Ted McDonald, the president of Solowheel, is trying to build up my confidence. Known to the running world as "Barefoot Ted," McDonald stands astride his Solowheel—a battery-powered, self-balancing unicycle that looks like a baby Segway—and calmly directs me around the light poles and sandwich boards on Fifth Avenue as he sips a cup of coffee.
On my Solowheel, I'm wearing a bike helmet and wrist pads and clutching his arm for balance, projecting all the grace of a bulldog on a Roomba.
"You're going to have to learn to be embarrassed," says McDonald, as we glide down the sidewalk on our wheels.
A person stuck in the traffic beside us has just hurled the word "crazy" at us. We weave through pedestrians who shoot glances loaded with bemusement, bewilderment, annoyance, and fear. Their dirty looks seem to be saying: Who do you think you are riding around on that... thing?
A clear path opens up on the sidewalk in front of me, and McDonald's coaching has given me the strength to let go of his arm. In this moment, I can tell you who we think we are riding around on these things: angels. We are angels willing our bodies through space in tadasana pose, en route to a parking garage in South Lake Union, where we will perfect our practice.
That jerk yelling at us from the comfort of his earth-hurting, city-choking car in dead-stop traffic? He's the "crazy" one.
McDonald became the president of Solowheel on August 9. He grew up in the skate and surfer culture of Southern California, and his website bio claims he's "committed to rediscovering primal human capacities and encouraging others to do the same." As part of his personal/professional ethos, he embraces the notion that the human body is not broken, as some athletic companies would have us believe with their fancy technologies. Partly to prove this point, he runs ultramarathons without shoes. Hence the "barefoot" moniker.
He's 52 years old, and his list of physical accomplishments is long, if a little eccentric. He was the first to run the Boston Marathon in toe shoes. In 2008, he set the world record for distance on a longboard: He went 242 miles in 24 hours. (The new record is 309 miles.) He also rides an old-timey penny-farthing bicycle, and in 2003 won Stanford University's 200-meter penny-farthing race.
According to McDonald, Matthew McConaughey was slated to play him in an upcoming film called Born to Run, based on Christopher McDougall's book about "superathletes," in which Barefoot Ted is a figure. McDonald jokingly says he hopes they'll get Woody Harrelson to play him, who—with his bald head and perma-tan—is a better likeness anyway.
While the Solowheel eases personal transportation and does away with walking, his love for the Solowheel is not driven by laziness. It's driven by his desire, he says, to achieve "flow states" and to move efficiently through the city in a way he thinks is fun.
For now, the Solowheel flagship store is housed within McDonald's "adventure sandal" company, LUNA Sandals, located in Lower Queen Anne.
Sundays at noon, McDonald invites Seattle's Solowheelers to come to the store for a weekly meet-up and ride session. Once gathered and caffeinated, the group of approximately 6 to 12 (mostly white) men—only one of whom didn't work in tech—wheels over to a parking garage beneath Seattle Grind to warm up and train newcomers like me. (At the two Sunday ride meetings I attended, I met one East Asian dude named Jason, who is a hairdresser, and, even though he sometimes smokes a vape pen as he rides along Alki Beach, you can never make fun of him because he's the sweetest human in the world.)
From the coffee shop, the group typically heads out to Seattle Center, sometimes spiraling around the Claes Oldenburg eraser sculpture, which after weeks immersed in the culture, now resembles a giant Solowheel to me.
At the meet-ups, McDonald is pumped to tell me all about the wheel. His childlike enthusiasm can sometimes be overbearing and he is occasionally too much of a salesman. "What's your background? What did you study in school?" he asks me. I say I studied poetry. "Perfect," he says, "What you need to do is start riding this thing and let the poetry of being able to move this way fill you, so that you can stop worrying about the problem of how you can get this wheel and start realizing that you can get this wheel."
He envisions city centers teeming with "nothing but people, bicycles, human-powered and human-speed vehicles," and he sees the Solowheel in that mix. He's quick to reel off the machine's advantages.
This thing is going to revolutionize my commute, he tells me. It's the perfect "last mile" vehicle. My lunch break restaurant options have just expanded significantly, he says, spreading his arms wide. Transferring buses can be a drag, but the wheel never gets stuck in traffic. Over time, it's even cheaper than my $80 per month bus pass. If I can't afford the cost of the wheel up front, soon they'll be implementing a rental plan that costs only $65 per month. It's so energy efficient, it's nuts.
At this point in the conversation, he's practically hopping up and down, he's so excited. He's like my buddy Ronnie, who cannot WAIT to show me the arrowhead he dug up in his backyard.
"And here's the best part," says McDonald. The company aims to manufacture, sell, and teach people to ride the wheel right here in Seattle, where he guesses approximately 500 Solowheels glide along the streets.
The wheel's inventor, Shane Chen, 59, of Camas, Washington, who also created the Hovertrax hoverboard, says 10,000 Solowheels roam the world's streets. In China, where the wheel is more popular, companies have produced about 10 times that number of knockoffs. For the last couple of years, Chen has won legal battles against companies that make the knockoffs, which are cheaper because, he says, they're made with a lower quality battery that can cause a fire.
Right now, there are two different "real" wheels: the Solowheel Original ($1,495) and the Solowheel Xtreme ($2,295). Each weighs about 25 pounds—too heavy to bowl—and can hold around 250 pounds of person. The Original can travel approximately 10 miles at speeds of up to 14 miles per hour before needing to be recharged. The Xtreme does a little bit better in all those categories and features a bigger wheel that makes for a smoother ride.
The next generation Solowheel is being designed by local engineering firm Pensar. "That wheel will be badass," McDonald says. "It'll be lighter, more powerful, more scalable [for mass production], and it'll have exchangeable lithium batteries."
In all of them, a motor sits at the center of the wheel, and magnets dotting the rim drive it forward. A gyro sensor and an accelerometer make up the control circuit, which helps the wheel achieve its auto-balancing feature.
Riding instructions are simple and, eventually, intuitive. If you lean forward, the wheel goes forward. If you lean back, the wheel slows. Lean left and you go left. Ditto to the right. You can scale steep hills with zero effort and ride down them with ease. Since you're in an upright position, most crashes are normally pretty harmless—you just kind of hop off. On a bike, this is not often the case.
Chen said the idea for the wheel came to him while he was speed skating. As he coursed around the rink, he lifted his foot so that he was balancing on only one blade.
As this xtreme origin might suggest, the wheel isn't for everyone.
If you don't have much experience with "push" sports like skateboarding, and if you don't do yoga, the machine is tough to manage at first. It's a self-balancing unicycle, but you still have to balance yourself on it.
Before you buy one, McDonald runs you through a 20-minute evaluation period where he determines whether you're fit enough to ride. Then you can come in for a proper training session, which can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on your skill level. Then you have to take the thing out to the backyard and play around with it on your own for a while. It's a process. You will fall a lot. You will embarrass yourself. It won't hurt too bad.
If you're physically fit enough to master the wheel—and McDonald thinks millions of people are—then you can feel your body entering a "flow" state, that angelic yogi feeling I described earlier, when you assume the correct position.
That state is the key for McDonald. "Commuting should be fun, it should be adventurous, it should be joyful," he says. He wants people to associate affluence and urbanity with those values, and for the 21st century to be defined not by the biggest, most wasteful vehicles but by the smallest, most efficient ones.
For McDonald, being president of Solowheel means being culture builder in chief, which is what these Sunday meet-ups are all about. As far as I can tell, the culture he's trying to build is a living embodiment of himself, some combination of wide-eyed tech world futurism, surf world sporting vibes, and Zen world energies.
Over the course of several conversations, McDonald mentions Steve Wozniak and the early days of the Apple computer. A lot. "Kids like me were always intrigued by kids like that, because I knew there was something ticking there," he says. "Making sure outsiders become insiders is part of my culture."
The people I met at the Solowheel store did seem a little nerdy, and most were early-adopter types. Each seems to have found their own role, as it were, in the nascent community.
Ethan, 26, is a programmer. He's the de facto technician, constantly experimenting under the wheel's hood and adding little modifications. He's also the most daring, and he's got the busted knees to prove it. He says he's been doing a lot of "rail riding" recently—teetering on curbs and even railroad tracks. I saw him ride around one-legged at the meet-up. Brian, 34, a systems engineer, is thinking about becoming a trainer at Solowheel. He's a nice guy with an eyebrow ring who just moved to Seattle a few years go. For him, the Solowheel "opens up the city." Paul, 47, showed me how the Solowheel fits easily into the compartment on the back of his Vespa.
At 76, Richard of Oak Harbor is the oldest member of the group. On a mission to improve his balance, he started riding the Solowheel two years ago and says he hasn't stopped since. He claims that the wheel has indeed improved his balance and that he can't wipe the smile off his face when he's riding it.
They all said that more people showed genuine interest in the wheel rather than general disdain, especially children. The public attention can be distracting, though, and a few of them said that they wear headphones and sunglasses on their commute.
In 2013, Wired dubbed the wheel the "Most Dangerous Object in the Office." The accompanying video shows officemates trying and failing to grasp the physics of the machine. Last year, Kerry Parnell of the Daily Telegraph called the Solowheel "stupid." Friends of mine regularly describe the Solowheel as "goofy," a "tech lozenge," and a "children's toy masquerading as a solution to Seattle's very real transit issues." We have a bet going: $20 to the person who sees someone wearing a fedora, vaping, and playing Pokémon GO on a Solowheel.
I was also a naysayer: In the January 2016 New to Town issue of The Stranger, I casually eviscerated Solowheelers, suggesting they were lazy, tech-crazed nutjobs obsessed with optimizing every aspect of their life at the expense of actually living. These were ad hominem attacks rooted in flash judgment, which is to say ignorance.
A commenter named "dodosan" called me out, saying that he made "a very conscious choice" to buy the Solowheel. That choice had everything to do with shortening his commute and trying not to pollute the world with another car and nothing to do with finding an excuse to avoid walking.
But it was Twitter commenter @Art_Paris who helped change my mind about the Solowheel. In real life, he's a man named Arthur, 31, and I met him by chance as he was bartending at the Space Needle after a friend introduced me as "Rich Smith from The Stranger." He brought out his Solowheel, which he keeps in a closet near the bar, and told me he takes it all around the city. He even rides it on hiking trails on Mount Rainier.
In a way, he's a "rogue" wheeler. Arthur says he's got no negative feelings toward the official Solowheel group at all, but he just "prefers to not be intertwined with what they're trying to do." He doesn't need a "culture" to join, thanks. The wheel saves him money, improves his snowboarding skills a little, and gets him from his place in Magnolia to the Space Needle in 18 minutes. "I haven't driven to work for a year since learning the wheel," he says.
That's where it's tough to argue with the Solowheelers.
"The future is NOW," reads the copy on the Solowheel website. Now the roads are clogged with cars, and if a Solowheel stops someone—or millions of someones—from buying a car, then more power to them. But the future of travel doesn't need to cost $1,496. The future of travel is walking. Walking suits dense, diverse, resource-rich cities. The wheel is a patch on an awkward phase in Seattle transit, before, god willing, ST3 expands light rail, Metro increases routes, and the city extends the bike lanes.
Over the course of two weeks, Barefoot Ted and the gang were kind and gracious enough to teach me how to ride the wheel. I got good enough to ride it in public (and even around the office). Still, I do not have the psychological wherewithal to withstand the withering looks from passersby, and I don't like the "flow" feeling enough to dismiss curious pedestrians and contemptible drivers as plebes.
And dismissing other people is part of the experience of riding. People do stare at you and interrupt your day. In order to feel confident on it, I have to pretend as if I'm living in the future, which separates me from everyone else who is not living in the future with me, which makes me feel lonely, alienated, and smug. I don't want to feel that way every day on my commute. I actually like being on the bus with other members of the village, and with my fare contributing to a system that helps everybody get around, not just me.
On a Solowheel, I never feel as if I'm riding on the transportation of the future, anyway. The design, and the fact that I look like Rosie from The Jetsons as I wheel through the streets, makes me feel as if I'm inhabiting some retro future world that doesn't exist and by definition might never exist. It's as if I'm riding around on the battery powered, self-balancing personal vehicle equivalent of the Space Needle itself.