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Charlotte Amalie, US Virgin Islands can see up to four cruise ships a day.
Charlotte Amalie, US Virgin Islands can see up to four cruise ships a day.

I Rode the Sun Today

Come take an electric bicycle tour through my imagination. It's a trip into the near future using technology, some of which already exists, some of which we have yet to create. It starts long before you straddle an electric Quikbyke.

Days, weeks, perhaps even months earlier you've planned a vacation getaway: a seven day cruise of the Caribbean in mid-January: your annual escape from winter, if only for a week. You've been on such cruises before and you're looking for something to do ashore besides shopping or sunbathing on the beach. There are snorkeling trips in turquoise-clear waters and guided Segway trips along the waterfront, but you're looking for something different, something that gives you the freedom to go where you want, when you want. In effect, you want to explore more of the community and get off the well-beaten tourist track.

You could rent mopeds or scooters, but they're noisy, smelly, and dirty. Bikes might be an option, but not at your age, at least not very far and certainly not very much fun.

And then there's this thing called Quikbyke. They rent electric-assist bicycles that are powered by the the sun and wind. You've always wanted to try an e-bike, so you ask your 'significant other' if he or she would be game trying them for a few hours while ashore. With his or her consent, you use the company's reservation web site to book a half-day session at one of your cruise's ports-of-call.

Now fast forward to that morning when your ship docks and you and your fellow passengers prepare to disembark. Not far away, the rising sun glints off a broad array of solar panels arranged flat atop the roof of what appears to be a standard industry shipping container. On one end there's a map of the port and surrounding city, concentric rings marking out ever-wider circles spaced one mile apart. Smaller rings reflect distances in kilometers.

Quikbyke's Quest for a Zero Carbon Footprint

As you catch your shipboard breakfast buffet of strawberry crepes and scrambled eggs, a quarter of mile away, a smartly dressed young man in Bermuda shorts and comfortable white cotton shirt unlocks the expansive set of doors on the side of the solar-shaded container. In pairs, the five foot by eight foot doors swing open, revealing a neatly arranged set of eight electric-assist bicycles. Another eight greet the morning light as the second pair of bi-fold doors open to the salt-tinged air.

All sixteen bikes and their bank of spare batteries have been trickle charging over night, powered by a quiet running 2kW solid oxide fuel cell using locally produced biodiesel refined from the waste cooking oil of several nearby restaurants. The fuel cell doesn't burn the oil like an internal combustion engine. Instead, it extracts the hydrogen atoms from the viscous, golden-colored liquid, and generates pollution-free electrical current. The carbon component in the oil is recirculated back into the atmosphere to eventually become plant oil again.

With the first rays of the sun, the fuel cell goes into sleep mode as the solar panels top off the charge on the batteries and power the Quikbyke Q•pod's other electronics: WiFi, iPads, printer and overhead LED lights.

Back abroad ship, which now allows ship-wide WiFi, at a cost of course, you receive an email reconfirming your Quikbyke rental for 9AM along with suggestions of things to see during your four hour pedaling adventure. The day's weather forecast is sunny and breezy with a 20 percent chance of showers late in the afternoon. Back home, you chuckle to yourself, its 25 degrees with a bitter northeast wind drifting a thin blanket of snow across the hunkered-down, post-holiday landscape. It's so nice not being there right now, you muse as you disconnect your phone from its charger and slip the lanyard with your laminated boarding card around your next.

Getting more than two-thousand people off a ship always seems to take longer than you like, but at least there is more than just one exit, unlike your plane flights. Back on land, you join the flow of other passengers, some headed to the nearby shopping district, others to tour buses. Local taxi drivers seem to be doing a brisk business. They are probably headed towards a popular beach down the coast a few miles.

Quikbyke Beacons and Smart Bike Racks

Not far ahead is the solar canopy of the Quikbyke Q•pod. Even though its still a good 100 yards away, you feel your phone vibrating. You take it out and sign in. An app welcomes you to the island and asks to be launched. You tap "Yes" and the program opens, welcoming you by name and asking if you'd like to begin the Quikbyke check-out process. You again tap "Yes," just a little puzzled how it knew you were here.

By the time you reach the shade of Q•pod canopy, you've confirmed your itinerary and read and signed the obligatory liability release. The Quikbyke crew member, a handsome young man with one of those delightful Caribbean accents, retrieves your electric-assist bicycles and patiently explains how it works and the importance of obeying local traffic laws.

"Riding a bicycle here is no different than riding one back home," he smiles. "The city has put in some bike lanes and they are planning on more. I would suggest that you ride together until you're comfortable. Traffic can be a little crazy this time of day."

Turning to the bike, he adds, " Riding a Quikbyke is really easy, man. In fact, you're about to have a lot of fun, I can assure you," he smiles broadly. "You turn it on with the key. We recommend you keep it around your neck. The key will also lock the bike, which we ask you to do anytime you decide to leave the bikes unattended. Quikbyke has installed smart bike racks around town. Our phone App will let you know when you're near one.

"How's that work?" you ask out of curiosity, thinking about the app that alerted you as you walked towards the Q•pod.

"It's called 'beacon' technology, sir. It's a tiny Bluetooth transmitter that broadcasts a signal that your smartphone listens for. Besides telling you the location of our bike racks, you may also receive special discount offers from local nearby businesses: drinks, food, things like that."

"If you're not familiar with the island, you might like to download the local tour guide App, if you haven't yet done so. We have WiFi here so you can download it now if you like. May I suggest that the first place you might like to visit this time of the morning is the old colonial fortress. It'll take you about 15 minutes to ride there. There's a map on the side of the Q•pod.

The Quikbyke crewman sends you off with a "have fun" as he turns to help other renters, some like you who have booked in advance, others who stop by out of curiosity. You make a mental note, he's not just an attendant, he's a teacher, educating people about solar energy, fuel cells and biofuels, the island's efforts to become more sustainable, as well as the cool, out-of-the-way places only locals know about.

But you're going to play it safe, starting with a ride down the waterfront. As your partner studies the large area map on the end of the 20 foot shipping container, which has been converted into a self-contained popup shop, you wonder where this Q•pod has been the past year. You read online that they will spend their winters here in the balmy tropics and in the summer somewhere north. Unbeknownst to you, this particular unit - Number 11 - arrived on the island in mid-November from Chicago's lakefront: the 20 foot mural on the back wall painted by a local South Chicago street artist. Number 11 is just one of 17 similar units strategically placed around the Caribbean, from Jekyll Island, Georgia to Cozumel, Mexico. The Internet 'Cloud' links them all in a gradually expanding network of both corporate and franchise-owned businesses with the parent company headquartered in, of all places, Omaha, Nebraska (how cold must it be there this time of year, you wonder?). A recent press release on the company web site, which you haven't read yet, announced the opening on New Year's Day of its first Q•pod near the ferry docks in Havana, Cuba.

"How the world is changing," you remark to yourself.

As you both 'saddle up' on the comfortable, step-through bike frame, you very quickly discover why so many people rave about riding an electric-assist bicycle. It feels almost like magic, like you've suddenly become the "Six Million Dollar Man," recalling that old television series from your college days about a man with bionic arms and legs?

"This is amazing," your partner giggles as broad smiles spread across both your faces. While your fellow passengers walk along at maybe 3 mph, at best, you're pedaling along at a quite comfortable 12 mph (22 km/h).

Trade Winds Are Now a Breeze

It's when you turn into the wind that you really begin to notice why e-bikes are starting to become so popular. Tourists who rented those inexpensive pedal bikes near the docks are struggling against the seasonal trade winds spinning those giant wind turbines on the windward side of the island. The electronic sensors in the motor on your Quikbyke detects the added strain you too are experiencing, and instantly compensates by quietly adding more torque. It's like there's an invisible Tour de France-class rider on the bike with you.

Over the next four hours, you are pleased to discover that riding an electric-assist bicycle makes cycling fun again, especially at your age. Hills, the bane of every cyclist, are much easier to climb, though this isn't like riding a scooter or moped. There's some work involved, but that's okay, you reassure yourself.

"I really needed this," you comment to your partner as you stop at a coastal overlook to listen to the waves crash ashore and watch seabirds skim inches above the turquoise waters. "Those meals onboard ship are great, but I think I've put on ten pounds."

"I noticed," your partner teases. You both laugh.

One of the little known facts about riding electric-assist bicycles is that university tests have demonstrated that while there is very little difference in terms of physiological demand between riding a manual pedal bicycle and one with electric-assist, the perception of exertion is significantly less. In short, you get a similar workout, but it just feels easier.

Checking the bike's computer display after grabbing a jerked chicken wrap and Diet Coke from a popular food truck the app recommended, you're surprised to discover you've covered some 14 miles. The bikes are due back at 1pm, so you reluctantly head back towards the docks, stopping occasionally to take a few more photos and shoot video you'll post online when you get home.

As you coast through neighborhoods and past small businesses, you reflect that instead of being coped up in a bus or taxi, fighting traffic, you're out in the fresh island air, able now to confidently slip through the welter of taxis, shuttle vans and private cars, their passengers trapped inside at the mercy of their drivers. Curiously, locals smile and wave as you glide by. You find yourself almost unconsciously saying, 'Good morning,' something you've never done on previous cruises. Yes, there are still the annoying street vendors looking to sell you everything from maps to bubble gum, but since you're cruising along at 12 mph, they tend to concentrate more on the pedestrians strolling the streets near the harbor.

A few minutes before 1 PM, you pull to a stop in front of the Q•pod. You can feel you've had a good workout. Your 'bun' certainly confirms it, despite the wide comfortable seats. The bike computer reports you've covered just over 20 miles and the battery indicator shows one bar left. The basket on your partner's bike is full of gifts and souvenirs acquired along the way. Your phone's digital 'camera roll' is equally full of memories from your Quikbyke adventure.

"I trust you had an enjoyable time? No problems?" the young black man asks.

"None. And yes, we enjoyed it."

"Excellent. Will you be stopping at any other ports," he asks as he hands you his iPad to complete the rental payment. "If you are, we have other locations in the Caribbean we'd be happy to book for you, if you'd like."

"Maybe next time."

"Very good, sir. Would you like me to email you a map of your travels today," the crewman asks as he checks the bikes back in, replacing their batteries with freshly solar-charged ones for the next party, due at 2 pm.

"You can do that?" you ask.

"Most assuredly, sir. Is your email address the same?"

"Yes. That would be great."

You glance around for your partner, who is browsing through a stack of colorful Quikbyke T-shirts that proclaim, "I rode the sun on…." The name of the island could be Aruba, Barbados, Caymans, Cuba, or the U.S. Virgin Islands. What's important is you and hundreds of other people today have experienced the delight of riding an electric-assist bike. You've been able to see more, do more, go more places with greater freedom, while simultaneously reducing your personal carbon footprint, something that is becoming evermore important in a warming world of rising sea levels, especially to these environmentally fragile, low-lying island communities. And best of all, you even worked off a few of those calories, burning carbohydrates instead of precious hydrocarbons.

As you two walk back towards the ship, you notice something you hadn't seen before: a huge solar array up the hill feeding power to the dock, helping reduce the pollution from the cruise ship's engines while moored on the quay: part of a World Bank-funded project to reduce port air pollution. Housed in what appear to be shipping containers, their midnight blue panels are mounted on a system of retractable trusses, technology developed for the US space program decades earlier. In the event of hurricanes, the entire array can be retracted like moon flowers and safely stowed out of the weather until the storm passes. When no cruise ships are present, their power is fed into the local island grid.

"Now if only they could figure out how to make these ships even cleaner, you muse as you clear the security check point. That likely will take some time you figure as you walk up the gangway, not realizing that on a CAD screen back in Sweden a team of engineers are designing the world's first LENR-powered ship engine. The age of pollution-free cruising is about to launch.

Quikbyke: I Rode the Sun T-Shirt


Check out our 50-second Quikbyke Q•pod concept video.

Posted By: Bill Moore [16-Aug-2015]

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