The Quadratic Equation
By Stephen R. Vivona
As my attention wavered from the teacher’s droning lesson, I drifted back to my doodles of bicycles. These were not ordinary scribbles but wild, multi-wheeled creations that inhabited the recesses of my fifth-grade imagination. I was in love with bicycles and these insanely complex creations seemed normal to me. I had even bolted on an extra wheel to my Spyder and ridden around the neighborhood to try and bring my dreams to life. But the real manifestation of these dreams would have to wait. Twenty years later I met Greg Fisher, a man who made dreams like this into reality.
In November, 1996, Greg and I sat on his Animas Quadracycle at the start line of El Tour de Tucson answering the questions of the amazed riders around us. Greg’s seven-year odyssey with the Quadracycle had led him here. We were ready for the attention and publicity we knew we would garner. The Animas Quad is a four-wheeled, fully-suspended, two-person human powered vehicle. The riders sit side-by-side and each person can choose his own gearing. Greg felt that this idea of people powered transportation was long overdue. He had slowly honed his design over successive versions. I had been one of his test pilots for each model. It had been wonderful to ride them, help break them, and then witness Greg’s process of redesign. It was exciting to watch a brilliant man design what I felt was the sustainable future of transportation.
The Animas Quadracycle is the most elegant vehicle to come from the minds of a loosely knit group of men in Tucson. They had worked collectively, but Greg’s desire for logical designs often was overwhelmed by the more complex, heavier concepts of the team. Eventually, everyone drifted off to create their own vehicles. Brian Keener Smith’s Quadamondi, Grasshopper, and Gila Monster were tons of fun but they turned riders into red, wheezing heaps after a ride. Not that they weren’t extremely cool machines. The Grasshopper’s riders sat back to back with one rider facing forward and the other rearward. The Quadamondi was the result of removing the engine from a standard quad and grafting a human powered transmission in its place. The Gila Monster was a combination of two mutant rickshaws grafted together. In counterpoint, Greg’s relatively simple and efficient Animas Quadracycle went over almost any terrain with aplomb and efficiency. Thick sand, water, mud, and the rockiest slopes were no match for his vehicle.
In late September, Greg and I found ourselves working our way up a rugged jeep track in the Honey Bee Canyon area of the Tortoltheita Mountains. It was wonderful to be relaxing by pushing hard on the spinning pedals. During the summer I had been focusing on my training for the annual El Tour de Tucson. I generally rode it, whether on my single bike or my tandem bike. But today, I started to feel that something new was in order. Greg had mentioned that he had been thinking about riding the fifty-mile version of the event. I had been consumed by the goal of a sub five-hour tour on the single bike in the full one-hundred eleven miles, so it was a leap to think of riding the one-hundred twenty-five pound Quad in El Tour. But the more I thought of it, the more elegant the challenge sounded. After swooping down the trail and finding blueprint-wielding contractors discussing the imminent beginning of the end of this beautiful canyon, we realized that in more ways than one a new beginning truly was near. Later that night, I called Greg and told him I wanted to ride El Tour with him. He was fired up.
We formulated a training schedule and jumped right in. Greg and I had ridden the Quad on city streets before to get to our favorite dirt trail haunts, but the concept of a long asphalt tide took some getting used to. The Quad was designed with twelve inches of rear suspension travel and with a very strong frame so as to conquer the roughest off-road conditions. But this heavy strength slowed us on the road; it contrasted greatly with my twenty-three pound road bicycle. But we leapt in with both feet and started on a series of ever longer trips that included as many hills as we could find. That first ride gave Greg some doubts about the fifty-mile distance. Similarly, I think his wife wondered if the refrigerator could hold up to his ravenous post-ride stomach. But recover both he and the ‘fridge did. Our ensuing rides gave us the confidence we needed, especially the penultimate ride which was forty-seven miles. And even though the last ride resulted in some knee pain for Greg, we were sure that we were ready for the test. Greg made a few more modifications to the vehicle, especially with regards to higher gearing. I helped clean the quad so that it would look its best. All was set.
As we drove into the parking lot with the Quad, we could hear the “oohs” and “aahs” as people saw the Quad in the back of Greg’s old Chevy. Our co-worker, Big Rich surprised us by showing up to wish us well. He was joined by a small curious crowd. We chatted, then rode over to the mass of cyclists, certain to show off over any curb or obstacle that we could find. As our families gathered around us at the start line, we posed for pictures and strapped ourselves into the Quad. The starting gun was fired and a chorus of ringing bicycle bells followed. Because of the size of the pack, several minutes elapsed before the great line actually began to move. From a pouch I pulled out my train whistle and blew. As the laughter subsided, we moved away and tried to balance the desire for keeping up with the light weight Joneses with the logic of warming up slowly. The inevitable comments came at us from everyone we passed (more accurately, that passed us). These comments were all positive. “Did you guys build that?” was the most common line; second was “Can I have a ride?” We appreciated all of the attention but were careful not to waste our precious breath by launching into our usual and well-rehearsed sales spiel.
We wound our way along to the dreaded Freeman Road hill. This long and steep slope took its toll, but the reward was seeing our families at the side of the road. They cheered and took pictures as they ran alongside us. At the top of the hill my sister and her kids jumped up and down excitedly. Little Jesse seemed truly impressed. A bit farther along, Greg’s mother-in-law rounded out the support group. In actuality, the whole world seemed to be part of our group. El Tour is famous for the thousands of interested spectators and volunteers that turn out; they all were charmed or stunned by the odd appearance of the Quad. We delighted in the attention and I never tired of waving and blowing the train whistle for laughs as we traveled past them.
As we rode, we saw several crashes but always managed to stay away from trouble. The inevitable Tucson breeze picked up and we worked harder since our wide profile presented a large target for the wind. Despite our lessened speed, there was no shortage of people drafting behind us. It must have been very pleasant to do approximately one-third the work normally required. Having experienced this many times on my tandem, I was not surprised. None of these riders ever took a turn at the front though. Such a rider is labeled a “wheel sucker” and can be forgiven for many reasons but since the three worst-case followers behind us made us endure such a long and inane conversation I withheld absolution. Bad behavior is one thing but bad conversation is unforgivable!
In a long race, the small goals and occurrences become significant. Seeing a friend or interacting with someone nice can be a treat. Especially on a tandem or a Quad, one must work closely with one’s partner. The interaction can be trivial, such as reminding them to down another “goo” packet, or crucial, such as preparing for synchronized efforts like leaning into a turn. These turns became a source of pride. We would speed up to a corner and then lean together into the turn to elegantly flick the machine through the corner. We wanted to swoop through with maximum impact for those watching. We showed off for the cops especially and thanked them for their work in keeping the course safe for us. It was a thrill and a privilege to be given priority over car traffic through the intersections. The feeling of being king for the day is one of the unrivalled experiences of El Tour de Tucson.
After traveling as far south of Tucson as I ever care to, we finally approached the entrance to the wide, dry river wash crossing that is a hallmark of the El Tour course. Greg and I discussed our strategy and clicked down to our granny gears for the run. We bounced right over the curb and surged down the chute. This deep, dry sand section was unmanageable for most bikes. Even the mountain bikes bogged down due to the congestion of the walking riders. The Quad however, could stop and restart even in the deepest uphill sand sections. We tried to alert the riders ahead which helped us blow through the wash without running over any unsuspecting participants. We changed gears often to allow the machine to deftly climb up the steep exit. Amidst the surprised onlookers we paused slightly at the top to accept hand-ups of water and muffins. As we bounced over the last curb to reenter the asphalt, we were still eating, drinking, and especially, laughing.
Finally heading north towards the downtown and the eventual finish line, we glided onto Mission Road. Greg attempted to steer around a large chunk of broken beer bottle. I didn’t think much of it until an odd noise from the right wheel made me realize the sad truth. Quickly we were at the side of the road and beside ourselves with frustration. The tough motorcycle tire that I had never seen damaged in our roughest off-road adventures was flat as a pancake. And while I had a patch kit, we had neither a pump nor syrup. Undaunted, Greg yanked out the tube; I found the hole, patched it, and then set about flagging down one of the tired passing riders to borrow a Schrader-valve pump. It was hard to get a response since most riders by that point were dazed from the hard miles but one nice fellow stopped. Eventually we had a round tire again and were back in action. We sprinted with the pent up energy of our twenty-minute delay. As we passed a tandem, we calmly asked if they had any Grey Poupon and elicited the expected giggles.
Across the bridge, we accelerated to the last right-hand corner. Ripping the turn, we could barely make out the words of the announcer over the PA system. We later found out he referred to the interesting people-powered vehicle, mentioned the Animas by name, and said we were “moving pretty good.” The cheers of the crowd were great to hear. A silly wave as we crossed the finish line completed the ride. We both were satisfied and pleased. I for one was exhausted but there was none of the familiar neck pain and lower back fatigue that I would have felt from a standard bicycle. Just a thorough tiredness lingered. The questions and inspections of the onlookers continued until our voices were spent and Greg’s wife escorted us to the truck.
Later, after devouring as much food as I could manage, I mulled over the power of one innovative mind and four powerful legs. I hoped that in the future, many people would think back on this event as the first time they saw a Quadracycle. In that uncertain future I hoped it would already have become an ordinary sight and that it was part of the equation for a better world. The Quadratic equation.