zealand-based Australian Geoff Barnett, a keen cyclist who got the idea after cycling in Tokyo. He was interested in sustainable transport and designed the Shweeb as a healthy, safe and environmentally friendly solution to urban congestion.
Just over 10 years ago, Google gave Barnett $1 million (then around £630,000) to spend on research and development, which he duly did.
As is often the way, the inventor, with too much invested in the project, was not the best person to take the Shweeb to market. Barnett ran out of money. But interest has never faded and the good news is that the first offshore Shweeb Racer pods will be whizzing around their track in Korea by the middle of 2021.
I had another go after Eli had departed with his smugness: firstly to see if I could beat his lap time of one minute and 15 seconds (I couldn't), but also to pedal a few cruise laps. Now this was more like it: the pod moves along at a respectable pace with virtually no effort; it's quieter; you can look around and enjoy the season; there's no risk from surrounding heavy-duty vehicles.
I wanted to go further: out of Velocity Valley, around the lake, between the rocks, through the woods. Imagine one along the Auckland waterfront!
A young brother and sister team followed me, their eyes lit up with the excitement that the appearance of the pods inspire.
"How was it, kids?" I asked them after their race. "Awesome!" they shouted. Rolled out around a city centre, it truly would be.
A single, three-lap race on the Shweeb Racer is $55 per person; a six-ride family pass costs $209 with the mix'n'match choice of Shweeb Racer, Agrojet jet-boat sprint, Swoop, Freefall Xtreme and Bungee.
- The Daily Telegraph